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Worship on Saturday or Sunday?

One of the most attractive things about Seventh-day Adventists is their insistence that Christians obey the Ten Commandments—all ten of them. They rightly oppose the errant thinking among many Protestant Christian sects that claims, “We don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments anymore.” One problem, of course, is that Jesus disagrees: “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).

Catholics agree with our Seventh-day Adventist friends on this particular point. In fact, we believe we must not only keep the Ten Commandments but also the commandments of Jesus, the apostles, and the Church. 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 repeatedly said, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . .” (Matt. 5:21ff).

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, “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 Catholic Church agrees with Seventh-day Adventists that Christians are obliged to keep the third commandment, we do not agree that for New Covenant followers of Christ the obligatory day of worship is the seventh day. According to the New Testament, the holy day Christians are bound to keep cannot be the Sabbath of the Old Covenant:

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 (Gr.—skia) of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16-17).

St. Paul indicates here 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 animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant that are no longer binding on Christians, either. Hebrews 10:1 says:

For the law, having but a shadow (Gr.—skian) of the good things to come, and not the exact image (Gr.—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—and foreshadowed—the one and true sacrifice of Christ. But many do not make the similar connection and see that the Sabbath also was 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.

Does this mean that the third commandment itself is a mere shadow? By no means! The Church teaches in agreement with Scripture that we must keep the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls them “fundamentally immutable” (CCC 2072). Jesus said we must follow them to attain everlasting life.

However, Scripture also tells us that the Sabbath is not binding. What is it about the third commandment that is immutable, and what is it that is accidental and therefore changeable?

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 holy days), “new moons” (monthly holy days) and “Sabbaths” (the Saturday obligation) that the Old Testament uses in I Chronicles 23:31, II Chronicles 2:4, 8:12-13, 31:3, and elsewhere, when referencing the Jewish holy days and Sabbath. Clearly, along with the yearly and monthly holy days, the Sabbath is included in what St. Paul calls a mere shadow.

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 is not saying we do not have to keep any holy days 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 has passed away, which would include the Sabbath and other holy days, in order to be saved.

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 was standing, if you were a Christian of Jewish descent, the Church gave you much freedom in attending the Temple and keeping aspects of the Old Covenant Law. You were permitted to do so if you did not hold that keeping the Sabbath and other holy days was essential for salvation. This text has nothing to do with the New Covenant Lord’s Day that we will speak of in a moment.

Jesus: fulfillment of Sabbath rest

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. The “seventh day” was a shadow of a rest that only Christ could actualize. Hebrews 4 seems to indicate 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 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 here 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 give what the Sabbath symbolized.

However, in Hebrews 10:1-26 we see definitive movement toward tagging on the Church as fulfillment of all which was merely shadow in the Old Covenant and not just Jesus Christ in the abstract. And 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, . . . 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 had no power to save. This was the central purpose of Hebrews. In fact, in 13:10 he tells them plainly, “We have an altar from which those who serve the [tabernacle] have no right to eat.” Those going back to the temple and mere “shadows” have no right to the substance that is Christ in the Eucharist.

But the important point right now is to see the essential nature of our “meeting together” as Christians. This is not an option according to Hebrews. This is mandatory.

Simple deduction

In the end, we have 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 in turn 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 to keep the essence of the third commandment?

Granted, we know from Tradition the answer is yes. The day is Sunday. But we see this confirmed in many texts of the New Testament as well.

Whenever we see 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, it’s “on the first day of the week.” It is true that you often see St. Paul entering the synagogue on the Sabbath (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 Cleopas and an unnamed disciple’s “eyes were opened” and they recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:30-31).

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 in the first century, Christians had already designated homes for “church” gatherings (see I Cor. 11:18-23). 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 (see Acts 20:7).

The Sunday collection

St. Paul tells Christians in Corinth: “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” (I Cor. 16:1-2).

When you consider that St. Paul 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 Lord’s Supper (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 follows that he would be talking about the central gathering of Christians when he then 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. 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.

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 instructs us, “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath, which it follows chronologically every week” (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 Sabbath 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 (cf. CCC 2175). The essence of the moral law cannot change.

For example, God himself 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 truth of the Jewish Sabbath] dates from the beginnings of the apostolic age” (CCC 2178). The apostles established this practice with divine authority.

Going deeper: the eighth day

The Sabbath was given to man in the context of the consummation of the six days of creation. After the sixth day, man was commanded to “rest” as God “rested.” The idea here is not that God was tired—he’s God! The Sabbath is an opportunity for man to rest from the toil of labor and enter God’s rest and peace.

The “Lord’s Day” is also given in the context of the consummation of creation. However, it is a new creation and a New Covenant that has fulfilled what the Old Covenant foreshadowed. Christ came to enable us to realize what we could not through the Old Testament. In Christ and through the Eucharist—his flesh(Heb. 10:20) we truly “cease from our labors as God did from his” (Heb. 4:10).

It is no accident that John 1:1 parallels Gen. 1:1. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. All things were made through him” is a parallel to “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When John 1:14 says, “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” Christ becomes the beginning of a new creation.

II Cor. 5:17 reads, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” It is precisely because of our participation in the death and subsequent resurrected life of Christ—“Awake O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph. 5:14)—that Christians become participants in the “first resurrection” as Rev. 20:5-6 has it. We experience the power of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) through Christ, who is the beginning of the new creation. It is only right and fitting that we would have a new day of rest to complete the new creation.

The earliest Christian writings we have present this truth of Christ being resurrected on what they called the “eighth day.” The early Fathers taught that after the seven days of the first creation, Christ completed and fulfilled all that the first creation “shadowed.” And when did this occur? On “the eighth day,” or Sunday. The epistle of Barnabas, chapter 15 (written in the late first or early second century), says:

Finally [God] says to them: “I cannot bear your new moons and Sabbaths.” You see what he means: It is not the present Sabbaths that are acceptable to me, but the one that I have made; on that Sabbath day, which is the beginning of another world. This is why we spend the eighth day in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven.

As a matter of biblical history, Christ not only rose from the dead, he also appeared and ascended on Sunday (Luke 24:51)!

Sunday, for Christians, is “the first day” in that it is Sunday, the “eighth day” in its being the inaugural of the new creation and the “seventh day” from the perspective of that new creation. It is the day Christ entered into his rest and the day the salvation of the world was secured—we could then become a new creation in Christ and enter in to the rest and peace of Christ.

The first creation and Sabbath comprised seven days. The new creation and Lord’s day were consummated in one day. Sunday is then our day of rest. It is the day that we enter into the rest of God through our resurrected Lord. We then keep this, “the Lord’s Day,” holy every “seventh” day.

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