Is There a “Lord’s Day”?
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Verse 5 raises the larger question of the biblical understanding of the Lord’s Day. Paul says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Does this mean that the strong Christian does not regard one day in seven as set apart by God from the others for corporate worship and acts that consecrate the day as the Lord’s day? Does only the weak Christian feel obliged to sanctify one day as special for the Lord? Is he saying that it doesn’t matter if you set aside one day or not as long as your choice is motivated by the glory of God?
To answer this I want us to step back from the text and look at the larger biblical picture of the Lord’s Day. This will be brief and compact in outline form that would take a book to fill out (see D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation [Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000]; Joseph Pipa, The Lord’s Day [Christian Publications, 1997]; Paul K. Jewett, The Lord’s Day [Eerdmans, 1971]).
The Creation Week
Start with this observation. The week exists. That is not to be taken for granted. Days exist because that’s how long it takes the earth to rotate. Months exist because that’s how long it takes the moon to wax and wane. Years exist because that’s how long it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun. But why do weeks exist? They do not correspond to any phenomenon in nature. The answer is: the week exists because of Genesis 2:2, “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911, article on “Week”) says, “Those who reject the Mosaic recital will be at a loss, as . . . to assign it [the week] to an origin having much semblance of probability.” In other words, other attempts to explain why we reckon time in weeks are not compelling. The week goes back to the story of creation in the Bible. God worked six days and rested on the seventh. That set the pattern of the week.
The Ten Commandments
Then in the ten commandments the link is made to the Sabbath, the day of rest. Exodus 20:8-11:
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 to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, . . . For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Jesus’ Teaching on the Sabbath
When Jesus came into the world as the Messiah and the Son of God and the fulfillment of all that the law and prophets taught, he collided with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. This is a huge issue in all four gospels. John 5:18 says, “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” It was a huge issue, all tied up with his divine claims, and Jesus said some radical things that shape the way we should think about our celebration of the Lord’s day. Let’s read Matthew 12:1-14.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? [At this point in the same story Mark 2:27 records, “And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”] Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” - so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Consider three observations and five things Jesus says:
Observation #1. When the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of law-breaking (in verse 2) because they picked grain and ate it, Jesus did not even attempt to argue that picking grain and eating it was not Sabbath breaking. In fact, the way he answered them virtually assumed that it was against the law.
Observation #2. In verses 3-4 he refers to King David and his men taking bread from the house of God that was not lawful for them to eat, and in verse 5 he refers to priests who work on the Sabbath and profane it. In other words, the needs of David’s men and the needs of the temple service took precedence over ceremonial bread and Sabbath rules.
Observation #3. Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath knowing his enemies are trying to trap him. He intentionally provokes the controversy.
Jesus makes five statements to explain what he is doing.
Statement #1. Verse 6: “Something greater than the temple is here.” And by implication: Something greater than David is here. So David and his men, and the priests who serve the temple are innocent, then all the more so are my disciples. I am greater than David and the temple.
Statement #2. Verse 8: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” In other words, I am not just a greater king, than David. I am the maker, owner, and rule-giver for the Sabbath. It’s mine.
Statement #3. Verse 7: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” This quote from Hosea 6:6 means that love takes precedence over ceremonial laws. So go learn how the Old Testament itself gives guidelines for how to use the law lovingly.
Statement #4. Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This is another way of saying that doing good for people is not against the Sabbath even if it takes the sweat of your face to pull a man out of a pit. Which is then expressed explicitly in...
Statement #5. Verse 12: “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
The upshot of all this is not that there is no special day for the followers of Christ but that there is certainly a new kind of freedom and a new criterion for what is permissible (foreseen in Hosea 6:6). Jesus did not try to settle whether his disciples’ behavior fit the mold of the law. He put the issue on a new plane: The Sabbath is for expressing Jesus’ rule and authority, not Moses’—it is for worshipping Christ. The Sabbath is for relieving man, not burdening him. The Sabbath is for showing mercy and doing good.
Now consider John 5:16-17. Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath and told him in John 5:8, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” This got the man in big trouble for carrying his bed on the Sabbath. In John 5:16 John writes, “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.” To this, it says (in verse 17), “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’”
What does this mean? I think it means this: When Adam fell into sin, God got up from his Sabbath rest after creation, and started to work again—not this time on creation, but on redemption—toward a new creation. A new humanity. “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” You do not understand what I am doing. I and my Father are creating a new world, a new humanity, and when we are finished, we will celebrate with a new Sabbath.
