A Primer on the Lord’s Day

In Oceanside, California, we have recently experienced the opening of the Atlanta-based fast food chain, Chick-fil-A. With the all-chicken menu, health conscious North County residents have made it a hit. What is most peculiar about this chain restaurant, though, is that it is closed for business on Sundays, which is virtually business suicide in this area, since Sunday is the busiest day of the week. The response to this has been interesting. Christians of all stripes respond favorably, saying, “That’s great,” or, “I go there because they’re closed on Sundays.” The irony it that these same evangelical Christians go somewhere else to eat on Sundays! This is evidence that Christians have no idea why this restaurant is closed on Sundays, but more importantly, have no idea what their life should look like on Sundays.                              

From Sabbath to Sunday

From creation onward the people of God worshipped on the seventh day, that is, Saturday. This was a “creation ordinance” that the Creator himself established by his example for his creatures to follow, as well as benediction. Just as God ruled over creation and called his image-bearers to rule and exercise dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26–28), and just as God worked six days and called his image-bearers to work (Gen. 2:15), so too God rested on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2; Ex. 20:11, 31:17) and called his image-bearers to rest as well. He signified this by placing his benediction on that day as a set apart day when he “made it holy” (Gen. 2:3).

It must be noted in using the language of “work” and “rest” that these are analogical for God, but univocal for us. This means that the language of Genesis is language that we understand. The point is that God gave a pattern for us to work and rest, which is based on his work and rest. What does it mean that God “worked?” It means he created the heavens and the earth. What does it mean that he “rested?” As John Murray taught, it means three things: first, God’s rest is not inactivity, since Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17); second, God’s rest is the cessation of a certain kind of work—the creation of all things in six days (Gen. 2:1–2); and, third, God’s rest is a delighting in his work: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).

Later, when the Sabbath command is reiterated, we read: “In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exod. 31:17; emphasis added). The Hebrew term naphash is used elsewhere in the Old Testament only twice—once to define the purpose of the Sabbath in giving rest to animals and refreshment to servants’ children and the aliens within Israel (Exod. 23:12) and once in the story of David and his men who stopped their journey and were refreshed (2 Sam. 16:14). After God worked in making everything, it was as if his rest refreshed him. Yet, God’s rest and refreshment mean so much more. It is his joy and satisfaction. The prayer of the Psalmist, “May the Lord rejoice in his works” (Ps. 104:31), reflects this view. And this rest/satisfaction was a specific kind of rest/satisfaction—that of a king. God worked in creating the heavens and the earth to be his cosmic palace and took his place on this throne, so to speak, on the seventh day.

After the Lord’s mighty deed of bringing his people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, the Sabbath day took on even more significance as a covenant sign that the Lord sanctified his people (Ex. 31:13). What did the sign signify? On that day the saints celebrated the reality that God created them and that their rest was rooted in God’s rest: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day (Exod. 20:8–11; emphasis added). As well, the Sabbath signified that the Lord redeemed his people (Deut. 5:12–15). Moreover, once a year the Sabbath fell on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:30–31), and so the Sabbath was also a celebration of the Lord’s forgiveness of his people.

Yet under the old covenant (Heb. 8:6, 7, 13), that is, the covenant with Israel from Moses (Ex. 19) until Christ, the Sabbath day was extremely strict. This was because this covenant was in one sense a covenant of law (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:10, 19, 24). As with Adam, who was under a covenant of works, so Israel had to work in order to enjoy rest. Not only was no work to be done by the Israelites and their children, they were also to give rest to all in their household—servants, livestock, even sojourners (Ex. 20:10). The Lord even gave regulatory laws over what could and could not be done. For example, if one even went out to gather sticks (Num. 15:32–36) in order to kindle a fire (Ex. 35:1–3), he was to be put to death (Ex. 31:14–15, 35:2). All this strictness was a part of the tutelage of the law, which was meant to lead Israel by the hand to Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24), who is the final sacrifice ending the old covenant (Heb. 7:11–12, 18–19, 8:7, 13).

When Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week things changed. Christ, the second Adam, finished (John 19:30) the work that the first Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12–19). Therefore as Christians we are under the new covenant and our day of worship and celebration for the Lord’s grace in Jesus Christ is the first day of the week, Sunday. On this day we are reminded of and participate in the glorious reality that we have already entered God’s rest (Matt. 11:28; Heb. 4:10) and that we await the experience of the fullness of this rest in eternity in the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21–22). We now assemble corporately for worship and enjoy a foretaste of our eternal rest, then go out into the kingdom of this world to work for six days.

