“Christmas is God’s invitation to enter into his peace. We can enter into his peace through the door that is open to each one of us. We can begin to see things from his perspective knowing that even as the waves of this life wash over us, all suffering has an expiration date.” -Jt RichardsNew City
A long-time friend recently shared a question he was asked by one of his friends: why do Christians “go to church”? I’ve written and preached about why we assemble together a number of times. I want to address something more specific: why do we worship together on Sundays?
Christians have worshiped on Sunday mornings from the very beginning of the church; this not really debatable, though some debate the reason. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul gave them instructions regarding their offerings.
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.1 Corinthians 16:1–2 ESV
There are a couple things to notice. First, this instruction was given to other churches in other areas. This is important as the first-day-of-the-week collection is not unique to the church in Corinth. Second, Paul didn’t have to explain when and where to take up this collection. They understood why they collected it on the first day of the week: this was the day of their regular assembly as followers of Jesus. Logistically, it made sense to collect the offering when they were gathered together. This does not answer the question why, however.
All four Gospels make a point of emphasis that Jesus rose on the first day of the week. Mark writes that it was very early “on the first day of the week” that Mary and Mary went to the tomb. While there, of course, the ladies discovered Jesus had risen from the dead. Luke says it was “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” when they went to the tomb. Once again, upon arriving at the empty tomb, they discovered there was no use for the embalming spices they took with them. John also writes of this attempt at embalming, saying it was “on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb”.
Matthew adds another detail, one that is implicit in the other three Gospels but which Matthew chose to make explicit: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.” The Sabbath ended at sundown on Saturday evening. After the Sabbath day had ended, and before dawn on Sunday, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb. The first day of the week began at sundown the night before, but it was toward the dawn when they went to the tomb. Sometime during the night, before the sun had risen, on the first day of the week Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
It was in light of the resurrection of Jesus the church began to assemble together in Jesus’ name to worship him. In Acts 20 Luke writes that the church in Troas was assembled to “break bread” on the first day of the week, yet Luke offers no other explanation. It is clear he expected the reader to fill in the blanks.
This still does not fully answer the question as to why. We see that meeting on the first day of the week is connected to Jesus’ resurrection on the first day, but what is it about the resurrection that led to the earliest Christians gathering weekly to remember it?
A common claim made today is that the weekly Jewish Sabbath was transferred to Sunday. It is quite remarkable, however, that Scripture never makes such a substantial claim! Many say the Sabbath was established as an eternal requirement for all peoples at all times, though Scripture says it was a sign of the Mosaic covenant between God and Israel.
You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.”Exodus 31:13 ESV
If such an important sign between God and Israel were transferred to a completely different day, surely one or more of the apostles would have mentioned it! The Sabbath day was vital to the life of Israel, yet its transfer to Sunday was never mentioned? The truth is this argument only appeared quite some time after the apostles. In the second century Justin Martyr offered a very different reason for Sunday worship, one that is tied to the resurrection of Jesus. In his “First Apology”, he wrote this description of Sunday worship.
And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.Justin Martyr, “First Apology”, 1.67
After describing the Scripture reading, a sermon, prayers, and communion, Justin adds this:
But we all hold this common gathering on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God transforming darkness and matter and made the Universe, and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For they crucified him on the day before Saturday, and on the day after Saturday, he appeared to his Apostles and disciples and taught them these things which we have passed on to you also for your consideration.Justin Martyr, “First Apology”, 1.67
Notice that Justin connects the idea of creation and resurrection, that is, the work of God, with the first day of the week. The justification for the Sabbath being the seventh day of the week is rather different.
For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:11 ESV
The seventh day was set apart as the Sabbath for on the seventh day God rested. On the first day, however, God did not rest! Quite the opposite! On the first day he created the heavens and the earth. On the first day he raised Jesus from the dead and began his work of new creation. It would be very difficult to reconcile the Sabbath as a day of rest with God’s work of creation and new creation! This means the first believers did not worship on Sundays because it was the Sabbath day of rest. They weren’t resting!
It’s important to note Justin’s Apology was written to the emperor. Should he get any detail wrong, it would be akin to committing perjury, for he’s appealing to the emperor on behalf of Christians everywhere. It would not be difficult for the emperor to discover any errors in this document. I suppose it’s possible he just left out this link, though his reason for doing so would be a mystery. Under Roman law the Jews received special privileges to worship as they saw fit. They were, for example, exempt from offering a pinch of incense to Caesar. Why wouldn’t Justin make this connection to the emperor? “Hey, we’re Jewish, too! We keep the Sabbath—but on Sundays!” It’s quite simple: this was never the reason for Sunday worship and so there was no connection to make.
In the mid-second century Justin had a two-day debate with Trypho the Jew. Trypho expressed great dismay at the practice of Christians, for they did not keep the law of Moses in general, and the Sabbath in particular.
But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God, while you do not obey his commandments.Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”, Chapter X
Trypho’s accusation against Christians is this: they don’t live according to the law of Moses, which includes not observing the Sabbath. It is very significant that Justin does not respond by something, “Oh, yes we do! But now it’s Sunday!” Instead, he declared that Christ is the true law of God. Justin agrees with Trypho that Christians do not observe Sabbath. Rather than transfer the Sabbath to Sunday, he “transfers” it to holy living. If anything, Justin Martyr was a hyper-sabbatarian, insisting that every day is the Sabbath!
The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you: and if you eat unleavened bread, you say the will of God has been fulfilled. The Lord our God does not take pleasure in such observances: if there is any perjured person or a thief among you, let him cease to be so; if any adulterer, let him repent; then he has kept the sweet and true sabbaths of God. If any one has impure hands, let him wash and be pure.Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”, Chapter XII
Justin’s argument is two-fold. First, Christians worship together on Sundays because it is the day God in Christ began his work of re-creation. He is no longer resting, but is actively bringing about new creation. Second, the law of Moses was fulfilled by Christ. The true Sabbath is a life that ceases not from work, but from sin. These two arguments are directly connected.
When we assemble in the name of Jesus, the Lord himself enters into our presence. (For more info, see here.) It is in God’s presence that we experience his power most fully, and it is his power that transforms us. We assemble together in the name of Jesus on the Lord’s Day—Sunday—to experience the Lord’s presence and to participate in his work of re-creation. By worshiping him together, God enters into our presence, and when God is present in our assembly, he is at work in us—not resting! He is working in us to bring about the very real transformation of our lives.
Why do we worship together on Sundays? We do so because of the promise of resurrection. By raising Jesus from the dead God began his work of re-creating the entire cosmos. Assembling together on the day of his resurrection points us to our future resurrection but also to the daily reality of God actively raising us to new life now. Because he is powerfully present in his gathered assembly, the Lord Jesus works in and through this assembly, and his power then extends out to other areas of our lives as we live in Christian community.
By worshiping together we participate in God’s work of transforming us, for his presence is powerful and active. We gather together to celebrate the Lord and his death and resurrection. We remind one another of the great truth that Christ is our righteousness. We encourage one another and pray for one another. All other times we meet together as believers is “downstream” from the central gathering. The power of God experienced in the assembly spills over into our City Groups, into our living rooms, in our offices and bedrooms and driveways as we shovel snow. While we rest in Christ, we worship in active participation in the work of God in us when we gather together on Sundays.