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Lesson 17: How to Spend the Lord’s Day (Various Scriptures)

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August 20, 2017

If you or I had lived in colonial America, we all would have spent time in jail, or at least have paid heavy fines. Why? Because we all have traveled and done things for recreation on Sunday. It was called “Sabbath breaking,” and it was against the law.

In fact, if we had lived in California in the mid-1800’s, we’d all be lawbreakers. An 1855 law banned all “noisy amusements” on Sunday. An 1858 law banned almost all Sunday business transactions. Courts prosecuted those who indulged in minstrel shows, horseracing, dancing, and other “barbarous” diversions on that day of rest (Santa Fe Russell, “Fedco Reporter,” 9/90). While these so-called “Blue Laws” were repealed in California in 1883, when I began seminary in Dallas in 1968, drug stores still put tarps over things that you could not buy on Sundays.

The popular 19th century Plymouth Brethren devotional writer, C. H. Mackintosh, expressed his alarm over Christians who disregard the Lord’s day (Miscellaneous Writings, “A Scriptural Inquiry as to the Sabbath, the Law, and Christian Ministry” [Loizeaux Brothers], 3:6-7, 9):

The idea of any one, calling himself a Christian, making the Lord’s day a season of what is popularly called recreation, unnecessary traveling, personal convenience, or profit in temporal things, is perfectly shocking. We are of [the] opinion that such acting could not be too severely censured. We can safely assert that we never yet came in contact with a godly, intelligent, right-minded Christian person who did not love and reverence the Lord’s day; nor could we have any sympathy with any one [sic] who could deliberately desecrate that holy and happy day.… We feel persuaded that any who in any wise profane or treat with lightness the Lord’s day act in direct opposition to the Word and Spirit of God.

You may think that Mackintosh is “way out there,” but he’s in line with many other Christians who hold that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath. For example, “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” (answer to Q. 60) states, “The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the publick [sic] and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” A popular study on that catechism states that television, reading newspapers and magazines, and engaging in sports and excursions are not proper activities on the Sabbath (G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes [Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.], p. 173). Some Sabbath-keeping Christians believe that it’s wrong even to talk about anything other than spiritual matters on Sundays.

While I don’t agree with these views, I want you to understand that we’re out of sync with many Christians both from the past and in the present. Most American evangelicals never think twice about watching football games, mowing their lawns, or doing other things on Sundays that would send C. H. Mackintosh into cardiac arrest! So at the risk of alienating those who advocate Sunday as the Christian Sabbath and those who think that Sunday is no different than any other day, I’m going to offer my view of how you should spend the Lord’s day:

We should usually spend the Lord’s day meeting with the saints for worship, instruction, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer, and resting from our normal duties.

I say “usually” because we are not under the Law of Moses, with its strict penalties for even minor disobedience. Under the Law, there were no exceptions for breaking the Sabbath. For example, God said that a man who was gathering wood on the Sabbath was to be stoned to death (Num. 15:32-36)! If Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, then the church should discipline those who do anything to violate that holy day because they have broken the fourth commandment.

But, I don’t agree with those who advocate Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. The apostle Paul did not teach the necessity of observing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath to new Gentile believers in Christ. Rather, he expressed his concern because the Galatians observed “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). He told the Romans (14:5-6) that the matter of observing one day above another or every day alike was up to each person’s conscience. He told the Colossians (2:16), “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” It’s hard to conceive how Paul could have written these things to new Gentile believers if he believed that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath. Also, the Jerusalem Council gave stipulations for Gentile believers to observe so that they would not needlessly offend the Jews, but they never mentioned keeping Sunday as holy to the Lord. Thus …

1. We should usually spend the Lord’s day meeting with the saints for worship, instruction, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer.

It’s not a command, but it should be our normal practice. There are no New Testament commands about keeping Sundays holy as the Christian Sabbath. The only command regarding “church attendance” states (Heb. 10:24-25): “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” Our habit should be to meet with the saints. We have some examples that the early church met on Sundays, not Saturdays (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), but no commandments. Thus I do not believe that it’s a sin to miss church, as long as that’s not your habit.

For example, next Sunday, Lord willing, we will be hiking out of a crater on Maui on the third day of a backpack trip. If we usually spent our Sundays like that, we would have a spiritual problem! But if that is how we spend an occasional vacation day, I don’t think we should be candidates for church discipline! But let’s look at why Christians normally gather for worship on Sundays:

A. Sunday is the Lord’s day because He arose from the dead on that day.

In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John writes, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day ….” Almost all scholars agree that by “the Lord’s day,” John meant Sunday. The change of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday was the result of a long process that coincided with the spread of the faith to the Gentiles (H. Waterman, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Zondervan], ed. by Merrill C. Tenney, 3:961). Sunday became the Christian day of worship because Jesus arose from the dead on that day (ibid. 3:963).