Contrary to popular belief, the reason we worship on Sunday is not because the early church fell away from the biblical command and took over a pagan holiday under Constantine. While the creation principle of setting aside one day in seven for worship is still valid, the circumstances in which that principle is applied have changed. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), speaks of this one in seven principle, saying,

. . . from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, [the day of worship] was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath (ch. 21:7).

So why do we worship as a people on Sunday, and not Saturday? There are several reasons for this. First, in the New Testament we learn that the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath, is called “the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10 cf. 1 Cor. 16:2). This grammatical phrase means that this day especially belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, Sunday was the day on which our Lord rose from the dead (John 20:1). The Psalmist anticipated Christ’s resurrection in saying, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). Sunday is the day of joyful celebration of the living Savior of the world. As St. John of Damascus wrote in his hymn, The Day of Resurrection:

Now let the heaven be joyful, let earth her song begin;

Let all the world keep triumph, and all that is therein;
In grateful exultation their notes let all things blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our Joy that hath no end.

Third, just as on the first day of creation God made light and separated it from the darkness, we gather on the first day of the week to celebrate the light of the gospel in Jesus Christ, who has separated us from the world of the darkness of sin (John 1:5,9, 3:19, 8:12; 2 Cor. 4:1–6). For us, the strictness of the Law and the Sabbath has ceased with the coming of Christ (Col. 2:16–17; Gal. 4:9–10; Rom. 14:5–6). The Lord’s Day is not to be a burden, for as Jesus himself said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Instead, it is his day, on which we gather to receive his grace through the means of grace, the Word and sacraments, and to offer him our gratitude in prayer, song, and offering (Acts 2:42).

From Creation to Re-Creation

From creation until Christ the people of God worked six days and then rested on the seventh day, looking forward to the day of rest. This was typological of their looking forward to eternal rest, since the seventh day of creation is not structured with an “evening and morning” as the previous six days. This signified that the seventh day had no end and was thus a foretaste of eternity itself. On the other hand, from the work of Christ until the consummation, the people of God rest on the first day and work the next six, looking back on the finished work of Christ. Yet we also look forward to the full consummation of this rest.

When our Lord lay in the tomb from Friday evening through early Sunday morning, the old order of things was buried with him, and when he rose from the dead he began a new order of things. This is why the Gospel of John speaks of the first day of the week as the eighth day, literally, “after eight days” (20:26). It was not just the beginning of another week, but in fact, a new beginning. In the early history of the church this “eighth day” theology was a significant point in polemics between Christians and Jews. For example, Ignatius of Antioch (AD 30–107) wrote in his Epistle to the Magnesians,

If, therefore, 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—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master— how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead (ch. 9).

In the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 100) we read,

. . . When, giving rest to all things, 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” (ch. 15).

Finally, Justin Martyr (AD 110–165), in his classic apologetic against Judaism, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, said,

The command of circumcision . . . on the eighth day, was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath. . . . For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the first of all the days, is called, however, the eighth (ch. 41).

The point is that the resurrection of Christ is the first fruits of the final resurrection and restoration of all things (Rom. 8:18–25; 1 Cor. 15:23). On the Lord’s Day our worship is a commemoration of Christ’s accomplished work and triumphant resurrection, an anticipation of the day of re-creation, when the Lord shall make all things new (Rev. 21:4–5), but also a participation in the age to come already in this age. As Paul says, upon us “the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

As Exodus 31 made clear already back in the early days of Israel’s wilderness experience, the Sabbath Day was eschatological. As a picture of completed work, it was a “picture of the messianic future, of the consummation of all things, a foretaste of the coming kingdom.” The Sabbath during the exile, apart from the temple, was Israel’s temple in time and oasis in the wilderness.

We have entered this Sabbath rest, according to the writer to the Hebrews: “For we who have believed enter that rest . . . for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Heb. 4:3, 10).

These main ideas of the biblical Sabbath/Lord’s Day were brought together at the Synod of Dort (AD 1618–19). After the international delegates returned home, the Synod dealt with many practical issues facing the Dutch Reformed churches. In its 164th session on May 17, 1619, the Synod issued the following doctrinal deliverance concerning the fourth Commandment:

1. There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.

2. The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.

3. The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.

4. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.

