When you grow up in church the rituals become so normal that sometimes you forget to ask basic questions.
Questions such as: Why do we sing? Why is there a sermon? Why do we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Why do we go to church on Sunday?
It is this last question I want to focus on from an early church perspective.
Is there is any evidence that the early church met on Sunday? And did this day have theological importance or was it simply a practical move? There is actually quite a bit of evidence that the early church did begin meeting on Sunday quite early.
Two Reasons The Early Church Met on Sunday
It seems that the early church began to meet on Sunday for two related reasons.
First, because it is the day which Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Second, and less commonly known, because it is the day which God made the universe. There is sacramental reason to meet on Sunday. By meeting on Sunday, one is welcoming in and proclaiming the new creation and shutting the door on the darkness, as God brought light upon the earth. By meeting on Sunday, one is kickstarting another world.
Below I list evidence from the early church (with help from Andrew McGowan’s book), starting with the Scriptures, that the meeting day was on Sunday.
1 Corinthians 16:1-3 (ca 55CE) | “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.”
Acts 20:7-12 (ca 70CE) | “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”
The Letter of Barnabas 15.8 (ca 100CE) | Furthermore [God] says to them; Your new moons and your Sabbaths I cannot tolerate. Do you see how he speaks? The Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but that which I have made, in which giving rest to all things I will make the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world. Therefore we also celebrate the eighth day with gladness, in which also Jesus rose from the dead and, being revealed, ascended into heaven.
Gospel of Peter 35, 50 (ca 150CE) | But in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven. . . . Now at the dawn of the Lord’s Day Mary Magdalene, a female disciple of the Lord (who, afraid because of the Jews since they were inflamed with anger, had not done at the tomb of the Lord what women were accustomed to do for the dead beloved by them)
The Gospel of Peter is the earliest text that clearly identifies Sunday as “the Lord’s day.”
Didache 14:1 (ca 50-120CE) | “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
The translation does assume that it is referring to the Lord’s day, because in Greek the phrase is simply Κυρίου. There are other possible meanings, but this one seems most likely.
Justin Martyr 1 Apol. 67.3-5 (ca 155-57 CE) | And on the day called “of the sun”, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
Justin also gives a number of reasons for this practice.
“We all hold our common assembly on the day of the sun because it is the first day, on which God, having redirected darkness and matter, made the universe; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (1 Apol. 67.7)
Ignatius Magn. 9.1 (ca 190CE) | Early Christians who “overturning the old things came to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living according to the Lord’s [day?], in which also our life sprang up again because of him and his death.
Although Ignatius only says “living” according to the Lord’s day, the argument about the Sabbath suggests he was making a point about time.
Tertullian On Prayer 23.2 (ca 200-6CE) | We moreover, just as we have received it, ought to refrain not only from [kneeling] but from every attitude and practice of duty on the day of the Lord’s resurrection, even putting off business in case we give opportunity to the devil.
Eusebius of Caesarea Comm. Ps. 91 (ca 335CE) | The Word transferred and established the celebration of the Sabbath to the rising of the Light. He gave us a symbol of the true rest,…the Lord’s and the first day of light. . . . In this, day of light, first day and true day of the sun, when we gather after six days, we celebrate the holy and spiritual Sabbath.
Here one gets the hint that the early church was aware of “sun worship” and they distinguished their day of worship as the “true day of the sun.”
The Day of the Sun
The early church evidence confirms that Sunday became the day of meeting quite early on. Although we don’t know the details of how it switched from Saturday to Sunday, or maybe some of the arguments used, the general picture is clear.
In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn says “Dawn is ever the hope of men.” When you met on Sunday you are declaring the dawn of Christ, the dawn of the new creation, the dawn of the last days.