Special Study Articles
Why We Gather on the First Day of the Week
Why We Gather on the First Day of the Week
Why do Christians come together every first day of the week? Is this just an arbitrary choice we have made, or is there something else special about it that we ought to recognize? Even if we recognize it as special, we still may think that it just seems like an arbitrary choice. Why not just do all of this on Saturday? Not that we cannot meet on a Saturday or any other day of the week, but that should never diminish, in our minds, the importance and significance of the first day of the week. Why?
What are some biblical considerations for recognizing the importance of this particular day?
1. Creation as background.
When we think about the importance of the first day of the week, we might think about some connections to the First Day and Creation. On the first day of creation, God said, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3-5). Light, throughout Scripture, is a manifestation of God’s glory. God dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:15-16), and in His presence, He is the illumination (Rev 22:5).
Next, the connection John makes to creation in John 1 is important. “In the beginning was the Word…” Jesus is the Word, the One through Whom all things were made: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). Jesus is the Light, and the connection between Jesus as the Light and the separation from darkness is vital:
“For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
In Him, Light is separated from darkness: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”(John 3:19-21).
Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (John 8:12).
The point is that Light is associated with the first day. The first day, from the beginning, celebrates the Light, and ultimately this points to the Light who has brought us out of darkness. To this we are called: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
2. Sabbath as background.
Creation begins our understanding of the importance of the “first day” concept, especially as it connects to light. At the end of the creation week, we find the concept of the Sabbath. Let’s think of this as background to our understanding, as well.
God was clear about certain days that He wanted His people to observe. By telling His people to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, He was spelling out that every Sabbath, every seventh day, would be a holy day for them on which they were to do no work. There was significance in this because the sabbath meant rest, and this was patterned after the creation week.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exod 20:8-11)
This was intended for the children of Israel because, as Deuteronomy 5:15 indicates, they were brought out of Egypt: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.”
A sabbath was also to be observed every seventh year, with the special observance of the jubilee every fiftieth year (Lev. 25). The land would receive its proper rest during this time. Land would be returned to the rightful families. Slaves would be set free. It was like a reset button to put everything back to its original status. “You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10).
The Sabbath represented freedom, rest, and holiness. While we are not given the Sabbath in the same exact way under Christ, and the first day is never called the “Christian’s sabbath,” the Sabbath still typologically represents the freedom and rest that we have in Christ. As Hebrews 4:8-11 tells us:
“For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.”
The Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ, and we still share the benefits and blessings of what the Sabbath was meant to be: freedom, rest, and holiness. As Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
The point is that when God chooses a particular day for something to be observed, then we need to see that there is a depth, a meaning involved that helps us appreciate all the more why He did this. The first day is not the Sabbath per se, but it points to the ultimate Sabbath, and, like the Sabbath, there is a depth of meaning and richness we ought to be thinking about.
3. Two great events help us to attach significance to the first day.
First, the Day of Christ’s Resurrection was the first day of the week. “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1).
This fact alone should make us think of the importance of this day as the Lord’s Day. This is one of the reasons we meet on this day to celebrate His death and resurrection. Jesus didn’t just die, and if that’s all that happened, we have no traction for our faith—just as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15. The first day of the week was the day that victory was declared, the devil was defeated, and God’s people arose from the dust of the slavery of sin and death.
In Psalm 2, the anointed king of Yahweh is brought forth as a response to those who wanted to cast off God’s fetters: “He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You” (vs. 7). Paul quotes this and applies it to the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 13:32-33: “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are MY Son; today I have begotten You.’”
The resurrection was God’s proclamation of victory, of Christ’s kingship over all. He “was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” and “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3-4). This proclamation was made on the first day of the week when our Lord arose.
This day, then, should remind us of the power of God, that “strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named” (Eph. 1:19-21). Though we remember His death, we also cannot think of His death without knowing that death wasn’t all there was. We do this “until He comes,” which tells us that He is alive, raised, and coming again.
As a pointer to the resurrection, the Feast of First fruits was also to be observed. Here is something else about the timing of the resurrection that contains great significance. Due to the time of the year and the connection to the Passover, the day of the resurrection of Jesus was also one of the Feast of First fruits (Lev. 23:9ff). The “the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest” was to be waved before the Lord the day after the Passover Sabbath. This was to be done when they entered the land and they begin to reap the first fruits of the harvest. This would demonstrate their reliance on God who brought them into the land and show their thankfulness.
Paul references this in speaking about the resurrection Christ: “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). Paul also said that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7). Notice the typology appealed to here based on the timing of the events—Christ is sacrificed as our Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world, and raised up as first fruits to God.
That first harvest was an indicator of a greater harvest yet to come (the Feast of Weeks). In our case, Christ as our first fruits is the guarantee of the greater harvest of God’s people who would also be raised from the dead. This is the argument Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 15. Because Christ was raised, we will be raised.
When we gather on the first day of the week, we ought to think of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we ought to think of the first fruits harvest. Consequently, we are offering up to God our sacrifice of praise, showing our faith that we, too, will follow in the resurrection of our Lord.
Second, the Day of Pentecost occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 2). If we keep reading in Leviticus 23, we’ll find that Pentecost would occur 50 days after the Passover Sabbath, which again puts us right on the first day of the week. This was also known as the Feast of Weeks, and is also referred to as a “day of the first fruits” (Num 28:26). That connects it back to the earlier feast.
Here was another harvest, a new grain offering, the fruit of what was expected from the feast of first fruits (Lev 23:15-16). The day of Pentecost was important because it represented the full harvest of what they were reaping in the land. Pentecost was anticipated by the feast of first fruits because it represented the fulfillment of what was started all those weeks earlier. It, too, was a day of rest.