Thus when Paul and his traveling companions met with the church in Troas, Luke reports (Acts 20:7), “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them ….” Apparently they met on Sunday evening, because Paul extended his message until midnight. (I hope he didn’t start in the morning!) They met in the evening because Sundays were not a normal day off. Christian slaves could not meet on Sunday mornings.

Tertullian (early 3rd century) was the first Christian writer to urge the cessation of labor on Sundays, but he didn’t do it based on the Sabbath command, but rather on the need to preserve Sunday as a day of worship (ibid. 966). Constantine (4th century) was the first to prescribe Sunday as a day of rest (ibid., 3:967). There is no indication that the early church viewed Sunday as a Christian carryover from the Jewish Sabbath. And there are no New Testament commands or examples of what believers may or may not do on Sundays. John called it, “the Lord’s day,” which would indicate that it belongs especially to the Lord. And, we have the example of the early church gathering on Sunday for the Lord’s Supper and instruction from the apostle Paul (Acts 20:7). Also, the example of the early Jerusalem church shows that …

B. Usually on the Lord’s Day we should meet with the saints for worship, instruction, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer.

Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And, Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

1) We meet with the saints for worship.

I am using “worship” as a summary of all of the activities mentioned in Acts 2:42 and Colossians 3:16. We tend to think of “worship” exclusively as singing, but worship should take place through singing, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and the preaching of the Word. John MacArthur states (on, “Messiah: The Living Water,” part 2): “Worship, by the way, is not music. Worship is loving God. Worship is honoring God. Worship is knowing God for who He is, adoring Him, obeying Him, proclaiming Him as a way of life. Music is one way we express that adoration.”

I like MacArthur’s simple definition (The Ultimate Priority [Moody Press], p. 147): “Worship is all that we are, reacting rightly to all that He is.” William Temple gave a more thorough and eloquent definition: “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God” (ibid., p. 147). Worship happens when we realize how great God is and at the same time, how small we are. So we should meet regularly with the saints on the Lord’s day to worship Him.

2) We meet with the saints for instruction in God’s Word.

Wouldn’t it have been great to meet with those early Jerusalem Christians to hear Peter, James, John, and the other apostles explain and expound on the things about Christ from all the Scriptures! Or, assuming that you didn’t fall asleep and fall out of the third story window (Acts 20:9), to have been in Troas to hear Paul preach through the night! The Puritans, whose normal sermons lasted an hour or sometimes two hours, believed, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word” (John Owen, cited by J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness [Crossway], p. 283).

I’ve read articles that argue that preaching is outdated and is a poor way to communicate with the younger generation today. But I would agree with Packer, who explains (ibid.), “To the Puritan, faithful preaching was the basic ingredient in faithful pastoring.” I think that the number one criterion for finding a good church should be that it treasures and teaches God’s Word of truth accurately and practically to equip the saints for the work of service (see my earlier message in this series, “Looking for a Good Church?”).

3) We meet with the saints for fellowship.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Ah, fellowship! Yes, I love pastries and coffee!” But when we read that the early church was devoted (literally) to “the fellowship,” it wasn’t referring to donuts and coffee! True fellowship refers to sharing together in the things of Christ and the gospel. It includes loving one another (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9), serving one another (Gal. 5:13), building up one another (Eph. 4:16), and all of the other relational commands in the Bible, all centered on Jesus Christ. Being a part of the church is more than just attending a worship service. It includes getting to know some of your fellow believers well and letting them get to know you, so that you can help each other grow in Christ.

4) We meet with the saints for the Lord’s Supper.

“The breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7) may refer to a communal meal, but also included the Lord’s Supper. While there is no command to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly, it seems that that was the practice of the early church and it is worth imitating. The Lord’s Supper proclaims and pictures the gospel: Christ died for our sins, He was raised from the dead, and He is coming again. His shed blood covers all our sins when we believe in Him.

The Lord’s Supper also holds us accountable to deal with our sins each week. Have you had an angry exchange with your spouse or children this week? You need to confess that to the Lord and resolve to ask forgiveness as soon as you can get alone with them. Are you at odds with another believer in this church? You need to commit yourself to do all you can to make it right. As you think back over your week, did you sin in thought, word, or deed? You need to clear that up before your partake of the elements. Do you need assurance that you are God’s child? The Lord’s Supper reminds us that we stand forgiven before God not based on our performance, but rather because we trust in Christ’s death for us.

5) We meet with the saints for prayer.

Literally, the Acts 2:42 reads, “they were continually devoting themselves to … the prayers.” It refers to set times of corporate prayer. Whenever and wherever the church meets, whether in a large meeting on Sundays or from house to house, prayer should be woven into the fabric of church life. I love it when I see our church praying with one another before or after our services. Our singing can and should be directed to God in prayer. At our elders’ meetings, we pray through our church directory. We often stop to commit a difficult matter to the Lord in prayer. In your personal and family life, prayer ought to be a normal, frequent response when personal problems arise or when you talk about someone who is facing a problem. Prayer acknowledges our total dependence on the Lord.

