Is Sunday the Christian "Lord's Day" Sabbath?...

A Look at the Pope's Reason for Sunday-keeping

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

In his newly released Apostolic Letter Pope Paul John II expresses legitimate concern over the fact that in Western countries "the percentage of those attending the Sunday liturgy is strikingly low." Pope John Paul II, as well as church leaders of different Christian denominations, recognize the vital role of the observance of the Lord's Day for the survival of Christianity, both at a personal and societal level.

The concern of Pope John Paul II is legitimate because the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God. Christians who ignore God on His Holy Day most likely will ignore Him every day of their lives. The Pope knows well that if the prevailing trend continues it could spell doom not only of Catholicism but of Christianity itself. Social analysts tell us that Western Europe now lives in the post-Christian era because less than 10% of Christians go to church. If no radical changes occur in America, the same could be true of this country few years from now.

This concern over the prevailing profanation of Sunday was addressed over 30 years ago while I was a student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. At that time it was felt that a convenient solution to the crisis of the Lord's Day, was the anticipation of the Sunday Mass to Saturday evening. This arrangement was designed to provide an opportunity for Catholics to fulfil their Sunday Mass precept on Saturday evening and thus be released from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday.

It is evident that the Saturday evening Mass has not resolved the problem, partly because in developed countries many people take off for the weekend on Friday afternoon. By Saturday evening very few people are left in the big cities. Aware of this situation, Catholic Liturgist Christopher Kiesling suggests, in his book "The Future of the Christian Sunday", the possibility anticipating or postponing the Sunday worship obligation to a more convenient, fluctuating time of the week.

Incidentally, this arrangement may be good enough for those Sunday-keepers who have reduced their Lord's Day to the Lord's Hour, but it is not good enough for Sabbath-keepers, like me, who conceptualize and experience the Sabbath as a Holy Day and not as a Holy Hour. For me, as a Sabbatarian, the essence of Sabbath-keeping is not going to church, but giving priority to the Lord in my thinking and living during the 24 hours of the seventh day. This means that all what I do on the Sabbath, whether I participate in a formal worship service, or whether I engage in informal fellowship, recreation, visitation, all of these acts are an act of worship because they springs out of a heart that has decided to honor God on His Holy Day.

In his Pastoral Letter Pope John Paul II invites the faithful to reflect on the meaning of Sunday. He says:

"I see this Letter as continuing the lively exchange which I am always happy to have with the faithful, as I reflect with you on the meaning of Sunday and underline the reasons for living Sunday as truly "the Lord's Day," also in the changing circumstances of our own times."

Pope John Paul II reiterates very eloquently in his Pastoral Letter the fundamental reason for Sunday observance, namely, the celebration of Christ's resurrection. He says:

"The Resurrection of Jesus is the fundamental event upon which Christian faith rests (cf. 1 Cor 15:14). . . . Therefore, in commemorating the day of Christ's Resurrection not just once a year but every Sunday, the Church seeks to indicate to every generation the true fulcrum of history, to which the mystery of the world's origin and its final destiny leads."

The fundamental problem that I see with the Pope's reiteration of Christ's resurrection as the fundamental reason for Sunday observance, is that this reason is devoid of Biblical and historical support. My reasons are given at length in the third chapter of my dissertation "From Sabbath to Sunday" that was published by the Pontifical Gregorian University with the official Catholic imprimatur-approval.

In this context I will limit myself to mention briefly seven significant indications which discredit the alleged role played by Christ's Sunday-resurrection [ABCOG: Saturday evening resurrection] in causing the change from Sabbath-keeping to Sunday-keeping.

  1. No Command in the New Testament.
    First, the New Testament contains no command or suggestion by Christ or the Apostles enjoining or hinting at a weekly or annual Sunday celebration of the resurrection. This is all the more surprising in view of the explicit instructions which are given regarding other practices such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, or footwashing.

  2. No "Day of the Resurrection."
    Second, in the New Testament Sunday is never called "day of the resurrection" but consistently "first day of the week." It is not until the fourth century that the designation of Sunday as "day of the resurrection" first occurs in Christian literature. The absence of such a designation indicates that during the first three centuries Sunday was not seen as the weekly memorial celebration of Christ's resurrection.

  3. No Completion of Christ's Earthly Ministry.
    Third, the Sunday-resurrection does not mark the completion of Christ's earthly ministry. The latter ended on a Friday afternoon [ABCOG: Wednesday afternoon] when the Savior said, "It is finished" (John 19:30) and then rested in the tomb according to the commandment. It is noteworthy that divine rest marks the completion of both creation and redemption. The resurrection, however, marks not the completion of Christ's earthly redemptive ministry but the inauguration of His new intercessory ministry (Acts 1:8; 2:33). Like the first day of creation, the first day of Christ's ministry presupposes work rather than rest.

