Chapter 5. What About All Those “First Day of the Week” References?

Some claim the apostles worshipped on Sunday.  Did they?

Sometimes the argument is put forward that the apostles changed the day of worship to Sunday, aka the first day of the week, in order to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.  However, there are numerous problems with this teaching.  Firstly, did the apostles even have the authority to change God’s commands?  How can man make anything holy?  Second, examining these so-called worship services makes their arguments fall apart.

We saw previously that God Himself rested on the Sabbath day during Creation Week, thus setting the example.  However, by doing so, He also interjected His presence in that 24 hour span of time.  Thus, the Sabbath was made holy, not only by decree, which we don’t see recorded until later, but by His presence.

[The fact is that only God can make anything holy.  Let’s be clear about what we are referring to.  It was God that sanctified and set aside a day of worship once a week.  Throughout the week, however, people should be engaged in Bible study and prayer.  These, but particularly prayer, can rightly be viewed as worship activities.  However, what we are referring to here are worship services, which are called “holy convocations” in the OT.]

Church Service or Fear of the Jews?

When I was small, and we had just recently moved to the house up the hill on the family farm, my mother had put a purple cardboard plaque on a wall.  In glitter, there was an outline of some tablets, and using Roman numerals was a listing of the Ten Commandments.

“Mom?” I asked.


“What’s a Sabbath?”

“Well, in the Old Testament, that was the day when the Jews went to church.”

“Then why do people go to church on Sunday?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out.”

Well, a couple of day or so later, she brought her Bible to me and showed me one of the most famous “Sunday” passages there are.

19 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, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

~ Jn 20:19

I was quite puzzled about it, and I answered her, “That doesn’t sound like a church service.”  She got frustrated and said, “Ooooh, I don’t know!”  That was the end of that until much later when Mom and Dad actually found a church that still believed in keeping the seventh day Sabbath.

I didn’t buy it then, and I don’t buy it now.  The text clearly says, “for fear of the Jews”, indicating that this was most assuredly not a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  In fact, they still didn’t believe He had been resurrected for the most part!

The fact that anyone would actually try to pawn this off as a legitimate justification to break the fourth commandment reveals a lot about the person.  Mom was going on what someone else told her, but she was honest enough to realize it didn’t make sense after all.

Isn’t that what God is really looking for?  Didn’t Jesus tell the Samaritan woman at the well that God was looking for those who would worship Him “in spirit and in truth”?  In other words, He was looking for honest and Spirit-filled worship!

Most of the other references have nothing to do with services, either.  In fact, most have nothing to do with meeting with one another at all.

[The Women at the Tomb

Surely, it isn’t wrong, however, to break out in spontaneous worship.  In fact, just the Gospel of Matthew is filled with such instances:

  • Matthew 8:2 And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
  • Matthew 9:18 While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.
  • Matthew 14:33 Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.
  • Matthew 15:25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
  • Matthew 20:20 Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons,worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him.

These instances are important, for if Jesus were not God, He could not have been legally worshipped.  They help establish that Jesus was the God of the OT in that He was the One Who interfaced with all of mankind, thundered the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai and during Creation Week said, “Let there be light.”

Obviously, He was God all week long.  He wasn’t just God Friday night to Saturday night and then reverted to only being a man the rest of the week.  However, these weren’t church services.  They were spontaneous acts of worship.  Most of all, these acts of worship did not change holy time.  Men may choose to worship in celebration or acts of despair either one at any time, but God expects a regular appointment with you and I once a week, and He sets the schedule for that one.

28 In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.

And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.

~ Mt 28:1, 8-9

The above is just another instance of spontaneous worship. Think about it. He was their rabbi. They thought He was dead, but He was alive!

Where in the above passage was the Sabbath changed? Done away with? Those verses just don’t exist. Neither are there any words saying that they made it a custom to worship on the first day of the week. In fact, the women were running around working! Obviously, they did not start substituting the first day of the week for the Sabbath, else the Book of Acts would not have contained so many references to keeping the Sabbath.

Paul Preaches on the First Day of the Week

There is only one incident where it could even appear that the disciples were gathered together for worship on the first day of the week.  However, it doesn’t hold up very well under scrutiny, either.

