Why a Sunday Evening Worship Service?


Calling the Sabbath a Delight: Sunday Evening Worship

“If you…call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it…then you shall take delight in the Lord and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth.”

Why should a church consider having two Sunday worship services, one in the morning and the other in the evening? The answer lies in this exhortation from Isaiah 58:13-14 to delight in the holy day of the Lord.

The Sabbath day is intended to be a delight for God’s people. Often Sunday worship is treated as a burden or a begrudging duty, but God has given the church the Sabbath day, morning and evening, in order to find joy in him.

How? Well, it’s not the day itself that’s delightful. Isaiah explains that if the Sabbath is treated as intended by God, then we will find delight in the Lord. What he means is that the Sabbath day is a gift from God so that we may better know and enjoy him. The true goal of Sabbath rest is to worship and have fellowship with God himself. And if we delight in and honor God’s gift properly, then we will receive and experience his joy and delight.

The Sabbath is a gift from God so that we may rest from our regular work and rest in God. And the whole day, not just the morning hours, is that divine gift for our good and joy.

The Sabbath Day in Creation

The Sabbath is present almost from the very beginning of creation. God on the seventh day of creation rests, and blesses the Sabbath day and made it holy (Genesis 2:1-3). All through the first six days of creation we see God evaluate each day in terms of evening and morning (Genesis 1). The whole day, evening and morning, was devoted to the work of creation. And then God devotes the whole seventh day in its entirety to rest. The whole day, evening and morning, is made holy to the Lord.

God rests, but not because he’s tired. God rests because he finished his work of creation and is enjoying it. God resting on the seventh day is for humanity’s benefit; he is modeling resting from work, and this is so we as his creation can rest in and enjoy something greater. By making the day holy, God is devoting the day to specially rest from the work of the other six days and devoting the whole day to specially enjoy and delight in God himself.

The Sabbath day and Sabbath rest existed then even before sin entered into creation. Rest is not a bad thing; it is a gift given to finite creatures (us!) who have limits. In the Sabbath, humanity is invited to spend the whole day, morning and evening, resting from work and delighting in God by meeting him in worship. To glorify God and enjoy him forever is the goal and highest good of humanity, and the Sabbath day is part of the very fabric of creation designed to give us space to specifically glorify and enjoy God.

Sabbath Rhythm in the Old Testament

Of course, sin swiftly enters the picture and distorts things. God’s mission in creation, even after sin enters, remains unchanged: to display his glory and invite his creatures to delight in him. Now, however, the added dimension to God’s missions is that he must redeem and save his good creation from sin. That’s part of the purpose of the law given to Moses, especially the 10 Commandments. God’s law showcases how far things have fallen, what things should look like, and demonstrates his intention to restore creation for the good of his people.

The fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11) is part of that.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

God specifically cites his design of the Sabbath in creation but adds details that acknowledge the sinful condition of his people. Sin causes us to have blind spots, to think we can do things on our own terms, that our situation is exceptional, and that we know better about how to find rest and joy.

The fourth commandment instructs God’s people how to practice the Sabbath principles of creation in our sinful world: rest from your work and rest in God. The Sabbath day is the Lord’s, and we are to keep it holy. That means that we are to sanctify (devote) it to God. People were always designed to glorify God and enjoy him in worship, and the fourth commandment was given to redirect us to rest from work and instead rest in God.

This is what Isaiah is getting at when he presses God’s people to honor the day: Devote it to God, delight in resting from your work and resting in communion with God, and you will find the joy of the Lord.

The rhythm of worship and rest on the Sabbath day in the Old Testament mimicked the rhythm in creation: morning and evening. In Exodus 29:38-43 (see also 1 Chronicles 23:29-31) the daily worship of burnt offerings include sacrifices in the morning and the evening. God says that in this worship he will “meet with [his people] and speak to you there”. This was true not only for the daily offerings, but especially true for Sabbath worship and offerings (Numbers 28:1-10). The rhythm of the Sabbath day was worship for God’s people together, morning and evening.

