Many of the things we do have become so traditional and commonplace that we don’t think about when they started and why. One of those things is the practice of Christians gathering on Sundays for “worship” or “church”. After all, Christians have been gathering on Sundays for almost 2000 years!
But why? It isn’t that difficult to figure out from a thematic, theological position, but what is the history? And why is that important?
We are approaching another Easter so the topic of the resurrection is top of mind this time of year. Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is the answer to the questions I have posed.
Christians gather on Sundays because Sunday was the day of the resurrection according to the Gospel accounts (all four of them). While we take the Sunday gatherings for granted (unless you are a Seventh Day Adventist), the change from Saturday gatherings to Sunday gatherings has historical significance that supports the resurrection as an historical fact.
Christianity grew out of Judaism, of course. Jesus was a Jew and so were all of his first followers. The Sabbath (from sunset of Friday evening to the appearance of the stars in the sky on Saturday evening) is holy in Judaism. (See Wikipedia) The Sabbath is the 7th day of the calendar week for the Jews and represents the day God rested from creation.
Keeping the Sabbath as a holy day of rest was first commanded in the Torah (Exodus 16:26, 29) after the Exodus from Egypt. (Exodus 20:8-11) It is one of the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath continues to be faithfully and diligently observed in Jewish communities around the world to this day.
The Sabbath had been faithfully and diligently observed for many centuries up to the time of Jesus, but the followers of Jesus began a new tradition of gathering on Sundays, instead of traditional Sabbath days. The relatively sudden change, after such emphasis on the Sabbath rest for so many centuries marks a pivotal, historic change that is best explained by a significant, historic occurrence – the resurrection.
We have learned to be skeptical of historical claims since the Enlightenment, existentialism, modernism and post modernism have done their deconstructive work. People have posited that the resurrection didn’t happen and only developed as time and embellishment gave rise to the idea in the vein of a legend.
But the sudden change from Saturday observance to Sunday observance in the First Century tells a different story.
To get some idea of just how sacred keeping the Sabbath was considered in First Century, we need look no further than the Gospels. Throughout the Gospels, the Jewish leaders were hypersensitive to potential violations of the Sabbath. (See John 5:9-10 (carrying a pallet); Matthew 12:10 and Luke 13:14 (healing); and Mark 2:23 (picking grain). Violations of the requirements of keeping the Sabbath were considered so sacred that the penalty was stoning. (John 5:18) So, it was a pretty big deal.
But all of that changed for followers of Jesus in the First Century. Christ followers began to gather on “the Lord’s Day”, Sunday within the generation after Christ died. Many did this in addition to observing the Sabbath at first, but the practice of meeting on the Lord’s Day soon superseded and replaced the Sabbath.
The timing of that change is significant. We see it already in the earliest writings of the followers of Jesus. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which we know was written about 53-54 AD, he assumes the gathering of the church on the first day of every week (1 Cor. 16:1-2), not on the Sabbath. Thus, the practice of meeting on Sundays was well-established by the time he wrote the letter.
In Acts, which chronicles Paul’s travels by his companion, Luke, the gathering together to “break bread” (alluding to the observance of the Lord’s Supper) was the first day of the week (Sunday). (Acts 20:7) John identifies that his experience that is written in the Book of Revelation took place on “the Lord’s Day”. (Rev. 1:10).
Paul died in the early 60’s AD, and John died about 100 AD, so these writings were dated to the First Century. Further, Ignatius of Antioch, who lived from AD 35-108, wrote in his Epistle to the Magnesians 9:
“We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s day instead (the Day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death. That death, though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers, and endure tribulation to prove ourselves pupils of Jesus Christ, our sole Teacher).”
These early writings confirm that the Christians changed the focus of their weekly observance from the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening) to the Lord’s Day (Sunday). The reason for the change is that the people who chronicled the life and death of Jesus claimed that the tomb was found empty on the first day of the week (Sunday). (See Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2 and 9-20; Luke 24:1; John 20:1 and 19)
Only something as momentous as the resurrection of Jesus is adequate to explain the sudden (and sustained) change from observing the Sabbath, which was (and remains) sacred in Judaism to the observance of the Lord’s Day. It doesn’t “prove” that Jesus did rise from the dead, but it is strong evidence that his followers believed he rose from the dead.
Proof for the resurrection, itself, is the subject of many books and much study. I don’t believe there is a single “proof”, but cumulatively, the evidence is strong. Unless you are one of those people who (a priori) dismisses the possibility of any miraculous happening, the evidence for the resurrection might even be said to be compelling. For articles and presentations on the subject see: