One of the most attractive teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is its insistence that Christians obey the Ten Commandments—all of them. Adventists rightly oppose the errant thinking among many Protestant Christian sects that claim, “We don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments anymore.”
One problem for these sects is that Jesus does not concur with them: “And behold, one came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?’ And [Jesus] said to him, . . . ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments’” (Matt. 19:16-17).
The Catholic Church agrees with our Seventh-day Adventist friends on this particular point. In fact, we believe we must keep not only the Ten Commandments but the commandments of Jesus, the apostles, and the Church as well. Jesus gave us “a new commandment” when he said, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said repeatedly, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . .” (see Matt. 5:21ff). Of the apostles and by allusion the Church, Jesus said, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40; cf. Luke 10:16). And he said of the Church in particular, “If [anyone] refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you [the church] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [the church] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18).
Why not Saturday?
While the Catholics agree with Seventh-day Adventists that Christians are obliged to keep the third commandment, we do not agree the obligatory day of worship is on the seventh day for New Covenant followers of Christ. According to the New Testament, the holy day Christians are bound to keep cannot be the Sabbath of the Old Covenant, because Colossians 2:16-17 says: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in regard to food or drink or in respect to festival, or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow [Greek, skia] of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
St. Paul here indicates that the Sabbath is no longer binding on Christians. He calls it a “mere shadow.” It is interesting to note that the inspired author of Hebrews uses the same Greek word—skia, or “shadow”—for the law and sacrifices of the Old Covenant that are no longer binding on Christians.
Hebrews 10:1 says, “For the law, having but a shadow of the good things to come, and not the exact image [Greek, eikona] of the objects, is never able by the sacrifices which they offer continually, year after year the same, to perfect those who draw near.”
All Christians agree that the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were shadows of the one and true sacrifice of Christ. But many do not make the connection and see that the Sabbath was also a shadow of its New Covenant fulfillment. A shadow presupposes the existence of that which is substantial in order for there to be a shadow.
By no means does this imply the third commandment itself is a mere shadow. The Church teaches in agreement with Scripture that we must keep the Ten Commandments. The key is to distinguish the essential from the accidental concerning the third commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Since they express man’s fundamental duties towards God and towards his neighbor, the Ten Commandments reveal, in their primordial content, grave obligations. They are fundamentally immutable, and they oblige always and everywhere. No one can dispense from them. The Ten Commandments are engraved by God in the human heart (CCC 2072).
The third commandment is “fundamentally immutable” because it’s one of the Ten Commandments that Jesus said we must follow to attain everlasting life. However, Scripture tells us the Sabbath is not binding. At this juncture we need to ask the question: What about the third commandment is immutable and what is accidental and therefore changeable?
Sabbath a mere shadow
The answer is found in the text I cited before from Colossians 2:16-17. Take note that St. Paul used the same division of “festivals” (yearly holydays), “New Moons” (monthly holydays) and “Sabbaths” (the Saturday obligation) that the Old Testament uses in I Chronicles 23:31 and II Chronicles 2:4, 8:12-13, 31:3, and elsewhere when referring to the Jewish holydays and Sabbath.
Clearly, along with the yearly and monthly holy days, the Sabbath is included in what St. Paul calls a mere shadow. I’ll quote one of these examples here:
And the Levites are to stand in the morning to give thanks, and to sing praises to the Lord; and in like manner in the evening. As well in the oblation of the holocausts of the Lord, as in the Sabbaths and in the new moons, and the rest of the solemnities, according to the number and ceremonies prescribed for everything, continually kept before the Lord (I Chr. 23:31).
When St. Paul teaches that Christians do not have to keep the Sabbath, he speaks of the days that were specific to the Jews. He does not say that we do not have to keep any holydays at all. If we look at the context, St. Paul is dealing with Judaizers who were telling Gentile Christians they had to be circumcised and keep the Old Covenant law that had passed away—including the Sabbath and other holy days—in order to be saved.
Some Christians make the mistake of overlooking this fact when they use St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans against keeping the third commandment:
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. . . . One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord (Rom. 14:1-6).
During the first few decades of Church history, the question of Jewish and Gentile relations to the Church and the law was a hot topic. As long as the Temple stood, the Church gave much freedom in the area, if you were of Jewish descent, of attending the Temple and keeping aspects of the Old Covenant Law. You were permitted to do so as long as you did not hold that keeping the Sabbath and other holydays was essential for salvation. This text has nothing to do with the New Covenant Lord’s Day that we will consider shortly. It merely gives permission for Jewish Christians to observe the Sabbaths and dietary laws in their own private devotions.
Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath rest
The bottom line is this: the Church agrees with Seventh-day Adventists, as Scripture itself indicates in Hebrews 4:9: “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.” However, the Bible tells us that this “rest” being spoken of is not the seventh day. That was a mere shadow of rest that only Christ could actualize. Let’s look at Hebrews 4:
For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this place he said, “they shall never enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. So, then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest ceases also from his labors as God did from his (emphasis added).
This text indicates that the Jewish “seventh day” has been superseded—or more properly, fulfilled, in “another day,” “a certain day” that is a new “Sabbath rest for the people of God.” What day is this? Well, it certainly is not Saturday. But in Hebrews, it is not so much a day at all as it is in a person: Jesus Christ. In fact, the entire discussion of “the Sabbath rest” disappears into the discussion of our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (4:14ff).
The Church connection
Many of my Protestant friends would leave the discussion right now, saying, “There is no longer any such thing as a day that binds Christians in the New Covenant. See? Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, not some day we have to go to church.” And they would be partially correct. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest in the sense that only he can fulfill what the Sabbath symbolized. However, continuing in Hebrews, we get some clues indicating it’s not that simple.