  4. No Invitation to Rest and Worship.
    Fourth, the words uttered by Christ on the day of His resurrection are an invitation to work rather than to rest and worship. Note that divine institutions such as the Sabbath, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, all trace their origin to a divine act that established them. Had Christ wanted to make the first day of the week the memorial of His resurrection, would He not have capitalized on the day of His resurrection to make such a day the fitting memorial of that event? But, on the day of His resurrection, the Savior did not say "Come apart and worship . . . Let us take time today to celebrate My resurrection." On the contrary, He told the women, "Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee" (Matt 28:10) and later to His disciples "Go . . . make disciples, teach, baptize" (Matt 28:19-20). These utterances bespeak of work and not of rest and worship.

  5. No Lord's Supper Commemoration of the Resurrection.
    Fifth, the Lord's Supper [ABCOG: or other Love Feasts], which many Christians view as the core of their Sunday celebration of Christ's resurrection, was initially celebrated at night on different days of the week (1 Cor 11:18, 20, 33) and was seen as the commemoration of Christ's sacrifice and Second Advent [Coming], rather than of His resurrection. Paul explains that by partaking of the bread and wine, believers "proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor 11:26).

  6. No Easter Sunday Celebration of the Resurrection.
    Sixth, the Passover, which many Christians today observe on Easter Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection, for at least a century after Jesus' death was observed not on a Sunday but on any day of the week on which the date of Nisan 14 fell. This implies that no special significance was attached to the actual day of the week in which Passover was celebrated. Moreover the earliest documents indicate that Passover was a celebration of the Passion-death, rather than of Christ's resurrection. (These questions are discussed at great length in "From Sabbath to Sunday").

    "Next about the [Saturday] Sabbath... and then, on the seventh Day, enter His true rest... We are very much mistaken if there is anybody at the present time with a heart pure enough to keep holy [the Saturday Sabbath] the day which God has sanctified. Observe, though, that a time is coming when we shall indeed rest and keep it holy... He is saying there: "It is not these sabbaths of the present age that I find acceptable, but the one of my appointment: the one that after I have set all things at rest is to usher in the Eighth day, the commencement of a new world (and we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead, and showed himself again, and ascended into heaven.)"
    Epistle of Barnabas 15
  7. The Resurrection was not a Predominant Justification.
    Seventh, the earliest explicit references to the Christian observance of Sunday, which are found in the writings of [Epistle of] Barnabas (about 135 A.D.) and Justin Martyr (about 150 A.D.), mention the resurrection but only as the second of two reasons for Sunday-keeping, important but not predominant. The first theological reason given by Barnabas for Sunday observance is the eschatological significance of the "eighth day" which, he claims, represents "the beginning of another world." Justin's first reason [in the Apology = "Defence"] is the commemoration of the inauguration of creation: "because it is the first day on which God, transforming the darkness and prime matter, created the world." These testimonies indicate that Christ's resurrection was not seen initially as the predominant justification for Sunday observance.

The seven reasons submitted above suffice to discredit the contention that Christ's resurrection on the first day of the week was the major reason for the adoption of Sunday observance instead of the Sabbath. [ABCOG: Reasons included: desire to distance themselves from the Jews after the Jewish revolt, ease of assimilation of sun-worshipping Gentile converts]

In my view the solution to the prevailing profanation of Sunday is to be found by recovering the Biblical meaning, authority and experience of the Sabbath, the day when God invites to stop our work so that he can work in us more fully and freely.

This was distributed by Samuele Bacchiocchi via email in July, 1998

On March 7th, 321 A.D., while still a sun-worshiper, the Emperor Constantine declared that Sunday was to be a day of rest:

"On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for gain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost."

The Church Council of Laodicea, ca. 364 A.D., ordered that religious observances were to be conducted on Sunday, not Saturday. Sunday became the new Sabbath. They ruled: "Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day." There are many indicators in the historical record that some Christians ignored the Church's ruling. Sabbath observance was noted in Wales in 1115 A.D. Francis Xavier was concerned about Sabbath worship in Goa, India in 1560 A.D.; he called for the Inquisition to set up an office there to stamp out what he called "Jewish wickedness". A Catholic Provincial Council suppressed the practice in Norway in 1435 A.D.
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