What Shall We Do With Sunday?

5977391697_7230c99dcf_mWithout question, our culture has embraced secularism and the absolute autonomy of the individual as the new credo for living.

In keeping with this change over the past several decades, practices that once regulated public life to a degree, such as Sunday store closings and the setting apart of Sunday for worship and rest, are no longer seen by most people as of any consequence.

Without realizing it, many Christians too appear to have become lax in how Sunday is to be observed. Rather than making it a true Lord’s Day for worship and rest from the labors of the week, Sunday might include doing laundry, shopping for groceries, washing the car, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, or spending hours of hard study to compensate for a poorly disciplined week.

To refocus on the Sabbath principle (Lord’s Day observance) consider a brief review of Bible texts that give a good sense of how Sabbath observance came into being and how Christians should be encouraged to set the day apart even in our secular times.

We begin with the account of Creation. The Book of Genesis tells us that after six days of creation, “on the seventh day God rested (ceased) from all the work of creation that he had done” (Genesis 2:2,3). This rest is sometimes referred to as a Sabbath rite, a standard to be observed by God’s creatures.

Then, in Exodus, the second book of the Bible, we learn that during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God gave the miraculous gift of manna as daily food (Exodus 16:22). Each morning the Israelites were to go out and collect enough for the family for only that day. But, on the morning of the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days so they would not need to gather on the Sabbath.

Again, this arrangement reflected God’s merciful provision for the temporal needs of his chosen people and at the same time his call for them to desist one day out of seven from their weekly labors in order to rest in his mercy and celebrate his care.

Then, later came the giving of the Ten Commandments. The fourth said, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” [setting it apart, sanctifying it] (Exodus 20:8). Commandments one, two, and three say “You shall not…” Commandment four is a ‘You shall’ positive command to remember and observe the Sabbath Day.

Many centuries later, the Israelites were well settled in the Holy Land and had become prosperous. As so often happens when people feel wealthy and secure, they became neglectful of God’s laws. Prophets like Isaiah prophesied against their wanton disobedience, pinpointing as one major piece of evidence their disregard of the Sabbath.

To counter their offense Isaiah prophesies, “‘If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath / and from doing as you please on my holy day, / if you call the Sabbath a delight / and the Lord’s holy day honorable, / and if you honor it by not going your own way / and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, / then you will find your joy in the Lord, / and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land / and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’ The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13,14).

Do New Testament teachings agree with these examples from the Old Testament? In the four Gospels there are at least 58 references to the Sabbath. The problem with Sabbath observance then was that several generations of Rabbis had embellished the basic Sabbath laws with all sorts of picky regulations making the special day burdensome rather than renewing.

The Gospels do not cancel the Sabbath principle — one day in seven for worship and rest from one’s labors. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” He humanized it as the Father intended for creaturely renewal — a day to throw off the labors of the week, worship God among his people, and launch the new work week refreshed in body and soul.

In time, Christendom generally switched the rest day from Saturday to Sunday. That’s because Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is celebrated as the Lord’s Day.

Is there adequate reason for this change? Jesus rose from death on a Sunday and appeared to his followers both morning (John 20:1-17) afternoon (Luke 24:13-32) and evening (Luke 24:36-49). These meetings set the stage for the weekly celebration on Sunday of our Lord’s resurrection and the promise of ours!

A generation later Paul and Luke were in Troas (now Western Turkey) and Luke writes, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread’ (Acts 20:6-12). Again, Paul instructs the Corinthians to set aside their special offerings “on the first day of the week” — Sunday, rather than Saturday. (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).

Wise and devout Christians to the present see the wisdom of making Sunday a special day of worship and a day of rest from the labors of the week. They find joy in meeting with a company of Christians for the worship of the resurrected Christ, and setting aside week-day labors to renew faith and clear their vision of life through the living Christ.

In observing the Lord’s Day with care — carefully avoiding making it “just another day” — we acknowledge God’s mercy. As well, we bless ourselves and our families by turning our thoughts heavenward and consciously resting in God’s faithfulness.

(Adapted from my booklet, Give it Rest)

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Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns (via flickr.com)

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One thought on “What Shall We Do With Sunday?

  1. In 1986, the Shops Bill came before the British parliament. It would have enabled widespread Sunday trading, but was defeated.

    Eight years later, in July 1994, a compromise Act was brought before parliament – the Sunday Trading Law of England and Wales .This was eventually passed.

    I remember the year . Earlier in the same year, on March 12, 1994, the Church of England ordained 32 women,for the first time. I remember thinking what a positive step forward this was, wheras the Sunday Trading law seemed a retrograde step. One step forward , one step backward.

