The Lord’s Day
Revelation 1:8 says,
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
If we consider this to be a Greek way of expressing Hebrew thought, we can exchange the Greek letters of the alphabet (alpha and omega) with the Hebrew letters, alef and tav. Both are meant to express the idea that God is the beginning and end—or, as we see plainly, “who is and who was and who is to come.”
However, these are three positions, not two. “Who was” corresponds to the alpha or alef. “Who is to come” corresponds to the omega or tav. But what about “who is”?
The Hebrew word for Truth is amet, which is spelled alef-mem-tav (???). It is the first, middle, and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth knows the beginning, the end, and everything in the middle. It knows the origin (cause), the end (result), and all of the “water” (mem) connecting the two.
When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), He was saying that Truth was a Person—Himself. He claimed to be the Creator of all at the beginning, the Sustainer of all in history, and the Receiver of all at the end of time.
Paul put it this way in Rom. 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”
John also calls Him in Rev. 1:8, “the Lord God.” This is the Septuagint way of translating Yahweh Elohim (Gen. 2:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, etc.), using the Greek phrase, kurios ho theos.
John uses a final term, Pantokrator, “the Almighty.” The term is derived from pas, “all,” and krator, “power, strength, might.” Pantokrator is the Septuagint Greek term used most often in Job and Jeremiah. Jer. 5:14 reads, “Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts” (NASB). The Septuagint translates it kurios ho theos, “the Lord our God.” In other words, “the Lord God” in Rev. 1:8 seems to be the equivalent of “The Almighty.”
John’s Context in Writing the Book
John has three introductions in the first chapter of Revelation. The first is Rev. 1:1-3. The second is Rev. 1:4-8. The third begins in Rev. 1:9,
9 I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
John was on Patmos when he received this message to the seven churches (vs. 11). Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (120-202 A.D.), tells us that John was exiled to Patmos toward the end of the reign of Domitian, who ruled Rome from 81-96 A.D. (Against Heresies, V, xxx, 3). Early church writers, such as Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome tell us that John was banished to Patmos in the fourteenth year of Domitian (95 A.D.).
John, who lived in Ephesus and oversaw the churches in Asia, was about 90 years old when he was arrested and brought in chains to Rome to be judged by Domitian. His arrest probably came in the year 93 A.D. Domitian had taken upon himself the title censor perpetuus, “Perpetual Censor,” giving him the right to determine the moral code for the empire. In 93 A.D. near the height of his madness, he added to himself the title of dominus et deus, “lord and god.”
It was during this time that John was arrested and sentenced to death for refusing to bow to the emperor as “lord and god.” According to Tertullian, the Roman lawyer who lived a century later, John was sentenced to be boiled in oil. Tertullian writes,
“How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrines along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s! Where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!” (On Prescription against Heretics, XXXVI)
Other writers took note of this miraculous escape as well, and it explains why John was exiled, rather than executed in Rome.
Patmos was the Alcatraz of the first century, a rugged island located 24 miles off the coast of modern Turkey. On one side of the island lived the hardened criminals, and the other side were the political prisoners (such as John). The political prisoners were treated with greater respect and allowed to roam the island freely.
Even so, all prisoners had to survive on their own, growing their own food and building their own shelters. Early church writings tell us that John was accompanied by Prochorus, one of his disciples, to assist him. Prochorus was one of the original deacons (Acts 6:5).
After Domitian was murdered in 96 A.D., his successor, Nerva, granted amnesty to many of Domitian’s victims of injustice. John and Prochorus were among them, and they returned to Ephesus in 96 A.D. Meanwhile, Nerva ruled Rome for two years (96-98), and then his adopted son, Trajan, succeeded him and ruled from 98-117.
John “remained among them up to the times of Trajan” (Against Heresies, II, xxii, 5). Hence, John probably died about the year 99 or 100 A.D. His book, however, was written during his exile on Patmos, that is, between 93 and 96 A.D.
The Day of the Lord
John apparently received the command to write the book of Revelation while he was on Patmos. Rev. 1:10, 11 says,
10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet, 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see, and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
There are differing opinions on the meaning of “the Lord’s day.” Some argue that it is the equivalent of Isaiah 13:6 and 9,
6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near! It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
9 Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation, and He will exterminate its sinners from it.
Joel 1:15 echoes the same dire warning:
15 Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.
The same terminology is used of the Sabbath day in Isaiah 58:13,
13 If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure, and speaking your own word….
The question is how John was using the term in Rev. 1:10. Was John really caught up in the Spirit to a position in the future where he saw the destructive events at the end of the age? Or was John “in the Spirit” in the sense of being moved and inspired by the Holy Spirit in hearing a particular message on a day commonly called “The Lord’s day”?
