The First Day of the Week in the New Testament (part 1 of 8)

by | Mar 17, 2017 | Biblical Worship, Ecclesiology, Worship

This discussion comes from Getting the Garden Right, coming soon from Founders Press. It is used with permission.
Copyright © 2017 Richard C. Barcellos. All rights reserved.

It will serve us well to be reminded of the uniqueness of the first day of the week in the New Testament. The concept of a unique day of the week is not novel to the New Testament. What is novel is the uniqueness of the first day of the week. In order to identify that the first day is unique in the New Testament, why it is so, and what implications for Christians entail in light of it, the following will be examined: 1) the fact that Christ rose from the dead on the first day; 2) the prominence of the first day immediately subsequent to our Lord’s resurrection; 3) that the New Testament Christians met on the first day; and 4) identifying the reason for such first-day meetings. This will display that the uniqueness of the first day of the week in the New Testament is rooted in the epoch-changing, redemptive-historical event of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Conservative biblical scholars admit the first-day resurrection of our Lord. The prominence of the first day of the week immediately after our Lord’s resurrection is an indisputable phenomenon in the New Testament, as is the fact that the early Christians met on the first day of the week. The debate comes when seeking to determine the reason for and the implications of first-day meetings of the church. If the reason is mere convenience, then there is nothing significant in the resurrection of Christ in terms of directing orthopraxy or conduct with respect to public church worship on the first day of the week. If the reason is redemptive-historical, however, there is a theological basis for first-day church meetings that transcends the first century and ought to shape our conduct. If the reason is convenience, then anyone who mandates a particular day for churches to gather and conduct public worship has violated the law of Christ. If the reason is redemptive-historical, and therefore theological, then first-day church meetings for worship are rooted in the act of Christ and we should expect the apostles and writers of the New Testament to reflect this. These are important issues which we need to think through carefully. We will come back to the issue of the basis for first-day meetings in the discussion below.

Christ Rose from the Dead on the First Day of the Week

The New Testament is clear: the Lord Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week. The first day is the day “after the Sabbath . . . the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1; see Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19), “when the Sabbath was over” (Mark 16:1). Several passages testify of Christ’s first-day resurrection (Matt. 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-23). Jesus rose from the dead early on the first day of the week (Mark 16:2, 9). Five times the Gospels mention this fact (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19). Sam Waldron comments on this unique phenomenon, suggesting a reason why:

Is this five-fold re-occurrence of the phrase “the first day of the week” merely an interesting detail or is it of religious significance? The singular importance of this repeated reference to the first day of the week may be seen by asking the question, How many times are days of the week mentioned by their number in the New Testament? The answer is not once. The third day after Christ’s death is mentioned. The Lord’s Day is also mentioned. The preparation day for the Sabbath is mentioned. Yet, there is no other reference to a day of the week by its number in the entire New Testament. This being the case it is difficult to think that the mention of “the first day of the week” five times by the evangelists is incidental. We are constrained to think that it has religious significance. But what is that significance? It appears to be recorded to show the origin of the church’s practice of observing the first day. There is no other natural explanation of this peculiar insistence on the “first day of the week” in the resurrection account.[1]

Most conservative biblical scholars agree that the New Testament church met on the first day of the week because Christ rose from the dead on that day. What Waldron is asking is how should we understand the repeated phenomena of the Gospels mentioning the fact of Christ’s first-day resurrection? Is it merely historical accounting with no theological and practical entailments? Or could it be that the accounting of redemptive history in the Gospels lays a basis for theological and practical significance which awaits further revelation for its explanation? Let’s explore this a bit before continuing the discussion. It is very important to consider.

We have seen that historical acts of God subsequently recorded for us in narrative accounts are often the basis from which further explanation of their significance is teased out by the human agents of said subsequent written revelation. Could this be the case with Christ’s resurrection? If this is the case (and I think it is), we should not demand or even expect the Gospel accounts to draw out the theological and practical implications of the resurrection of our Lord for the church of the inaugurated new covenant. The Gospels record the redemptive-historical acts of God in the sufferings and glory of Christ. It is left up to divine revelation via divinely appointed agents to draw out the implications of these redemptive-historical acts. We have this in the apostles and the other books of the New Testament (i.e., Acts-Revelation). The theological and practical implications of Christ’s first-day resurrection are not left up to us to interpret on our own. God has acted in Christ’s sufferings and glory recorded for us in the Gospels. God also interprets those acts through his divinely ordained agents, drawing out the implications for us in the rest of the New Testament. As Michael J. Kruger says:

God did not simply perform redemptive acts and then leave the announcement and promulgation of those redemptive acts to chance or to random movements of human history. Instead, God established the authority structure of his apostolate to be the foundation of his church for generations to come.[2]

Part 2 

[1] Samuel E. Waldron, Lectures on the Lord’s Day, unpublished.

[2] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 174-75.


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