Now we come to the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament. Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7). He was buried and raised up on the first day of the week as first fruits at the time of the feast of first fruits—this becoming our guarantee that we, too, will be raised.
Acts 2 tells us what happened on the Day of Pentecost. It is not accidental that this was the day God chose to impart His Holy Spirit on the apostles, so that they would speak in tongues and proclaim the gospel—the kingdom of God with Christ having been raised to sit on the throne of David. People were touched by this message and asked, “What shall we do?” to which Peter replied:
“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
The narrative continues: “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (vv. 40-42)
Notice especially this: “…and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). Here was the real harvest of God as souls are brought forth into a new life, raised up with Christ in baptism with a view toward the final resurrection day. This was the first day of the week in which a recognition of the harvest of God due to Christ’s resurrection would come to fruition. This is what God planned all along. It’s a beautiful picture of fulfillment and power.
Now notice something else based on this: from this point they were devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). This was the first day that the Lord’s Supper was taken in fellowship together. Remember that Jesus had said of the cup, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matt 26:27-29)
That kingdom came to fruition on the day of Pentecost, that first day of the week, and Christ partook in fellowship with His new creation. They were then to continue partaking of His body and blood.
4. Churches regularly met on the first day of the week.
For the notable reasons above, churches met on the first day of the week to observe the great memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s when God’s people met. Acts 20:7 tells us, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” Paul and other disciples had gone to Troas, and they specifically stayed seven days (Acts 20:6), apparently in order to meet with those brethren on the first day of the week and join in that fellowship.
That idea of waiting seven days is not without significance. They were waiting for a particular day of the week before they left. This, then, we may find interesting in a couple other passages in Acts. When they arrived at Tyre, Luke writes, “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days” (Acts 21:4). Then, as Paul was headed to Rome, again Luke writes, “There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome” (Acts 28:14).
While these two texts only mention “seven days,” we ask why that is. Why that specificity? Why else was Paul waiting for that specified period of time? In Acts 20, that same time-frame was used in order to show they met on the first day of the week. In these other two passages, that same reason stands out as a strong, viable possibility. Given the significance of that day mentioned elsewhere, we are not far-fetched to suggest this was one of the reasons they stayed for that time. There may be more.
Add to this Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth. Here, we start with 1 Corinthians 16:1-2: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.”
Paul was instructing them to do something on the first day of the week. Why would he do this? He was not telling them that they needed to start meeting on the first day of the week. Rather, he was telling them to do something on that day because it was recognized that this was the day they were regularly coming together. Meeting on the first day wasn’t a new instruction. This was the day on which they were already regularly meeting. Is this a mere coincidence to the rest of our evidence? Hardly.
Further, Paul pointed out that this was something He had ordered for multiple churches in Galatia. These were not isolated instructions. This shows, again, that this was the regular meeting day for all the churches. Then, as we back up in 1 Corinthians, we find Paul giving instructions about the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11. Here are a couple matters to notice for our present purposes:
First, Paul had just quoted Jesus’ own instructions. Keep in mind that those instructions, while not quoted here by Paul, still included the fact that Jesus would take the Supper with His disciples when the kingdom had come. It did on the day of Pentecost, and now disciples were regularly doing this on the first day of the week.
Second, that there was regularity to this is seen in verse 26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” “As often as” signals that they repeated this regularly. Keep in mind that we know their regular day of coming together was the first day of the week, so it no stretch to see that they regularly took the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week when they normally met.
To help us see that this was the norm, let’s call to witness some of the ancient writers. We ought to note, here, that the ancient writers did refer to the first day of the week as “the Lord’s Day,” which is the phrase used by John in Revelation 1:10. While some disagree about this, it is generally understood that the Lord’s Day is the first day. So, for example, in the Didache of the 2nd century:
“But every Lord’s Day, gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, so that your sacrifice may be pure” (Bercot 405).
Ignatius, in the early 2nd century, wrote, “No longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day” (Bercot 405).
Justin Martyr, also in the 2nd century, wrote, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read … but Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God … made the world. And Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on that same day.” (Bercot 405-406)
Tertullian, in the late 2nd century, wrote, “We devote Sunday to rejoicing for a far different reason than sun worship.” Some had assumed that because Christians met on Sunday that they were worshippers of the sun, which was flatly denied of course. Christians worship the Son of God, not the sun in the sky.
Other witnesses of the first few centuries testify to the same—the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, was their regular day of gathering together and celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Several mention specifically that this was connected to the day that Christ rose.
5. Why do we meet on the first day of the week?
We meet on the first day of the week for the same reasons the early disciples did. It’s what God shows as His will. We need to think about the deeper connections. What does the First Day represent?
- God shows He wants it. If we love God and want to please Him, won’t we want to meet on this day?
- The Light came into the world (Creation—>Christ). What a fitting day on which we, the new creation, recognize the power of the Word, the Light of the world, who brought us life and light.
- The death and resurrection of Christ (celebrated in the Lord’s Supper)
- First fruits, Harvest
- Resurrection, new life, salvation, victory
- God’s promises and care for His people
- Power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost)
- Ushering in the Kingdom
Interestingly, there is a marked absence of an emphasis on any other day of the week by name in terms of the importance for Christians (e.g., “Monday” is nowhere given the same significance). The Sabbath retained its importance among the Jews, and so there is still something there (though we should now see its typological significance), but the first day is clearly emphasized for Christians.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christianity is confined to the first day of the week. Far from it. Yet let us never allow the first day of the week to lose its significance as God’s memorial for us.
Here we are, on the first day of the week, carrying on what the apostles instructed, striving to honor the significance of the resurrection Lord and Savior.
Bercot David. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.