Why is the Sabbath no longer on Saturday?

by Justin Dillehay

My wife Tilly ministers to a group of ladies at a local jail. On occasion, she brings home questions from the ladies for me to write an answer to. This was one of those.

Dear friend,

You asked:

“Q: Why is the Sabbath day no longer on Saturday and we go to church on Sunday?”

A: This is not an easy question to answer, and it’s one that good Christian people disagree on. Indeed, it’s a question that I have changed my own views on through the years.

If you don’t mind, let me break this question down into two separate questions.

Q:1—Why do we go to church on Sundays? That is, why is Sunday “The Lord’s Day”?

Q:2—Is Sunday the New Testament version of the Old Testament Sabbath? Or are they totally unrelated?

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Q:1—Why do we go to church on Sundays? That is, why is Sunday “The Lord’s Day”? 

From the earliest recorded days of the church, Christians have gathered for worship on the first day of the week, known as Sunday.

This practice goes back to the New Testament itself. In Acts 20:5-7, we find the church in Troas gathering on the first day of the week to break bread. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul is speaking about a collection of money is taking up for poor Christians, and how he plans to stop through Corinth on his way to Jerusalem to collect from them. So he tells them,

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

Why collect on the first day of the week? The most reasonable answer seems to be what we see in Acts 20, “Because that’s when the church gathered together.” And notice, it wasn’t just the Corinthians who met on the first day of the week—Paul had directed the churches of Galatia to do the same thing.

And finally, in Revelation 1:9-10, the Apostle John says this: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” Now admittedly John doesn’t explicitly tell us that the “Lord’s Day” was the first day of the week. At the same time, there really aren’t any other live options for what he means by that phrase. Consider the following:

  1. Since John didn’t specify what day it was, he must have expected his readers to know which day he was talking about. Apparently the phrase “the Lord’s Day” was common by the time John wrote Revelation (c. 95 A.D at the latest).
  2. He had to have been referring to a specific day. To say that John simply meant that ‘every day is the Lord’s Day’ would defeat the purpose, since his goal was to inform his readers of when he received the vision.
  3. The only other option besides Sunday would be Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the Old Testament Sabbath day. But this can’t be what John means, since he was writing to Gentiles, and the New Testament is clear that Gentile Christians were not obligated to keep the Jewish Sabbath. (see Colossians 2:16-17). Plus, John is writing to churches in Asia Minor (Rev 1:4; 2-3) which happens to be where Galatia and Troas are located. Recall that Galatia is a place where Paul says the churches kept the first day of the week in 1 Cor. 16:1-2. And Troas is the same area that Paul was in Acts 20:5-7 where the church met on the first day of the week.

So I conclude that when John spoke of the “Lord’s Day,” he had to have been speaking of the first day of the week, Sunday.

But here’s the question: Why the first day of the week? Why not the third or fourth or fifth day? What event could be so significant that the apostles suddenly felt free to break with over a millennium of Old Testament practice and begin worshiping on the first day instead of the seventh? (No small change for the apostles—who were all God-fearing Jews who held to the authority of the Old Testament.) What event could have been so significant? Does the New Testament offer us any clues?

The answer is clearly “Yes, it does.” Arguably the most significant event in history of the world was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all four gospels record the fact that Christ rose from the dead “on the first day of the week.” Not that many small details get mentioned in all four Gospels. But this one does. Furthermore, when the gospel writers wrote that Jesus rose on the “first day of the week,” they used a very unusual wording in Greek. It’s an unusual wording that occurs in only two other places outside the four Gospels.

Care to take a guess at what those two places are? If you guessed Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2, the two passages already mentioned which describe Christians as meeting on the first day of the week, then you’d be right.

So the evidence is very strong that the reason the NT church began meeting on the first day of the week was because this was the day on which the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Here’s how a Christian named Justin Martyr put it in about 150 A.D., about 60 years after the New Testament was finished.

“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. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”

Q:2—Is Sunday the New Testament version of the Old Testament Sabbath? Or are they totally unrelated?

With regard to Q:1, essentially the entire church throughout history would agree with my answer. When it comes to this next question, however, there is more disagreement. My own view is not as popular today as it once was.

