The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments


Part 1: The Theological Connection Between Sabbath and Sunday

Index | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1
The Theological Connection Between Sabbath and Sunday
Part 2a
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance
Part 2b
The "Biblical" Support for Sunday Observance - Continued
Part 3
Pope John Paul's Call for Sunday Legislation

Chapter 1:

On May 31, 1998, Pope John Paul II promulgated a lengthy Pastoral Letter, Dies Domini, in which he makes a passionate plea for a revival of Sunday observance. He appeals to the moral imperative of the Sabbath commandment and to the need of civil legislation to facilitate Sunday observance. This document has enormous historical significance since it addresses the critical problem of the prevailing Sunday profanation at "the threshold of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000."1 This event has great significance for the Catholic Church, as over thirty million Catholics are expected to make their pilgrimage to Rome, seeking forgiveness for their own sins and a reduction of the temporal punishment for their loved ones in Purgatory.

The Pope is keenly aware that the crisis of Sunday observance is a major obstacle to the spiritual renewal the Great Jubilee is designed to bring about. He believes that the prevailing profanation of Sunday reflects the spiritual crisis of the Catholic Church and of Christianity, in general. The "strikingly low" attendance to the Sunday Mass indicates, in the Pope’s view, that "faith is weak" and "diminishing."2 He believes that if this trend is not reversed it can threaten the future of the Catholic Church as it stands at the threshold of the third millennium. He states: "The Lord’s Day has structured the history of the Church through two thousand years: how could we think that it will not continue to shape the future?"3

While reading the Pastoral Letter, I was reminded of a speech President Abraham Lincoln delivered on November 13, 1862. There he emphasized the vital function of the Sabbath in the survival of Christianity: "As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or meanly loose the last and the best hope by which mankind arises."4 Obviously, for Abraham Lincoln, the Sabbath meant Sunday. This does not detract from the fact that one of American’s outstanding presidents recognized in the principle of Sabbathkeeping the best hope to renew and elevate human beings.

The Pastoral Letter, like all papal documents, has been skillfully crafted with an introduction; five chapters which examine the importance of Sunday observance from theological, historical, liturgical, and social perspectives; and a conclusion. Pope John Paul and his advisers must be commended for composing a well-balanced document that addresses major issues relating to Sunday observance within the space limitation of approximately thirty pages.

The introduction sets the stage for the Pope’s pastoral concerns by identifying some of the contributory factors to the crisis of Sunday observance and the solution that must be sought. A major factor is the change that has occurred "in socioeconomic conditions [which] have often led to profound modifications of social behavior and hence of the character of Sunday."5 The Pope notes with regret that Sunday has become merely "a part of a weekend" when people are involved "in cultural, political or sporting activities" that cause the loss of awareness of "keeping the Lord’s Day holy."6

Given the present situation, John Paul strongly believes that today it is "more necessary than ever to recover the deep doctrinal foundations underlying the Church’s precept, so that the abiding value of Sunday in the Christian life will be clear to all the faithful."7

The Pastoral Letter reveals that the Pope firmly believes that the solution to the crisis of Sunday observance entails both doctrinal and legal aspects. Doctrinally, Christians need to rediscover the "biblical" foundations of Sunday observance in order to keep the day holy. Legally, Christians must "ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."8

Objectives of This Chapter.
No attempt is made in this chapter to analyze all the aspects of Sunday observance discussed in the Pastoral Letter. In the light of the overall objective of this book to consider from a biblical perspective the recent attacks against the Sabbath, this chapter focuses especially on how Pope John Paul deals with the Sabbath in his attempt to justify and promote Sunday observance.

