The Lord’s Supper: The First Day

Closely tied to the Eucharist is the weekly meeting on Sundays. Of course, we see in Acts 2 that the early church met daily. There’s no mention of a weekly gathering in Acts until much later. Indeed, we only see a reference to a meeting on the first day in Acts 20. Clearly, the church in Troas met on Sundays, in the evening, although it’s less than clear whether this was according to the Jewish reckoning (our Saturday night) or the Roman (our Sunday night).

John also mentions a couple of Sunday gatherings.

(John 20:19)  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

(John 20:26)  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

While the synoptics note that Jesus was raised on the first day, John makes a point to note that these two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus took place on the first day. However, John makes no mention of a meal, breaking of bread, or planned worship either day. But the disciples appear to have been meeting on Sundays.

John Mark Hicks gives the history of the choice of Sunday as the day to take the Eucharist —

The weekly observance became standard in the late first and mid-second centuries as indicated by the Didache (14:1) and Justin Martyr (First Apology, 46-47). However, Ignatius (died ca. 115) exhorted the Ephesians to celebrate the Eucharist “more frequently” (Ephesians 13:1), which presumably means more than just Sunday. While there is no evidence of a daily Eucharist in the second century, there is evidence that it was not restricted to Sunday alone. For example, Easter was celebrated in the Asia Minor throughout the second century on Nissan 14 even if it fell on a day other than Sunday (the Quatrodeciman controversy). Towards the end of the second century it is apparent that the Eucharist was celebrated on the anniversaries of martyrs and at other times as well (Tertullian, On the Crown 3:3-4). By the third century there is a daily celebration in Carthage, North Africa (cf. Cyprian, The Lord’s Prayer 18).

Hicks sees a special meaning for Sunday in the New Testament —

While sabbath after sabbath Paul had been in the synagogues speaking to Jews (cf. Acts 13:14, 44; 17:2; 18:4), when he encounters a Christian group, they are meeting on the first day of the week. …

The “first day of the week” connects this text theologically with Luke 24 [the resurrection]. This is no mere temporal indicator or incidental reference. Rather, seen in the light of Luke 24, it is a theological marker. There is theological significance to the “first day of the week” as the day of resurrection and the birthday of the church (Pentecost; cf. Leviticus 23:15-21, 33-36). It is the first day of the new creation. The first day of the week is rooted in the saving act of God in the gospel. The day has redemptive-historical significance as its explicit notation in each of the Gospel stories stresses (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). Jesus as the “first fruit” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) was raised seven weeks before Pentecost just as the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God before the rest of the harvest was gathered and celebrated at Pentecost (Lev. 23:9-14). The Spirit was poured out and the new community inaugurated on the first day of the week in celebration of the “first fruit” seven weeks prior.

On the first day of the week, Jesus first appeared to his disciples, broke bread with them and ate in their presence while showing himself to be alive (Luke 24:13,30,33,46), and one week later did the same thing (John 20:19,26).

Hicks concludes,

The coordination of the first day of the week, breaking bread and resurrection gives theological substance to the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a meal as it bears witness to the living presence of Christ within the community. Given that early Christians met every first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1), and that they gathered to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20; Acts 20:7), there are good historical reasons for believing that Christians met every first day of the week in order to eat the Lord’s Supper. More importantly, there are good theological reasons for believing this given the intersection of the first day of the week, resurrection and breaking bread. The first day of the week is the day of remembrance, the day of our deliverance, because it is the day on which God raised Jesus from the dead and created his new community, the church.

The point is well made. I agree. But it’s not a law. Indeed, to call it a law is to reduce the power and significance of the Lord’s Supper. We’ve turned a gift into an obligation — and the consequences are obvious.

We feel an urgency to find a command, but there’s none to be found. Indeed, there are elaborately argued cases made for the first day in the post-apostolic writings of the Patristics, but the New Testament only indirectly alludes to the first day practice. And the first-day allusions in the Gospels aren’t even described as worship services or gatherings to take communion. We’re just told that the disciples were together. This would be a most unusual way to issue a command.

