This article shows that Christians are called to keep the first day of the week as a Sabbath. It explains that keeping the Lord’s Day has great benefit as it encourages proper recognition of God, encourages man's relationship with Christ, provides rest from weekly toil, and points us forward to the heavenly rest.

Source: Witness, 2011. 4 pages.

Why Keep the Lord's Day?


There was a day in this country when the Sabbath — or Lord’s day — was carefully observed. There is a sense in which the Christian Sabbath is a ‘test case’. For whom or what? It is a test case for a nation and a church and an individual — of the presence of a vital Christianity. Of course a perfectly quiet Sabbath does not mean that there is necessarily a vital spiritual Christianity. Yet a vital Christianity will surely be found when people do have positive attitudes to the Christian Sabbath and its observance. True, it will not do to be ‘Christian’ the first day of the week, and ‘secular’ the other days. Christian faith and life are to be reflected in every aspect and area of life. This much is implicit in the fourth commandment, which of course is not just about the Sabbath, but all our time. One well-known preacher of an earlier day said this about the Christian’s day of rest and worship: ‘It is an infallible sign of the state of true religion in a land, in a church, in a family, and in a man’s own heart and life ... it is the sign of a standing or falling church. There is perhaps no surer sign of a falling Christian than a growing neglect of Sabbath-day ordinances, and an indolent and profane abuse of its sacred and priceless hours’ (Alexander Whyte). By this standard the state of true religion in our land is low. In that sense the Sabbath and its observance is an indicator and symptom of a malaise. It has clearly been a ploy of the evil one in his attack on Christianity to loosen regard for the Christian Sabbath and its proper observance, not least among professing Christians. In this no doubt Television has had a profound effect, as it has on all public and private morality. Firstly, let us notice two things in approaching the fourth commandment:

  1. It is stated positively. In the common mind the Sabbath or Lord’s day observance has negative connotations. No doubt there are negative requirements to all the commandments: ‘Thou shalt not...’ This is inevitable in a fallen world. But the Sabbath in essence is not just ‘abstention’ from this or that. Rather, for the believer it is a ‘market day of the soul’ as the Puritans used to put it. Rest is of course important, but the best use of the day is made in what you do for your soul on that day.
  2. ‘Sabbath’ does not mean ‘seventh’. It means, literally, ‘rest’. In other words it is not a necessity of the nature of the Sabbath that it is the ‘seventh day of the week’. It will be argued that the change of day to the first day of the week was necessary through the coming and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ and of the coming of the Holy Spirit which marked the birth of the distinctively Christian church. The Sabbath is not distinctly and only ‘Jewish’. It is good for us to look at this commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) again and restate its meaning and application, not least in a New Testament context.
  1. What are the obligations attached to Sabbath observance?🔗

As we look at the commandment the obligation is clear: One whole day in seven is to be specially given over to the Lord in rest and in worship (albeit also in such works as may be works of necessity, mercy and piety). This is clear from the form of the commandment in Exodus 20:8-11. Its permanence and morality are established by the linking of the Sabbath with the pattern of the creation week. It is a ‘creation ordinance’. Given its institution before the fall of man into sin, as well as its inclusion in the moral law, it is clear that this is an ordinance for man’s good. It was not just ‘Jewish’, nor was it just ‘ceremonial’. It is distinctly moral, and therefore of permanent application. Of course there were ceremonial aspects and no doubt such aspects are referred to, for example, in Colossians 2:16.

To summarise, it is clear that the law contained in this commandment is moral and permanent for these reasons:

  1. The day of rest was instituted at creation before man’s fall into sin;
  2. The arguments in the 4th Commandment are moral and not ceremonial (both in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5);
  3. The other commandments in the Decalogue are certainly moral and the 4th cannot be different;
  4. The Sabbath was to be kept by ‘strangers’ also (see Nehemiah 13) though they had no obligations under the ceremonial law; and finally,
  5. The commandment is not abrogated in the New Testament.

The encouragement to ‘remember’ the Sabbath indicates that it must have been established before the law, something that the pattern of manna gathering in Exodus 16 clearly indicates. The obligations are moral and spiritual.

  1. What day is to be observed?🔗

The Sabbath clearly demarcated man’s weeks, something not astronomically fixed (unlike days and years). The principle of the Sabbath is that one day in seven is to be specially observed by all people in honour to God and in the interests of their souls. But what day of the week is to be the Sabbath? Some say, ‘It should be the seventh day of the week. That is what it appears to be in the Old Testament’. How is it that we have a first-day Sabbath, and is that of any real importance? Let me summarise the arguments for our observing of the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day on the first day of the week.

  1. There is the use of the term ‘Lord’s day’ in Revelation 1:10. This is at least highly suggestive, taken along with other arguments. It seems clear that this refers to the day of Christian worship. Why should that term ‘Lord’s day’ be used? It is argued that this fits well with that greatest of days for the Christian, which to the New Testament believer is surely the day of resurrection. It is by the resurrection of the Lord after all that we know that our faith is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)! And the resurrection was on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). It is little wonder that this became the new Sabbath for the Christian church; indeed in a real sense it became a necessity that it should be so. It is inevitable that the Christian’s Sabbath would commemorate His triumphal rising from the dead.
  2. There are numerous indicators that the first day of the week was specially observed in the church. For example, there are the meetings of Jesus with the disciples after His resurrection, both on the first day of the week (John 20:19,26); there is the incident in Acts 20 when Paul ‘breaks bread’ and preaches (v 7), and the taking up of collections specified in 1 Corinthians 16:2. The references to such ‘first day’ religious activities are at least strongly suggestive of a change of day.
  3. There is the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. This was seven weeks to the day after the rising of Jesus from the dead and again therefore on the first day of the week. It is not surprising that that event which was in effect the birthdate of the Christian church should also be significant as the apostolic day of gathering and worship. It stands to reason, therefore, that the Christian’s Sabbath would be the first day of the week, seeing Christ triumphed over death on that day, and the Spirit came to give special life to the church on that day.

