In the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, the pastor of a thriving Southern Baptist church announced for his members to bring their boat trailers with them to early church on the way to the lake later that afternoon. Another pastor urges his members not to accept secular employment on Sundays and routinely implores them not to engage in secular entertainments on the Lord’s Day, such as watching Sunday afternoon ball games on television. A church across town hosted a Memorial Day Sunday evening outreach event in the commons area next to its storefront facility—the first Sunday evening program since the church was launched two years ago. A neighboring church has services every Sunday evening, a practice that extends back as long as anyone can remember.
Though Southern Baptists have a wide array of practices they view as acceptable for Lord’s Day activities, certain commonalities are clearly embraced. Article VIII (“The Lord’s Day”) of Southern Baptists’ confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), states:
The first day of the week is the Lord’s Day. It is a Christian institution for regular observance. It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should include exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private. Activities on the Lord’s Day should be commensurate with the Christian’s conscience under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
The Sabbath: A Gift from God
The sanctity of the Sabbath rest is grounded in the act of Creation. Genesis 2:1–3 indicates that following six days of creative activity, God Himself rested on the seventh day. Verse 3 states, God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, for on it He rested from His work of creation. From the dawn of Creation, God gave special attention to this day—blessing it and setting it apart—and in doing so, He established it as a reference point for all time.
For example, when the Lord led His people out of Egypt, he provided manna for them, which they gathered daily. But on the sixth day they were to gather enough for two days; they were to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:21–30).
When the Lord gave the Ten Commandments to Israel, He commanded them to set apart the Sabbath as holy since God rested on the seventh day of creation (Exodus 20:8–11). This emphasis on the Sabbath as a day of rest and a “sacred assembly” was reaffirmed in Leviticus 23:3.
Just before He led the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land, God reissued the fourth commandment, with the additional point that keeping the Sabbath should serve as a reminder of the Lord’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).
From these, we see God’s expectation for His covenant people Israel to set aside one day a week to rest. He obviously knew the human propensity for self-imposed exhaustion, and He set a boundary in place to prevent self-destruction.
We also see a pattern established for spiritual reflection—taking time to focus on the Lord and His gracious provision and deliverance from bondage.
In the commands regarding manna and the Sabbath we see a place for recognition—recognizing that our daily provision is from the Lord, not from the exhausting efforts, unrelenting expectations, or ingenious devices we can apply in our fast-paced 24/7 world.
By the time of Jesus, the rabbis had laden down the Law of God with the traditions of men. In the Gospel accounts of His ministry, Jesus routinely healed on the Sabbath, setting aside the legalistic stipulations the Pharisees had imposed upon God’s people and superimposed upon God’s commandment (Mark 3:1–5; Luke 13:10–17; 14:1–6; John 5:1–18; 9:9:1–41).
Jesus further neutralized the legalistic components of observing the Sabbath when He boldly declared, The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The many instances of healing on the Sabbath portray the Lord’s condemnation of legalism concerning the Sabbath. His declaration in Mark’s Gospel that the Sabbath was made for man reveals God’s gracious provision of a day of rest for the sake of His creation.
The Celebration of “the Lord’s Day”
The New Testament contains no record of Jesus or the Apostles transferring the Old Testament stipulations and expectations of the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. Yet, it is clear that the New Testament attaches a unique significance to the first day of the week.
• Each of the four Gospels specifies that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). Furthermore, Jesus’ first four appearances to His followers took place on that day (John. 20:11–18; Matthew 28:7–10; Luke 24:13–33; John 20:19–23).
• On the evening of His resurrection (Sunday evening), Jesus appeared to His disciples as they gathered; but Thomas was not present. The following Sunday, Jesus again appeared to His disciples; this time Thomas was present. On seeing Jesus, he worshiped, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:24–29).
• The pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) occurred on Sunday. In the book of Leviticus, the Lord had instructed the Jews to observe the festival of harvest (also called the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) the day after the seventh Sabbath (the fiftieth day) following Passover (Leviticus 23:15–16). The Lord chose this Sunday as the very day on which the Holy Spirit would fall upon His people, infilling them and empowering them for witness.
