Friday, September 2, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: Sunday worship

Joe Heschmeyer of Shameless Popery posted some interesting material on Seventh-Day Adventists yesterday (9/1/11). While it’s worth reading in its own right, and I do recommend you check it out, I should also note that there are other, smaller Christian groups, like the Seventh-Day Baptists and Messianic Jews, who also insist on Saturday worship.

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“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28 NIV).

With these words, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, was commanded not for the benefit of God, who can be — and ought to be —worshipped any and every day of the week, but for the benefit of his creatures doomed to eat their bread in the sweat of their face (Gen 3:17-19), to give them a day of rest (Ex 20:10; cf. Ex 23:12, 31:15, Dt 5:14). Indeed, the English word holiday is a contraction of “holy day”, a fact G. K. Chesterton played on when he said of the ancients, "And only when they made a holy day for God did they find they had made a holiday for men."[1]


But Jesus doesn’t simply remind the Pharisees that the Sabbath is for man’s sake … he also associates the Sabbath to himself: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:28; cf. Lk 6:5). Tertullian argued from the relevant passages, the plucking of grain from the fields (Mk2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5) and the curing of the withered hand (Lk 6:6-10), that Jesus as Son of Man and Son of God had the power to transfer the Sabbath to another day:

Now, even if He had annulled the Sabbath, He would have had the right to do so, as being its Lord, (and) still more as He who instituted it. But He did not utterly destroy it, although its Lord, in order that it might henceforth be plain that the Sabbath was not broken by the Creator, even at the time when the ark was carried around Jericho. … Now, although He has in a certain place expressed an aversion of Sabbaths, by calling them your Sabbaths (Is 1:13-14), reckoning them as men’s Sabbaths, not His own, … He has yet put His own Sabbaths (those, that is, which were kept according to His prescription) in a different position. Thus Christ did not at all rescind the Sabbath: He kept the law thereof, and both in the former case did a work which was beneficial to the life of His disciples, for He indulged them with the relief of food when they were hungry, and in the present instance cured the withered hand; in each case intimating by facts, "I came not to destroy, the law, but to fulfill it" (Mt 5:17), although Marcion has gagged His mouth by this word (Against Marcion 4:12).

In Luke 20:7, in one of the “we” passages in which the good doctor injects himself into the story, he tells Theophilus, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread …”. Here we have tied together not only a gathering on a specific day of the week but a gathering tied to the breaking of the bread — the Communion feast. We also find that the Corinthians, as St. Paul has ordered the Galatians, are to gather their alms gifts for the saints in Jerusalem on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16:1-4), which makes sense if that’s the day they regularly gather together for worship.

In Scripture, then, we already find hints that the disciples had moved their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Outside Scripture, we find it explicitly stated in one of the oldest patristic writings, the Didache, which was most likely composed near the end of the first century: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned” (loc. cit., 14).

And the Epistle of Barnabas, written at the same time, references Isaiah in the same manner as Tertullian would later: “Further, He says to them, ‘Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure’ (Is 1:13). You perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when He had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens” (loc. cit., 15; emphasis mine).

Then we have St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing against Judaizers not long after the beginning of the second century:

Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace. For the divinest prophets lived according to Christ Jesus. On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by His grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him.
If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death … how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, having come, raised them from the dead (Epistle to the Magnesians 9).

There are further patristic quotations, but this should be enough to establish that Christians observed Sunday as their new Sabbath for good reason.

Not only is St. Ignatius’ argument irrefutable, it reminds us precisely of St. Paul’s many arguments against St. James and the Jewish Christians who insisted that new converts be circumcised (cf. Acts 15:1-29). “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them’” (Gal 3:10, cf. Dt 27:26).

We Christians are no longer bound by the Law of Moses (Rom 7:6). We observe the Ten Commandments because they’re good and holy, and make a convenient and rational set of organizing principles for our morality (see Catechism of the Catholic Church Part 3 Section 2). “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).

By worshipping corporately and resting on Sunday, not only do we commemorate the Resurrection, we observe the intent that God had in declaring a sabbath: a holy day for God and a holiday for men. But every day, every hour, somewhere in the world a priest is celebrating the Eucharist, and it’s not only lawful but fitting that people who can spare the time attend. All days and hours belong to the Lord.


[1] Chesterton, G. K. (1908). Orthodoxy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press; p. 73.