    From 26 August 1994, shops were allowed to open on Sunday , but larger stores , those over 283,000 square feet in area ,were restricted to opening a maximum of six hours, between 10am and 6pm only. Large retail stores tended to open between 11am and 5pm, while supermarkets usually chose to open from 10am to 4pm . In London, on Oxford Street , shops chose to open from midday to 6pm. Meanwhile, 24-hour supermarkets had to close on Saturday night to allow six continuous hour shopping on Sunday.

    So ,during the last two decades, the keeping of the Sabbath commandment has diminished .The 4th commandment is unambiguous.

    “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20 :8-11 NIV

    Quite clear then. What has always confused me is that the seventh day ,the original Sabbath,is Saturday ,the Sabbath Christ knew all his earthly life.So how did we come to onserve Sunday as the new Sabbath ? Christian history reveals the answer.

    In the year 321, Roman emperor Constantine the Great , Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus , enacted the first civil law regarding Sunday observance. The law did not mention the Sabbath by name, but referred only to a day of rest on “the venerable day of the sun.”

    Constantine was proclaimed emperor at Eboracum ( modern day York) , while campaigning in Brittania.The year was 306, and Constantine’s father,Emperor Constantius had just died.

    Constantine;s mother,Helena,full name Flavia Julia Helena Augusta, ,was a devout Christian.According to many sources she made pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she discovered the True Cross. Helena ,remembered as a saint by the Orthodox churches, Roman Catholics ,Anglicans and Lutherans, was very important in the spread of Christianity.By evangelizing her son, she helped place Christianity at the heart of Western civilization

    So, in common with his fellow Roman Christian,Augustine of Hippo,Constantine owed his Christian conversion to his mother.Saint Augustine,also known as Saint Austin was born later than Constantine,in 354. Before his 387 baptism,aged 31 in Milan , by Ambrose, Augustine had been a dissolute youth .His mother Monica had devoted her prayerful life to her son’s reformation. They do say that behind every great man is a great woman. Such were Helena and Monica.

    Constantine’s father ,Constantius ,was Roman emperor in the West only .But Constantine, victorius in civil wars against the Roman emperors in the east,Mazentius and Licinius, became sole Emperor in both west and east,uniting the empire. As head of a united Roman empire,he was in a strong position to spread the Christian faith,following his conversion.

    In 313 he helped proclaim the edict of Milan ,which ended Christian persecution in the empire, by decreeing tolerance of Christianity. In 325 he called the First Council of Nicaea ,instituting the Nicene creed. He renamed Byzantium Constantinople, making it New Rome,capital city of the new Christian empire.

    Following his mothers pilgrimage and discovery of the True Cross ,Constantine ordered the construction of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre , on the purported site of Christ’s tomb ,viewed as as the holiest place in Christendom. For it was believed to be the site of the Resurrection.

    Then in 321,Constantine made provision for the day of rest to be ‘on the venerable day of the Sun ’,Sunday. Early Christians had continued to pray and rest on Saturday, the seventh day .But they also observed Sunday, the day of the week on which Jesus rose.This seems right for another reason.For Pentecost,the day the Holy Spirit came upon the first Christians ,was a Sunday.

    I have a feeling that for altogether Christians,every day of the week should be considered holy, just as every place in God’s creation should be regarded as holy.God is omnipresent ,everywhere and at all times. But Sunday,the day Christ rose from the dead and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit sanctified the first Christians ,is a very special day,most apt for common worship. It is rightly known as the Lord’s Day.

    According to Laurie Guy ( ‘ Introducing Early Christianity’ 2004),church father Eusebius ,in 324,very soon after Constantine’s 321 civil law on Sunday observance, said it was right that the Sabbath had been transferred to Sunday.

    Whether Saturday or Sunday is properly the Sabbath has always deeply concerned me. Because it is the 4th commandment ,keeping the Sabbath is of crucial importance,and the commandment suggests the day is Saturday,last day of the week,not the first day.

    Yet there is a reference to the Lords day in the New Testament.

    ‘On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,’ Rev 1:10 NIV

    For me ,here is biblical evidence that Sunday is the proper new Sabbath of the new Covenant.

    But one thing thing makes me uneasy about Constantine’s changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.That is his reference to Sunday being’ the venerable day of the sun’.Christians have no business venerating ought but Triune God,certainly not the greater light created by God,the sun.