5. Since the times of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.

6. This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.

Letting the Lord’s Day Structure Us

Instead of seeing the Lord’s Day as a rule that stifles our “weekend,” we need to view it as a gift from God that actually structures our lives by providing a rhythm to keep the Lord’s Day. The practice of the Lord’s Day is not legalism, but it is a part of our piety, that is, our grateful response to God’s gifts. We sanctify the day because we belong not to this age that is passing away, but to the glorious age to come.

We need to acknowledge, then, that Sunday is the Lord’s Day and not the Lord’s morning (or sadly, the Lord’s hour), just as the Sabbath was a day of rest. The Reformation churches followed the historic practice in worshipping twice on the Lord’s Day because the pattern we see in Scripture is that the day of rest is structured at each end with morning and evening worship.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was all about liberty—from the pope, from human traditions, from sin, from the expectations of the world. This liberty was a result of a belief in a radical kind of salvation, in which the God we hate by nature (Rom. 8:7) loved us (John 3:16). And thus the Reformers proclaimed salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.
Yet the Reformers did not believe this liberty led to license, as those liberated from the enslaving power of sin and Satan have become “slaves of God” (Rom. 6:22). Since we are his servants our entire lives are to be those of self-sacrificial worship of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit (Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 2:18). This private and personal worship culminates in our public and corporate worship on the Lord’s Day through the liturgy (order of service). We have been freed to set aside one day out of seven to join the “great assembly” (Ps. 22:25; NIV).

As Christians, we have been liberated from “the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6) and are to set aside the Lord’s Day as a day to remember our creation (Ex. 20:11) and re-creation (Deut. 5:15) in public worship. Our liberation was signified in baptism when our triune God placed his name on our foreheads, distinguishing us from “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4; cf. Belgic Confession, art. 34), and claiming us for his own (1 Peter 2:9). This is what our Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563, says when it answers the question, “What does God require in the fourth commandment?” Notice that the answer does not contain a laundry list of “do’s” and don’ts,” but it says,

In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms.
Since Sunday is the Lord’s Day, it is his will for us that we diligently attend church, “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” (Heb. 10:25). This diligence in anticipation of the final Day is seen in the early account of the church, which “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

What this means for us is that we are called to set aside Sunday and commit ourselves to gratefully resting and worshipping the triune God because we belong to Christ, not ourselves (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1). The Lord’s Day is the day in which Jesus takes us to our Father and places us into his arms and feeds us with the Holy Spirit’s food for our souls, the preaching of the gospel and sacraments. There is, then, nothing better we can do on the Lord’s Day than assemble as a people to worship our covenant God together and receive his official means of grace. As the eloquent Anglican, J. C. Ryle, said,

Never be absent from God’s house on Sundays, without good reason, – never to miss the Lord’s Supper when administered in our own congregation, – never to let our place be empty when means of grace are going on, this is one way to be a growing and prosperous Christian. The very sermon that we needlessly miss, may contain a precious word in season for our souls. The very assembly for prayer and praise from which we stay away, may be the very gathering that would have cheered, and stablished, and quickened our hearts.
This pattern is found in the daily morning and evening sacrifices that were offered at the tabernacle and temple (e.g., Exod. 29:38–42, 30:7–8; Lev. 6:19; Num. 28:3, 6, 10, 15, 23, 24, 31, 29:6, 11, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, 34, 38). These sacrifices were interpreted by the biblical writers as the “sacrifice of praise” (Ps. 50:14; Heb. 13:15; cf. Mal. 3:3–4; 1 Pet. 2:4–10). This pattern of morning and evening sacrifices of prayer was especially true on the Sabbath (cf. Ps. 92). This pattern for prayer is evident all throughout the Psalms (e.g., Ps. 1:2, 5:3, 77:6, 141:2), the history of Israel’s synagogues, the Book of Acts (Acts 3:1, 10:9), and the history of the Church in what later was called matins and vespers, “morning” prayers and “evening” prayers.