This is captured well in the psalms. Psalm 92 is the “Psalm of the Sabbath day” and about Sabbath worship. It begins

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
    to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
    and your faithfulness by night.

The people of God delight in worshipping him together on the Sabbath, at morning and night. Psalm 134 calls all of God’s people to stand in his house in the evening, and in Psalm 141:1-2 David requests that his prayers would be accepted as the evening sacrifice. Sabbath worship was not just about the sacrifices of the Old Testament, but about meeting with God by his word, in prayer, and in song, morning and evening.

Sabbath Rhythm in the New Testament

In the New Testament Jesus affirms and upholds the Sabbath. He explains that it was made by God for the good of humanity, and so using it as bludgeon to keep people from receiving rest and restoration was inverting its purpose (e.g. Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-5). Jesus does not have in mind relaxation, but that the Sabbath was intended to find rest and restoration in God.

The Old Testament sacrifices could not provide that true rest in God. Instead, Jesus gives that in his death and resurrection. The Sabbath had a purpose, and it was accomplished by Jesus: By his death and resurrection Jesus secures communion with God for us.

Now, setting aside one day in seven for rest and worship did not go away after the resurrection of Jesus. Rather, the gathering of the church for worship now orbited Christ’s finished work rather than anticipating the Messiah. And since Jesus rose on Sunday, the first day of the week, the church began treating Sunday as the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), or the Christian Sabbath. The day of Christ’s resurrection is often described throughout church history as the eighth day of creation — the day that re-creation was accomplished and true rest was given.

The church’s practice then in the New Testament was to rest and worship on Sunday, the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). This gathering for worship was devoted to God’s word, prayer, and fellowship just like in the Old Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 11:18-33, 1 Timothy 4:13-14, Hebrews 10:26). The church kept on singing the Old Testament psalms in worship (Ephesians 5:18-20, Colossians 3:16) as their songs, including the psalms about morning and evening Sabbath worship. The worship of the church was now the evening sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15). This is how the day was devoted as holy to God: by resting from work and resting in God through gospel worship.

And the whole-day rhythm remained the same: in Acts 20:7-11, Paul preached to the church in Troas on Sunday, both in the evening and the morning. The morning-to-evening pattern of God’s word being expounded is even how the book of Acts ends (Acts 28:23-24). The Sabbath is a delight for the church, because on that day ordained by God, the people of God are gathered to rest from their work and rest in the gospel of Christ through the worship of God.

Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is the Lord’s Day and the Christian Sabbath. It is a gift from God to be devoted to the church’s gathered worship of God. The day’s whole cadence, not just the morning, should be about this kind of rest. Evening worship is a crucial and biblical model for finding delight in the Sabbath and its Lord.

Church History

For that reason, the church has historically gathered on Sunday for worship in both the morning and evening.

This practice was common throughout early church history and fueled the Reformation. The 4th century Apostolic Constitutions are a collection of instructions on liturgy and worship which admonishes that “every Christian ought to frequent the Church [on the Sabbath] both morning and evening.”[1] The 4th century church historian Eusebius observed that on Sunday “through the whole world in the churches of God at the morning rising of the sun and the evening hours, hymns, praises, and truly divine delights are offered to God.”[2]

Likewise, the expectation and assumption in all the Reformed Protestant churches in the 16th and 17th centuries, whether John Calvin’s Geneva, John Knox’s Scotland, or under Thomas Cranmer’s Anglican church using the Book of Common Prayer, was that the church would gather for worship on Sundays in both the morning and evening. In fact, the famous Synod of Dort instructed pastors to hold Sunday evening services even if the only people to attend were the minister and his family![3]

Throughout history, when the Christian church was healthiest, it was characterized by devoting all of Sunday to the worship of God. This was even common in the United States until the last few decades. When God is delighted in, then the people of God delight in gathering together to hear God’s word and worship him. And the best way to cultivate joy in God is the people of God gathering to meet with him and hear from him together in worship. 

