Christians may worship at any time, for all time has been hallowed by God. The covenant community worshiped daily. But God set aside one day in seven to be kept holy to the Lord. In the Old Testament the Sabbath was understood as a day totally set aside and offered to the Lord. In the New Testament, believers observed the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, as the time when the new people of the covenant gathered to worship God in Jesus Christ. They came to speak of this as the Lord’s Day.
From earliest times, the church has gathered on the Lord’s Day for the proclamation and exposition of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments. The Reformed tradition has emphasized the importance of the Lord’s Day as the time for hearing the Word and celebrating the Sacraments in the expectation of encountering the risen Lord, and for responding in prayer and service. (Directory for Worship, W-1.3011)
The Lord’s Day
An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship (Geneva Press, 2003, pp. 84-85).
From earliest times, Christians have gathered on Sunday (the Lord’s Day): “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them” (Acts 20:7). By the end of the first century, a church manual called the Didache instructed Christians to come together every Lord’s Day for giving thanks and breaking of bread. Justin Martyr, in the mid-second century, writes of worship on Sunday as the common time to celebrate the resurrection and the transformation of creation. Sunday was and is the normative day for celebrating the fact that “everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
The reason the early Christians gathered for public worship on Sunday is found in the New Testament focus on the “first day of the week”—the day of Jesus’ resurrection. All four Gospels affirm the first day of the week as the day of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 28:1ff; Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19). The risen and victorious Christ triumphed over the power of death. The Lord of life reigned. To honor God’s work in raising Jesus from the dead, Christians gathered on the first day of the week to break bread and encounter the risen Lord. Sunday derives its meaning from Christ’s resurrection, and it became a thankful celebration of being raised together with Christ.
As the first Christians (primarily Jews) recalled the creation stories of Genesis, they remembered how God completed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh. On the eight day of creation (“the first day of the week,” according to all four Gospels), God continued the work of creation by raising Christ from the dead. This eighth day of creation / first day of the week is what became commonly known as the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10), the day of resurrection.
The Lord’s Day was characterized by recollecting Jesus’ words and deeds, and celebrating the presence of the risen Christ among them in the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper. A story and a meal formed the heart of worship each Sunday. Sunday was and is a festival in its own right.
On Sunday, the church’s worship focused on the presence of the risen Lord. And, since the church’s definitive celebration and experience of the resurrection of the Lord is the Lord’s Supper, the Lord’s Day of resurrection, Sunday, is inseparably linked to the Lord’s Supper. The weekly cycle of Sundays also looks ahead to a final future fulfillment. The Epistle of Barnabas, written by a late-first-century Christian of Alexandria, urged rejoicing on the eighth day of creation / first day of the week as “the beginning of a new world, because that was when Jesus rose from the dead.” Every Lord’s Day (or resurrection) celebrates the unfolding presence of the new creation revealed in the risen Christ. In hearing the Scriptures and breaking bread each first day of the week, Christians celebrate the age to come.
Thus Sunday, the “original feast day,” not only shaped the church’s calendar but transforms all days. The standard or “ordinary” time for worship — the Lord’s Day — reveals that which is becoming all creation’s ordinary time. Sunday proclaims that all of time has been redeemed in Christ. The Lord’s Day is the foundation of the way Christians keep time.
Learn about the liturgy in Glory to God, the 2013 Presbyterian hymnal.
Read a commentary on the Service for the Lord’s Day to learn more about the theology and structure of worship.