This post forms part of the What Catholics Believe series.
Catholics (and most other Christians) believe Sunday is a special day to be celebrated, because it is the day Jesus rose from the dead.
The Jews kept the Sabbath on Saturday, and this is reflected in the 10 Commandments. However, only the moral code of the Old Testament is applicable to Christians – we don’t need to sacrifice animals, keep Passover, Yom Kippur, or the Sabbath, and we are free from the dietary restrictions as well.
St Paul explicitly stated that the Sabbath is not necessary for Christians – Col 2:14-17, Gal 4:10-11. He said that whichever day we keep, we honour God by doing so – Romans 14:5-6. The same passage in Romans permits us to eat whatever we wish – obviously within reason.
The 10 Commandments were the words of the Old Covenant (Deut 4:13, Exod 34:28) and the Sabbath was its sign (Exod 31:13-18, Lev 24:8), and the Old Covenant pointed to a better New Covenant. The mediators of the Old Covenant were Moses and the Levitical priesthood.
The New Covenant law is greater (cf. the Sermon on the Mount) than the Old Covenant law. It has Jesus himself as its (our) mediator. The New Covenant is Christ’s blood shed for as at Calvary – Luke 22:20 [KJV] “Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” Every Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, we take part in the New Covenant.
Just as the Sabbath looked back to the old creation that turned to sin, and also to the exodus from Egypt as a symbol of our freedom from slavery to sin, so Sunday looks to the new creation that we become in Christ, who freed us from slavery to sin in a far more fundamental way than the exodus. As we say at Mass, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life: Lord Jesus, come in glory!”
But Jesus kept the Sabbath! Why don’t we follow his example?
Well, not everything Jesus did is applicable under the New Covenant. Remember, Jesus lived under the Old Covenant, and obeyed the Old Covenant law perfectly. If we had to do everything Jesus did, we would have the following list to comply with:
Keep the Passover (lamb and all) – Luke 2:41-42, Luke 22:8, Matt 26:17-19
Keep the Feast of Tabernacles – John 7
Keep Hannukah – John 10:22
Be circumcised – Luke 2:21
Sacrifice birds – Matt 8:4 – here Jesus commanded a man to go and offer the sacrifice that Moses commanded – see Leviticus 14, where God tells Moses how do offer such a sacrifice.
Clearly Jesus lived under the Old Covenant, and not everything he did is applicable to us.
So when did Sunday observance begin?
Several important texts highlight the relevance of Sunday for Christians, which, although not an explicit command, nevertheless points to Sunday’s importance given the lack need to keep Saturday holy. Bob Stanley has them listed on his page “Sabbath or Sunday?“, and I’ve quoted his list here –
- Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Sunday, Lk 24:1-12
- Christ appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday, Lk 24:13
- Jesus appeared to the disciples behind closed doors, Jn 20:19
- Jesus appeared to the disciples with Thomas one week later, Jn 20:26 NAB
- Jesus opened the minds of the Apostles to the Scriptures, Lk 24:45
- The Apostles received their ‘Great Commission’ to go and teach all nations, Mt 28:1-20.
- The Apostles were given the Holy Spirit and the power to forgive sins, Jn 20:19-23.
- Jesus told the Apostles to wait in the city until they were to be clothed with power from on high, Lk 24:49.
- On the seventh Sunday after the resurrection, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, Acts 2:1-4.
- Immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter gave a powerful address on the Gospel resulting in 3000 conversions, Acts 2:41.
- The Apostles met for the Holy Eucharist on the ‘first’ day, Acts 20:7.
- The Apostles set the ‘first’ day of the week for the Churches to take up the collections, 1Cor 16:1-2.
The early Christians recorded in their writings that they kept Sunday, and not the Sabbath in the way of the Jews. Three of the earliest records of Sunday observance after the New Testament are:
Ignatius of Antioch, 107 AD: let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days of the week.
– Epistle to the Magnesians, chp 9. Ante-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, pg. 62-63.
The Epistle of Barnabas, 70-120 AD: Wherefore we Christians keep the eighth day for joy, on which also Jesus arose from the dead and when he appeared ascended into heaven.
– The Epistle of Barnabas, section 15, 100 AD, Ante-Nicene Fathers , vol. 1, pg. 147
Justin Martyr, 150 AD: But Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day of the week and Jesus our saviour on the same day rose from the dead.
– First apology of Justin, Ch 68
The history of Sunday observance among Christians is clear – Sabbath keeping stopped, and Sunday observance began with the earliest of Christians. Exactly how it was observed by Christians has changed with time. Early on there was less focus on resting from work. The focus was on gathering together for the Eucharist. However, the Eucharist was celebrated daily – and still is in Catholic churches around the world. There probably isn’t a moment of the day when, somewhere, the Mass is not being said. That means that there is also Mass on Saturday. In the early Church, many Christians had a special fast on Saturdays, because it was the day on which Jesus was in the tomb. Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History records some of the variations on how the Sabbath fast was practised, or not practised. This passage is often misquoted by Adventists and other Sabbath keepers as if it supported Christian Sabbath observance in the Jewish way. But Socrates is clear that the Christians believed that we were not bound to the Sabbath, and such variation therefore was permitted and tolerated. Later, however, in keeping with Matt 16:19 and 18:18, for our benefit the Church laid down specific guidelines on how to observe Sunday. Even so, today there are still a wide variety of practices between all the different rites of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and some still have the Sabbath fast. However, none of them teach that we are bound to the Old Covenant Sabbath as taught by Adventists.