Benefits of Sunday Evening Worship

The Sabbath day is a gift from God to his people. So how does Sunday evening worship specifically benefit the church? There are several ways.

The first is rest. The reaction to this in our go-go-go, overly scheduled and busy culture is often “Really”? Yes, really. Our lives are already so busy and filled with activities, but we’re no different than the ancient Israelites in that regard. The Sabbath is a gift from God to block off time for the sake of resting from and taking a break from the busyness. Evening worship is a continuation of that, bracketing the whole day in rest from consuming busyness.

Sometimes Sunday evenings get devoted to football and relaxation. Relaxation is good, and that kind of rest is encouraged in scripture. But Sabbath rest is also rest in something, and that something is the God of the gospel. Relaxation is no substitute for gospel rest. That is the purpose of worship, after all. Sin is still with us, and Sabbath worship teaches us to find our rest in God and the hope of the gospel. Evening worship is one of the best gifts from God to encourage that.

Sinclair Ferguson puts the benefit of evening of worship like this, 

The cumulative impact of the word of God, expounded in the context of the worship of God by the people of God. We come on Sunday morning out of a world that has sought to squeeze us into its mold… But then we are fed in God’s presence by God’s Word, read, sung, spoken and prayed. Thus, when we come together later in the day, some degree of this transforming of our lives through the renewing of our minds has already taken place… Our thinking has been recalibrated in a Godward direction; our affections have been cleansed and drawn out in love for our Lord; our desires to serve him are purer, our affections for God’s people are treated, and our wills are more submissive to his word. The more we are thus fed the more we want to be fed and to feed.[4]

The second benefit is the rhythm an evening service provides. It establishes the Sabbath as a day that is bookended, morning and evening, with the worship of God among his people. Patterns and habits direct our lives all the time.[5] Intentionally crafting our schedule to sanctify the entire day to God establishes a routine that reflects his intent in creation: work for six days, rest on the seventh. It protects Sunday from the rush and business of the rest of the week since the start and end of the day are designed for slowing down and resting in worship. It also means that work and chores that would otherwise be done on Sunday afternoon or evening now have to be done at other times. This is a good thing: by clearing the Sunday schedule for worship, God helps us better organize and prioritize our time Monday-Saturday and use that time for work and chores.

The third benefit is preparation for the coming week. Like Sunday evening being restful, this might also seem counterintuitive. Lots of people spend Sunday evening getting meals, kids, projects, and outfits ready for the coming workweek, and “losing” that time for worship can feel like setting ourselves up for a crunch. But when we understand what worship is, what receiving God’s word is and does, we can see that it prepares us better than anything else for life in the world. The benediction at the end of Reformed worship services is a pronouncement that the hope of the gospel just preached and received will be truly applied by God to the congregation as they go out into the world. The truth is that we need to be rooted in and nourished by God’s word and worship in order to walk as faithful disciples in the world.

Sunday evening worship is that. It is the rooting and grounding in God’s word for the sake of life the other six days. Ending the Sabbath and starting Monday coming off of worship strengthens God’s people for the week ahead; arranging our time around the rhythm of Sunday worship better prepares and organizes us for the upcoming days.

The final benefit is community. For those who have experienced it, they know that there is something special and sweet about the fellowship of the saints in and after Sunday evening worship. The opportunity to again gather with God’s people with a focus on our Lord, and to enjoy one another’s company as the Sabbath ends, is a special and wonderful gift of God.

[1] Book II. Sec. VII.—On Assembling in the Church. That Every Christian Ought to Frequent the Church Diligently Both Morning and Evening LIX. “But assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And on the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead.”

[2] Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 60.

[3] Godfrey, W. Robert. “The Reason for Dort.” Tabletalk, January 2019.

[4] Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, (Banner of Truth, 2016) page 50-51.

[5] See Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009), by James K. A. Smith.