There are few things more recognizably Christian than going to church on Sunday. Just about every Christian church—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox—reserves Sunday as a special day of rest and worship, and just about everybody in our culture knows it. However, what isn’t nearly as well known is why we worship on Sunday. On the surface, it does not seem to be any better or different from any other day, so it is not immediately obvious why we would set aside this particular day for rest and worship.
If you do a bit of digging, you might find out that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1), so we reserve Sunday as our special day in order to commemorate his resurrection. However, that doesn’t answer the question quite as fully as we might think. See, in the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to worship on Saturday (Exodus 20:8-11, 23:12), as Jews do to this day, so a question still remains for us: Why did the day of Jesus’ resurrection make us change our weekly day of worship? To answer that and fully understand why Christians worship on Sunday, we have to dig deeper into salvation history and piece together several clues that we find scattered throughout Scripture.
The Meaning of Saturday
The first thing we need to do is understand why the Israelites worshipped on Saturday, and luckily for us, the Old Testament is pretty explicit about that. In fact, it gives us two explanations of this practice:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)
When we read these two texts in tandem, we can see that Saturday had a dual meaning for the Israelites. First, it commemorated creation. Just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so too were his people to work for six days every week and then rest and worship on the seventh. Likewise, Saturday also commemorated the exodus, God’s miraculous rescue of his people from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. Every week, the Israelites were supposed to remember and celebrate these two great events as they rested from their work and worshipped God.
At first, this double meaning may seem strange to us. Creation and the exodus don’t have much to do with each other, so it is difficult to see why God would want his people to commemorate both of them with one feast rather than give each one its own separate celebration. Scripture does not explicitly address this issue, but I would suggest that the key to resolving this difficulty lies in the prophets. Specifically, the prophets used several images to describe the salvation that Jesus would one day win for humanity, and two of them are very relevant to our topic here. First, they sometimes described that salvation as a new creation:
“For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth;
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)
Likewise, the prophets also said that our salvation would be like a new exodus:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14-15)
Once we realize this, we can begin to understand why the Israelites were commanded to celebrate creation and the exodus on the same day: those events both pointed forward to something greater. They foreshadowed the new exodus and the new creation, the salvation that Jesus would one day win for the entire human race. This then tells us something important about the Israelites’ worship on Saturday: it was destined to be transcended. Since the dual meaning of Saturday pointed to something greater, it stands to reason that once that “something greater” finally came, God’s people would celebrate it every week instead of creation and the exodus. As a result, now that Jesus has redeemed us from our sins, it makes perfect sense for our weekly worship to commemorate his saving work rather than the great works of God that foreshadowed it.
However, that doesn’t get us all the way to the resurrection. It still leaves us with one last question: Why do we commemorate the day of the week Jesus rose from the death rather than, say, the day he was born or the day he died? And to answer that, we need to look at what the New Testament tells us about his resurrection. More specifically, we have to understand how the resurrection fulfilled the images of new creation and new exodus specifically.
Let’s begin with new creation. Scripture never uses that exact phrase to describe the resurrection, but we can see from various passages that the new creation began when Jesus rose from the dead. The book of Revelation tells us that the restoration of heaven and earth foretold by Isaiah will happen at the end of human history when Jesus comes again (Revelation 21:1), and St. Paul tells us that at that time, the faithful departed will rise from the dead and get their bodies back just like did Jesus did (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, 1 Corinthians 15:20-23). As a result, when he rose from the dead, Jesus entered into the life of the new creation, thereby inaugurating it in his own body.
The connection between the resurrection and the new exodus is a bit harder to see, but it’s there nonetheless. St. Paul tells us that Jesus was sacrificed as “our paschal lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7), which implies that the resurrection was in fact a crucial part of the new exodus. See, the adjective “paschal” refers to the Passover, the feast that was instituted and first celebrated the night before the Israelites escaped from Egypt (Exodus 12:1-28). Now, the Passover was just the beginning of the exodus, so if Jesus’ death was our new Passover, then the new exodus must have extended beyond it. In another letter, St. Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was also part of his saving work (Romans 4:25), so it too must have been part of the new exodus.
The Meaning of Sunday
When we put this all together, we can see why Christians reserve Sunday as a special day of rest and worship. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to set aside Saturday as their special day, and they did so in order to commemorate creation and the exodus, two events that foreshadowed the salvation that Jesus would one day gain for us. The prophets said that Jesus’ salvation would be like a new creation and a new exodus, and the New Testament tells us that those two images were both fulfilled in his resurrection, which happened on a Sunday. As a result, we can see that the meaning of Saturday in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Sunday, so it makes perfect sense for Christians to worship on the first day of the week instead of the last.