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Sanctified Time: Lord's Day Worship
in Biblical and Historical Perspective
[A paper presented for the Calvin's Institutes class](1)

© Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA 

The Priority of Congregational Worship

I recently spoke with a young man, very interested in worship, who expressed all too familiar reservations about congregational worship. He said that since we have personal relationship with Christ, private worship is more truly worship than getting all dressed up and coming to church on Sunday and going through so many rote motions. He appealed to the intimate relationship we have with the Lord as basically contrary to the formality of a Sunday morning service. Is real worship to be found more beside the flowing stream with a Bible open, prayer flowing, and perhaps a journal recording contemplative reflections than in the pew?

We must pull back the veil of our visible world and look to the invisible. The writer of Hebrews tells his readers,

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant . . . (Heb 11:22-24).

The gathered congregation is like the tip of an iceberg surfacing above the water with the massive invisible spiritual world below the water's surface. We only see Bob and Jane, Steve and Sue, the Shurdens, the Jones: the visible church. We look at the wall paper and the carpet and the pulpit and sometimes lose the grand vision of the "church of the first-born."

No one said it better than C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters. He writes from the point of view of a devil instructing a younger devil,

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patients sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. . . . Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.(2)

Lewis brilliantly depicts the problem we mortal redeemed wretches have in coming to worship. We are encumbered with all the sterility of a public meeting, often forgetting that Christ promises to be present, as it were in the very next seat. The writer of Hebrews teaches us this in such powerful terms, recalling the full impact of thousands of years of God-revealed redemptive worship from the Older Covenant.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:28-29)
When we come to meet with the gathered people of God, we come with the recognition of receiving an unshakeable kingdom and know that God is a consuming fire. We come to a much more awful sight than a mountain quaking with the divine fire, we come to Mount Zion. In the previous verses the writer contrasts the new assembly with the most revered experience of the Israelites at Sinai.
For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them . . . . But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem . . . (vv 18-22)

Earlier in the book, the writer commands the "synagog-ing" together of the church in the most stringent terms, "not forsaking our own assembling together." The text goes on to say that "if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries" (10:24-27). In other words, there is no more serious sin than forsaking the assembly.

Edmond Clowney is right is saying that "the very term "church" (ekklesia) was a term applied to the Old Testament people of God because of great assembly at Sinai, when they had stood before God to hear his words. The church is named from the assembly, not at Sinai, nor in the earthly Zion, but in the heavenly Zion, where it is joined with the worshiping host of the saints and the angels (Heb 12:22-24).(3)

What all this means for worship services is that when God's people gather we must strive to see it in the most profound terms. The simple acts of prayer, praise, preaching, etc. are to be performed, not with a morbid sense of dread, but with a full acknowledgment of the reality of the occasion. We must be like the Apostle John who was able to look into heaven and see the worship of heaven. What in the truest sense is real is not our jobs and lawns and cars, but that presently there are myriads of creatures we cannot fathom giving glory to an incomprehensible, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Triune God, declaring, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts the whole earth is full of His glory." When we grasp one grain of sand from the ocean of this truth we will hold only a fraction of the awesomeness of congregational worship in the presence of the Almighty.

The Priority of Worship on the Lord's Day

If we are to gain a truly biblical concept of worship and worship services, some consideration must be given to the time of worship. Is there something special about the Sunday? Did Jesus intend to specify the day on which His church, body, temple, people, congregation, Israel, bride, saints, Zion, New Jerusalem, holy nation, kingdom of priests, etc. was to worship? Did He not intend for His church to gather in His special presence on "His day," the day of His resurrection, the day He, Himself met with His disciples after His resurrection, the day that John called the "Lordly Day"--the day that we are told the church met on under apostolic leadership?

The Biblical Material on the Lord's Day

The New Testament uses the term, "Lord's Day"only once. John writes in the Apocalypse, "I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet . . ." (1:10). The notable Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson says regarding this term,

Deissmann has proven (Bible Studies, p. 217f.; Light, etc., p. 357ff.) from inscriptions and papyri that the word kuriakos was in common use for the sense "imperial" as imperial finance and imperial treasury and from papyri and ostraca that hemera Sebaste (Augustus Day) was the first day of each month, Emperor's Day on which money payments were made (cf. 1Co 16:1f.). It was easy, therefore, for the Christians to take this term, already in use, and apply it to the first day of the week in honour of the Lord Jesus Christ's resurrection on that day (Didache 14, Ignatius Magn. 9).(4)
As is indicated kuriakos (Lord's) is used only twice: once in reference to the Lord's day (Rev 1:10) and once in reference to the Lord's Supper (kuriakos deipnon, 1Co 11:20). Louwa and Nida say the term kuriakos means "pertaining to the Lord - 'belonging to the Lord, Lord's.'"Friberg says likewise it means "belonging to a lord or master; as a religious technical term, belonging to the Lord, the Lord's, of the Lord." The UBS dictionary has it merely, "belonging to the Lord." And Thayers has both "belonging to the Lord" and "related to the Lord."

