The small island of Patmos is located in the Aegean Sea about fifty-six miles southwest of Ephesus. According to the testimony of history, the apostle John was exiled to this remote region in the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96). Here he received a series of revelations from, and about, Jesus Christ (1:1). Principally, the message of the book is that of the Lord’s eventual victory over all his foes—both political and religious. Added to that is the Savior’s promise that all his people who “overcome” will share the conquest with him (cf. 19:11-16).
Preliminary to a vision of the resurrected-ascended Christ, John records these words: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10). The special focus of this brief study will be the words “the Lord’s day.”
Some attempt to connect the expression with a similar phrase elsewhere in Scripture, “the day of the Lord” (cf. Isaiah 13:6, 9; 2 Thessalonians 2:2), which, in such contexts, is designed to herald a coming judgment—either temporal or eternal. This view, however, is not supported by the context.
The precise expression, “Lord’s day” (kyriake hemera), is found nowhere else in the New Testament, though similar phrases such as “Lord’s table” and “Lord’s cup” are used in 1 Corinthians 10:21 (see also “Lord’s supper” [11:20]). The adjective form in Revelation 1:10 signifies “pertaining to, belonging to” the Lord. The term “Lord” signifies “ownership” (Kittel, Friedrich, and Bromiley 1985, 493).
“Lord’s day” is found a number of times, however, in early post-apostolic literature. A document called the Didache speaks of observing the breaking of bread on “the Lord’s day” (14:1). Ignatius commented on “no longer observing the Sabbath but living according to the Lord’s day” on which Christ rose from the dead (Magnesians 9). The Epistle of Barnabas asserts that “we [Christians] keep the eighth day for joy on which also Jesus arose from the dead” (15:8f). Justin Martyr contended that Christians gathered for worship “on the day called Sunday” (Apology I.67.1ff).
Though these writings were not inspired, they nonetheless indicate the practice of the early Christians in that era following the deaths of the Lord’s apostles.
It is clear from the body of early historical evidence that Sunday was the day set aside by the followers of Jesus to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, ESV)—obviously by divine design. In connection therewith, Christian people reflected upon the Savior’s body and blood in partaking of the communion supper (Matthew 26:26-29; Acts 20:6-7).
The passive voice form “were gathered together,” or “brought together” (Acts 20:7), reflects the fact that the assembly was initiated by an independent source beyond the disciples themselves—doubtless by divine authority. It likewise is apparent that it was on this day that the Christians (specifically in Galatia and Corinth) took a collection to facilitate their work (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Such was under apostolic “order,” and was the practice “every first day of the week” (v. 2, Greek text; cf. ESV). A reasonable deduction is that this became the practice of the early church universally (cf. “fellowship” [koinonia] in Acts 2:42; Jackson 2005, 31).
In considering the various lines of biblical evidence regarding the Lord’s day, the importance of this day in the lives of the early Christians is evidenced by the fact that, when necessary, they even met at night (Acts 20:7-11). F. F. Bruce notes: “The meeting was held in the evening—a convenient time for many members of the Gentile churches, who were not their own masters and were not free in the daytime” (1988, 384).
Imagine the depth of dedication evidenced by those who had labored hard, perhaps twelve hours (cf. Matthew 20:6), yet were so dedicated to the memory of the crucified Son of God that they could not bear to neglect the Lord’s day worship. What an amazing contrast this is to some today who can only manage to squeeze in a Sunday worship assembly when there is no other “pressing” distraction on their materialistic agenda.
Persecution was a daily reality in the lives of the first-century saints. First it came from the Jews (as seen in the book of Acts), and then more intensely in the post-apostolic period (A.D. 100-313) from the pagans. Simon, the half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), was said to have been crucified. Ignatius of Antioch (in Syria) was torn to shreds by wild beasts in Rome. Polycarp of Smyrna was burned alive. Justin Martyr was beheaded in Rome.
During the reign of Diocletian (303-310), Christians, assembled for worship, experienced horrible deaths as their meeting facilities were burned down around them (Hurlbut 1954, 56). To those dedicated souls, worship on the Lord’s day was a spiritual priority—even if it caused one’s death.
Where is that spirit of devotion and determination in today’s church? That there are some who would suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous humiliation and pain if necessary, there is little doubt. But others, perhaps greater in number, and with no spiritual depth, in times of such “tribulation and persecution,” would not endure, hence would “stumble” and “fall away” (Matthew 13:21; Luke 8:13).
Anyone familiar with the ebbs and flows of history cannot but feel that an era of more intense and violent persecution is on the Christian horizon. What then will be the fate of Sunday morning golfers, baseball and football fanatics, the too-busy-to-stop-for-worship vacationers, and others who have placed the Lord’s day near the bottom of their weekly schedule? The answer just may be found in Revelation 3:16.