Sabbath Observance: Saturday or Sunday

Recently I got into a discussion with a non-Catholic concerning what was the appropriate day to observe the sabbath. He requested that I read an article on the United Church of God (UGC) website entitled, “Was the Sabbath Changed in the New Testament?”  I read the article and, while I found it interesting, to me it was inconclusive. I say this because it really talked about what we don’t know and speculated about what we might think we know. As expected, it was also decidedly uncatholic, totally ignoring the concept of Sacred Tradition.[MK1] 

However, this article and discussion are excellent arguments for the Catholic foundation of Sacred Scripture AND Sacred Tradition. We know that everything Jesus taught and did is NOT contained in the Bible: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did, were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (Jn 21:25) For this reason, the Catholic Church also relies on what we call Sacred Tradition (as opposed to human tradition – small ‘t’). Remember Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20) There were no written gospels at this point, so anything passed down by the Apostles and disciples, i.e., his teaching, is Tradition. This is what tradition is, the handing down of statements, beliefs, and information, from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or practice. (dictionary.com) Therefore, a lot of what we learned from Jesus through the Apostles comes to us by Tradition.

As for what day the sabbath is celebrated, we do know that the early Church gathered together for worship and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), but the day of the week is not specified. (Heb 10:25) Hebrews also notes the importance of a day of rest, a sabbath (Heb 4:9). The commandment from the decalogue says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. [Some translations say “Keep holy the Lord’s Day.] Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.” (Ex 20:8-10) This can be read as a moral obligation without naming any particular day as the sabbath, just a sabbath. Therefore, it is understandable that, as long as you meet the requirements of 6 days to labor and no work on the 7th which you set aside for God, you are observing a sabbath. (A consistent observance is implied.) Note, it does not specify that you must worship the Lord on a particular day, but Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28) This last statement is in all three synoptic gospels.

This is obviously not a new discussion as witnessed by the following quote from the Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians (first century): “If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death— whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master— how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher.” Note, Jesus is New and Eternal Covenant, whereas the old commandment is from the previous covenant.

While Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt 5:17) he also identified himself as the new covenant (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25) and that the apostles were “ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit, for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). In the same vein, if the covenant of circumcision with Abraham can be abrogated, as mentioned above in Galatians as well as in Acts chapter 15, then certainly the authority to change the sabbath from Saturday to Sunday (the Lord’s Day) is well within the purview of the apostles (and the Church). Paul allows for changing “the Law” as he said in his challenge to Peter: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14) This resulted in changing the circumcision requirement to become a Christian. And “A man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16).

The UCG.org article says, “The passage in question about days in Romans 14:5-6 is immediately between references to eating meat and vegetarianism in Romans 14:2-3 and Romans 14:6. There is no biblical connection between Sabbath observance and vegetarianism, so these verses must be taken out of context to assume Paul was referring to the Sabbath.” However, there is no further discussion of meat eaters or vegetarians after verses 2-3. Verses 5&6 basically say that the importance of a particular day is up to each person, as long as you eat or abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God: “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one 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; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Rom 14:5-6)

The article further tries to use the fact that Paul visited the synagogues to imply that he worshipped on the Jewish sabbath. However, all the discussions of Paul going to the synagogues make little of the fact that Paul went to the synagogues on the sabbath because that’s where he would find the Jews to whom he wanted to preach (and hopefully convert). In Acts we see that everywhere Paul went, despite being the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” he went to the synagogues first. Nowhere in Paul’s writing (or in Acts, for that matter) does it say what day they celebrated the breaking of the bread or the Lord’s supper, or the Eucharist on that day. “And they held steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) NOTE: the day for worship is not specified. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Acts 2:46-47) Again, no mention of the sabbath or any particular day of the week is mentioned. In fact, we don’t know when the change to Sunday was made, but we do know that it was made by the apostles in the first century. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.” (Col 2:16)

In fact, the Didache, a first century document also entitled, “The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations,” describes the prescription for worship in Chapter 14, “Christian Assembly on the Lord’s Day.” This is what it says, “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.” (Note also the reference to Confession) From its title this document implies that this is teaching imparted by Jesus (part of all those things he did and commanded that are not included in the Gospels).

All the discussion of Jesus observing the sabbath is true and to be expected. Jesus was a Jew and, in order to call the “lost sheep of Israel,” had to be one of them. However, as we see from the earlier quotes and events in the synoptic gospels (e.g., the disciples stripping grain walking through the fields on the sabbath and the multiple instances of Jesus healing on the sabbath) he did not observe it in the strict sense that the pharisees interpreted it, declaring, “the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” Similarly, he regularly challenged the Pharisees’ interpretation of sabbath observance (Mt 12:9-27).

While not in the bible per se, we see from writings of the early church fathers that, for Christians, the sabbath was observed on Sunday and the reason given was because it was the Lord’s day, the day of the resurrection. St. Ignatius of Antioch (born ~ 50AD, died between 98 and 117 AD), who, along with Polycarp, was believed to be an auditor of St. John (i.e., listened to his preaching – a disciple), and is listed as the third bishop of Antioch (St. Peter being the first), said the following, “Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death.” (And, I would add, by his resurrection.) Additionally, a reading of Leviticus, shows that the Pentecost, the day of the founding of Christ’s Church, was a Sunday. (Lev 23:15-17) It is conceivable that, being the day of the Church’s founding as well as the Day of the Lord, the Apostles adopted this as the sabbath, which continues today for most Christian churches.

Adding to the confusion of the article’s authority, it states, in some of the discussion about commandments: “Baptism is a symbolic act representing a greater spiritual truth, the burial of the old self and living a new life (Romans 6:3-4), yet we are commanded to be baptized (Acts 2:38). The bread and wine of the Passover service are symbols of the vital spiritual relationship we have with Jesus Christ, yet we are clearly commanded to partake of them (1 Corinthians 10:16).” However, nowhere does Paul say in his writings that baptism is a symbolic act. The command for baptism in Acts is for those who are hearing the word for the first time to “Repent and be baptized.” The command to baptize came from Jesus before that, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20) Baptism is much more than a “symbol.” Neither is the “bread and wine” a symbol – read Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John as well as the writings of the Church fathers.

When asked about the commandments, Jesus gets very specific in places (e.g., Lk 18:20) but when asked about the great commandment he says (again), “Jesus answered, ‘the first is, ‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord you God with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29-31, Mt 22:37-40) So, the real requirement is to love God more than anything else. It can be inferred from this that a sabbath observance is important, but the actual day (Saturday or Sunday) is less important.

Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says about this:

  • (2175) Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the sabbath. In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God. For worship under the Law prepared for the mystery of Christ, and what was done there prefigured some aspects of Christ:
    • Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by him and by his death. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, 1st Century)
  • (2176) The celebration of Sunday observes the moral commandment inscribed by nature in the human heart to render to God an outward, visible, public, and regular worship “as a sign of his universal beneficence to all.” 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.

As stated above, from his writings we don’t know what day (Saturday or Sunday) Paul celebrated the Eucharist, but we do know that he, like the Apostles, passed along many things by Tradition. “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.” (1 Cor 11:2) And we know that sometime after Pentecost, the early Church gathered and celebrated on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. (See also St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapters 66 & 67.) Thus, we can conclude as stated in the CCC, that the observance of Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as replacing the sabbath observance fulfills the moral obligation of sabbath observance while, at the same time, honoring and glorifying the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. For additional discussion of the Lord’s Day, see Pope St. John Paul II Apostolic Letter, Dies Domini, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_05071998_dies-domini.html


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