6 And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days.

7 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

~ Ac 20:6-7

It’s important that we clearly look at what it does and does not say:

  1. They sailed to Troas and stayed one week exactly.
  2. Paul was getting ready to leave the next day, so they meet for one more time.
  3. He evidently was scheduled to leave on Sunday.
  4. They probably had attended the synagogue earlier in the day, since it would have been the seventh day Sabbath.
  5. He spoke until midnight (and later, but there was the incident of a young man that fell after midnight).
  6. The passage does not mention worship, synagogue, Sabbath, singing psalms and hymns or most normal activities that would have been expected at a worship service.
  7. It simply says “Paul preached unto them”.

The above timeline might seem suspect if you are not used to thinking about time as the Jews do.  Remember, a day was from even to even for the Jews.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

~ Ge 1:3-5

The first thing God creates is light.  The second thing God creates is a division between light and darkness.  The first thing God names is Day.  The second thing God names is Night.  Together, God creates a day, a unit of time approximately 24 hours long.  He creates this unit as an evening and a morning, or rather a period of darkness followed by a period of light.

The Jewish day does not begin and end at midnight as does the secular calendar day. Midnight is not a distinguishable astronomic event. In the era before the modern clock, a specific hour of the night could not be precisely known, whereas an hour of the day was easily determined by sighting the location of the sun. Thus, the day had to begin by precise, simple and universally recognized standards. This meant that the day had to be reckoned either from the beginning of night or the beginning of day.

In Jewish time, the day begins with the onset of night (the appearance of the stars) followed by the morning (which technically begins with the appearance of the North Star). According to some Jewish teachers, night and morning begin with sunset and sunrise respectively. For that is how the Torah describes it: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

~ “Jewish Time”,

It should be clear that the biblical day starts at sunset, not at midnight.  Therefore, the midnight of the first day of the week would have been our Sunday, and they would have originally gathered together Saturday night.  Most likely, they were gathered for Sabbath services earlier in the day (remember, it was Paul’s custom to go to the local synagogue on the Sabbath day).  They could have easily waited until sundown and gone to the new location, where Paul would have continued his instruction.  The urgency would have been because he needed to leave sometime Sunday, and it could potentially be a long time before he returns.

That’s it.  No hymns.  No benedictions.  In fact, they were gathered in part in order “to break bread”.  As we saw last time in “Chapter 4. What Does ‘Break Bread’ Mean?”, breaking bread just means a good old fashioned potluck.  This is significant, as there would not have been a regular meal during a normal worship service.

In fact, it resembles some Bible studies I’ve attended.  Certainly, no one I know would call those worship services.  Bible studies are just that – getting out the Scriptures and studying what they say.  It can be done as a group or individually.  In Acts 20, we see it being done as a group.

Who Are You Going to Believe?  The Bible or Commentators?

Once again, it boils down to either eisegesis or exegesis.  We can either select a view and try to read that view into Scripture, or we can allow God’s Word to tell us what is right and wrong.  The first is not any different than eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, while the latter might open the way to the Tree of Life.

5 thoughts on “Chapter 5. What About All Those “First Day of the Week” References?

  • Richard Burkard on Facebook

    There’s one verse Sabbath-keepers tend to overlook – Matthew 28:9. The women worshiped the risen Lord after encountering Him outside the tomb, “on the first day of the week” (verse 1). Jesus’s non-corrective answer in verse 10 tells me it’s acceptable to worship God on days outside the weekly Sabbath.

  • John D Carmack on Facebook

    Richard Burkard: I would hope it is OK to worship outside of the Sabbath. We are told to pray every day, and that is an act of worship. We see scattered events throughout the OT where people celebrated after momentous occasions, and David even went as far as to dance in the streets. None of these replaced the seventh-day Sabbath in the OT or in the NT, for that matter.

    While I appreciate you pointing out the case of the women (and there were other people who worshiped Jesus after being healed, BTW), I’m not so sure about the implication that anyone would say worship can only take place on the Sabbath.

  • Richard Burkard on Facebook

    Some COG preachers tend to address this topic as if worship IS wrong outside Sabbath. I know one who puts down worshipping “any old day, any old way.” They’re trying to make your point, but they do it in a way that can lead to misunderstanding – as if Sunday prayers are wrong.

  • John D Carmack on Facebook

    Maybe I’ll go back and try to weave that into the article, then. For now, I’ll just say that it seems to be human nature to veer off into one ditch or the other.

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    John D

    I have updated the article with references to spontaneous worship, including the incident of the women worshipping on their way back from the tomb on the first day of the week.

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