Whose Day is it Anyway?
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s one of the things guaranteed to ignite a debate was the question, “What can a Christian do or not do on Sunday?”
Growing Up with Controversy
In Christian homes at that time this question was answered in a variety of ways. In some you were allowed to watch television, but not in others. In some you were allowed to change your clothes after church; whereas, in others you had to keep on your Sunday best – all day long. In some you were allowed to play sports like baseball, tennis, or soccer after church, but in others such things were deemed to be much too worldly.
Little wonder that growing up then was not without Sunday controversy. Some young people even said that Sunday, instead of being the best day of the week, was actually the worst day. Monday came along like a breath of fresh air and represented freedom from dispute and restriction, as well as an opportunity to escape from conflicting household rules.
An Age-Old Dispute
Perhaps it does not need to be said but behind all of this lies an age-old dispute. Sabbath-Sunday issues are almost as old as the church itself. When we turn our attention to biblical times, what do we see? First, we have that long Old Testament period in which God’s people were given the law of the fourth commandment, were repeatedly reminded to keep it, and were constantly upbraided for not doing so. Thereafter, we have a New Testament time filled with Sabbath watchdogs called Pharisees and a Saviour who is repeatedly at odds with them because they never grasped the real import of that day. After Easter, we have a church that somehow has to cope with the transition from Sabbath to Sunday.
Moving from Bible history to church history provides no respite from controversy. For next we have a period of persecution during which little is said about the matter, followed by a zealous emperor who makes the Sunday a prescribed day and unleashes a flurry of activity resulting in the construction of church buildings for Sunday church services. The Medieval period reveals a host of varying responses to the Sabbath/Sunday matter, followed by a Reformation time wherein the matter is rediscovered, re-examined and re-applied. Thereafter, a post Reformation era dawned with its insistence on multiplying all manner of restrictions and prohibitions. Following all of this, we have what we have today, namely a constant debate about whether Sunday really is Sabbath, about whether it started at creation or at Sinai, about whether we may or may not work, about whether commerce should be allowed or forbidden?
Will it Never End?
Will the controversy never end? Probably not! Surely the past gives ample evidence to conclude that this really is one of those issues that will not go away until the Lord returns and settles the debate once and for all. In the meantime, we may as well get used to the fact that it will remain a challenge and a source of dispute among Christians.
Is that all bad? It depends. On the one hand, it is a lamentable thing when people who believe in the same God, read the same Bible, pursue the same standard of holiness, and even claim adherence to the same confessions cannot get together on the meaning and application of the same worship day. On the other hand, controversy is not all bad, for it continues to engage us in biblical study and reflection, as well as in a debate of some importance.
Speaking of debate, however, would it not serve some purpose to set the whole Sabbath-Sunday issue aside and simply concentrate on a fact that almost all Christians can agree on, namely that the first day of the week is the Christian day of worship (see John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 2:1; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10)? The seventh day or Sabbath was left behind. Instead the first day called Sunday was adopted and became known as the day when Christians gathered and worshipped. In the process believers spoke less of the worship on the Sabbath day and more and more of worship on the Lord’s Day or the first day of the week.
Why did the New Testament church move its worship from Sabbath to Lord’s Day? Why did it suddenly shift from the last day to the first day of the week? Because it wanted to celebrate one of God’s greatest works, namely the resurrection of his Son from the dead and in Him the resurrection of all of God’s people.
While the Sabbath looked back to creation (Exodus 20) and liberation (Deuteronomy 5), the Lord’s Day celebrated resurrection and recreation. Resurrection means that the worst damage from the fall into sin has been addressed. It means that death no longer has the last word. It means that life has both meaning and future. It means that the way to fellowship with God and glory lie open before us. In short, the resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything.
For all of these reasons and more, God’s people chose the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection of Christ, as their special day. Little wonder that it also became the most fitting day for corporate worship. Little wonder too that it was soon regarded as the most appropriate day to reflect on all of God’s other mercies. In addition, it also turned into the day to recharge one’s physical and spiritual batteries.
Points of Agreement?
In light of all this, can we not agree at least on some basic points? What sort of points?
First is this: for all of God’s people the first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. In one sense all of the days of the week are days of service to the Lord. And yet there is a sense in which this day stands apart and is different. Indeed, the history of the church gives ample proof that Christians throughout the ages and around the world have recognized this fact.
Second is this: the first of the week is particularly the Lord’s Day. This means that it is not our day but it is his day. It belongs to Him in a special way. He has transformed it and He alone should be honoured on it by those who follow Him. In other words, it is not Terry Fox Day. It is not Man in Motion Fundraising Day. It is not Sun Run, Cancer Run, or Hospice Run Day. It not even Life Chain Day. It is the Day of Christ.
Third is this: the first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. This means that it is not his hour. Neither is it his morning. It is not even his morning and his afternoon. The entire day is his and should be spent in such a way that He stands in the centre of it.
Fourth is this: the first and foremost calling on this day is the calling to worship Him together as his people. Family time, leisure time, social time, community time – they should all take a backseat to corporate worship time.
Fifth is this: everything that detracts from this day and its promotion, be it work, commerce, industry, travel, and the like, is to be resisted and avoided. In the Old Testament there was a rather obvious reason as to why work was forbidden on the Sabbath day. Work crowds out worship. The hours that we spend at it, the time that we prepare for it and wind down from it, all mean that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for meaningful worship and meaningful work to share the same day. It is either one or the other. To try to incorporate and do justice to both is one of the most difficult balancing acts in the world.
Publicizing our Distinctiveness
From many pulpits, the biblical message rings out that God’s people have been made different and therefore are to be different from all the other peoples of the earth. They are to be a light in the world.
One way to highlight this difference is to take the Lord’s Day and to turn it into Christ’s special Day. Interestingly, in Old Testament times the Sabbath was to function as a beacon to foreigners (Isaiah 56:6). Would it thus not be fitting now for the Lord’s Day to function as an even better and brighter beacon to peoples everywhere?
Let it be a day driven by our Saviour’s resurrection triumph. In addition, let it be a day through which mankind receives a picture of how good it is to step off the treadmill of toil, materialism, and self-centredness, as well as to reconnect both with the Triune God and with true life in his creation.