The chapter divides into three major parts in accordance with the following three major issues addressed:

(1) The theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday
(2) The "biblical" support for Sunday observance
(3) The call for Sunday legislation


A surprising aspect of the Pastoral Letter is Pope John Paul’s defense of Sunday observance as the embodiment and "full expression" of the Sabbath. In some ways this view represents a significant departure from the traditional Catholic explanation that Sunday observance is an ecclesiastical institution different from the Sabbath. In the past, this explanation virtually has been regarded as an established fact by Catholic theologians and historians. Thomas of Aquinas, for instance, makes this unambiguous statement: "In the New Law the observance of the Lord’s day took the place of the observance of the Sabbath not by virtue of the precept [Sabbath commandment] but by the institution of the Church and the custom of Christian people."9

In his dissertation presented to the Catholic University of America, Vincent J. Kelly similarly affirms: "Some theologians have held that God likewise directly determined the Sunday as the day of worship in the New Law, that He Himself has explicitly substituted the Sunday for the Sabbath. But this theory is now entirely abandoned. It is now commonly held that God simply gave His Church the power to set aside whatever day or days she would deem suitable as Holy Days. The Church chose Sunday, the first day of the week, and in the course of time added other days, as holy days." 10

Even the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) emphasizes the discontinuity between Sabbath and Sunday observance: "Sunday is expressly distinguished from the Sabbath which it follows chronologically every week; for Christians its ceremonial observance replaces that of the Sabbath."11

John Paul departs from the traditional distinction the Catholic Church has made between Sabbath and Sunday, presumably because he wants to make Sunday observance a moral imperative rooted in the Decalogue itself. By so doing, the Pope challenges Christians to respect Sunday, not merely as an ecclesiastical institution, but as a divine command. Furthermore, by rooting Sundaykeeping in the Sabbath commandment, the Pope offers the strongest moral reasons to urge Christians to "ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy."

The Pope’s view of Sunday as the embodiment and "full expression" of the Sabbath stands in stark contrast to the so-called "New Covenant" and Dispensational authors who emphasize the radical discontinuity between Sabbath and Sunday. The latter, as we shall see in the following chapters, is also the position of former sabbatarians who reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic, Old Covenant institution that terminated at the Cross. The Pope rejects this position, defending instead the creational origin of the Sabbath in which he finds the theological foundation of Sunday observance. He writes: "In order to grasp fully the meaning of Sunday, therefore, we must reread the great story of creation and deepen our understanding of the theology of the ‘Sabbath.’"12

Creative and Redemptive Meanings of the Sabbath.
The Pope’s reflections on the theological meaning of the Sabbath are most perceptive and should especially thrill Sabbatarians. For example, speaking of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation, John Paul says: "The divine rest of the seventh day does not allude to an inactive God, but emphasizes the fullness of what has been accomplished. It speaks, as it were, of God’s lingering before the ‘very good’ work (Gen 1:31) which his hand has wrought, in order to cast upon it a gaze full of joyous delight. This is a ‘contemplative’ gaze which does not look to new accomplishments but enjoys the beauty of what has already been achieved."13

This profound theological insight into the meaning of the divine Shabbat as a rest of cessation in order to express the satisfaction over a complete, perfect creation, and to fellowship with His creation, is developed at some length in my book Divine Rest for Human Restlessness. There I wrote: "God’s cessation on the seventh day from doing expresses His desire for being with His creation, for giving to His creatures not only things but Himself. "14

John Paul speaks eloquently of the theological development of the Sabbath from the rest of creation (Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11) to the rest of redemption (Deut 5:12-15). He notes that in the Old Testament the Sabbath commandment is linked "not only with God’s mysterious ‘rest’ after the days of creation (cf. Ex 20:8-11), but also with the salvation which he offers to Israel in the liberation from the slavery of Egypt (cf. Deut 5:12-15). The God who rests on the seventh day, rejoicing in His creation, is the same God who reveals his glory in liberating his children from Pharaoh’s oppression."15

Being a memorial of creation and redemption, "the ‘Sabbath’ has therefore been interpreted evocatively as a determining element in the kind of ‘sacred architecture’ of time which marks biblical revelation. It recalls that the universe and history belong to God; and without constant awareness of that truth, man cannot serve in the world as a coworker of the Creator."16