What is interesting is that just as circumcision, Passover, and the Sabbath of the Old Covenant were fulfilled in baptism, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Day in the New, respectively, so we are led by the New Testament to understand that the daily morning and evening sacrifices were fulfilled in the daily public and private prayers of the church. In the book of Acts we learn that the early church gathered at the temple and held public prayer services there as well as in their homes. In Acts 2:42 the members of the church “devoted themselves . . . to the prayers,” as Luke uses the definite article “the” before “prayers” to speak of specific, set prayers which were said at the temple. Then in Acts 2:46 we learn that the believers gathered and prayed in private in their homes, as well (cf. Acts 1:14, 4:23–31, 12:12–17). This is also shown in Paul’s words about prayer. When Paul says, for example, to “pray without ceasing”/“continually” (1 Thess. 5:17; cf. Eph. 6:18; Heb. 13:15; Rom. 12:12; 1 Tim. 5:5) he is speaking in an Old Testament way. The daily morning and evening sacrifices mentioned above were called the tamid offering, that is, the “regular”/“continual” offerings. This is brought out in the King James/English Standard translations of 2 Timothy 1:3: “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (2 Tim. 1:3; cf. Rom. 1:9–10; 1 Cor. 1:4; Eph. 5:20; Phil. 1:4, 4:4–6; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2–3, 2:13, 3:6, 10; 2 Thess. 1:3, 11, 2:13; Philem. 4). What this means is that Paul is telling us to offer up the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15), as Israel, in the morning and evening.

Worship in both the morning and the evening is a part of our identity as Christians in the historic Christian and Reformed tradition. The ruling and overseeing body of our church, the consistory, has determined that continuing this practice best “maintains” the ministry of the gospel and public worship. And so because they have been “lawfully called of God’s church, and consequently of God Himself” (Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons), whenever they call us to worship God is calling us to worship.

Admittedly, this is difficult for several reasons, not the least of which is our sinful nature. God’s claim upon our lives in the form of the Lord’s Day brings us face to face with the lordship of Christ, requiring our lifestyle to conform to Scripture, not the other way around.
Yet there are practical difficulties such as learning a new way of living as Christians for those of us who came out of evangelical churches that did not honor the Lord’s Day, having to drive 30-plus minutes to get to worship, and having children. So how can we allow the Lord’s Day to structure us? Decide that you are going to gratefully sanctify the Lord’s Day as special and not treat it as another day filled with work, shopping, and chores. The Lord’s Day is not about a long checklist of dos and don’ts, but is a day without a “Do List”—except to worship and get enough rest to allow you to worship. This also means preparing for worship. If we are so tired that we cannot worship effectively because we were out late the night before or studying until 3:00 am, we are not taking worship very seriously nor making use of God’s gift of a Sabbath rest.

This also means there is no such thing as a vacation from worship. In all our planning for vacations do we plan on attending worship on the Lord’s Day while we are on vacation? It is still his day that he made holy. And since we belong to him and not ourselves, why would we want to be anywhere but in worship on the Lord’s Day, even when we are on vacation? If you go on vacation, go somewhere you can find a true church.                                                                                                                              

This is most important for our children to see from an early age, for how will they take God seriously when worshipping him is an option or must be fit into our schedules? Instead, parents need to be creative in making this day a genuine delight for their family. Make something special for breakfast that day, or a special dessert for the evening; find some special routine or tradition that your family enjoys on the Lord’s Day. Of course, this will also mean educating our children about worship and about the Lord’s Day. Although this is not an easy task it is just part of the command to Christian parents to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Our goal should be for them to so understand and appreciate the Lord’s Day and their role in it that they will want to teach their children these same things.

Since we are creatures of habit, consistent attendance at both services will become second nature, and you will actually begin to say no to enticements that distract from worship—the mall, the movies, and birthday parties. Use the time between services to enjoy the beauty of creation and redemption by discussing the meaning of what you see and of what you have heard on the Lord’s Day. Finally, use the day to fellowship with God’s people over lunch or dessert to pray together, encourage each other, and get to know your “family.”
Since we have been liberated from the tyranny of serving ourselves in order to serve the God who created us to work and rest, and the Savior who brought us eternal rest by his triumph over the grave, let us use this liberty to love the Lord through the liturgy on the Lord’s Day as we show our gratitude for the glorious Gospel of grace.

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1. E. H. Van Olst, The Bible and Liturgy, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 36.
2. Cited in Howard B. Spaan, Christian Reformed Church Government (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1968), 208.
3.  J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John: Volume 3 (1873; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, reprinted 1999), 454–5.
4. See also the ancient Apostolic Constitutions, in the section entitled “That Every Christian Ought to Frequent the Church Diligently Both Morning and Evening,” Book 2, Sec. 7, 59.


Rev. Daniel Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.

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