On the other hand, assembling on the first day to commune and worship has been Christian practice since the beginning, for all sects of Christianity other than Sabbatarians, who meet on Saturday — but still meet weekly. For a religion with so many disagreements and such a variety of practices, it’s remarkable that the weekly assembly on the first day has been so uniformly practiced.

I have no interest in changing the practice — but I can’t see how we can damn people for meeting on Saturday night or taking the communion less often than weekly. Moreover, if we’d just get away from the “take it weekly or go to hell” mentality, we might just find a way to remember Jesus more powerfully and more effectively.

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6 Responses

  1. Jay wrote: ” I have no interest in changing the practice — but I can’t see how we can damn people for meeting on Saturday night or taking the communion less often than weekly.”

    Or more often than once / week too, right?

  2. I agree with Nancy. He said “do this in rememberance of me.” Why is it a sin if we do it on any other day of the week, or if we do it multiple times during the week?

  3. Jay

    When we make any practice, tradition or example into a law pertaining to worship and Christ like living, then there are consequences. You as a Lawyer know all too well.

    To keep “law” there must be deterrents or a system of penalties to keep those in line who would break the law. The offender, once caught must be punished for the transgression.

    I thought Christ paid the penalty for our transgressions past, present and future once and for all. Why would he then sanction a new set of rules after having abolished the old rules and why would any sane person want to invent a new set of punishments?

    i hope we have freedom but with the responsibility of worshiping and living in a way that would please God. Communion should be in that category. I would do it like our Catholic brethren not as infrequently as my Baptist Brethren. They do it in a good conscience just I do. We will trust God to judge who is right, I hope we all are.

    Thank you Jay

    Bob

  4. John Mark Hicks says “Given that early Christians met every first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:1) …”

    I have a great deal of respect for JMH and his scholarship, but I’d have to say that it’s not necessarily a given than early Christians met every first day of the week just from 1 Corinthians 16:1-2:

    “Now about the collection for God’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 his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”

    They were instructed to set aside the money for their gifts on the first day of the week. They might still have been meeting every single day or even far less often, and just had this day suggested as gift-sanctification day. My church has two Sundays each year, set apart for a special missions contribution. Why must we assume that this was any different?

  5. Paul says “When you come together, …” (1 Cor. 11:20) and “as often as you eat …” (1 Cor. 11:26).Neither expression limits the day or the frequency of the supper. If one were to draw an inference, it would be that the Corinthians were in the habit of eating a meal every time they assembled, and further, that meal should be the Lord’s Supper.

    Regarding the regularity of the Lord’s Day gatherings indicated in 1 Cor. 16:1-2, Keith cites a translation that includes the word “every.” Clearly, this is a reasonable translation. Notice that this instruction is given to the church, and it is based on instruction given to another group of churches. I take it that “each one” of the Corinthians would take this as instruction to set aside a sum of money in a corporate setting. While it is grammatically possible that “each one” is being instructed to sanctify a gift privately–“saving it up”–until Paul called for it, that interpretation, it seems to me, frustrates Paul’s ultimate purpose. It appears to me that Paul is suggesting a corporate action in order to avoid a series of private “collections” when he arrived. Obviously, if “each one” saved up his own personal gift, then when Paul arrived there would of necessity have to be collections–the very thing he is seeking to avoid.

    It appears that Paul assumes a weekly gathering of the Corinthian church when he answers their ad hoc question regarding the collection for the Jerusalem saints that the Corinthians had previously agreed to support (see background in 2 Cor 8-9). While it is possible that the Corinthians were meeting daily, or several times a week, it is unlikely, given this instruction, that they were not meeting at least weekly.

    While it may not be a “given” that the Corinthian church was in the habit of meeting every Sunday, I suggest that the odds for every Sunday gatherings are much greater than those for any other schedule.

  6. Johnny, it’s the phrase “each” or “every one of you” that leads me to believe it is not necessarily a corporate instruction, but an individual one. (Plus, the gifts, their amounts, etc. seem to be a very personal, private matter.)

    As Jay points out, early churches latched on to a weekly interpretation … and that’s enough for some. I just see a stronger wording in Acts 2, implying a daily walk with God rather than just a weekly one.

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