Official Catholic teaching is often misrepresented by Adventists, who need to have the papacy and/or the Catholic Church held responsible for changing the law of God. This is one of the most foundational teachings of their denomination, and if it were to collapse they would lose a significant piece of what makes them unique. It would mean their prophetess, Ellen White, had failed. Adventist identity depends, to a large extent, on their demonising the Catholic Church. This makes it hard to reach them when they come preaching their doctrines.
There are many examples on the internet of this sort of misrepresentation. I’ve dealt with such cases here and here and here and here. In short, they take statements by Catholics and remove all context, and use them to pretend that the Catholic Church acknowledges that they changed the Sabbath to Sunday apart from any decisions by the Apostles. They rarely actually acknowledge official Catholic teaching.
For example, they will quote the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which states:
But the Church of God has thought it well to transfer the celebration and observance of the Sabbath to Sunday.
What does that mean to Catholics? I’ve gone into some more detail here, but in short, it goes like this:
Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is the original Church established by Jesus and led by the Apostles. Therefore, to Catholics, the Apostles themselves where Catholic. To Catholics, if the Apostles did something, then we can say that the Catholic Church did that thing. Most Protestants would disagree, but please try to understand how we talk. All I ask is that when you read Catholic texts written by Catholics, you try to understand what we are saying, instead of applying your own definitions for these words to something we have written.
So, when the Catechism of the Council of Trent states “But the Church of God has thought it well to transfer the celebration and observance of the Sabbath to Sunday”, it could mean 1) the Catholic Church after the Apostles began Sunday observance, or 2) it could mean that the Catholic Church in the persons of the Apostles began Sunday observance.
Which one is it? Adventists will only quote the one sentence. However, several paragraphs previously, what the Catechism means is clearly explained:
The Jewish Sabbath Changed To Sunday By The Apostles
The Apostles therefore resolved to consecrate the first day of the week to the divine worship, and called it the Lord’s day. St. John in the Apocalypse makes mention of the Lord’s day; and the Apostle commands collections to be made on the first day of the week, that is, according to the interpretation of St. Chrysostom, on the Lord’s day. From all this we learn that even then the Lord’s day was kept holy in the Church.
So, an official statement from the Catholic Church – we believe the Apostles made the change. Any paragraph later on in the text needs to take that into account. Unfortunately Adventists are often not willing to acknowledge that – you can see the vacillations of one commentator on my blog here.
Another official Catholic source is Pope John Paul II:
Dies Domini, 21: It was for this reason that, from Apostolic times, “the first day after the Sabbath”, the first day of the week, began to shape the rhythm of life for Christ’s disciples (cf. 1 Cor 16:2). “The first day after the Sabbath” was also the day upon which the faithful of Troas were gathered “for the breaking of bread”, when Paul bade them farewell and miraculously restored the young Eutychus to life (cf. Acts 20:7-12). The Book of Revelation gives evidence of the practice of calling the first day of the week “the Lord’s Day” (1:10). This would now be a characteristic distinguishing Christians from the world around them. As early as the beginning of the second century, it was noted by Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, in his report on the Christian practice “of gathering together on a set day before sunrise and singing among themselves a hymn to Christ as to a god”.(19) And when Christians spoke of the “Lord’s Day”, they did so giving to this term the full sense of the Easter proclamation: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11; cf. Acts 2:36; 1 Cor 12:3). Thus Christ was given the same title which the Septuagint used to translate what in the revelation of the Old Testament was the unutterable name of God: YHWH.
Lastly, Adventists turn to Pope Sylvester I, and claim that he fulfills Ellen White’s claim that a pope changed the Sabbath to Sunday. I’ve dealt with that claim in more detail here and here and here, but in short what happened is this:
The local Council of Laodicea decreed the following:
Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ. (Canon 29)
It is uncertain whether Pope Sylvester was even involved. It is uncertain whether or not the council was held during his lifetime, and even if it was, it is uncertain whether or not he was involved with the council.
What the council did was simply to recommend resting, if possible, on Sunday, and condemned the Judaisers who wanted to rest on Saturday. It is far from clear whether or not these particular people felt bound to the Sabbath as a biblical command; they were likely amongst those discussed by Socrates, which I mentioned above. It was simply a case of putting a local dispute to rest. Sunday observance was well established at the time, as the Christian writers of the era attest – going back to the beginning, Christian writers had referred to Sunday as the Lord’s Day.
So, to sum up, we have seen what the official teaching of the Catholic Church is regarding the origins of Sunday observance. We have seen some of the biblical evidence for Sunday observance and against the idea that the Sabbath is a biblical requirement for Christians, and we have seen that the early Christians confirmed in their own words that they kept Sunday.
Further material on this topic:
- The Sabbath vs Sunday debate (a look at all the biblical texts relating to Sabbath and Sunday observance)
- Sabbath and the First Day – Why do Catholics worship on Sunday instead of Saturday? … By John Hellman
- Dies Domini: Is Saturday the True Sabbath? … by Jacob Michael
- Sabbath or Sunday? – The Church Fathers … Catholic Answers
- From Sabbath to Sunday – How the Church Moved Its Holy Day … by James P. Guzek, This Rock magazine, February 1999
- Worship on Saturday or Sunday? … Catholic Answers, Tim Staples
- Should Christians Keep the Sabbath or Celebrate the Lord’s Day? … Catholic Answers, Tim Staples
- Did the Catholic Church “Change the Sabbath”? (video) … by Jimmy Akin, YouTube