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The Sabbath

Question: Catholic writers say that the day of worship was changed from the seventh (Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday) by the Catholic Church. I believe we should keep all Ten Commandments, as our Lord did, including the seventh day Sabbath. Some Baptists believe this also. What do you think?

Answer: Most Christians rest from their daily work and meet for worship on Sunday. We do not meet on Saturday because we do not keep the Jewish Sabbath or observe the ceremonial laws that formed part of the Jewish Sabbath, just as we do not observe the other ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic Law. These regulations pointed to and were fulfilled in Christ.

The Sabbath was a sign of God’s covenant with the Jews (Exodus 31:13-17). They were commanded to offer two lambs and renew the bread of God’s presence in the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:5-9; Numbers 28:9-10). Today, the old covenant with the Jews gave way to a better covenant, the New Testament in Jesus’ blood. Therefore the signs of the old covenant (including circumcision, the animal sacrifices, the Jewish feasts and the Sabbath) are now obsolete.

During Jesus’ lifetime, the Mosaic Law was still in force, and as expected, he rested on the Sabbath, attended the Jewish synagogue, and participated in the Temple worship and the feasts of the Jews. But after his death and resurrection, the new covenant was established and the old regulations were set aside.

Keeping in mind that the first Christians were devout Jews, we should not be surprised that they initially kept the Jewish customs, including meeting on the Sabbath, circumcision and the dietary laws. The change was gradual but decisive.

The early church was aware of the great change that had taken place. Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, writes in the 4th century: ‘They (the righteous people who lived before Abraham) did not care about circumcision of the body, neither do we. They did not care about observing Sabbaths, nor do we. They did not avoid certain kinds of food, neither did they regard the other distinctions which Moses first delivered to their posterity to be observed as symbols; nor do Christians of the present day do such things’ (Church History, book 1, chapter 4).

These changes had already started in the apostolic church. Indeed, the apostle Paul expressed great concern when he heard that the Christians in the churches of Galatia were turning back to the old ways. He wrote: ‘You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain’ (Galatians 4:10, 11).

A similar problem arose in the Colossian church. Some teachers were insisting that Christians should observe the Jewish ceremonial laws, including the Sabbath. Paul strongly opposed the idea: ‘So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ’ (Colossians 2:16-17). The Jews had the ceremonies (shadows, symbols, pictures); we have the substance, the reality – Christ himself!

As Christians we should not keep the Jewish Sabbath, but like our forefathers in the faith, we too need the weekly rest, and the Christian community has even more reason to come together and worship God our Saviour.

But why meet on Sunday, the first day of the week?

1. Christians meet on Sunday to mark the glorious day of Jesus’ resurrection. “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn ... the angel answered and said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said’” (Matthew 28:1-6).

2. The first meeting of the risen Lord with the disciples was on the Sunday. “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).

3. The New Testament church was established on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1) which always fell on the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:15-16), that is, Sunday.

4. From the writings of the New Testament we know that the apostolic church met on the first day of the week:

‘Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight’ (Acts 20:7). By this time, it was the custom of the Christian church to meet on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist.‘

On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come’ (1 Corinthians 16:2). Why would the apostle Paul tell the Christians in Corinth to make the collection on the ‘first day’ if their meeting day was on the seventh? Paul is not telling them to meet on Sunday; he simply assumes that they already do.

Following the apostolic example, the early Christians continued to meet and worship on Sunday. We know this from the writings of the early church fathers, for example, Justin Martyr writes about the practice in his days (about 150 AD):

‘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 ... 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 Saviour 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’ (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67).

Following the example of the disciples in the apostolic and early churches, most Christians continue to meet on Sunday rather than the seventh day. Those who insist that we must esteem the seventh day above the rest and observe the Sabbath according to the Law of Moses are causing unnecessary divisions and tension among God’s people.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi