The First Day of the Week (Part 1 of 3)

The First Day of the Week

by: Ronald L. Dart

The Feast of Pentecost is also called the Feast of Weeks in the Bible, although it is never called that in the New Testament. In the New Testament it is the Day of Pentecost which literally translated means the fiftieth day. For example, in Acts 2:1 where it says, “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come”, you would read that “when the fiftieth day had fully come they were all together with one accord in one place.” This is derived from Leviticus 23:15 which says: “You shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: {16} Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall you number fifty days; and you shall offer a new grain offering unto the LORD.”

The Feast of Weeks

Now this is called the Feast of Weeks, as we go along the idea of it is that when Israel came into the land and planted their crop, and was ready to harvest them in the spring, they were not allowed to eat of the new grain of the land, until after the first fruits of spring, until the first of the first fruits had been offered to God. This was a presentation to God, to honor Him, you are the one who gave us this crop, and You deserve the very first part of the harvest.

The custom was, that they would ‘on the morrow after the Sabbath’ when the harvest was ripe, they would go down, they would cut the first sheaf of the grain, they would then process it overnight and then the next morning they would take it into the Temple and would wave it before God, it was an omer of grain that was waved, it was called and translated as the wave sheaf in the Bible, but it wasn’t really a sheaf, that they were waving, it was really a bowl, an omer of grain that they waved before God in the Temple, saying “Here is this, we are thankful for what you have given us in the course of the harvest.” That is simple enough to understand that in the spring the harvest comes around and when the harvest comes around we do this. Now he says, from that day, ‘from the morrow after the Sabbath’, there is a reason why this day that they do this is not the Sabbath, the reason is that there is a lot of work connected to it.

You are not supposed to be harvesting grain in the first place on the Sabbath Day, so it is on the ‘morrow after the Sabbath’ that the grain is cut, actually they cut it in the evening, just after the sun went down, the day before, and all through that night they worked at separating the grain from the stalk, the threshing process, the roasting of the grain, was done that night. There was a lot of work in preparing it; they brought it into the Temple the next morning, which would always be a Sunday morning, to actually present it before God on the first work day of the seven week cycle of harvest.

It is the Feast of Weeks, the Hebrew word that is commonly translated “week” is the passive participle of the verb that means “to be complete”. This is really interesting, when I looked this up the first time, I was struck by the fact that I had never heard anybody really explain why, the number seven in the Old Testament is so symbolic, and why it is symbolic of completion or fullness or totality. The reason is that the past participle of this verb means “to be complete”; it is also the root of the number seven, so that even in the language, linguistically they are connected and symbolically, connected as well, seven and completion.

When he says: the Hebrew word is ‘week’ – seven weeks, seven Sabbaths shall be complete, and that meaning is all tied up together. The completion of that, the Sabbath is the Seventh Day, the number seven, and it completes the week.

A Week

Now, it is not clear to me in the Old Testament that Wednesday to Wednesday would ever be called a week, in fact if you would take your concordance and look it up, you will find, look up the occurrences of ‘seven days’ and you will find dozens of them in the Old Testament, we will do this seven days from today, or there was seven days in this or seven days in that and repeatedly, it is in the Hebrew: ‘seven’ – the cardinal number – ‘days’. It’s not translated ‘week’.

The idea of a ‘week’, I will meet you a week from today, they would say, I will meet you in seven days from today, when they spoke of a ‘week’, this is the period of time, generally speaking, that ran from Sabbath to Sabbath so that it was complete, in the Sabbath Day, that is the reason why this particular Hebrew word ‘shabuwa’ means literally ‘sevened’, a kind of past participle, a past participle, is used in this context.

First Day of the Week

My interest is in the New Testament, and it is in that peculiar phrase, that crops up several times in the New Testament: ‘The First Day of the Week’. I think most of us are familiar with the importance of that phrase, because it is commonly understood to mean Sunday, but what many people don’t realize is that the expression is a little more specific than that in the New Testament. Technically, there is no word in the Greek New Testament for ‘week’. No word at all! When the New Testament writers wanted to refer to a period of seven days, they call it ‘seven days’. Once again, all you have to do is to take your concordance and look it up. I think there are five different references in the New Testament where they refer to ‘seven days’ and for one reason or another, in which case, we would normally, if you were speaking in English you would normally say a ‘week’ as opposed to seven days. They didn’t, they said ‘seven’, the cardinal number seven, and the word ‘days’.

Sabbaton

When it says, ‘the first day of the week’, it does not use that expression. The word translated ‘week’ in the New Testament is invariably the Greek word ‘sabbaton’. If your ear is attuned, you already know what that means. It is everywhere else translated ‘Sabbath’. Pure and simple. ‘Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath, Sabbath, then the same Greek word is translated ‘week’.

For what reason, we will have to discuss that as we go along. Imagine if you will, a Greek living in Corinth, not acquainted with Israelite culture at all, using the word ‘Sabbath’ to refer to a seven-day period of time. Not a chance, because that is a Hebrew expression and we find it in the Greek New Testament because all of these men who are writing out of a Hebrew culture, and these days were Hebrew days, they come from the festivals of the Old Testament and they all were given to Israel, the Sabbath Day, was still observed among the New Testament church, which is why they continued to use the Greek word ‘sabbaton’ for’week’.

What the translators called ‘week’ they were still calling it ‘sabbaton’ or ‘Sabbath’ that is what the word means. Now ‘sabbaton’ for ‘week’ is essentially a New Testament peculiarity. In the Old Testament the word ‘sevened’ is translated ‘week’ (Genesis 29:27-28), but as I have already pointed out to you, a seven-day period is usually called ‘seven days’.

