Why the Early Christians Celebrated the Lord’s Day

In the Book of Nehemiah, there is a passage which is puzzling to many people today:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:9-10

It is puzzling because we have lost an understanding of celebration (and of mourning as well). The people described in the passage had just heard and understood the words of the law, and they had discovered that they were not keeping them. They began to mourn out of repentance when Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites told the people not to mourn. They said that the people should rejoice because the day was holy to the Lord (the first day of the seventh month, “the feast of trumpets,” cf. Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6). So the people began to celebrate.

This passage illustrates some important truths for us. It shows, first of all, that joy or rejoicing is more than feeling happy. When the Levites told the people to rejoice, they told them to hold a feast. They told them, in other words, to celebrate. Rejoicing (or joy) for the Israelites was not just a feeling, but it was something they did. To rejoice is to celebrate, to express the goodness of the occasion in a joyful way. We can see this also in the Book of Deuteronomy when it instructs the people to celebrate the great feasts like Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles. It tells them to come to Jerusalem, make an offering, and “rejoice before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:11), that is, it tells them to celebrate in God’s presence.

We celebrate certain days or events because it is good and right to do so. It would not have been proper for the Israelites to mourn on a festival day. We celebrate because celebrating is a way of honoring God. Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites told the people that the day was “holy to the Lord your God.” That meant that it was set apart (holy) to honor the Lord. The people, therefore, were supposed to celebrate in order to honor the Lord. Finally, we celebrate as an expression of gratitude for the good things God has done for us.

Celebrating is also a great benefit to us. ‘The joy of the Lord (rejoicing in the Lord) is our strength.” When we celebrate God’s goodness and what he has done for us, we are strengthened and refreshed. Our God is a God who wishes us to share his joy (and his strength) when we worship him. To be sure, sometimes we should worship him soberly, humbling ourselves in repentance and mourning. But the main times of worship under the old covenant and the new covenant are times of celebration – rejoicing in God’s presence. The Lord’s Day is one of these times of celebration.

The Early Christians Celebrated the Lord’s Day

We can see in the Scripture indications that the early Christians observed the Lord’s Day. John, in the Book of Revelation, says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). Likewise, we read of Paul gathering with the Christians at Troas on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) and instructing the Christians at Corinth to set aside contributions for the community at Jerusalem on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). Sunday seems to have been a special day for the first Christians and was used as a day for gathering together. Probably it was the day of assembly because it commemorated the resurrection of the Lord which had occurred on Sunday.

The earliest writings from within a hundred years of the death of the last apostle indicate even more clearly the way the Christians marked Sunday. Some of these writings explain what they understood the Lord’s Day to be:

The celebration of the resurrection: Ignatius of Antioch, writing within twenty years of the death of the apostle John, said, 

“Every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection day, the queen and chief of all days of the week and on which our life sprang up again and victory over death was obtained in Christ.”

To the Magnesians, 9

The celebration of creation and the new creation: Justin Martyr, a convert who was born and raised near Jacob’s well, writing about forty years later, said, 

“But Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ, our Savior, on the same day rose from the dead.”

First Apology, 67

The celebration of the beginning of the age to come: The Epistle of Barnabas, written about the time Ignatius wrote, says, “I will make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, the beginning of another world. Wherefore, also we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day on which Jesus rose again from the dead.” section 15

Since Sunday was the day after the seventh day, it was the eighth day as well as the first day. Since the seven days symbolized God’s original creation of the world, the eighth day can be seen as the beginning of the new creation, the world to come. In the New Testament as well (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5) the number eight seems to have been seen as a symbol of the new creation. The early Christians knew that they were participating through the Spirit in the age to come and prayed on the Lord’s Day that Jesus might come and bring in the new age completely: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

Sunday Is the Lord’s Day for Christians

Sunday, then, is the weekly celebration of the Christian people. It is the day on which they gather together to celebrate the resurrection, the completion of the work of redemption, the day in which the new creation was inaugurated and therefore the day on which the age to come was opened to the human race. It is the day on which the true sun of righteousness rose with healing in his rays (Malachi 4:2). Just as Easter is the major yearly celebration for Christians, so Sunday is the major weekly celebration for Christians. It is a day to rejoice in our hope (Romans 12:12).

The celebration of the Lord’s Day holds a similar place for Christians to the place the celebration of the Sabbath held for Jews. Christians who were not born or circumcised as Jews were not obligated by the New Testament to keep the seventh day (cf. Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:10). That was the day of celebration for those who were under the Mosaic law. However, Christians since then have usually seen a connection between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.

Some Christians have said simply that the Lord’s Day is the Christian Sabbath. Christians keep the Sabbath commandment on Sunday rather than Saturday, and so Sunday is the new covenant Sabbath. Others have said that the Sabbath commandment was given to teach that one day a week should be set aside for the worship of God. Christians have to keep the commandment, but they do not have to do it on the seventh day. Taking a day of rest and worship is part of God’s purpose for the human race and therefore obligatory, but doing it on the seventh day was only obligatory for the Jews. For Christians, it is more fitting to do soon the first day, the day of the resurrection. Finally, other Christians have said that setting aside a day of rest and worship is not obligatory at all, but nonetheless it is very valuable to do, and one of the purposes of the Sabbath commandment is to teach us the value of such a custom. Although these views show some difference among Christians as to the relationship of the observance of the Lord’s Day to the Sabbath commandment, almost all Christians see the importance of having such a day and accept the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, as the weekly day of celebration for Christians.

What Christians have learned about the Lord’s Day

There are many truths that Christians have learned from the Sabbath celebration and applied through the centuries. They have, as we have said, learned first of all the value of setting aside one day for the worship of God. They have also learned the value of the day of rest. The true rest is to cease from our sins, but that rest is symbolized by a day of rest in which we cease form our work. Rest is not inactivity, but it is a change of activity. In this case, rest is ceasing from the work by which we support ourselves and maintain our life and instead taking on the activity of worshiping. It is therefore a day of gathering together, of prayer and Christian study, of giving alms and doing good (like visiting the sick). It is a day for the Christian community and for the family. It is not so much a “day off,” though it can be that, but a day in which we do “not go our own ways or seek our own pleasure or talk idly” (Isaiah 58:13), a day to honor God.

Finally, Christians have learned from the Sabbath that the Lord’s Day is a time of celebration, a time to “take delight in the Lord.” It is a day in which the joy of the Lord, rejoicing in the Lord, can be our strength. Here, especially, modern Christians need to learn something. They need to learn how to celebrate again. There was a time when Christians knew how to take a feast day and celebrate, and Christians in many places of the world still do. But for most Christians modern life has eroded an understanding of how to keep a feast. For that reason, we can learn again an old truth from the celebration of the Sabbath.

The article is adapted from Family Worship, edited by Mark Kinzer, previously published by Servant Publications in 1990, and a new expanded edition published in 2004 by © The Sword of the Spirit. 

Family Worship book is available from the Sword of the Spirit to read online and download.

Top image credit: digital pastel illustration of an early Christian agape meal based on a late 3rd century AD sarcophagus fragment preserved in a catacomb in Rome. Created by Living Bulwark staff artist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *