Sunday: The Church’s Special Day
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, December 26, 2009 at 8:41pm
SOMEONE HAS ASKED, “How do we get Sunday as a holy day?” I.e., why do we keep Sunday as the church’s special day, rather than Saturday? And why should the church gather for corporate worship on Sunday, rather than on Friday or Saturday? Is there something special about Sunday?
MY ANSWER: Sunday is indeed the church’s special day, and has been so since Jesus arose from the dead. This is so because world history is divided into two main epochs, the dividing point being the death and resurrection of Christ. By his redemptive work Christ divided history in two senses.
FIRST, history is divided in terms of COVENANT. This has to do with God’s relation to his special people—first Israel, then the Church. God related to Israel (the Jews) in terms of the first or old covenant, the one given through Moses and recorded in Exodus through Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant the special day was the Sabbath Day, which was our Saturday (Exodus 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15). The main purpose of the Sabbath day was to honor God for redeeming the Israelite nation from Egyptian bondage. The main means of so honoring God was to rest from all labor, in contrast with their former life of slavery: “On [the Sabbath] you shall not do any work . . . . You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:14-15, ESV). The choice of the SEVENTH day as the Jews’ day of rest was appropriate, because that was the day God rested from his work of creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Exodus 20:11).
The fact is, though, that we as Christians are living under a NEW and DIFFERENT covenant, one established by Jesus through his death and resurrection (Jer. 31:31-34; Luke 22:20; Heb. 8-10). Under the New Covenant the FIRST day of the week is the Church’s special day. We do not keep this special day by resting, because our deliverance was not from physical labor but from slavery to sin and death. Rather, we set aside this day for the purpose of celebrating Jesus Christ and his mighty work of redemption. It is a day of celebration, not a day of rest.
In the New Testament (the New Covenant Scriptures) the Sabbath commandment is the only one of the ten commandments that is not repeated in some way. It is no longer binding on the people of God (Col. 2:16). It is an OLD covenant requirement, and Christians live under the NEW covenant. But this is not the whole story—
SECOND, history is divided in terms of CREATION. Until the death and resurrection of Christ the entire world (not just the Jews) was living only under the regime of the first or old creation as described in Genesis 1. However, through his redemptive work Jesus inaugurated a NEW CREATION, a new sphere of existence within which the people of God now live and now serve him. Many will point to Gen. 2:1-3, as cited in Exodus 20:11, as evidence that Sabbath (seventh-day) keeping is not just an Old Covenant requirement but a creation ordinance and thus permanently binding. But the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus Christ began not only a new COVENANT, but also a whole new CREATION (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10).
This new creation began specifically with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the redemptive event in which Jesus himself became “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18, ESV), “the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29, ESV). His resurrection was on the first day of the week—Sunday (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). The first day of the week was appropriate because his resurrection was not the conclusion of something (the old creation) but was the beginning of something NEW—the NEW CREATION. Thus we are not surprised that the Apostles led the early church to gather to celebrate the Lord’s redemptive work on the FIRST DAY of the week—Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2.
The earliest Christian writers testify that Sunday, the first day of the week, was the church’s special day because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection. Ignatius (early 2nd century), in his letter to the Magnesians (paragraph 9) says that “those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death.” The Epistle of Barnabas (early or mid-second century), paragraph 15, says that God has told Christians, in effect, “I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead.” Justin Martyr (mid-second century), in his First Apology, chapter 67, says: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read,” followed by preaching, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper. “But Sunday is the day on which we all 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.”
It seems to me that making all days the same, as if Friday or Saturday were just as appropriate a day of Christian remembrance as Sunday, denies or ignores the transition from old to new covenant, and especially from old to new creation. (On Romans 14:5, see my commentary on Romans. The reference is not to the days of the week, but to the various special days set apart under the Old Covenant.)