González surveys the way Christians, from the first to the 21st century, have treated Sunday. He shows when the concept of rest developed in church history, and how the West has both embraced and rejected the church’s Sunday liturgy.
For anyone who likes church history, Justo González is a familiar name. His two-volume work, The Story of Christianity, is frequently read in seminaries and Bible colleges. A Cuban American, González is a Methodist historian who has written extensively over the last three decades. Most recently, he has written a short book titled A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation.
González is not writing a history of the Sabbath, or how the Sabbath developed into the Lord’s Day, but a history of the first day of the week. He surveys the way Christians, from the first to the 21st century, have treated Sunday. He shows when the concept of rest developed in church history, and how the West has both embraced and rejected the church’s Sunday liturgy.
Here are seven things we learn about the first day of the week:
1. The Importance of the First Day Starts in Scripture
Scripture reports that the New Testament church gathered to worship on Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). But Scripture doesn’t use the word Sunday, a name associated with sun worship (12–14). Instead, the early church spoke of Sunday as the first day of the week, or the first day from the Sabbath (9).
2. The Early History of Worship is not the Same as Our Sunday Morning Traditions
Jews marked time “from sunset to sunset.” Therefore, while we might assume that churches meeting on the Lord’s Day met on Sunday morning, Acts 20:7 indicates Christ’s disciples met at night “on the first day of the week”—remember poor Eutychus falling asleep late at night and falling out the window! Under the Jewish calendar churches gathered on Saturday night, not Sunday (22).
It wouldn’t be long before the church met on Sunday mornings, but it’s worth remembering how easily we can superimpose our church traditions on Scripture. We do well to learn what the early church actually practiced. In the earliest days, worship consisted of Sabbath-keeping and resurrection-celebrating on two different days. In time, the former decreased and the latter persisted, but as González observes, “the notion that Sunday has taken the place of the Sabbath is notably absent from early Christian literature” (23).
3. Sunday had Typological Significance
If Sunday didn’t replace the Sabbath, what did the earliest Christians think about the day? González lists three theological factors for worship on Sunday. First, it was the day Christ rose from the grave. This is what makes Sunday the Lord’s Day (domingo) and why the New Testament church gathered on this day (24–27). Second, it was the first day of a new creation. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 identified believers as new creations in Christ, so the first day after the Sabbath would, according to Genesis, have been a day of (new) creation. Third, Sunday was also the eighth day, a day that both related to circumcision and also “the final day of eternal rest and joy” (29).
Altogether, the early church saw Sunday as a day full of symbolism. Physical rest akin to the Mosaic law, however, was not at first part of that symbolism. Instead, resurrection and new creation provided the typological substance.
4. Sunday Became a Day of Rest Under Constantine
For the first three centuries of the church, there was “no expectation that on the Lord’s Day one is to rest from one’s labors” (39). Roman slaves had to work on that day. Not until Christendom shaped commerce did Sunday become a day of rest.