THE QUESTION OF THE SABBATH DAY FOR CHRISTIANS: THE CHANGE FROM SATURDAY TO SUNDAY.
By: Chinaka Justin Mbaeri
It is apparent that law of the Sabbath Day which majority of Christians observe on Sunday is being questioned day after day, especially by some religious organizations (Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-Day Baptists, and certain others); they claim that Christians must not worship on Sunday but on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, since the Holy Book makes reference to the Sabbath Day as the Seventh (the last day of the week – Saturday), the day God rested from His works (cf. Gen. 2:2-3); and even commanded us (in the Decalogue) to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy (cf. Exodus 20:8-11; also Deut. 5:15); They also claim that Emperor Constantine under the Catholic Church in 321 A.D “changed” the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday; and many a time, this gets other Christians confused on the whole issue. I believe this is what prompted one of my followers on Facebook to ask:
“Hello, greetings Reverend! Please I have this issue that’s bothering me and I would like you to help me understand it better: Which day is really the Sabbath day according to the Bible, Saturday or Sunday?”
In responding to the issue at hand, we shall briefly consider the Sabbath Day under Old (Mosaic) Law and the New Law. The factual evidence under the New Law as contained in the New Testament would clear away the allegation that Emperor Constantine “changed” the Sabbath day. I shall clearly explain how the holy trend of Sunday worship began right from the Apostolic times, and how the Catholic Church solemnly defined and included it in her Canon in the Council of Laodicea, 336 AD; thereby, perpetuating the Sunday Worship down to our present age.
THE SABBATH DAY UNDER THE OLD (MOSAIC) LAW
No practicing Christian would deny that God instituted the Sabbath at creation and designated the Seventh day to be kept holy, as stated above. The Bible says: “And on the SEVENTH DAY God ended His work which He had made, and HE RESTED on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And GOD BLESSED THE SEVENTH DAY AND SANCTIFIED IT: because that in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made” (Genesis 2:2–3). It was later codified as the Third Commandment (Exodus 20:8–11). As a matter of fact, the Bible makes it crystal clear that the Sabbath observance is a special sign or “mark” between God and His people: “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested” (Exodus 31:16–17).
God’s motive for giving the Sabbath law to Israel was that they would remember their Egyptian slavery and the Lord’s deliverance (cf. Deut. 5:15). Note the requirements for Sabbath-keeping: A person placed under that Sabbath law could not leave his home on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29), he could not light a fire (Exodus 35:3), and he could not cause anyone else to work (Deuteronomy 5:14). To show how grave the Sabbath law was, Exodus 31:15 and Numbers 15:32–35 reveal that a person who breaks the Sabbath law would be put to death; the entire congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp. These were the practices of the Jews in the Old Law and even at the time of Christ and His disciples. Little wonder, Christ, and his disciples were accused by the Pharisees and the leaders of the people of breaking the Sabbath law. (Cf. John 5:18). However, Jesus spoke out against the Pharisee’s merciless observance of the Sabbath (cf. Matt 12:1-8; Luke 13:10-16); just as God expressed disappointment over the Hebrew Sabbath (Isaiah. 1:13ff). Jesus also defended Himself and His disciples on this issue, saying: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord and Master of the Sabbath.” (Cf. Mark 2:27-28).
From the preceding, we can see that according to the Bible, the Sabbath day is really Saturday. However, are we bound to observe it as Christians? The New Testament gives us some clues:
THE NEW LAW AND THE “DAY OF THE LORD” – SUNDAY
Historically Sunday, not Saturday, was the normal meeting day for Christians in the Church, and this practice dates back to the first century. How can we understand this? Two important events happened on Sunday. First, the Resurrection of Christ occurred on Easter Sunday (John 20:1ff). Just as God (the Father) rested on the Seventh Day after His Work of Creation; Christ after redeeming us on the Cross on Good Friday, “rested” in death as well, and this “rest” extended to Saturday (the great Sabbath) and rose on a Sunday. Thus, Sunday could be said as the culmination of the redemptive work of God the Son (Jesus Christ); and this later became known as the Day of the Lord, a Holy day of rest for Christians. Secondly, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church on Pentecost Sunday – the first day of the week (Acts 2:1ff). Also after His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles twice, each on Sunday (John 20:19 & 26). As a result, Sunday became known as the Lord’s Day for Christians.
In the times of the Apostles, their Sunday activities were basically characterized with the gathering of the faithful for prayers, the teachings of the Apostles, and the Breaking of Bread (Cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7), and that is exactly what the Church does on Sundays – Holy Mass. It is interesting to note that St. Paul had spent a week with the community in Troas (Acts 20:6), and this is the only reported time that he celebrated the “breaking of bread” with them. Also, no remarks are made later in this passage that St. Paul disapproved of their worship on Sunday nor exhorts them to worship on Saturday. One would expect St. Paul to object to this practice since he was coming from Judaism, but having found himself under the law of Christ, he equally adhered to the Sunday worship. As such, Paul admonished the Christians to support their leaders whenever they gather on Sunday. (1 Cor. 16:2). This would be a strange request if Christians assembled on Saturdays. Interestingly, Paul writes: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or 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). According to these verses, the Hebrew diet, festivals and Sabbaths are no longer obligations for Christians. These were only a foreshadowing of things to come in Christ. The focus now is Christ (2 Cor. 3:7-17). The first day of the week, Sunday, the Lord’s Day (as seen in Revelation 1:10) celebrates the New Creation, with Christ as our resurrected Head. We are not obligated to follow the Mosaic Sabbath—resting but are now free to follow the risen Christ—serving.
Therefore, our Sunday worship was not because of the influence of one Emperor Constantine, NO! I dare to say that it was the Tradition handed down from the Apostles which took its origin from the very day of Christ’s Resurrection, that the Church celebrates the Sacred Mystery (Holy Mass/Breaking of Bread/Eucharistic Celebration) every Sunday (the first day of the week) which is appropriately called the Lord’s Day, and which flows across the weekdays celebrations (cf. CCC 1166, 349, 2174, 2175, 2191). In order to clear the confusion of Saturday or Sunday among the faithful (since members were still adhering to the Judaic belief of Saturday – Sabbath at that time), the Catholic Church, in the Council of Laodicea, (336 AD) placed a final and solemn definition on the matter, and made it part of her Canon, by the divine authority granted to her by Christ (Mt. 16:19ff – “…whatever you bind on earth, shall be considered bound in heaven”), and following the teachings and the Tradition handed down by the Apostles; for this reason, the council of Laodicea states in Canon 29: “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath (Saturday), but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day (Sunday); and, if they can, resting then as Christians…”
In conclusion, as baptism replaced circumcision (Col 2:11-12) for Christians, so does Sunday replace Saturday. Observance of the Lord’s Day is a mark of being Christian, and also a way of observing the Commandment of God vis-à-vis the Sabbath.
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