by Jeremy Fuller
In the final book of the New Testament, John uses a powerful phrase that is not employed anywhere else in the Bible. It is nowhere in the Gospels. It is nowhere in the Acts or Epistles. And yet John uses the expression without definition, which implies that first century pastors and Christians were so familiar with the idiom that it needed no explanation. He wrote, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10).
Adam Clarke produced a Bible commentary over a period of forty years that would serve as a primary theological resource for more than two centuries. He identified the Lord’s Day as “the first day of the week, observed as the Christian Sabbath, because on it Jesus Christ rose from the dead; therefore, it was called the Lord’s day, and has taken place of the Jewish sabbath throughout the Christian world.”
The First Day of the Week
It is certain from a careful study of the New Testament that the early church had a sanctified reverence for the “first day of the week”:
“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread [worship and the sacraments], Paul preached unto them [edification and evangelism], ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” (Acts 20:7)
“Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store [the practice of receiving offerings for the propagation of the gospel ministry], as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.” (1 Corinthians 16:2)
The first day of the week is observed as the Christian Sabbath, because on it Jesus Christ rose from the dead; therefore, it was called the Lord’s day.
As Christians committed to loving Jesus and keeping His commandments, we acknowledge that the moral law (the Ten Commandments) was not annulled by Christ’s coming. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matthew 5:17). The Greek word translated as “fulfill” means to complete or perfect. In coming to this world, Jesus Christ completed and perfected the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). He may have adjusted the day and amended the name, but He did not alter the intended purpose for such a day.
And so, the question remains. If these things be true, “What should I do about Sunday?” We must look to Jesus’ example. If we can discern what He did about the Jewish Sabbath, we will know what to do about Sunday.
Volumes could be written on the subject. I offer three simple principles by which to govern Christian living in these modern times. On Sunday believers are to rest from their normal course of labor and industry as the Jews were from theirs but are permitted to do (1) acts of worship, (2) acts of mercy, and (3) acts of necessity.
Conduct or activity that does not fall within the realm of these three Scriptural guidelines is a desecration of the Lord’s Day, which was forever sanctified by His resurrection from the dead.
Acts of Worship
The strongest case for this point has already been made. John was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day. Saint Paul preached on the Lord’s Day. The Corinthians were to gather their tithes and offerings on the Lord’s Day. This was all sacred activity—acts of worship—and in no way made the day unholy. So, we may blamelessly participate in any work that is in keeping with the divinely intended purpose for a Sabbath Rest!
This is not a departure from Old Testament teaching. As Jesus said in Matthew 12:5, “Have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?” Moses permitted the Levites to do things in the Temple that were not permitted for the Israelites to do in their homes.
The Fourth Commandment does not just involve prohibitions. The Old Testament Jews were to make it a “holy” day, and we should too. It’s possible to observe the first part of the verse (Remember the Sabbath) and to neglect the last part (to keep it holy). There are two ways to sin. You may remember the Sabbath by resting from all your daily labor and, thus, not commit any trespass against the Lord; however, if you fail to understand the Sabbath's holy purpose and neglect to do the things you should do on that day, you sin by omission (James 4:17).
God knows our bodies regularly need rest, but He also knows we need the discipline of spiritual renewal. To properly observe the Lord’s Day, we must not disregard either aspect of our holy obligation.
Acts of Mercy
In the twelfth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus performed a miracle for a man who suffered from a withered hand. This was done in direct defiance of the prevailing "Sabbath Rules" of His day. By doing so, Jesus intended to correct and purify theirs concepts and ours of how to keep the Sabbath Holy. He gave a beautiful illustration just before He exercised His miraculous power, designed to appeal to their sense of mercy.
“And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.” (Matthew 12:11-12)
There are legitimate emergency situations that we, as Christians, sometimes face on Sunday. We are not to be governed by the letter of the law but by its spirit. While we should guard against justifying careless living, we should also refuse to be bound by an irrational strictness on the subject. Jesus teaches us that our love of mercy should be our guide.
Acts of Necessity
In the first part of Matthew 12, we read that Jesus went through a field of corn on the Sabbath day. His disciples were hungry. Perhaps surprisingly to some, He permitted them to “pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.” Again, this was specifically prohibited by the Pharisees in their interpretation of the Law; the “sabbath theology” of the day didn’t allow for it.
Jesus responded to their unholy indictment with a passage from the Old Testament: “But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?” (1 Samuel 21:3-4)
In other words, there may be times because of our circumstances when something is not lawful, but it is legal because it is necessary. Growing up on a farm, I learned early that the cows needed to be milked on Sunday as much as they did the day before. Sometimes our sows would give birth to their litters on the Lord’s Day; this usually required additional labor, but it was necessary. We did not ignore the providential course of our obligations.
I appreciate how Jesus further vindicates His disciples by resorting to the refuge found in Scripture. In this case, the prophet Hosea spoke to the subject: “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.” (Hosea 6:7-8)
God Takes His Day Seriously
God was serious about Sabbath desecration in Old Covenant times and is no less serious today. For forty years, the children of Israel were miraculously sustained by manna from heaven. It came daily, except on the day before the Sabbath; on that day, twice as much fell and twice as much was to be gathered.
There were three different miracles performed in the manna. Not only was it a miracle that it was falling daily in accordance with their need, but, secondly, it was miraculous that God would send twice as much on the day before the Sabbath. The third miracle involved the supernatural preservation of it on the Jewish Sabbath. On all the other days of the week, they were commanded to gather only as much as they would eat. It couldn’t be stored. It would get wormy and rancid.
On the day before the Sabbath, God would season it with His divine power. Not only would the worms unexplainably stay out of it, but it would inexplicably not stink. They could eat it, enjoy it, and not get sick — and so they did it for forty years.
God Honors Those Who Honor The Lord’s Day
With great delight, I have observed that when men and movements honor the Lord’s Day, strange things happen. When businessmen like the CEOs of Hobby Lobby and Chic-fil-A close their establishments on the Lord’s Day, miracles happen.
The average fast food restaurant in America grosses $800,000 in annual revenue. McDonald's is above average — that is no surprise. The Golden Arches does 2.6 million dollars on average in their individual stores. McDonalds are open on Sundays and many for 24-hours-a-day.
You would expect that with 52 fewer days per year to compete, Chick-fil-A would underperform. After all, there are no Chick-fil-A restaurants open 24-hours-a-day. In fact, this famous Chicken Sandwich restaurant that religiously closes shop every single Sunday of the year does on average 4 million dollars per year.
Is there a rational explanation? Is there a science that can explain it? I’ll leave these questions for others. I’m satisfied with the Miracle in the Manna. God does special things for people who honor the Lord’s Day!
Read also My Boss Asked Me to Work on Sundays, What Should I Do? by Nathan Purdy
Andrews, Andy. The Little Things: Why You Really Should Sweat the Small Stuff. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017).