John does not explain himself, and the details he gives are insufficient to lay claim to his meaning. Either view above has Hebrew roots, so we cannot claim that evidence to prove either way. It really comes down to seeing this term in the context of what John was writing at the time. He received this revelatory message to the seven churches on the Lord’s day. The actual message is recorded in Revelation 2, 3.
This message has nothing to do with the “day of the Lord” in which we see “destruction” (Isaiah 13:6). It has nothing to do with the desolation of the land (Isaiah 13:9). It has nothing to do with the nations being gathered for judgment in “the valley of decision” (Joel 3:14). There is no darkness and gloom as we see in Amos 5:20. In other words, none of the destructive characteristics of the “day of the Lord” are seen in the message to the seven churches. It is only if we include the destruction in the latter chapters of the book that we may possibly identify the “day of the Lord” with such divine judgment on the earth.
It seems more likely that “the Lord’s day” is to be associated with the Sabbath in Isaiah 58:13. More specifically, it is the true Sabbath, which (Isaiah says) is about doing only what we see our Father do and speaking what we hear our Father say. It is about not doing our own works, but God’s works only. This is God’s rest.
Heb. 4:9, 10 comments on Isaiah 58:13 by saying,
9 There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. 10 For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.
Furthermore, the New Testament speaks of “the day of the Lord” differently from “the Lord’s day.” Paul writes often of “the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2). Luke speaks of it in Acts 2:20. Peter mentions it in 2 Peter 3:10. In every case, it is a reference to the same “day of the Lord” (hemera tou Kuriou) as found in Isaiah, Joel, and the other prophets. In every case the New Testament authors set forth the destruction and judgment of the nations as we see in the Old Testament prophecies.
But when John mentions “the Lord’s day,” the word order is different, and the message is completely different. It is not a warning to the nations, but a report card to the seven churches.
The Emperor’s Day: Kuriakos
Rick Renner tells us that kuriakos was the term used to describe Emperor’s Day in the Roman Empire. In his book, A Light in Darkness, Seven Messages to the Seven Churches, Vol. 1, p. 41, he writes,
“The phrase ‘the Lord’s day’ is a translation of the Greek word kuriakos, a specific word that was used primarily to describe the Emperor’s Day. It has been proven from ancient inscriptions that the word kuriakos was a common word for anything imperial and that the first day of each month was designated as an imperial day when the ruling emperor was especially celebrated. That day was referred to as kuriakos or the Emperor’s Day.
“This means Jesus Christ chose to reveal Himself [to John, the exile at Patmos] as the King of kings and Lord of lords on the very day that the entire Roman Empire was specially celebrating the supposed deity of the wicked Emperor Domitian. It must have struck John that on the same day when the whole world was worshiping a fraudulent, evil human ruler, the True Ruler stepped into the forsaken place where John was exiled and revealed Himself in all of His glory to him.”
Renner says that the revelation of John was given on the Emperor’s Day, which was the first day of each of the Roman months. There is one chance in seven that this also fell on a Sunday. We cannot say for sure, but Renner makes it clear that “the Lord’s day” was a term that the Christians preempted for their own use and application. In other words, the early Church did not use the term to honor the deified Roman emperor but to honor Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).
Church Usage of the Term
Within a generation of John’s publication of the book of Revelation, the churches were using his terminology, applying “the Lord’s day” to their new Sabbath, that is, Sunday, or “the first day of the week.”
Ignatius of Antioch, for example, who served under John’s ministry for decades and outlived John by only about ten years, wrote a letter to the Magnesians, saying,
“Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness… But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law…. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week].” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 62, 63)
In another letter Ignatius writes to the Trallians,
“On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence of death from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord’s Day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself… The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 70)
He identifies “the Lord’s Day” as the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is not known precisely when he wrote these letter, but they were written long before he approached his martyrdom in 113 A.D. It is quite likely that he wrote them while John (his mentor) was yet alive—that is, before 100 A.D. Hence, it is very unlikely that his definition of “the Lord’s Day” would differ from the teachings of John, the apostle to whom he, as a bishop, was submitted.
Ignatius was a child of about three years of age when he was one of the 500 witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. He knew John personally for many decades, for he and Polycarp were disciples of John. It is highly unlikely, then, that Ignatius would have defined “the Lord’s day” in a way that John would have disapproved.
My conclusion, then, is that “the day of the Lord” is not the same as “the Lord’s day.” The phrases are similar, but their usage is totally different. The Old Testament’s “day of the Lord” knew nothing of the Roman Emperor, but treated the phrase as a warning of impending judgment. The New Testament and the early church used “the Lord’s day” to honor the first day of the week on which day the Lord Jesus (the Christian King/Emperor) was raised from the dead.