If you want to enhance your time with the Lord’s people on Sundays, prepare your heart the night before. I’m forced to do this because I could not preach on Sunday if I had not spent time with the Lord on Saturday night. That’s why I don’t come to any social events on Saturday nights, unless I can be home by 7 p.m. I need to go over and pray through my sermon, and to make sure that my heart is right before the Lord. Sometimes I play my guitar and sing to the Lord. If many of us would spend just thirty minutes on Saturday evenings alone with the Lord, our Sunday gatherings would reflect the difference. Puritan George Swinnock advised that if you light the fire of your heart in worship on Saturday night, like the embers in your fireplace, it is sooner kindled anew on Sunday morning (Packer, Quest for Godliness, p. 257).

By the way, our church usually meets also on Sunday evenings. I know that we’re all busy, but may I suggest that meeting with the saints for whatever happens on Sunday evenings is far better than sitting home watching TV or surfing the web? If you want to grow in Christ, make Sunday the Lord’s day, not your day. Ask, “How can I use the Lord’s day for the most spiritual profit?” You will benefit spiritually if your habit is normally to spend the Lord’s day meeting with the saints for worship, instruction, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer.

Now I’m going to offer a suggestion (not a command) that I believe would also profit you spiritually as well as physically, emotionally, and relationally:

2. We should usually spend the Lord’s Day resting from our normal duties.

I’m drawing this point from the principle of the Sabbath in the Old Testament and from Jesus’ words (Mark 2:27), “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Exodus 31:17 says that God “ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” Obviously, God was not tired and didn’t need a break! Rather, He set an example for His covenant people, Israel. While we’re not under the Law of Moses, Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath, and there are no New Testament commands to observe Sunday as a day of worship and rest, the principle of setting aside one day each week for that purpose still benefits us spiritually, physically, emotionally, and relationally. As much as is possible, we should cease from the work of the other days and be refreshed in body and soul as we spend time worshiping our Creator and fellowshipping with His people.

I realize that life is busy. And, some of you are required to work on some Sundays. If that’s your situation, try at least to take some time on another day to listen to a sermon, put on some praise music, read your Bible and pray longer than your usual routine. You need some weekly time to recharge your spiritual batteries.

Often we’re so busy during the week that time with the Lord gets squeezed out or hurried. We don’t take time to read God’s Word, to pray, to read good Christian books, or to reflect on whether our lives are pleasing to Him. Taking time to spend with someone is a way of saying, “I love you, you’re important to me.” If you don’t work on Sundays, take some extra time to spend with the Lord, to say to Him, “Lord, I love you and want to get to know You better because You’re first in my life.” It can also be a day to spend time with family or with other believers. Perhaps you can use some of the time to instruct your children in the faith. Rest from your normal work if you can. But the main thing is to make sure that your family gathers regularly with other believers to worship the Lord.


But a warning: Christians always face the danger of falling into legalism, where we make extra-biblical rules, pride ourselves in keeping them, and judge those who don’t keep them. That was how the Pharisees wrongly applied the Sabbath laws in Jesus’ day. Even the Puritans, as biblical as they were in many respects, went way overboard on “Sabbath-keeping.” Leland Ryken relates (Worldly Saints [Academie Books, Zondervan], p. 191):

In New England, two young lovers were tried for “sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman’s orchard.” Someone else was publicly reproved “for writing a note about common business on the Lord’s Day, at least in the evening somewhat too soon” [Ryken’s italics]. Elizabeth Eddy of Plymouth was fined “for wringing and hanging out clothes,” and a New England soldier for “wetting a piece of an old hat to put in his shoe” to protect his foot.

We’re a long ways from that sort of legalism, but we still need to guard against the danger. We are not under the Law. There are no New Testament commands about what you can or cannot do on Sundays, except for the command not to forsake assembling together with other believers.

But I think that you would further your own and your family’s growth in the Lord if your normal habit is to spend the Lord’s day meeting with God’s people for worship, instruction, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer, and resting from your normal duties. The Jewish film critic, Michael Medved, who is not a Christian, made an interesting comment some years ago about the Jewish Sabbath. He said (“Rebirth of the synagogue by the sea,” American Enterprise, Nov/Dec 1995, cited in “Current Thoughts & Trends, 1/96, p. 33), “However urgent the phone calls and faxes and demands of career may be, the Sabbath reminds us [that] the voices of children, the company of friends, and the giving of thanks to God are far more important.”

Application Questions

  1. How should a Christian whose job requires him to work on Sundays deal with the need for worship and rest?
  2. Should Christian families restrict some activities on Sundays? For example, should they miss church for sports tournaments?
  3. Discuss: Should a Christian businessman who owns a grocery store, restaurant, or real estate office close on Sundays?
  4. Think through practical ways that you can make the most of the Lord’s day: to honor God, to grow in your relationship with Christ, and to encourage other believers.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

From the series: The Church PREVIOUS PAGE

Related Topics: Christian Life, Sabbath

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