The Sabbath/Lord’s Day Issue in Church History
The Early Church and the Lord’s Day. Interestingly, the term “Lord’s Day” only appears in Scripture in Revelation 1:10 where the apostle John states “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” The title “Lord’s day” is all that is given in this passage. Because of its title this day is assumed to be the prominent day of Christian worship in the early church.
There are two passages in the New Testament which seem to suggest that this day of worship was the first day of the week. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (NASB). Another passage of importance is found in Acts 20:7. Here Luke records the following meeting of believers in the early church, “And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight” (NASB). The first day of the week probably became the day of meeting for the early church because of its association with Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. It is nowhere stated that the Lord’s Day has replaced the Sabbath and assumed all of its Old Covenant regulations. In fact, as R. J. Bauckham, at the conclusion of his extensive research on the Lord’s Day concluded:
Our study of the origins of the Lord’s Day has given no hint of properly sabbatical associations; for the earliest Christians it was not a substitute for the Sabbath nor a day of rest nor related in any way to the fourth commandment. It was simply, by the normative custom of the apostolic church, the day on which Christians met to worship.
Various positions have been held on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue in the history of the church. It is beyond the scope of this post to conduct an extensive survey of each and every position held through the centuries. The following survey of the three major periods in church history will be necessarily brief. The three periods are: the Post-Apostolic, Medieval, and Post-Reformation.
In the Post-Apostolic Period. Although there was still no official recognition of Sunday as the day of worship for believers, the history of the early church finds Sunday to be “the regular and universal” day of worship. Bible teacher John F. MacArthur, Jr. has made the following observation from early church history:
The early church fathers, from Ignatius to Augustine, taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day when Christians should meet for worship (contrary to the claim of many seventh-day sabbatarians who claim that Sunday worship was not instituted until the fourth century).
Little more can be said here due to the limited space. Please refer to this companion post which contains a series of quotes from the church fathers about this issue.
In the Medieval Period. It was in this period of church history that the shift from worship on the Lord’s Day to observing the Lord’s Day as a new “Christian Sabbath” emerged. On March 3, A.D. 321, the Roman emperor Constantine issued a law requiring complete, public rest from work “on the most honourable day of the Sun.” This event immediately preceded the medieval period of church history. Following Constantine’s edict of 321, regard for Sunday as a day of rest increased and continued through the Christianization of barbarian nations. Newly converted Germanic tribes recognized the similarities between the Jewish Sabbath and their own pagan taboo-days. They willingly accepted a Sabbatarian Lord’s Day. But the most important factor in the Lord’s Day assumption of the requirements of the Sabbath came from the great scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas developed a method of distinguishing between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the fourth commandment which allowed the Christian to spiritually keep the Sabbath (with its moral aspects), without observing it on Saturday (the ceremonial aspect). Aquinas also articulated a doctrine which linked the Decalogue with Natural Law which he saw as binding on all men everywhere. As R. J. Bauckham notes, “The Thomist view of the Decalogue survived some challenges to become the prevalent view of late medieval and traditional Roman Catholic theology.” This was the leading view heading into the Reformation.
In the Post-Reformation Period. The two major Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, each held different views on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue than did later Protestants. They broke with the Roman Catholic position on the Sabbath, but not completely. Neither “held that the fourth commandment requires Christians to rest on Sunday, but both held that, as a matter of convenience and order, a weekly day of rest for worship was needed.”
Those who came after Luther and Calvin tended to take a more Sabbatarian view of the Lord’s Day. Chief among these were the Puritans. As Puritan scholar J. I. Packer has observed, “The Puritans created the English Christian Sunday – that is, the conception and observance of the first day of the week as one on which both business and organised recreations should be in abeyance, and the whole time left free for worship, fellowship and ‘good works’.
One example of Puritan thought upon this topic can be found in the writings of Thomas Watson. Watson wrote a classic Puritan treatment of the Ten Commandments. He began his discussion of the fourth commandment with the following words, “This commandment was engraven in stone by God’s own finger, and it will be our comfort to have it engraven in our hearts.” He continued, “The Sabbath-day is set apart for God’s solemn worship; it is his own enclosure, and must not be alienated to common uses.” Watson then waxed eloquently for 23 pages with instructions on how to keep the Sabbath. At the conclusion of this discussion, Watson wrote “Christian, the more holy thou art on a Sabbath, the more holy thou wilt be on the week following.” This was a man who believed and taught that the Lord’s Day is the Christian Sabbath.
In these two posts, I have traced the arguments in the Sabbath/Lord’s Day debate through the pages of Scripture and the annals of church history. It has been easily discernible that the command to observe the Sabbath was given only to the people of Israel and is not a “Creation Ordinance” or part of God’s moral law. The New Testament is clear that Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath and that Sabbath requirements are no longer morally binding on Christians. It is equally clear that the first day of the week is the “Lord’s Day” and is a day in which the Resurrected Christ is to be worshiped. This was the practice of the early church, until the medieval period when the shift was made to “sabbathage” (pronounced sab-o-tage) the “Lord’s Day.” The Reformers did not repudiate Rome’s teaching on this issue clearly enough and the Puritans reverted whole heartedly into a Sabbatarian view of the “Lord’s Day.” Christians should make worship of Christ alone a requirement for this day!
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