Why worship on Sunday and not the Sabbath?

Christians have worshipped on Sunday, instead of the Sabbath, since the days of the Apostles. But the practice of observing the Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday) instead of the Sabbath seems to some to be contrary to the Ten Commandments. Groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists object to Sunday worship as being a violation of God’s commands. They criticize the Catholic Church for “changing” one of God’s eternal decrees. Let’s examine the scriptural evidence to see what conclusions we should draw.

First, note that in Exodus 20:8-10, the Lord God said to Moses, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 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 ...” This commandment was a “perpetual covenant” that God wanted his people to observe through the ages (cf. Ex 31:16-18; cf. Deut 5:12). Henceforth, the Jews have observed the Sabbath on Saturday, resting from all work and emulating God’s own rest on the Seventh Day of creation (cf. Gen 2:1-3).

This commandment was not abandoned by the Catholic Church, as some erroneously claim. Rather, observance of the Third Commandment to “keep holy the Sabbath” was transferred to Sunday, also known as “The Lord’s Day” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2; ), because it is through his resurrection that we become a “new creation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).

Around the year A.D. 100, the Didache instructed Christians to “gather together on the Lord’s Day.” In A.D. 155, St. Justin Martyr wrote a letter to the Roman emperor mentioning that the early Church celebrated the eucharistic liturgy on Sundays instead of Saturday. This practice was already universal.

The primary reasons the early Church transferred the observance of the Third Commandment from Saturday to Sunday are these:

Sunday is the day Christ rose from the dead (cf. Mt 28:1-6; Jn 20:1). And as St. Paul said, if Christ did not rise from the dead, we are the most pitiable of people because our faith is in vain.

The early Christians sought to differentiate themselves from the Judaism. This included their abandonment of Judaism’s system of ritual animal sacrifices. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World [cf. Jn 1:29, 36), and his perfect sacrifice replaced the Old Covenant Passover lamb that was ritually slain and consumed as mere symbol of sacrifice for sin. Similarly, circumcision, Jewish ceremonial rituals and precepts, the Kosher food laws and dietary restrictions imposed by the Law of Moses (c.f. Deut 12:15-28; 14:3-21), and the observance of the Passover and other Jewish feast days (cf. Col 3:16-23) were also relinquished by Christians.

The early Christians wanted to show forth the true meaning of the Sabbath, which achieved its full purpose in the New Covenant of Christ, in whom we find our perfect, ultimate rest. “Come to me, all you who are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11: 28).

The Old Covenant (including the Sabbath, temple ceremonies, animal sacrifice, etc.) prefigured in a shadowy, incomplete, and imperfect way the perfect fulfillment by Christ in and through the New Covenant. The Old Covenant observances were but “types and shadows of heavenly realities” (cf. Heb 8:5; cf. Heb 10:1). Once the perfect had come, the imperfect prefigurements passed away. This is as true of the way the Church observes the Third Commandment as it is with baptism replacing the Old Covenant ordinance of circumcision.

As St. Paul wrote, “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. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:16-17). And in Galatians 4:9-11 St. Paul scolded Christians who still clung to the Old Covenant restrictions and ceremonies. The ritual observance of the Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant. But in Christ, we are no longer bound by the Old Covenant. So the demands and obligations of the Old Covenant, including the ritual observance of the Sabbath, have passed away, having been replaced by the spiritual observance of the Sabbath in the New Covenant.

Interestingly, in Matthew 19:16-22, Christ enumerated all of the Ten Commandments except for observing the Sabbath when he was asked what one must do to be saved.

Seventh-Day Adventists, however, argue that the Catholic Church had no authority to change the Third Commandment. But the fact is, the Catholic Church was established by Christ and was granted by him the authority to “bind and loose” (cf. Mt 18:18) and teach with his own authority (cf. Lk 10:16, Mt 28:18-20). Now, since Christ revealed that he is the Lord even of the Sabbath day (cf. Mt 12:8; Mk 2:28; Lk 6:5), and that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27), it follows that his Church also has a share in that authority (cf. Mt 10:40).

As Christ said to Simon Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19; cf. 18:18-20).

Notice also that the Seventh-Day Adventists themselves do not observe the “eternal commandment” of circumcision given by God to Abraham in Genesis 17. This commandment predated the Ten Commandments given to Moses by hundreds of years. It has no less weight of authority than the Ten Commandments. And yet, as even Seventh-Day Adventists are forced to admit (since they do not practice ritual circumcision), even though the Bible shows that Jesus Christ nowhere expressly taught that God’s commandment regarding circumcision was to be changed to the Sacrament of Baptism, the Church had the authority -- his authority -- to enact that change. In so doing, it did not abandon God’s eternal commandment regarding circumcision, but instead, it observed that commandment in a new and perfected form, that of the Sacrament of Baptism (cf. Gal 3:27-29; Col 2:11-12).

This is an excellent parallel with the Church’s authority to transfer the observance of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. It was not an abandonment of God’s law, but rather a fulfillment and perfecting of that law. As Christ explained, ““Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:17-18).

Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his website at www.surprisedbytruth.com

Some additional Bible passages to study: Luke 10:16; Acts 15; Acts 20:7; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5; Galatians 5:2; Colossians 2:16-17

Related Catechism Sections: CCC 128-130, 2175, 2168-2196