What is to be in our hearts with reference to the first-day Christian Sabbath? We assume that the Sabbath commandment is of permanent obligation. This is not to promote legalism. It is clear that keeping this commandment, or any of the commandments, saves no one. The letter to the Galatians, for example, establishes this decisively. But one of the uses of the moral law is that it is God’s prescribed way of life for mankind. Certainly the spiritual person will love the law of God after the inward man (Romans 7:22).The believer will show love and loyalty to their Lord by his or her regard for the moral law in their lives. The proper observance of the Lord’s day, our Sunday, is summed up as rest and worship. It is to be remembered, and it is to be kept holy. This day provides an opportunity for giving ourselves as far as possible to the concerns of our souls, as well as not giving ourselves as much as possible to what can very well be done on other days (eg daily work, sports and recreations, entertainments, chores, unnecessary travel). The believer should think in positive terms of the benefits it affords when properly used to advance the life of God in the soul. They will say to themselves: ‘How can I make the best use of this day to advance spiritual religion in my life?’ ‘How can I advance my understanding of the Word of God?’ There will be as far as possible a laying aside of normal duties, except such as are merciful and necessary.

It is sad that professing Christians and churches are not more concerned with the use of the Lord’s day. After all, this is not a notable age for piety. It appears to be a day in which there is a low ebb spiritually. This seems all the more reason to emphasise the spiritual benefits of the Lord’s day rather than argue against it! Let it be a day in which the people of God give attention to their souls; in which they attend the ordinances; in which they meditate on the Word; in which they pray and humble themselves before the Lord. Let it be a day of joy and gladness; a day for the Lord. Let us be clear too, that it is a day for all to keep. I know one cannot force people to observe the day. But people can be encouraged to rest and worship, and give time to their families on Sundays, and be shown by faithful believers how it can be used. Professing Christians need to be bold today, like Nehemiah in his day (13:15-18). Let the right impression be given, that this is a jewel of days, a treasure, for the individual and for the family and for the nation — and of course the church. Who is so advanced in the ways of the Lord that they can do without the Sabbath in whole or in part? Let the church and the Christian seek to limit the intrusion of distractions such as the media, and let them have a heart for this ‘market day of the soul’.

What is the practical significance of Lord’s Day observance?🔗

  1. It encourages a proper recognition of God and His claims upon us, especially in relation to our use of time. It is a day which used aright will keep a society from the corrupt influence of complete secularism.
  2. It encourages man’s relationship with Christ. For it gives opportunity for worship in private and public not found so directly on other days.
  3. It provides rest from weekly toil even for people who are aged or retired. And the first-day Sabbath emphasises the priority of the heavenly over the earthly (important as the earthly has its place in terms of the 4th commandment).
  4. It is an index of the state of a person’s soul. The Sabbath is respected and observed by lively Christians. ‘There is no surer sign’, says one writer, ‘that a young man (or older person) is declining from faith and personal religion when he (or she) begins to find his own pleasure and do his own way on the Lord’s holy day’ (Alexander Whyte).
  5. Finally, it points people forward to heavenly rest. It will be — ought to be — treated as a foretaste of heaven. This is basically the perspective of Hebrews 4 (‘There remains a keeping of the Sabbath to the people of God’). Yes, an eternal Sabbath ‘Where congregations ne’er break up, and Sabbaths never end’. And here the question may legitimately be asked: if we have little or no appetite for our earthly Sabbath, what real taste can there be for the Heavenly state? If we find the Christian Sabbath drags, as the traders did in Amos’s day (8:5-6) or in Nehemiah’s day (13:20ff), then we should look to our souls and seek the Lord. But someone may say, ‘I do my very best to keep the Lord’s day — I always have, and I deplore all the changes in attitudes to this day’. We should not imagine, however, that Sabbath keeping will save one’s soul. It may be possible to be as careful as any human being might be in outwardly observing the Lord’s day and yet be a stranger to God and to grace. The first priority is the one thing needful — having Christ in the heart by faith. It is not of course either/or but both/and. We close with the moving words of Robert Murray McCheyne from his tract, ‘I love the Lord’s day’:

‘When a believer lays aside his pen or loom, brushes aside his worldly cares, leaving them behind him, with his week­day clothes, and comes up to the house of God, it is like the morning of the resurrection, the day when we shall come out of great tribulation into the presence of God and the Lamb. When he sits under the preached word, and hears the voice of the shepherd leading and feeding his soul, it reminds him of the day when the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall feed him and lead him to living fountains of waters. When he joins in the Psalm of praise, it reminds him of the day when his hands shall strike the harp of God.

‘When he retires, and meets with God in secret in his closet, or, like Isaac, in some favourite spot near his dwelling, it reminds him of the day when “he shall be a pillar in the house of our God, and go no more out”.

‘This is the reason why we love the Lord’s day. This is the reason why we “call the Sabbath a delight”. A well-spent Sabbath we feel to be a day of heaven upon earth; for this reason we wish our Sabbaths to be wholly given to God. We love to spend the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is taken up in the works of necessity and mercy. We love to rise early on that morning, and to sit up late, that we may have a long day with God. How many may know from this that they will never be in heaven! A straw on the surface can tell which way the stream is flowing’.

This is a spirit and attitude which surely needs to be recovered in our churches, and amongst professing Christians today.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.