Saturday, June 1, 2013

Upon the First Day of the Week

I think this is the most technical post I have written on this blog, but some of these technical details are necessary for reasons that may become apparent as you read. I got a couple of private questions about some comments I made about the Lord's Supper in the recent post, "My First Lent", so I thought I'd present my study on that topic. The day and frequency of the Lord's Supper may seem minor. Compared to love, mercy, faith, resurrection, etc., it is indeed less weighty. However, because of the questions and the importance that I have placed on day and frequency in the past, I believe it is worthy of consideration.

Many in churches of Christ insist that the Lord’sSupper must be observed on every Sunday and only on Sunday, no exceptions and are quite dogmatic about this. This is also a doctrine and practice that is peculiar, so it is often discussed when talking to people of other denominations. I wrote a post a while back about "restudying" and this is an example of what I was saying in that post. This doctrine and practice is part of the identity of churches of Christ.

I do not believe this issue is a big deal. This post alone gives it more attention than it really deserves. I believe that there is considerable liberty given to us as to when we may observe the Lord's Supper. So, to be clear, I do not believe it is wrong to observe the Lord's Supper only on Sunday and every Sunday. But I do believe it is a mistake to make only and every Sunday a test for fellowship. I am not encouraging changing the frequency or practice. I am encouraging less dogmatism on the frequency and day.

Every Sunday is surely an acceptable frequency, but so are a variety of other times and days. Jesus instituted it on a Thursday and said "whenever" (1 Cor. 11:23, 25-26). One group of Christians observed it on a Monday (Acts 20:11). (I'll build that case in this post.) It could be argued that the early Jerusalem church observed it daily (Acts 2:46). "Only and every Sunday" is not a litmus test to determine if a church is a true church. The Bible doesn't seem to place such limits on frequency or day of the week.

Acts 20:7 is the primary proof text for this "only every Sunday" doctrine and practice. It is the only verse that specifies the day of the week that a church took the Lord’s Supper. However, I believe the evidence that they actually observed the Lord's Supper on Monday is compelling, perhaps overwhelming.

Leaving aside the question of whether this or any example should be binding on all churches for all time, let’s examine this text. Can we be sure that this group of disciples actually partook of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week? There are a couple of things that need to be considered in order to answer that question. First, was Luke using Roman time or Jewish time to count the days? Second, does "break bread" refer to the Lord's Supper in this passage?

Roman or Jewish Time?
According to Jewish time, the first day of the week begins at sunset on what we would call Saturday evening and lasts until sunset on what we would call Sunday evening. Roman time, like our time, counts days from midnight until midnight. So, since this text mentions events before midnight and on the next morning, it is important to discern whether Jewish time or Roman time is used to describe the first day of the week.

It is more likely that Luke was using Roman time for two reasons. First is that Luke wrote to a Gentile audience (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) and would have used terms familiar to them. The second and more convincing reason is found in the context. Recall that a Jewish day begins at sundown the evening before. Paul began his speech before midnight and continued until midnight. His plan was to depart on the next day (verse 7). Notice that in verse 11, he departed after day break. That indicates that Luke considered the early morning to be the next day. When you also consider that the first day of the week would have been a work day for them, it is likely that they met in the afternoon or evening of Sunday and that Paul departed early Monday morning. If Luke were using Jewish time, then I can't figure out how to make that departure on "the next day".

Common Meal or Lord's Supper?
Another question to consider is whether or not the phrase “break bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper. I don’t know of a compelling reason to think one way or another. I see nothing in the text that requires either interpretation. However, if “break bread” in verse 7 refers to the Lord’s Supper, it seems reasonable that it would also refer to the Lord’s Supper in verse 11, too. I don’t see any evidence to shift the meaning of that expression in mid-context.

Let’s assume for this discussion that “break bread” here refers to the Lord’s Supper. Now, we have the question of exactly when they observed the Lord’s Supper. Admittedly, they came together on this first day for that purpose. However, did they accomplish that purpose on that actual first day? The text mentions a sermon that Paul preached. I don’t see any evidence in the text of their observing the Lord’s Supper before the Eutychus incident. We could assume that they did, but it would be only that, an assumption. The text simply does not say. The text actually answers the question of when they “broke bread”. It was after they came up from the raising of Eutychus as verse 11 states. The text specifically states that Paul took 4 distinct actions after raising Eutychus. These verbs are all joined by "and". First, he returned to the upper room. Second, he broke bread. Third, he ate. Fourth, he spoke a long while. This places the breaking of bread after midnight and before dawn, technically on the second day of the week, or Monday. (You may notice that I didn't include "departed". That's because it is not joined by "and" which could indicate that "departed" is the only one of those things that Paul did alone.)

When I read this chapter, it is astonishing that the primary point that is made from this text is every and only first day observance of the Lord's Supper. I realize that I may be a hypocrite for saying that while spending this entire post talking about the actual time/day that they broke bread. But I've sat in and taught many Bible classes on Acts 20 where the primary emphasis has been the "first day of the week." Why is so little attention given to the reunion of Paul with the disciples in Troas? Why is so little attention given to their zeal that kept them together all night before a normal work day? Why is so little attention given to miracle of resurrection from the dead that Paul performed? Why do many of our children know Acts 20:7 better than Acts 20:35? In Bible classes and sermons on Acts 20 through the years, I have heard very scant mention of those other topics. I have been guilty (and I suppose that I still am guilty of this) of straining the gnat and swallowing the camel in this chapter.
Eutychus falling. Image from
Would I exclude from fellowship someone who disagreed with my exegesis of this text? Absolutely not! However, I believe that what I have provided here is a better exegesis than I have heard. But I do not believe this exegesis would be welcomed in a Bible class in many churches of Christ. I say this not as a blind supposition or baseless accusation. I say this because I have tried and have been disallowed from building my case. Many believe that this passage insists on only and every first day observance of the Lord’s Supper and they draw a line of fellowship on this issue. I view this drawing of such a hard line and the repeated emphasis on such a minor detail as a misapplication of this passage.


  1. My current church observes the Lord's Supper every week ... believing that observing it is a grace and a blessing and an encouragement and furthers sanctification and etc. Not claiming it as litmus for fellowship, but believing that if it is of benefit, why would you observe it less frequently than possible? I went to a baptist church that observed it quarterly. I hated that for two reasons. First, if you happened to miss church one time it was being served, the Lord's Supper then became a bi-annual event ... surely not what Christ had in mind. The reason why they observed it quarterly was that they wanted it to be a solemn occasion and that His table should be approached reverently. But in doing so we missed out on the idea of a feast and a banquet that it also serves to symbolize.

  2. I totally agree and would not encourage a less frequent observance of the Lord's Supper. Some churches observe it daily, and I believe that would be okay. Ironically, I believe that weekly observance of the Lord's Supper is one strength of churches of Christ. I believe that their insistence that those who don't do it weekly or that those who do it on any day other than Sunday is incorrect. I sure hope this post didn't come across as encouraging monthly or annual or quarterly observance instead of weekly. My point is that using frequency as a litmus test for fellowship is destructive to both the fellowship and the supper.