And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. 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; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. 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 we have submitted to you also for your consideration.– Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 67
What about the Sabbath?
Justin describes the earliest Christians as having always gathered on “the day called Sunday.” Why is this significant? Worshipping on Sunday may seem like second nature to most of us, but some would-be followers of Christ ask why Christians don’t celebrate the Jewish Sabbath? I attempted to introduce the teaching of the Christian Sabbath in a previous blog post that you can find here. In that blog post, I argued within the ancient Christian tradition as described here by Justin. This early church father tells us that Sunday is the Christian day of worship commonly held by all because it is the day Jesus rose from the dead. God “wrought a change” in our world and “made the world” anew. The Jewish Sabbath was introduced on the sixth day of the week, the day we commonly call Saturday, because God finished His work, and on that day, He rested. The Sabbath was not introduced by the law but was instituted at creation. Therefore, Justin teaches us that the day of worship for Christians is Sunday because God has remade the world through Christ’s work.
In using the word “liturgy,” I mean the form or methodology in public worship. Let me direct your attention to Justin’s description of what we might call an average Sunday. You may or may not be surprised by the lack of pomp and circumstance in his description, but I hope you will be encouraged by the ancient simplicity of Christian worship. Justin tells us that Christians living in proximity to one another gathered into a single place. Those early local church liturgies were described with five marks:
- Justin tells us that the “memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” God’s Word informed the early church liturgy. The term “memoirs” likely referred to the books we call “gospels.”
- The “president,” a term that we commonly replace with the pastor, would then “instruct” and “exhort” the congregation. This instructing and exhorting is referring to what we would typically call preaching.
- Public prayers marked the early church.
- “Bread and wine and water are brought,” prayed over and distributed. The bread and wine, mixed with water, indicate that what we have called an average Sunday in the early church had included the administration of the Lord’s Table.
- Justin describes monetary gifts to be collected at worship and used to “take care of all who are in need.”
Justin tells us that Christians living in proximity to one another gathered into a single place. As a modern American Christian, I long for the unity of the ancient church. I often wonder about the gospel impact we might have if we could gather all local believers into a single congregation. The potential impact is difficult to imagine. Consider the impact of the early church upon their culture vs the current impact of your local church upon your own culture. The early church overcame and “Christianized” the Roman Empire. Whatever your feelings about that “Christianization” aside, is it possible for your local church to “Christianize” America? I don’t think so. In my community there are multiple baptist congregations, multiple lutheran congregations, multiple non-denominational congregations. While each congregation, I imagine, is filled with true believers, our collective impact upon our local community is lessened and not increased by this multiplicity. There is still a sense in which we are unified, but I do wish we were more like immediate family and less like distant foreign cousins from previous marriages. Let’s pray for more unity, more kindness toward one another, more doctrinal purity, and more wisdom to know when to agree to disagree and when to ardently defend the truth.
Justin tells us that the early church spent a considerable amount of time reading scripture. Modern American Christians have the awesome privilege of owning their own personal copies of the Bible, and the basic education required to read it for themselves. The average church member in Justin’s day would not have been so wonderfully gifted. We have so much to be thankful for. To quote the great theologian Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.” What are we, modern American Christians doing with our gifts? Are we too busy to read the scripture? What might those early Christians have given in order to own a copy of scripture for themselves and acquire the education to read it for themselves? I suspect, if they had what we have, their Bibles would not be sitting on a shelf collecting dust.