The significance of the day pertaining to the Lord comes into focus when we ponder that the Resurrection of our Lord took place on the first day of the week, Sunday (Mat 28:1, Mar 16:9). Christ met with his disciples in His post-resurrection, pre-ascension state on the first day of the week (Sunday). "When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week . . . Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, 'Peace be with you'" (Joh 20:17). One week later we are told, Jesus met with the disciples again on Sunday. "And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, 'Peace be with you'" (Joh 20:26).

We find in the apostolic record that "on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them" (Acts 20:7). Moreover, Paul instructed the church at Corinth regarding collections, "On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper."

Thought the biblical material is meager, when coupled with the theological importance of the Resurrection of Christ on Sunday and the Sabbath pattern of worship ingrained in the Jews of Christ day, even the casual observer is lead to conclude that the apostolic church saw the need to worship on the day of Resurrection.

The Sabbath Debate

The Fourth Commandment is very well known. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" (Exo 20:8). Isaiah pleads, "If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight . . . . Then you will take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth . . . (Isa 58:13-14).

The status questionis (state of the question) is whether the New Testament in any way abrogates the Sabbath command? Part of the answer is above. The assembling together of the church seems to be on the day of resurrection, the first day of the week, rather than the Sabbath (Saturday). But is it a mere change of the day? The locus classicus text relating to this question is Colossians 2:16-17,

Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--things which are a mere shadow of what is to come. . .
The issue here is whether "Sabbath day" refers to the festival days or the seventh day rest day. Does "Sabbath day" refer explicitly to the Fourth Commandment or merely to the period sabbaths like the seventh year rest of the land (Lev 25:2)? Since the New Testament uses the word sabbaton 67 other times and none refer to anything but the weekly, seventh day sabbath --the burden of proof is on the Sabbatarian to show that Colossians 2:16 refers exclusively to non-weekly sabbaths. This will prove to be a difficult task since Paul elsewhere writes that
"One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. " (Rom 14:5)
He also speaks to the Galatians in the strongest terms,
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain" (Gal 4:9-11).
This is not to mention the fact that Hebrews 4:1ff strongly indicates the typological nature of the seventh day rest. "For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, 'AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,' although His works were finished from the foundation of the world" (4:3).

Most sabbatarians take the view that Colossians 2:16-17 refers to the non-seventh day sabbaths, protecting the Fourth Commandment from any ceremonial dismissal. However, Joseph A. Pipa argues that since Leviticus 23 "gives a detailed commentary on these terms," "in light of this, we see that Paul uses the term 'Sabbath days' to include the seventh-day Sabbath."(5) Pipa is surely correct here since Leviticus 23 speaks of "holy convocations," "appointed times" which "are these: For six days work may be done; but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work; it is a sabbath to the LORD in all your dwellings." Then Moses proceeds to define the other holy convocations. The weekly Sabbath is the very first "holy convocation." Pipa even says that "the new Testament saint is no longer obligated to observe . . . the Old Testament seventh-day Sabbath." However, he claims that "Paul never abrogates the moral obligation of keeping one day in seven" because of the creation mandate (Gen 2:3-4).(6) Paul plainly commands, "let no one act as your judge in regard to . . . a Sabbath day." If this is not ceremonial sabbaths, then the scruples with which one practices a weekly sabbath are not subject to judgment of men (such as Judaizers); it is a matter for each man to be "fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord . . ." (Rom 14:5-6).

The Historical Precedents
The earliest writings of the church are in accord with the priority of the gathered congregation for worship on Sunday. Even the pagan Pliny the Younger reported that Christians meet "on an appointed day."(7) The Didache commands that, "On the Lord's Day come together and break bread."(8) Ignatius refers to Christians "no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our Life rose again."(9) In the Epistle of Barnabas likewise it says, "Wherefore, also, we keep the eight day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead."(10) Ignatius of Antioch speaks of the Jews as "those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death."(11) Justin Martyr reproves the Jew Trypho that Christians "too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you."(12) Tertullian argues against the one "who contends that the sabbath is still to be observed."(13) Unambiguously though with a slight thought of speculation, The Didascalia states that "The apostles further appointed: On the first day of the week let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation, because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the place of the dead, and on the first day of the week he arose upon the world, and on the first day of the week he ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week he will appear at last with the angels of heaven."(14)Victorinus says "on the Lord's day we may go forth to our bread with giving of thanks" (after fasting) "lest we should appear to observe any sabbath with the Jews . . . which sabbath he [Christ] in his body abolished."(15) Eusebius of Caesarea tells us that the "only truly holy day" "the Lord's day" with "the days set apart by the Mosaic Law for feasts, new moons, and sabbaths, which the Apostle [Paul] teaches are the shadow of days and not days in reality."(16) Athanasius reasons that "The sabbath was the end of the first creation, the Lord's day was the beginning of the second . . . we honor the Lord's day as being the memorial of the new creation."(17) The early fourth century Council of Laodicea encourages that "Christians should . . . particularly reverence the Lord's day and, if possible, not work on it. . ."(18) While more witnesses to the early abolition of the Sabbath keeping, yet Lord's Day meeting, one final word will suffice from The
Apostolic Constitutions,

