The Lord’s Day or the Sabbath?
One of the most attractive teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination is their insistence that Christians must obey the Ten Commandments… all ten of them. They rightly expose the errant thinking among many Protestant Christian sects that claims, “We don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments anymore.”
One large problem here, of course, is Jesus does not concur:
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 actually agrees with our Seventh-day Adventist friends on this particular point. In fact, we believe we must not only keep 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” in John 13:34. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly said, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” (cf. Matthew 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” (Mt. 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 Catholic Church agrees 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 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 (Gr.—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 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 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 similar connection and see that the Sabbath was a shadow of its New Covenant fulfillment as well. 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 as I have said. The key is to distinguish the essential from the accidental concerning the third commandment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 2072:
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.
The third commandment is “fundamentally immutable” because it’s one of the Ten Commandments which Jesus said we must follow to attain everlasting life. However, the Scripture also tells us that the Sabbath is not binding. At this juncture we need to ask the question: 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 holydays), “New Moons” (monthly holydays) and “Sabbaths” (the Saturday obligation) that the Old Testament uses in I Chr. 23:31, II Chr. 2:4, 8:12-13, 31:3, and elsewhere, when referencing the Jewish holydays and Sabbath. Clearly, along with the yearly and monthly holydays, the Sabbath is included in what St. Paul calls a mere shadow. I’ll quote one of these examples here—I Chr. 23:31:
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.
When St. Paul teaches Christians do not have to keep the Sabbath, he speaks of the days that were specific to the Jews. He is not saying—and 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 has passed away, which would include 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 (Romans 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 was standing, the Church gave much freedom in the area of attending the Temple and keeping aspects of the Old Covenant Law if you were of Jewish descent. 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 speak of in a moment. It merely gives permission for Jewish Christians to observe the Sabbaths and dietary laws in their own private devotions.
Jesus is the Fulfillment of 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 clearly tells us that this “rest” being spoken of is not the Seventh Day. The “Seventh Day” was a mere shadow of a rest that only Christ could actualize. Let’s look at Hebrews 4:4-10:
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 seems to indicate that the Jewish “seventh day” has been superceded, 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 give what the Sabbath symbolized. Only he can fulfill it. However, continuing on reading Hebrews we get some clues to indicate that it is not that simple.
In Hebrews 10:1-26 we see movement in a definitive way 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 only makes sense when we understand that “the Church” is the body of Christ as Eph. 1:22-23 says. We begin in Heb. 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 most grave and “deliberate sin” he mentions in verse 26 most likely refers back 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 have no power to save. This was the central purpose of Hebrews. In fact, in 13:10 he comes out 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 temple and mere “shadows” have no right to the substance which 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. This is mandatory.
Deduction, My Dear Watson, Simple Deduction
To summarize, we have these certain facts. First, Jesus commands us to keep the commandments. All ten of them! Second, we see that the Church, and gathering together as a church, is essential for Christians in order to be able to receive the sacraments that are essential for salvation. And third, the Sabbath is not mandatory for Christians.
Would it not seem to 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” (cf. Rev. 1:10). But we see this confirmed in many texts of the New Testament as well.
What day is this?
Whenever we see Christians meeting to worship the Lord, receive communion and/or to take up collections as Christians and 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 into the Synagogue on the Sabbath (cf. 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 Cleopas and an unnamed disciples’ “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 being built in the 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 Cor. 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. You know that’s church! It ain’t church without the collection! When you consider St. Paul had just spent the majority of six chapters correcting abuses in the church (see I Cor. 10:14-33; 11:1-22; 27-34; 12:1-31; 14:1-40), specifically, 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 fits the context that St. Paul 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 glaringly emphasizes the 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. CCC 2175 reminds us, “Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath which it follows chronologically every week.” 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 (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 essential truth of the Third Commandment] 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 then 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 both rest from the toil of labor and enter into God’s rest and peace.
In the New Covenant, “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 typified. Christ came to enable us to realize what we could not through the Old Covenant. In Christ and through the Eucharist—his flesh—(cf. 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” (cf. Rev. 21:1), and we become partakers in “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5) through Christ who is the beginning of the new creation. It is only right and fitting that we would have “another day” of rest to complete the new creation (cf. Heb. 4:8).
The earliest extra-biblical Christian writings extant present this truth of Christ being resurrected on what they called the “eighth day;” and thereby, he gave us “the Lord’s Day” as the fulfillment of the immutable commandment that is the Third Commandment. These earliest of the Church fathers taught that after the seven days of the first creation, Christ completed and fulfilled all that the first creation merely foreshadowed. And when did this occur? Again, this would be on “the eighth day,” or Sunday.
To give you a sense of the antiquity of what we are talking about here, let us take a look at 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.
This ancient Christian document is referring to Luke 24:1; 13; 29; 33; 50-51, and John 20:19, which present Jesus as himself being resurrected, ascending into heaven, and appearing to the apostles to empower them to forgive sins “on the first day of the week.” This first-century Christian writer is presenting what becomes a pattern in the New Testament.
Anyway, the Fathers of the Church understood this to be so from the very beginning of the Christian era. In his Epistle to the Magnesians 9, St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in AD 107, adds:
And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days [of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, “To the end, for the eighth day” on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ.
St. Ignatius here refers to a heading added by the ancient translators of the LXX before Psalm 6 and Psalm 12, each of which reads: “the Eighth Day.” It is not in the inspired text, but Ignatius’ use of it helps us to see the earliest Christian understanding of “the eighth day.”
St. Justin Martyr also makes clear that Christians worship one day after “the day of Saturn,” in his “First Apology,” chapter 67, written in AD 150:
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 succors 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 Savior 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.
Once we understand Christ’s resurrection on Sunday was truly the beginning of the new creation, “the eighth day,” we can understand what Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, para. 106 taught:
By a tradition handed down from the apostles, which took its origin from the very day of Christ’s resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every eighth day… appropriately called the Lord’s Day or Sunday.
Catholics actually keep the seventh day, in a sense, but from a different reference point—the reference point of the new creation that occurred on “the eighth day” or “the first day of the week” from the reference point of the first creation. As CCC 2176 says:
Sunday worship fulfills the moral command of the Old Covenant, taking up its rhythm and spirit in the weekly celebration of the Creator and Redeemer of his people.
Sunday, for Christians, is both “the first day” in that it is the first of the seven days of the first creation. And it is the “eighth day” in its being the inaugural of the new creation. Moreover, it becomes the “seventh day” from the perspective of that new creation. And all of this is so because 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” (see Rev. 1:10), holy every “seventh” day.
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