Why do we worship on Sunday, instead of on the Sabbath?

An answer to a friend’s question – I thought others might also wonder….

You asked about the practice of holding church on Sunday, the first day of the week, rather than on Saturday, the Sabbath day, as the Jewish practice used to be. I want to give you a good and careful answer, because I know that you want above all things to be faithful and obedient to the word of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is what the heart of every disciple of Christ should desire, and I don’t want to be careless or off-hand in any way in my reply.

It is important, first of all, I think, to understand the meaning of the Sabbath. There is no command in the Bible that we should go to church on the Sabbath. The Sabbath command was to honor the Sabbath by refraining from all kinds of work. That was a command for all Israelites, and their servants, and even their animals. As you know, the reason for that command was to remember that the Creator did his work of creation in six days, and then rested on the Sabbath. Resting on the Sabbath reminds us that we are made in the image of the Creator, and it also reminds us that all that we have comes from his kindness and generosity, and not from our own effort.

Honoring the Sabbath was a part of the whole Law of Moses, which the Israelites were commanded to keep. They lived as God’s special, chosen nation, set apart, in the midst of the Gentile nations, and the Law was a sign of God’s holiness. They were called to a higher way of life to show the nations around them that their God was a holy and righteous God, different from all the other gods of all the other nations.

When Jesus came, he told us that he came to fulfill the whole law (Matthew 5:17). That meant that he did what no other person has ever done or ever will do – he obeyed the Law perfectly and completely. But he didn’t obey the Law the way the experts of his day expected him to. He was always offending them by doing things they thought were wrong – and especially on the Sabbath. Instead of carefully following all the rules for the Sabbath, Jesus kept “breaking the Sabbath” by doing things like healing people on the Sabbath. When the Pharisees objected, Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” When Jesus fulfilled the Law, something much greater than the Law had come, and that means that now we have someone much greater than Moses to obey.

Paul wrote that even from the beginning, the purpose of the Law was never to save us, but that the Law was a guardian or a tutor for us until Jesus came. Galatians 5:24-26 says, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” I quote that, because Paul is telling us – or, to put it better, the Holy Spirit is telling us through Paul – that our obedience is now to Christ alone, and no longer to the law of Moses.

This means that we are no longer under obligation to keep the Sabbath day as a law, just as we are no longer under obligation to offer sacrifices or to avoid planting two kinds of seed in one field, or to avoid eating pork. If we want to be obedient as Christians, we need to hear what Jesus tells us, neither more nor less. His commandments are not easy, but they are simple – and the first and foremost is that we love God and one another. Paul writes (Romans 13:8-10) that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandments, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

If we want to know how to obey Jesus in our worship, then, we don’t look to the law of Moses and the people of Israel, we look to his word and to the example of the Christians in the New Testament. In the book of Acts and in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, at least, there are descriptions of how the first Christians gathered together to pray, to study the Scriptures (which would have been the writings of the Old Testament) and to break bread together. The one and only command that Jesus gave about our worship was his command to share bread and wine together regularly in order to remember his death on the cross, and his great love and sacrifice for us all. “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

Paul talks about the churches coming together for the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26. He says, “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

We know from early writings that Christians began to worship on Sunday in honor of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of the Christians were Jews, and they continued to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath as well for a while, but it wasn’t long before Christians were unwelcome in the synagogues, and as Christian churches began to be established, by Peter and Paul and the other apostles, they met on Sundays. We know that was the practice very early, because the New Testament records that they met on the first day of the week. Acts 20:7 says: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day…” As Christians, when they said they met to “break bread” that would have meant the Lord’s Supper –  and we also know that because at that particular worship service we are told that Paul gave a very, very long sermon. Also, in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul instructs the saints to put aside their offering for the collection he was making to help the poor in Jerusalem. And he tells them to do this when they meet – “on the first day of every week”.

We know that the practice of worshiping on Sunday dates from the very earliest disciples of Jesus Christ, but it was not because it was commanded – in fact, there is no command in the New Testament telling people which day they must worship on. However, it is certainly considered a very important thing for God’s people to come together in worship, as the writer to the Hebrews says (10:25) “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The only real command about Christian worship was Jesus’s own command that when we do come together, we share the bread and wine in remembrance of his love. As for prayer, there is no set day for that – we are actually told to pray at all times!

So, that is my understanding of how we are to obey Jesus in our worship. Every church has many things that they add to their tradition, and those are not bad things. They are just ways we find helpful to lead us deeper into our prayer and praise of our God. At St. Philip’s we use candles and music and special vestments in our church; another church chooses to keep their worship simple and plain. But we are all worshiping the same Lord, who is worthy of all our love and all our praise and all our obedience, and we are all worshiping him in the way that seems best to us.

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