But my answer to this second question would be “Yes, the Sunday Lord’s Day is the New Testament version of the Old Testament Sabbath.” Yes, they are different in some ways, but they are also similar in obvious ways. The differences can be accounted for by the fact that Jesus has come and transformed the day for his people.

Let me point out how the two are different, and then how they are similar.

How they’re different:

The most obvious difference is that they fall on different days of the week—the first instead of the seventh.

But there’s more. The OT Sabbath was stricter—you could be stoned to death for breaking it. Whereas there seems to be nothing like that for the NT Lord’s Day. Plus, the reason you could be executed for breaking the OT Sabbath is because OT Israel was a political nation with civil laws. But the NT Church is a spiritual nation with no land of its own and no civil government enforcing its Sabbath laws. (Though this doesn’t mean that civil governments shouldn’t seek to accommodate the religious beliefs or their citizens within reason.) Christians live as pilgrims in every nation on earth, and we wait for Jesus to return and make the kingdoms of this world his own.

Also, the OT Sabbath was a shadow pointing forward to Jesus (Colossians 2:16-17). Whereas the NT Lord’s Day is a fulfillment that looks back at Christ’s finished work, and points forward to our eternal rest in the new heavens and new earth.

How they’re similar:

But we shouldn’t overlook how much these two days have in common.

1) They’re both one day in seven. In this, both rest on the seven-day week established by God at creation. This is significant, since the seven-day week (unlike the 24 hour day, the 30 day month, and the 365 day year) has no basis in nature. They rest solely on God’s special revelation of his will.

2) They’re both “the Lord’s Day” in a special sense. The fact that every day belongs to the Lord in one sense doesn’t mean that he can’t sanctify one day in a special sense. Think of these parallel cases: the fact that we sometimes glorify God by fasting doesn’t denigrate food—we also glorify God by eating with thankful hearts. The fact that we frequently dedicate time in secret to shut the closet door and pray doesn’t denigrate sporadic prayer throughout the day—we are also to pray without ceasing. The fact that we glorify God by resting one day a week doesn’t denigrate work—we also glorify God by laboring for the other six days. The fact that we call one special meal “The Lord’s Supper” doesn’t denigrate all other meals—whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

And the fact that God calls Sunday “the Lord’s Day” doesn’t denigrate all other days—we worship God every day of the week. But God knows our frame; he’s a practical God. And he doesn’t lay on his church the burden of gathering together every day. Nor does he require us to neglect our work for days at a time. To do this would severely disrupt creation ordinances like raising your family and working for a living. So he graciously gives us one day  on which to rest and gather and worship him corporately and to mark the dawning of the new creation in the resurrection of Christ.

3) They both commemorate creation. The OT Sabbath commemorates the old creation, which we read about in Genesis 1, and the NT Lord’s Day commemorates the new creation, which began with the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week. But what does Jesus’ resurrection have to do with the new creation, you might ask? Just this: God’s raising of Jesus is simply the beginning of God’s raising and restoring of all things, including God’s people and God’s world (see 1 Corinthians 15:12-28; Romans 8:18-25).

4) They both commemorate redemption. According the Deuteronomy 5:15, the OT Sabbath, besides pointing back to creation, also pointed to Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt. The NT Lord’s Day points to our redemption from sin, when Christ was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

And speaking of redemption–one last point: the fact that we still have one day in seven as “the Lord’s Day” for rest and worship in the NT points to the ‘already/not yet’ character of our redemption during the time between the first and second comings of Jesus. As Christians, in one sense we have already “entered into rest.” Jesus is our rest; he says “Come to me, all that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And yet, in another sense, we have not yet fully entered into our rest, because Jesus has not yet returned. There still remains an eternal Sabbath rest for God’s people (Hebrews 3-4). And one day, when he appears, even the Lord’s Day will pass away, and we will enter a new world in which there is no night (Rev. 22:5). 

In short, the transformation of the OT Sabbath into the NT Lord’s Day is all about Jesus—last Adam, Lord of the Sabbath, and firstborn from the dead. So as you worship and rest this Sunday, lift up your eyes to the risen Christ, from whom your rest comes.

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