And that work of redemption and new creation was finished decisively on the cross. And three days later Jesus rose from the dead to celebrate the victory he had won and the new creation he had decisively obtained and inaugurated. Now he could take his seat with his Father on the throne of the universe and enter his Sabbath rest.
The Early Church and the First Day of the Week
This is why the early church took the first day of the week as its day of worship and turned away from the seventh day. The seventh day marked the victory of the first creation. The first day marked the victory of the new creation with the resurrection of Christ. And here are some of the clues:
In all four gospels a very unusual way of expressing the first day of the week is used to describe the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s usually translated “On the first day of the week” (John 20:1 and Luke 24:1, Mark 16:2, Të de mia tön sabbatön, or Matthew 28:1, eis mian sabbatön). Literally it would read, “the number one of the Sabbath.” That is, “the day which is number one in the sequence of days determined by the Sabbath” (Jewett, The Lord’s Day, p. 75). Words for “first” occur over 150 times in the New Testament. And only in reference to the day of the resurrection do we get this unusual usage.
Why is that significant? It’s significant because there are only two places outside the gospels where the writers refer to the first day of the week as special for the church, and in those two places this peculiar usage occurs. Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week (En de të mia tön sabbatön), when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day.” 1 Corinthians 16:2, “On the first day of every week (kata mian sabbatou), each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
This is simply astonishing from a statistical standpoint. 150+ uses of words for “first” (even “first day” when not referring to the first day of the week Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Acts 20 :18; Philippians 1:5) and only in reference to the first day of the week as the Christian gathering-day is there the identical and rare construction used to describe when Jesus rose from the dead.
The point is that the Christian church made the change from the seventh to the first day for worship because it was the day that the Lord Jesus rose from the dead—the day he vindicated the completion of his Father’s redeeming work. The new creation, the new humanity, were purchased and established—but not consummated.
Christ Is Our Final Sabbath Rest
So the final, eternal, blood-bought Sabbath rest has begun. We enter into it when we cease from our works and trust Christ and his finished work for us on the cross. This is the great and final meaning of the Sabbath. Christ has become our rest, our Sabbath. This is what Hebrews 4:9-10 is saying, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Past tense. We have entered. But then the writer adds in verse 11: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.” In other words, we have entered it, and we must yet enter it. Redemption is accomplished. It must now be applied and consummated. Our eternal Sabbath is begun but is not fully present.
This is probably why the early church did not abandon the celebration of one day in seven as a day belonging especially to the Lord. In Revelation 1:10 it is called “the Lord’s Day.”I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” They knew that the final rest was still future. A day was still needed to bear witness to a self-reliant, self-sufficient world that our work does not save us or define us, Christ does.
What did Paul mean then, when he wrote to the Colossians (in 2:16-17), “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ”? I think he meant: Christ himself is our final Sabbath rest. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Christ has come and purchased our rest, and becomes our resting place. The burden of saving ourselves is lifted. There is rest for our souls.
But the shadow remains because Christ has not yet returned. Someday there will be no more weeks because there will be no more night or month or years. The Sun and the moon will not be needed, because “the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5). There will be only Sabbath and no other day.
But not yet. We taste the final rest only in part as we trust in Christ. Therefore the Sabbath principle was not abandoned by the early church. The shadow of Christ across this weary world still offers shade, namely, the first day of the week—the Lord’s day. And the meaning of that day is that Jesus is risen and Jesus is Lord and Jesus is Creator and Jesus is Redeemer and Jesus is the only place of rest for the soul. It’s a day for worshipping Jesus. It’s a day for saying by what we do and don’t do that Jesus, not our work and not the money we get from our work, is our treasure and our meaning. It is a special day for the honor and the glory of the Lord. A day for mercy and for man.
So Does Romans 14:5 Refer to the Lord’s Day?
So, does Romans 14:5 refer to the Lord’s Day when it says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”? I answer with Paul Jewett: “It is unconvincing . . . to press Paul’s statement in Romans 14:5 so absolutely as to have considered John [the apostle] a Judaizer for having called one day in the week the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), thus giving it the preeminence.” (The Lord’s Day, p. 78). Jewett takes John’s conviction as having apostolic authority and assumes he is not among the “weak” of Romans 14:2. That is, John does not call one day in the week “the Lord’s Day” as one option among many. He calls it “the Lord’s day” because he and the early church treat it in a special way among all days.
I cannot escape what seems to me compelling evidence that the Lord’s Day remains till Jesus comes and that it is set apart for the glory of Christ and the good of our souls. May the Lord give you wisdom and freedom and joy as you display his work and his worth on his day.