The first day of the week is mentioned at various places in the New Testament. What was the significance of this day for the first Christians?
Which day is the first day of the week?
According to Matthew 28:1, the first day of the week is the day after the Sabbath. Since the Sabbath is what we call Saturday, Sunday is the first day of the week.
At the time of Christ, except for the Sabbath (which means rest), the Jews referred to the days of the week by number to avoid using names of heathen origin like Saturday (the day of Saturn) and Sunday (the day of the Sun).
Some people refer to the first day of the week as the 'Christian Sabbath' but this is incorrect. The seventh day of the week (Saturday) is the Jewish Sabbath. The first day of the week is never called a sabbath in the New Testament. They are two separate days of the week.
Did the first day of the week have meaning for the first Christians?
Is it purely incidental that the first day of the week is mentioned in the New Testament, or does it have some special meaning?
In the entire Old Testament, the first day of the week is never mentioned incidentally. It is stated that God created light on the first day of the week (Genesis 1:3-5).
Many of the things mentioned in the Old Testament no doubt happened on the first day of the week, but this is never stated because it was not significant.
During the ministry of Christ until His death, not a single mention is made of the first day of the week, although it is sometimes possible to determine that certain things occurred on the day after the Sabbath (Mark 1:32-34; Luke 4:40,41). The day is not specified, however, because it was not significant.
Thus, during the description of more than four thousand years of human history, the Holy Spirit never once stated incidentally that something happened on the first day of the week.
But in the description of one certain day in the history of the world, the Holy Spirit clearly indicated that it occurred on the first day of the week. All four Gospels mention explicitly that Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week!
The first day of the week had special meaning for the first Christians because Jesus rose from the dead on that day!
Mention of the first day of the week also indicates that the first Christians remembered the resurrection on a weekly basis. We can illustrate this with a comparison. How do you reply when someone asks you the day of your birth. Someone in Ghana might reply: "Tuesday!" There, the day of the week on which one is born is very important! It becomes part of one's name and is believed to influence one's personality! But in Europe one is more likely to reply: "September the 15th!" I do not even know the day of the week on which I was born. In my culture that is not significant.
Suppose that everyplace in the New Testament where is says "on the first day of the week" it said instead "on the 17th of the month." We would know the 17th was a significant day of the month for Christians, because Jesus rose from the dead on that day of the month. (Actually, we do not even know the day of the month with complete certainty, although we can calculate it fairly accurately from the Pascha which was on the 14th.)
Or, if the day of the year were always mentioned, "Nisan 17," then we would know that the day of the year was significant for the first Christians.
But, of course, neither the day of the month, nor the day of the year is mentioned, but the day of the week, because the first Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus each week! And from that day until this, on every first day of the week Christians have remembered the resurrection of Jesus!
The first day of the week is Resurrection Day
By examining the passages that mention the first day of the week, we can understand its meaning for Christians.
"Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightening, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, 'Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you'" (Matthew 28:1-7).
"Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, 'Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?' But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away -- for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed. you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go and tell His disciples -- and Peter -- that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.' And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons" (Mark 16:1-9).
"Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?'" (Luke 24:1-5).
"On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, who Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him'" (John 20:1,2).
"Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' Now when he had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Then Jesus said to them again, 'Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.' And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.' But Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, 'We have seen the Lord.' But he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.' And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, 'Peace to you!' Then He said to Thomas, 'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.' And Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!' Jesus said to him, 'Thomas because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed'" (John 20:19-29).
Not only did Jesus rise on the first day of the week, but it is also specifically stated that Jesus appeared to them on that first day of the week, and also that He appeared to them again eight days later, which according to the Jewish way of counting days, would be the next first day of the week.
Christians assembled on the first day of the week
It was on the first day of the week that Christians came together to remember Jesus, as He had asked them to do, by dividing a loaf among them and drinking from the cup. This was referred to as "breaking bread."
"Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight" (Acts 20:7).
Notice that the purpose of their gathering was to break bread. They came together to remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. This was the central purpose of the assembly, as Paul also indicates in his letter to the Corinthians: "Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (1 Corinthians 11:33). In verses 23-26, we learn that the example of Jesus is normative for Christians with regard to how the supper is to be observed. Paul explained: "For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
Christians gave financially on the first day of the week
"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come" (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).
The expression 'on the first day of the week' here has the inherent meaning 'on the first day of every week'. This was not just a local arrangement. The same orders were given to other churches.
The first day of the week is the Lord's Day
In Revelation 1:10 John says: "I was in the spirit on the Lord's Day." The only other place in the New Testament where the possessive form of "Lord" is used is in 1 Corinthians 11:20 in connection with "the Lord's supper." This distinctive expression "The Lord's day" is found in early church history as a designation for the first day of the week and is presently the common name for Sunday in Greece.
The first day of the week is mentioned in early church history
Sabbatarians often make the false claim that Constantine changed the day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday in the forth century. In reality, all Constantine did was to officially recognize the existing Christian day of worship. Sabbatarians twist this into the false statement that he changed the day, which he certainly did not do.
The teaching of Scripture that Christians assemble on the first day of the week to eat the Lord's supper is reflected in early church history from the earliest times!
Barnabas (+/- 100), Epistle, Chapter 15
"Wherefore, also, we keep the 8th day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."
Justin Martyr (110-165)
Apology, Chapter 67 - "And on that day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place. ... Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead."
In the Dialogue of Justin Martyr with Trypho the Jew, Trypho writes: "But this is what we are most at a loss about: that you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision" (Chapter 10).
To this Justin replies: "The new law requires you to keep perpetual sabbath, and you, because you are idle for one day, suppose you are pious, not discerning why this has been commanded you" (Chapter 12).
Against Marcian, Book 5, Chapter 19, verses 16,17.
"Now tell me, Marcian, what is your opinion of the apostle's language, when he says, 'Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath, which is a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.' We do not now treat the law, further than (to remark) that the apostle here teaches clearly how it has been abolished, even by passing from shadow to substance -- that is, from figurative types to the reality, which is Christ."
"And what shall we say of the new race of us Christians, whom Christ at His advent planted in every country and in every region? for, lo! wherever we are, we are all called after the one name of Christ -- Christians. On one day, the first of the week, we assemble ourselves together."
These quotations from early church history show that the claims of Sabbatarians about Constantine are preposterous. From New Testament times until now, followers of Christ have met on the first day of the week to remember His resurrection.
Is the first day of the week a 'holy' day?
Although the first day of the week has special meaning for Christians, and they assemble to break bread on that day, it is not a 'holy day' or a 'sabbath' (Col. 2:16,17). Christians serve God every day. For them all days are holy, dedicated to the Lord: "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it" (Romans 14:5,6).
The first day of the week is a special day for Christians
On that day Jesus rose from the grave: "Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene" (Mark 16:9). That same day, He revealed Himself to two disciples when "He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them" (Luke 24:30,31). "Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). A week later He appeared to them again, while they were assembled (John 20:26).
The Christian assembly is not to be neglected
Because Jesus asked them to do it, Christians come together on the first day of each week to encourage one another and to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. This is not to be neglected. "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24,25).