And on the day of our Lord's resurrection, which is the Lord's day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent him to us, and condescended to let him suffer, and raised him from the dead. Otherwise what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day . . . in which is performed the reading of the prophets, the preaching of the gospel, the oblation of the sacrifice, the gift of the holy food.(19)

Justin and Tertullian refer to worship on Sunday, too.(20) The Catholic Encyclopedia informs us that "the Council of Elvira (300) decreed: 'If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected' (xxi)."(21)

The Reformation Concept

The continental reformers like Calvin and Beza and the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism see the Sabbath as a principle which has civil dimensions and primarily requires worship on the Lord's Day, rather than a strict definition of rest. The English Puritans on the other hand held to a rather rigorous understanding of rest which includes only works of mercy, necessity, and piety. This finds expression in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession teaches that God,

. . . appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto Him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's Day,(3) and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.
The chapter continues in saying that "this Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord . . . taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy" (21:8). Very specifically the Larger Catechism instructs that,
The sabbath or Lord's day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy in the publick and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.
However, in the earlier days of the Reformation, Calvin follows his mentor, Augustine who asks, ". . .what there is in these Ten Commandments, except the observance of the sabbath, which ought not to be kept by a Christian . . .?(22) Similarly Calvin interpreted the Fourth Commandment as signifying spiritual rest, congregational worship, and civil rest. Principally, he says that God by the "seventh day has sketched for his people the coming perfection of his Sabbath in the Last Day."(23)

First, under the repose of the seventh day the heavenly Lawgiver meant to represent to the people of Israel spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them. Secondly, he meant that there was to be a stated day for them to assemble to hear the law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works, and thus through this remembrance to be trained in piety. Thirdly, he resolved to give a day of rest to servant and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil.(24)

Calvin is very clear that "by the Lord Christ's coming the ceremonial part of this commandment was abolished" and speaks of "the Sabbath" (referring to Col 2:16-17) as a "a shadow of what is to come; but the body belongs to Christ." In no uncertain terms he says, "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days."(25) He says in his commentary on Colossians 2:16, ". . .we do not by any means observe days, as though there were any sacredness in holy days, or as though it were not lawful to work on them, but this is done for government and order, not for the days."(26)

Concerning worship, Calvin makes clear that "although the Sabbath has been abrogated, there is still occasion for us: (1) to assemble on stated days for the hearing of the Word, the breaking of the mystical bread, and for public prayers [cf. Acts 2:42]; (2) to give surcease from labor to servants and workmen . . ." Calvin is very stringent in his denunciation of observing Sunday as the Sabbath. He says,

. . . we are far different from the Jews in this respect. For we are not celebrating it as a ceremony with the most rigid scrupulousness, supposing it as a spiritual mystery to be figured thereby. Rather, we are using it as a remedy needed to keep order in the church. Yet Paul teaches that no one ought to pass judgment on Christians over the observance of this day, for it is only "a shadow of what is to come" [Col 2:17]. . .For, because it was expedient to overthrow superstition, the day sacred tot he Jews was set aside; because it was necessary to maintain decorum, order, and peace in the church, another was appointed for that purpose.(27)

Battles, the learned translator of Calvin, surely grasps the matter when he says in a note on the preceding passage: "It is clear from this passage and from sec. 34 that for Calvin the Christian Sunday is not, as in the Westminster Confession 21, a simple continuation of the Jewish Sabbath 'changed into the first day of the week,' but a distinctively Christian institution adopted on the abrogation of the former one, as a means of church order and spiritual health."(28)

Calvin's words are very strong toward those (amazingly) like the Westminster divines who hold that only the day has been changed: "For those of them who cling to their constitutions surpass the Jews three times over in crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition."(29)