Early Church Gatherings on Sunday
In Acts 20:7 Paul gathered to “break bread” with the believers “on the first day of the week.” It suggests that this was the normal day on which they partook of communion. In 1 Cor. 16:2 Paul told the church to set aside contributions on the first day of the week. Some argue that this means nothing, but it does support the idea that believers met on that day and that offerings were collected as well. At any rate, Paul never mentions the second or third day of the week.
The Didache, or “Teachings” (of the Apostles), is dated as early as 65 A.D., but some place it at the end of the first century or early second century. It is one of the earliest church documents outside of the New Testament itself. In chapter 14 it reads,
“On the Lord’s day of the Lord, gather together and break bread and give thanks, adding confession to your sins, that your sacrifice may be pure.”
This seems to imply that what the common culture called the “day of the Lord” (their “Sunday” or “Day of the Sun”) was being preempted by the Christians in their own Sunday gatherings. Hence, it is no longer the Roman’s “day of the Lord,” but rather our own Lord’s “day of the Lord.” In other words, the Romans and the Christians called the same day the “day of the Lord,” but for very different reasons. The Romans honored the Sun, while the Christians honored Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who had arisen with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2).
We know from The Didache, quoted earlier, that “the Lord’s day of the Lord” was a term used over two decades before John spoke of “the Lord’s day” in Rev. 1:10. We also know that the early Church did not use the term to honor the emperor but to honor Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords.
By the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr wrote about church practice as if it was normal for the church to meet on Sunday:
“And on the day called Sunday, 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.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 186)
Again, he informs us of the common practice in his time, saying,
“But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn [Saturday]; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which have submitted to you also for your consideration.” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 186)
One may argue, of course, that Ignatius, Justin, and all the other church leaders who wrote during this time period were wrong in their view about meeting on Sunday. Some even present their writings as evidence of apostasy or idolatry. However, to malign their writings would also undermine John Himself, for Ignatius wrote under his tutelage. There was no evidence that John made any attempt to correct his view or to change the common practice of meeting on Sunday.
It does not seem likely that Ignatius would be wrong, since he was a long-time disciple of John. Neither does John chide any of the seven churches for meeting on Sunday, but tells us that he was in the Spirit “on the Lord’s day.” He used the term that was commonly being used in his day regarding Sunday, or the first day of the week.
There are many such references in the writings of the early church, and there are no writings which denounce their practice. Hence, when the Roman Church claims to have changed the day from Saturday to Sunday, they do not mean that a fourth-century pope made the change. They mean that the apostles changed the day—claiming, of course, that Peter was their first Pope. This is only a half-truth, as we know, for there is no evidence that Peter himself decided on his own to adopt Sunday as a day of worship or that he told the other apostles what to do. In fact, it is John who speaks of “the Lord’s day,” not Peter.
Further, Peter’s ministry to “the circumcised,” along with his tendency to appease the Jewish Christians (Gal. 2:11) makes it very unlikely that Peter was responsible for instituting this change.
Others claim that the Roman Emperor Constantine changed the day with an edict that was issued on March 7, 321 A.D. However, his edict changed nothing. It only legalized the day on which the church had been meeting for centuries. His decree read:
“All judges, the inhabitants of cities and those concerned in the occupations of all trades shall rest on the honorable day of the sun. Peasants, however, shall be free and unhindered in the cultivation of the field, because it often happens that no other day is so fit for sowing corn or planting vines, lest the critical moment being let slip, men should lose the commodities granted them by the providence of heaven.”
Constantine’s bodyguards revered him, says Eusebius, not because he honored the pagan “day of the sun,” but because he allowed his Christian soldiers to honor the day by going to a Christian church on Sunday.
Actually, a Synod of Elvira, in Spain, was held in 306 during the Diocletian persecution, to pass an ecclesiastical ruling that defined the duration of time within which a Christian must appear at church on Sunday. It threatened Christians with excommunication for those who skipped church three times in a row. This ruling was later expanded and adopted into Roman law by Justinian in the sixth century, when civil laws threatened legal penalties for not attending church. Canon law then forbade farm labor, court sessions and public assemblies, hunting, marketing, and also restricted travel on Sundays.
Hence, Constantine’s edict in 321 A.D. set little or no precedent for later canon law.
So the claim that Constantine forced the Christians—or anyone else—to worship on Sunday is without foundation. There are plenty of early church writings—as early as the time of the apostle John (in the case of Ignatius)—to show that they met on Sunday, which they called “the Lord’s day.”