In Hebrews 10:1-26, we see movement in a definitive way toward tagging on the Church, and not just Jesus Christ in the abstract, as fulfillment of all which was merely shadow in the Old Covenant. This makes sense only when we understand that “the Church” is the body of Christ, as Ephesians 1:22-23 says. We begin in Hebrews 10:1 and move down through 19 to 22 and then to verses 25 and 26:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come, instead of the true form of those realities, it can never . . . make perfect those who draw near. . . .
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in the full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water . . . not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some. . . . For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.
As Christians, we “enter into the sanctuary” through baptism—bodies washed with pure water—and the Eucharist—his flesh. But notice also the inspired author’s emphasis on meeting together in order to experience this life of the New Covenant. This grave and “deliberate sin” he mentions in verse 26 most likely refers to verse 25 as neglecting to meet together. In the context of Hebrews, the inspired author is speaking of those who were leaving the Church and attempting to be saved through the Levitical priesthood and Temple sacrifices that in reality had no power to save. This was the central purpose of Hebrews.
In fact, in 13:10, Paul plainly and tells them, “We have an altar from which those who serve the [tabernacle] have no right to eat.” Those going back to the mere “shadows” of the Temple have no right to the substance that is Christ in the Eucharist.
But the important point for us right now is to see the essential nature of our “meeting together” as Christians. This is not an option according to Hebrews. It is mandatory.
Simple deduction, my dear Watson
In the end, we have these certain facts. First, Jesus commands us to keep the commandments. All ten of them! Second, we see that the Church is essential for Christians to be able to receive the sacraments, which are essential for salvation. Yet the Sabbath is not mandatory for Christians. Would it not follow that there would be a day that is essential for Christians in order to keep the essence of the third commandment?
Granted, we know from Tradition the answer is yes. The day is Sunday, which we call the “Lord’s day” (see Rev. 1:10). But we see this confirmed in many texts of the New Testament as well.
Whenever we read of Christians meeting to worship the Lord, receive Communion and/or to take up collections as Christians apart from the synagogue, it is either “daily” or, especially, “on the first day of the week.” It is true that you often read of St. Paul entering the synagogue on the Sabbath (see Acts 13:14-44, 16:13, 18:4). However, in each instance his purpose was to proclaim the truth about Christ to the Jews. These are not specifically Christian gatherings. But notice what we find in Acts 2:46: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts.”
St. Paul and his companions attended the temple, but “the breaking of bread” occurred in the house “churches” of Christians. “The breaking of bread,” by the way, is a eucharistic phrase in St. Luke’s writings. For example, when St. Paul was in Troas in Acts 20:7, we read: “On the first day of the week, when we gathered together to break bread.” Luke 24:30-31 records that, on the road to Emmaus, Cleopas’s and an unnamed disciple’s “eyes were opened,” and they recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.” And according to Luke 24:1, 13, this encounter just happened to be on the first day of the week! St. Paul never says, “On the Sabbath, when we gathered to break bread.” “The breaking of bread” in Luke 24 and in Acts 20 occurs on the first day of the week.
You’ll notice as well that though there were no church buildings yet built in the mid first century, Christians had already designated homes for “church” gatherings. In I Corinthians 11:18-23, we read:
For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. . . . When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God. . . . For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it . . .
“The breaking of bread” was the focal point of the “church” gathering, just as it is for Catholics today. And, again, this was done especially on the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7).
The Sunday collection
In I Corinthians 16:1-2, we read: “Now concerning the collections that are made for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, so do ye also. On the first day of the week let every one of you put apart with himself, laying up what it shall well please him.”
St. Paul informs us that first-century Christians were meeting on Sunday for the collections. It’s the same today—It ain’t church without the collection!
When you consider that St. Paul had just spent the majority of six chapters correcting abuses in the church (see I Cor. 10:14-31)—teaching about the proper ordering of authority “when you assemble as a church” (I Cor. 11:1-17); correcting more abuses in church gatherings, specifically with reference to the Eucharist (I Cor. 11:17-34); and teaching about the proper ordering and use of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ (I Cor. 12-13), specifically with reference to their usage in church (I Cor. 14)—it fits the context that St. Paul would be talking about the central gathering of Christians when he teaches about “the collections” at church in chapter 16.
Over these six chapters, St. Paul does nothing but teach about church and the church gathering, except for chapter 15 where he teaches on the bodily resurrection of Christ and Christians. Considering the fact that Sunday is the feast of the Resurrection, this is hardly a surprise. In all these chapters on the church and church gathering, the specific day that is given for the gathering is the first day of the week.
So, what about the Sabbath?
In saying “the Sabbath . . . has been replaced by Sunday” (CCC 2190), the Church does not dismiss the significance of the Sabbath. The Catechism reminds us, “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath which it follows chronologically every week” (CCC 2175). The Sabbath is acknowledged and respected for what it is: the Sabbath given to the Jewish people in the Old Testament.
However, the Church distinguishes between the essential and immutable aspect of the third commandment as “the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship” (CCC 2176) and the “ceremonial observance” of that commandment, which would be the day on which that commandment is observed (see CCC 2175).
The essence of the moral law cannot change. For example, God could not say, “Starting tomorrow, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ is going to read ‘Thou shalt commit adultery!’” However, as Daniel 2:21 says, “[God] changes times and seasons.” God can certainly change a ceremonial law or an aspect of a law that is ceremonial. And that he did through the Church.
“This practice of the Christian assembly [of the Sunday fulfillment of the essential truth of the third commandment] dates from the beginnings of the apostolic age” (CCC 2178). The apostles established this practice with divine authority.