Moreover, the Genevan catechism, written by Calvin states just as clearly that "the observance of rest is part of the old ceremonies, it was abolished by the advent of Christ" (Q 170); "it is ceremonial" (171); and that what is "beyond ceremony" is that it is "to figure spiritual rest; for the preservation of ecclesiastical polity; and for the relief of slaves" (172-173). This is the very three-fold purpose discussed in the Institutes. In answer to the question (181), "What order, then, is to be observed on that day?" He says merely, "That the people meet to hear the doctrine of Christ, to engage in public prayer, and make profession of their faith." He maintains strongly, "In regard to the ceremony, I hold that it was abolished, as the reality existed in Christ (Col. 2:17)." Finally he asks (185), "What of the commandment then remains for us? Not to neglect the holy ordinances which contribute to the spiritual polity of the Church; especially to frequent sacred assemblies, to hear the word of God, to celebrate the sacraments, and engage in the regular prayers, as enjoined."

Surely nothing else need be said to explicate Calvin as a non-Sabbitarian. However, the Heidelberg Catechism also indicates that the Reformed churches influenced by Calvin understood this concept of the Sabbath. Question 103 addresses the Fourth Commandment's requirement on believer saying,

First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear his word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by his Holy Spirit in me: and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath.
The Application of Sanctified Time
There are at least three positions which emerge in the Reformed tradition regarding the Sabbath question. (1) The Westminster Sabbatarian position is that we keep the Sabbath in every way as the Jews, except on Sunday, the Lord's Day. This permits that our works on Sunday are restricted to piety (worship, personal, private, family), mercy (caring for people), and necessity (oxen in ditches).(30) (2) The "high view of the Lord's Day" position which argues that we do hallow the Lord's Day by making Christ the focus of the day, since it is "the Lordly Day." Thus, works of piety, mercy, and necessity are permitted, as well as other matters which can be seen with Christ as the focus, e.g., fellowship-based recreation. (3) A third view might be dubbed "a high view of the Lord's Day Assembly." In this view we are not to keep a day in any sense, since the Sabbath's purpose ceremonial and through Christ it has a typological fulfillment. However, we must assemble for worship, which requires certain social, familial, and personal preparations and circumstances. And we do so on a theological significant day (the Lord's Day) for biblically prescribed purposes.

In what each of these three positions affirms, let us consider these three positions as concentric circles: The inner circle is the full sabbitarian position, the middle circle is the high view of the Lord's Day, and the largest circle is the high view of the Lord's Day assembly. The priority of NT Lord's Day Worship is maintained be each of these, or considered as a whole, all of these positions. Clearly, the early church, as evidenced by the many citations above, began closing the outer circle and the Reformation produced more substance for a societal recognition of Sanctified Time. The Puritans, sometimes in a reactionary capacity, developed a much tighter conception of the NT application of the Fourth Commandment. As we have seen, there is biblical and historical precedent, as well as theological justification, for worship in the presence of God with the congregation on the Lord's Day. Hebrews 4 and 10:24-25, Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:14 are not in dispute when one asks whether the church should recogize Sancitified Time, though the exact nature of keeping the Sabbath can certainly be at issue. In whatever way one applies the Fourth Commandment, Christ words are still true: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mar 2:27).




1. Originally for the Calvin Seminar, December 17, 1997.

2. pp. 12-13 of the Revised Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

3. p. 112 in a chapter entitled, Presbyterian Worship, in the text edited by D.A. Carson.

4. In the BWW, (in loc.).

5. The Lord's Day, (Christian Focus, 1997), p. 99.

6. p. 104.

7. Letter 10 [c.a. 112], cited in James F. White's, Document of Christian Worship: Descriptive and Interpretive Sources (Wesminster/John Knox Press, 1992) p. 18.

8. Section 14.

9. Ep. ad Magnes. 9.

10. Section 15.

11. Letter to the Magnesians 8 [A.D. 110].

12. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 18, 21 [A.D. 155].

13. An Answer to the Jews 2 [A.D. 203].

14. Didascalia 2 [A.D. 225].

15. The Creation of the World [A.D. 300].

16. Proof of the Gospel 4:16:186 [A.D. 319].

17. On Sabbath and Circumcision 3 [A.D. 345].

18. Canon 29 [A.D. 360].

19. Apostolic Constitutions 2:7:60 [A.D. 400].

20. I Apol., lxvii; "De orat.", xxiii; cf. "Ad nation.", I, xiii; "Apolog.", xvi.

21. Published in 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc.

22. The Spirit and the Letter 24 [A.D. 412].

23. Battles trans. (I), p. 396.

24. p. 395.

25. p. 397.

26. Eds. Torrance and Torrance (Eerdmans, 1965), p. 337.

27. p. 399.

28. p. 399.

29. p. 400.

30. I am overlooking here the Seventh Day Baptist or Adventist position which maintains a fully Sabbatarian position on Saturday.