    What makes me suspicious of Constantine’s reference to the venerable sun is this. Before his conversion to Christianity,Constantine had been a pagan,worshipping the Roman pantheon of false gods. It was customary for Romans to devote themselves to one particular god from their pantheon,some Venus,some Minerva,some Jupiter. Constantine had deicated himself to Apollo, god of the sun.

    Before and seemingly even after his Christian conversion,Constantine was also a devotee of a false deity called ‘ Sol Invictus’ ,the unconquered sun.This was a pagan deity many military Romans like Constantine devoted themselves to.I take it ‘Sol Invictus’ was an imaginary aspect of their imaginary Apollo.

    The birthday of so called Sol Invictus was held to be 25th December,known as ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invicti’( Day of theunconquered sun ) .It’s hard to imagine the workings of a pagan mind. But I fear that Constantine ,following years of Apollo worship, even following his Christian conversion,may have confused and conflated Christ with Apollo and Sol Invictus.

    I remember reading that Constantine,after a particular military victory,claimed to have seen a vision of the cross superimposed upon the sun.So he ascribed his victory to Christ and the sun and therafter took a banner into battle with the sun emblazoned on it,putting the sign of the cross onto this image of the sun perhaps ,conflating his old pagan superstition with his new faith.

    This makes me see Constantine’s decree of 7 March 321 ,making dies Solis,day of the sun the Roman day of rest ,in a new light.He decreed –

    ‘On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.’

    I always found this piece of Roman history unsettling.

    Happily,in early medieval times,in Christian European literature,Christ is often referred to as the ‘sol verus’ ,the true sun who brought eternal light to illuminate dark earth.I think of Christ’s wonderful birth in Bethlehem,the incarnation.It must have seemed like baby Jesus was a new light burst upon the earth like a sun,bringing great hope for mankind.

    So perhaps, for Constantine ,linking Christ with the sun,was a simple honest metaphor ,the metaphor of Christ light of the world,which all Christians cherish.Perhaps Constantine was not confusing Christ with Apollo after all.

    In this case, Constantine was following the Christians of the early church ,who ,having at first met every day to break bread, began to especially gather on a Sunday to break bread . It must have been a natural progression that Christians began to observe both days then the Sunday over the Saturday.

    Like Eusebius said,the Sabbath had organically transferred from Saturday to Sunday. By his edict,Constantine had simply legalized this for citizens of the Roman empire.

    Adventist theologians will perhaps continue to ascribe the transition of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday ,to political and even pagan factors,but I am very grateful to the weeks of careful thought this blog has inspired me toward. I feel comfortable now , at last, after much thought ,that keeping the Sabbath ,the day of rest and worship on the Lord’s Day , is based on good Christian principles.

    However,I certainly understand how many,including the Seventh Day Adventists, are extremely reluctant to stop observing the 4th commandment to the letter. I respect their argument that the Ten Commandments are God’s unchangeable laws. But we must each follow our conscience ,opening ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    I’m guessing alot of Christians at the time were uncomfortable with the Sabbath day changing from Saturday to Sunday.But after careful contemplation and prayer, I feel that Christ’s birth,the Incarnation ,changed everything.With His crucifixion & resurrection a new covenant was established between man and God.

    So on balance ,I believe the changing of the Sabbath from the last to the first day of the week,the Lord’s day ,has been a good,providential thing,even if begun by some for the wrong reasons.

    The Lord’s Day,first day of the week,is rightly the new Sabbath,especially recalling the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

    Over- zealous rabbinical Sabbath observances focussed on the letter of the law not spirit of God’s law.Christ,in the Gospels ,showed ud the error of that.

    Sunday has been a special day of rest and worship for over fifty or so generations of Christians .It has been a day of church bells,hymns, communion ,common worship , and sharing of the Lord’s Supper for centuries upon centuries.

    Our forbears made the Sunday walk to and from church and kept the day for family to spend time together and enjoy sharing familial Sunday roast.

    Sunday afternoon is a good time to walk in the countryside and listen to the birds singing,to take time to stop and smell the flowers, to fully appreciate the beauty and joy of God’s creation.We can enjoy the changing appearance of the trees through the seasons,from bud to blossom ,through full leaf to the golds and reds of autumn’s falling leaves ,followed by the fine networks of bare tapering branches.The changing seasons of God’s creation ,the seasons for everything which Ecclesiastes mentions.

    Our Sunday’s ,the Lord’s Days as Revelations calls them,are special days for rest,for family and for common worship,to be enjoyed and looked forward to. Sunday is the new Sabbath of the new Covenant, God’s gift to us,a day to keep and cherish,a special day.

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