Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunday is Not the Sabbath

For most of my life, I’ve heard Christians refer to Sunday as “the Sabbath.” And for most of my life, I’ve never questioned the use of that term for Sunday. But I’ve come to believe that it is incorrect. I'll briefly explain why.

As is well known, in the first Genesis account of creation, the Sabbath refers to the seventh day, the last day of the week:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1-3 NRSV).

On the Jewish calendar, the seventh day is Saturday. Hence the rationale for Saturday synagogue worship.

Christianity retains this ordering of the week. Look at any liturgical calendar, and you’ll see that the last day of the week is Saturday and the first day of the week is Sunday (on the secular calendar, of course, the first day of the week is Monday).

Which brings us to the Christian day of worship. Because of its association with the resurrection of our Lord, Sunday became the focus of Christian worship. This is because Jesus was crucified on Friday, and was raised (as the Nicene Creed puts it) “on the third day.” And so every Sunday is a Feast Day of the Resurrection, even during Lent (if you include Sundays, there are 46 rather than 40 days during Lent). As such, it should not be confused with the Sabbath. Matthew, for example, makes the point very clearly when he describes how the women discovered Jesus’ empty tomb “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning …” (Matthew 28:1 NRSV; emphasis added).

The Book of Common Prayer reinforces what the New Testament teaches: that Sunday is not the Sabbath. Note, for example, the thematic focus of the Collect for Saturdays in the office of Morning Prayer (BCP, p. 99):

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And note also the thematic focus of the Collect for Sundays in the office of Morning Prayer (BCP, p. 98):

O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Prayer Book differentiates Saturdays and Sundays because their theological meanings are quite different. So rather than calling Sunday the Sabbath, it is more theologically and liturgically accurate to call it “the Lord’s Day.” Confusing or conflating these two days, we lose the richness of their respective meanings and how we can and should observe them.


Anonymous said...

Bryan, I appreciate your explanation on the difference between the Sabbath and Sunday.
Two questions come to mind.
1. in the Kingdom of God (or heaven if you prefer), will Jewish Christians worship God on the Sabbath, the seventh day, and Gentile Christians worship God on Sunday the first day?
2. Who changed the seventh day Sabbath to the first day Sunday? Was it God, or was it the Roman Catholic Church?

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comment and for your interesting questions. I’ll respond to each in turn.

1. First, in response to Jewish Christians worshiping God on the Sabbath ... We know that the earliest Christians (i.e., those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah) were Jewish. As such, they kept Sabbath on Saturdays, and they would also observe the Lord's Day on the first day of the week (Sunday) by gathering for the breaking of the bread and the prayers. Over the course of time, relations between Jews who believed in Jesus as Messiah and those who did not worsened, eventually precipitating a break between church and synagogue. (I note that some scholars speculate that this breakdown accounts for some of the bitterness towards "the Jews" in John's Gospel - and perhaps even for the reference to the blind man who was healed by Jesus being driven out of the synagogue in John 9:34).

Now on to the specifics of this question. I’m not sure that the distinctions made in this question will apply when the kingdom comes in its fullness on earth as it is in heaven. Note that in the great vision of the marriage of heaven and earth that we see in Revelation chapters 21-22, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem (cf. Rev. 21:22). As Bishop N. T. Wright puts it in his book Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008), “When the reality is there, the signpost is no longer necessary” (p. 105).

But there is worship (cf. Rev. 22:3). How and when it takes place is not specified. Perhaps we can say that when God is finally all in all and the glory of God fills the world as the waters cover the sea, the distinctions we make between days of worship – and, indeed, the distinctions we make between Christian religious traditions and practices – will no longer be necessary.

2. I’m not sure of an exact answer to this question, except that over the course of time Christians did start referring to Sunday as “the Sabbath” in addition to calling it “the Lord’s Day.” At one level that makes some sense. After all, Sunday is the Christian day of worship. But my point is that even if we call Sunday the Christian Sabbath, it still confuses the theological differences between the first and seventh days of the week.

Also, when we’re talking about such an early period in Church history, I don’t think that it’s accurate to speak of the Roman Catholic Church, but more fitting to simply speak of the Church. Today, the term “Roman Catholic Church” typically designates a distinct tradition over and against others – especially in Protestant usage. But when we’re talking about the early Church, we’re also talking about an undivided Church, and thus “catholic” in the sense of “universal” (it’s all that there was). Such distinctions are therefore anachronistic.