Article VIII of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000: The Lord’s Day

Following is another in a series of columns on the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

The earliest Christians shifted their day of observance from Saturday to Sunday because Christ appeared to his disciples on the first day of the week.

Article VIII of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 reads:

“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 designation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day is rooted in Scripture and in Christian tradition dating back to the days of the apostles. For example, Luke records that the apostle Paul and the disciples gathered in Troas for the breaking of bread and preaching on “the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7).

However, since a Jewish day begins at sundown, worship in Troas took place on Saturday night as Westerners reckon time. It helps us empathize with the sleepy-headed Eutychus, who wearied of Paul’s preaching and fell to his death from a third-story window, necessitating a miracle to restore his life (Acts 20:8-12).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see followers of Jesus gathering for worship on the first day of the week, which came to be known as the Lord’s Day (1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). For Israelites, this could be any time from sundown on Saturday to sundown on Sunday.

No doubt, worship began to shift from the Sabbath (Saturday) to the first day of the week in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection. The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples on the evening of the first day of the week (John 20:19). The celebration of Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, and death on that day became the hallmark of Christian worship, but not immediately.

As David Schrock points out in 7 Things You Should Know About the Lord’s Day, “It’s worth remembering how easily we can superimpose our church traditions on Scripture. We do well to learn what the early church actually practiced. In the earliest days, worship consisted of Sabbath-keeping and resurrection-celebrating on two different days. In time, the former decreased and the latter persisted.”

In his book, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, Justo Gonzalez lists three theological reasons for worship on Sunday:

First, Sunday observance of the Lord’s Day points to the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian faith. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

Second, Sunday is the first day of a new creation. As Paul identifies believers as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), so the first day after the Sabbath would, according to Genesis, have been a day of new creation.

Third, Sunday is the “eighth day,” a day related both to circumcision and also “the final day of eternal rest and joy.” 

Gonzalez also points out that the Lord’s Day was not universally observed as a “day of rest” until Christendom reshaped commerce under Constantine in the fourth century.

Christians have debated – and continue to debate – the proper day for corporate worship. The Fourth Commandment is clear: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exod. 20:8). Jewish people have considered Saturday the Sabbath from Old Testament times. This raises an important question: Is the Sabbath the Lord’s Day?

Some groups, such as Seventh-Day Adventists, believe Christians should gather on the last day of the week – Saturday – in keeping with the Old Testament command. In their view, the church should follow the pattern of the Jewish people.

But as Charles Kelley and others point out in their study of The Baptist Faith & Message, this understanding raises at least two problems. The first is biblical: “We have ample reason to believe that the earliest Christians shifted their day of observance from Saturday to Sunday because Christ appeared to His disciples on the first day of the week.”

The second problem with interpreting the Lord’s Day as Saturday is the practice and tradition of the church, writes Kelley: “It is absolutely clear that from the earliest days of the church, Christians gathered on Sunday rather than on Saturday.”

Additional debates arise over acceptable activities on the Lord’s Day. This goes all the way back to the time of the apostles (see Rom. 14:5-6), when the Jewish authorities heaped so many manmade restrictions on people that the Sabbath became a burden. Jesus addresses this when he tells the religious leaders, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

In a similar way, Christians today – with good intentions – may be tempted to twist the Lord’s Day into acts of legalism. This misses the point of the Lord’s Day, which is to be a day of joy and peace. Certainly, Christians should order their lives so that the priority of the Lord’s Day is corporate worship. This involves songs and hymns, Scripture reading, prayer, and the study of God’s Word (Col. 3:16). It also includes private acts of devotion such as Bible reading, prayer, and acts of Christian service (2 Cor. 8:1-3; 1 Thess. 5:12, 17; 2 Tim. 3:16; Jas 1:27).

Last, whether one engages in corporate worship in Saturday, Sunday, or another day of the week, the focus should be on celebrating the finished work of the resurrected Christ. The specific day devoted to worship may be one of the “disputed matters” Paul addresses in Romans 14.

Next: Article IX of the BF&M: The Kingdom

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