• In Paul’s visit to Troas (Acts 20:5–12), he was with the Christians there for one week. At the end of those seven days, they all gathered on Sunday evening for the breaking of bread and to hear instruction from Paul. It may be significant that there is no mention of the church gathering to worship until the first day of the week. Richard Longenecker viewed this as the first unambiguous example of Christians gathering on Sunday for worship and instruction.1
• Paul instructed the members of the church in Corinth to set aside a portion of their income on the first day of the week for an offering to be delivered to the saints in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:2–3). Some have suggested that this indicates an early pattern of Christians gathering on Sunday for worship.2
• The same instructions were given to the churches in Galatia, supporting the notion that the practice was apparently spreading (1 Corinthians 16:1). Paul’s command in verse 2 to “save” is from the word thesauros, which can refer to a treasure box or chest, or a storeroom.3 Some suggest this refers to a storage container a church might use to receive its weekly contributions.4
• By the time John was exiled to Patmos toward the end of the first century, the first day of the week was recognized as “the Lord’s Day,” signifying recognition that Sunday was no ordinary day (Revelation 1:10). Some even suggest that John’s reference to being “in the Spirit” on that day was a specific reference to worshipping God in a way that would be unique as opposed to worship on other days, though the passage does not give clear indication of such an understanding.5
While there is no Scriptural command to worship on Sunday, it is clear that Scripture highlights the significance of the Lord’s Day and that Christ’s followers, particularly by the end of the first century, attached special significance to the day in which their Lord was raised from the dead. Furthermore, there is considerable historical evidence that churches set aside the first day of the week to come together for worship and to receive instruction from God’s Word.
Even though the New Testament does not give specific instructions regarding keeping the Sabbath or observing of the Lord’s Day, there are several implications for Christians today.
1. The principle was established in Creation regarding the need for God’s people to set aside one day a week for rest, reflection, and recognition. This principle is not merely related to God’s instructions and laws for Israel; it is tied to Creation itself. In a culture and society where the insanity of a break-neck pace is more the norm than the exception, such a practice is vital for one’s health and wellbeing. Furthermore, churches need to see their pastors leading by example in this regard. Obviously, for most pastors Sunday is a work day, so steps must be taken to set aside another day as a day of rest—otherwise the pastor faces the very real prospect of exhaustion with resulting failure on multiple levels.
2. Scripture identifies Sunday as the Lord’s Day, giving the day of our Lord’s resurrection clear and distinct significance. At the very least, we should see the validity and value of recognizing that Sunday—that day on which our Lord miraculously and victoriously rose from the dead, securing our redemption and reconciliation, and restoring us to a right relationship with our Heavenly Father—is not just any ordinary day.
3. At the same time, Scripture does not identify Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath”; nor does it indicate that the Jewish requirements about the Sabbath should be imposed on the followers of Christ (see Acts 15). Therefore, it is neither necessary nor prudent to assign restrictions such as the Jews had imposed by the time of Christ, much less to attempt to hold our people to such requirements or restrictions. Some might counter that such requirements and restrictions are inferred, but it is precisely the elevation of perceived inferences that led the Pharisees to their legalistic conclusions. Neither does Scripture give specific commands regarding the observance of the Lord’s Day; therefore we should be very cautious about establishing requirements where God’s Word does not.
4. Scripture seems to indicate there was a common practice for the churches to gather on the Lord’s Day for breaking bread/sharing in communion and hearing the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Furthermore, history reports that early Christians commonly set Sunday aside for such activities.
5. There is no direct connection between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day in Scripture; but it is biblically consistent and appropriate that the Lord’s Day be the day set aside for rest, reflection (both corporate and individual), and recognition.
6. Finally, for most in our culture, Sunday—the Lord’s Day—is the ideal day to practice the principle of taking a Sabbath day for rest, worship, and acknowledging God’s sovereign rule over His creation. Many have two-day weekends. Western society has recognized Sunday as a common day of worship. It seems shortsighted not to make the most of the day in such a manner.
At some point in the past, Southern Baptists were possibly more uniform in their views on how the “Lord’s Day” should be observed. Many, if not most, churches conducted worship services and other activities for adults, youth, and children that stretched from early Sunday morning until late Sunday evening. But, a quick review of current trends reveals that Southern Baptists have widely divergent practices on such matters as when worship services are scheduled and what are viewed as appropriate activities on the Lord’s Day.
Messengers to the 2000 annual meeting of the SBC overwhelmingly adopted the wording in Article VIII in the BF&M, granting significant latitude to the individual believer in his or her practices for the Lord’s Day. When considering the span of historically orthodox interpretations among Southern Baptists concerning multiple doctrinal points addressed in the BF&M, there is much room for grace among the brethren as we deal with those differences.
At the end of the day, the watching world will more likely to be drawn by the Gospel when it observes us joyfully practicing our convictions regarding the Lord’s Day—celebrating the glorious reality of the resurrection on that day, with all of its power and accomplishments—than it will be by our passionate attempts to convince others of the rationale behind and justification of our specific practices on this special day.
1. Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981), p. 509.
2. W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, p. 292.
3. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, s.v. “Thesaurus” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 362.
4. G. Henry Waterman, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 964.
5. Ibid, p. 965.
John Revell is pastor of Stamford Baptist Church in Stamford, Connecticut.