Now I would like for you to go to the first instance in the New Testament where we find the usage of the expression ‘the first day of the week’. You should know that this expression is only used in the New Testament eight times (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Mark 16:9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1, John 20:19, Acts 20:7, and 1 Corinthians 16:2).

On the Morrow After the Sabbath

Let’s look at Matthew 28:1 “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.” Now normally a Hebrew person writing Greek, a Jew writing Greek, when he came to an expression like this, would normally say: “on the morrow after the Sabbath”, as the Sabbath was ending, as it began to dawn toward the morrow after the Sabbath, he would not use the expression, in fact, you would never find it in the New Testament used this way as I will point out to you as we go along. He would never say: ‘the first day of the week’. He would say: ‘the morrow after the Sabbath’ or two days after the Sabbath or three days after the Sabbath, because in the Jewish mind everything revolved around the Sabbath Day.

What’s going on here in Matthew 28:1? Out of this particular passage comes the idea that the resurrection took place on Sunday morning, and hence the justification for Sunday worship, as opposed to Sabbath observance, but what the passage really says, literally is: “After the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the Sabbaths.” The word is Sabbath again and it is plural.

Now there is a curious thing in the lexicons, that I did a study on some years ago, I did a comprehensive word study of this in the New Testament because the lexicons tell you that the disciples were a rather indiscriminate in their use of the plural for the term ‘Sabbaths’, that often times they just referred to the Sabbath Day and sometimes it referred to a week and generally the use of the term in the plural, you could translate it as ‘week’.

The problem is, that it really isn’t done that way anywhere else other than this particular event that we are talking about here. Whenever they would talk about it and as the disciples used the term ‘Sabbath’ throughout all four gospel accounts and throughout the entirety of the New Testament I saw a very clear delineation in their use of the word, that whenever they spoke of the Sabbath, as we did this three Sabbaths in a row, they would use the plural, naturally, three Sabbaths in a row.

When they were speaking of something that took place in a single given Sabbath Day, they would say it was the Sabbath Day, singular. When they said that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, that one was plural. The reason simply being is, that when they spoke of the Sabbath Day as being an institution they used the plural and they said “when Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath Days as His custom was”, they are now speaking of a custom He had of going in on the Sabbath Days, so what I concluded as a result of my study, I believe, that there is a distinct and purposeful use of the singular and the plural of the word ‘Sabbath Day’ throughout the gospel accounts and throughout the book of Acts and so consequently when we come to this expression, and it is in the plural, it ought to be in the plural, and the word in question is not ‘week’, the word in question is ‘Sabbaths’.

Now I will grant you, when you are going into English and you are trying to convey an idea into English, and you say to people in English, and say we are going to do this “seven Sabbaths from today”, the natural expression would be “seven weeks from today”, and so consequently we would understand what we were doing there, but, if you say “seven Sabbaths from today” you are really being pretty explicit, especially if today is a Sabbath. What you are defining is the fact that we are going to do this on the seventh Sabbath after today. This is a peculiarity of the language, but it is important as I am going to show you as we go along.

Wave Sheaf Sunday

There is not much question that this was Sunday, but it is a very special Sunday, and I mean special apart from the resurrection and first appearances of Jesus Christ. This is a very special day, it was a day that was known, and it was Wave Sheaf Sunday. It is the morrow after the Sabbath where the wave sheaf was cut and offered up to God on this day.

There were two schools of thought on this, probably more knowing human beings. The Pharisees at this time believed that the wave sheaf should be offered on the morrow after the annual Sabbath that started the ‘Days of Unleavened Bread’, in other words, the first day of Unleavened Bread is the fifteenth of Nisan and they thought it should be offered on the sixteenth of Nisan. The Sadducees, on the other hand, said “no”, looking at the actual translation of the words of Leviticus 23, they found no way to do that, that it always had to start the count on a Sunday and it ended on a Sunday, regardless. They somehow connected it to the Days of Unleavened Bread.

If you read Leviticus 23 carefully you will find, no firm connection to the day of the wave sheaf offering to the days of Unleavened Bread. It is mentioned after that but there is nothing whatsoever that tells you that the wave sheaf offering had to be offered during the Days of Unleavened Bread, by custom it came to be, but that is a subject for another time. What the passage literally says is ‘after the Sabbath as it began to dawn toward the first of the Sabbaths’. This almost sounds like that He is saying that as the Sabbath ended, and it began to dawn on the first of another series of Sabbaths and that can’t possibly be what that means. I think the sense of it going into the plural is weeks, so on the first day, the first work day of the seven weeks that lead up to the feast of Pentecost and it is a very specific day. Now the eight times this expression ‘the first day of the week’ is used in the New Testament, six of those have to do with this one event (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Mark 16:9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 and John 20:19). There are just different people describing in different terms what happened on this particular singular occasion when Jesus first appeared to His disciples was on the ‘first day of the Sabbaths’ and basically they are talking about the first day of the weeks of harvest leading up to the final seventh day, the day before Pentecost which comes later. There are two others, though, in this context that I find of singular interest where this term ‘the first day of the week’ is used.

This is part one of a three-part series. Stay tuned for the other two parts.

The above is a transcript of a sermon given by the late Ronald L. Dart.  It was taken from the website of the Ronald L. Dart Evangelistic Association.  You can find more articles and sermons by Ron at RLDEA.com.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s