The Lord's Day – Bringing Clarity to a Century-Old Debate
By: Blake Barbera
It may come as a surprise to know that one of the most common Christian expressions used around the world can only be found once in the New Testament. What the biblical writer meant when he referenced "the Lord's Day" has long been a topic of debate, but it is not an issue that needs to keep us in the dark. Even though there exists disagreement amongst denominations and between individuals, a quick glimpse into the world of first-century Christians will put the issue to bed, at least for those who care to settle it.
“I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,” Revelation 1:10.
For centuries Christians have debated what exactly the Apostle John meant by this phrase. Was he referring to Sunday, the day Christianity has come to adopt as our day of worship? Is it a reference to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath day (Shabbat), and the day that Jesus and His disciples practiced rest according to Jewish law? Or is there something else altogether that is meant by it?
For years, Reformed theologians have insisted that "the Lord's Day" refers to Sunday. The logic is simple: Jesus' resurrection occurred on "the first day of the week," and by the time John wrote the last book in the New Testament, Christians had already begun gathering on that same day as a way of honoring the resurrection of the Lord. Sunday became the official day of the church. Revelation 1:10 is often pointed to as a proof text that the first day of the week came to be known as "the Lord's Day."
It sounds simple enough, but is it true? Excluding the verse in question (Revelation 1:10), the only passage that references believers gathering on the first day of the week seems to indicate that the gathering occurred at night (Acts 20:7). This is important because, what is often not recognized is that, in the Jewish calendar, days do not start at sunrise but rather sunset. Shabbat begins on Friday evening and ends on Saturday at sundown. The first day of the week commences on Saturday night.
It then follows that even if the New Testament demonstrated clearly that first-day-of-the-week worship became the regular custom of the early church (which it does not), in all likelihood, this would indicate that the church gathered to worship on Saturday night. Many of the believers would have been just finishing Shabbat and would be preparing for the workweek to begin the following morning.
As mentioned above, the one verse that references the church gathering on the first day of the week clearly demonstrates that they were gathering at night:
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight” Acts 20:7.
So then, if “the Lord’s Day” is not a clear reference to either Saturday or Sunday, the question still remains: to what does it refer? Before answering, it is essential to note that while the New Testament evidence for dutiful worship is abundantly clear, it does not lead us to conclude that one day of the week is more important than the other. The purpose of this writing is not to state which day of the week the church should gather to worship, but rather to convey the meaning behind John’s expression “the Lord’s Day” in Revelation 1:10. The New Testament teaches that honoring days and weeks and holidays one over the other is non-essential. It is not forbidden and also not required. In other words, saying that one day is more important than the other is to miss the point altogether. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is that the church gathered often, in some cases daily, to celebrate the Lord and to share in the communal life of discipleship together.
For centuries, the church has made Sunday our communal day of worship, but in fact, any day of the week where Christians gather to worship, receive the Word of God, and partake in communion is a day that is holy to the Lord.
And yet, that does not mean John's words in Revelation don't bear specific meaning.
At the heart of Roman religion was an ideology that can be summed up in the Latin word pietas, loosely translated as "the way of the ancients." Not only did Roman culture hold in high regard traditions and customs with long histories, but it was also characterized by a unique brand of polytheism, one undoubtedly influenced by the political and imperialistic skill of the Caesars. In Rome all religions were accepted. Honoring the "gods" of all the Empire's sects and cultures (including those ushered in through conquest) was expected of everyday citizens. Religious tolerance was the law of the land.
Consequently, the only religious adherents that ran into trouble were those who worshiped a singular deity, most notably Jews and later Christians. Because of its longstanding history and lasting legacy, coupled with the Romans' respect for things ancient (think pietas – the way of the ancients), adherents to Judaism were, at times, granted an exception from the need to worship other gods. Unfortunately, the same was not true for Christians living in the Empire.
As the power and influence of the Caesar's grew more and more prevalent toward the end of the first century, a new religious observance became required of all citizens.
Caesar Augustus was the first ruler to make emperor worship a regular custom in the Empire. He re-classified temples that had been built throughout Asia Minor via the Imperial Cult as "Centers of Divine Honor," that is, places to worship the emperor. Several of these temples could be found in Asia Minor, precisely where the seven churches addressed by John were located. By the time Domitian came to power in the late first century, it was common for Roman citizens to view the emperor as a divine being. Domitian seized upon this misconception by demanding that all subjects within the Empire worship him.
His first move was to ensure that a statue of himself be placed in every Center of Divine Honor throughout the Empire. From there, not only did he take on the title Dominus et Deus ("Lord and God"), he also greatly enhanced the efficacy of a holiday that had been celebrated in Roman society for the better part of a century.
The Emperor's Day, a day to celebrate the power and superiority of the supreme ruler, had been an annual event since the days of Julius Caesar. Under Domitian, it was transformed from a day of celebration to a day when allegiances must be sworn. Subjects from around the Empire became required to make an appearance at their local temple and, before a statue of Domitian, exhibit their loyalty to the emperor via a twofold display. With their right hand raised, they first had to make a verbal confession under the pain of death. They then had to complete the ceremony by throwing incense into the air as a prayer offering to the emperor. What was the required confession? A simple three-word phrase: "Caesar is Lord."
The name of this holiday – the Emperor's Day – was given a new title under Domitian. He called it "the Lord's Day."
In Revelation 1:10 the Apostle John uses the expression "the Lord's Day" not as a reference to a specific day of the week, but rather to a particular day on the Roman calendar, a day when every subject from around the Empire was required to swear their fealty to a false god under pain of death. John, who was himself imprisoned on the Island Patmos for "the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9), knew for sure that this day would present to the believers one of the most significant tests of devotion they had ever endured. So it makes sense that he would be "in the Spirit" on that very day, likely making intercession for the churches in Asia at the exact moment Christ appeared to him with a message just for them.
While the expression “the Lord’s Day” is not a reference to a specific day of the week, it does represent something even more significant. Following Jesus means being devoted to a single master. As we travel through a fallen world, many things clamor for our attention, some more invasive and demanding than others. But it is up to us to stay faithful to the only One who is worthy of our worship, of our focus, of our devotion; even if it means suffering hardship as a result.
With so many “gods” begging for our attention – the gods of power, money, sex; the gods of status, secularism, and comfort (among others) – it is our total devotion to Jesus that, more than anything else, comprises our witness to a fallen world.
 This is not to be confused with “the Day of the Lord,” a different expression altogether in Greek.  John 20:1 – this day is known in Hebrew as Yom Rishon (“first day”) and corresponds to Sunday in the Gregorian Calendar.  See Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16.  Acts 2:46.