The Sabbath Defines Our Relationship with God.
Contrary to Dispensational and so-called "New Covenant" writers who reduce the Sabbath to a Mosaic, ceremonial ordinance given exclusively to Jews, John Paul rightly recognizes that "the Sabbath precept . . . is rooted in the depths of God’s plan. This is why, unlike many other precepts, it is set not within the context of strictly cultic stipulations but within the Decalogue, the ‘ten words’ which represents the very pillars of the moral life inscribed on the human heart. In setting this commandment within the context of the basic structure of ethics, Israel and then the Church declare that they consider it not just a matter of community religious discipline but a defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God, announced and expounded by biblical revelation. This is the perspective within which Christians need to rediscover this precept today."17

What a profound statement worth pondering! Sabbathkeeping is "not just a matter of community religious discipline but a defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God." To appreciate the truth of this statement, it is important to remember that our life is a measure of time, and the way we use our time is indicative of our priorities. Believers who give priority to God in their thinking and living on the Sabbath show in a tangible way that God really counts in their life. Thus, Sabbathkeeping is indeed "a defining and indelible expression of our relationship with God."

John Paul develops this point eloquently saying: "Man’s relationship with God demands times of explicit prayer, in which the relationship becomes an intense dialogue, involving every dimension of the person. ‘The Lord’s Day’ is the day of this relationship par excellence when men and women raise their song to God and become the voice of all creation."18

Sunday as the Fulfillment of the Sabbath.
In the light of these profound theological insights into the Sabbath as being a kind of "sacred architecture" of time that marks the unfolding of God’s creative and redemptive activity, and as the defining expression of our relationship with God, one wonders how does the Pope succeed in developing a theological justification for Sunday observance? He does this by making Sunday the embodiment of the biblical Sabbath.

For example, John Paul without hesitation applies to Sunday God’s blessing and sanctification of the Sabbath at creation. "Sunday is the day of rest because it is the day ‘blessed’ by God and ‘made holy’ by him, set apart from the other days to be, among them, ‘the Lord’s Day.’"19

More importantly, the Pope makes Sunday the "full expression" of the Sabbath by arguing that Sunday, as the Lord’s Day, fulfills the creative and redemptive functions of the Sabbath. These two functions, the Pope claims, "reveal the meaning of the ‘Lord’s Day’ within a single theological vision which fuses creation and salvation."20

"On the Lord’s Day," John Paul explains, "which the Old Testament [Sabbath] links to the work of creation (cf. Gen 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11) and the Exodus (cf. Deut 5:12-15), the Christian is called to proclaim the new creation and the new covenant brought about in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Far from being abolished, the celebration of creation becomes more profound within a Christocentric perspective . . . . The remembrance of the liberation of the Exodus also assumes its full meaning by Christ in his Death and Resurrection. More than a ‘replacement’ of the Sabbath, therefore, Sunday is its fulfillment, and in a certain sense its extension and full expression in the ordered unfolding of the history of salvation, which reaches its culmination in Christ."21

The Pope maintains that New Testament Christians "made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day" because they discovered that the creative and redemptive accomplishments celebrated by the Sabbath, found their "fullest expression in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, though its definitive fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns in glory."22

The Pope’s attempt to make Sunday the "extension and full expression" of the creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath is very ingenious, but it lacks biblical and historical support. There are no indications in the New Testament that Christians ever interpreted Sunday to be the embodiment of the creative and redemptive meanings of the Sabbath. From a biblical and historical perspective, Sunday is not the Sabbath because the two days differ in authority, meaning, and experience.

Difference in Authority.
The difference in authority lies in the fact that while Sabbathkeeping rests upon an explicit biblical command (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Heb 4:9), Sundaykeeping derives from an interplay of social, political, pagan, and religious factors. I have examined these factors at length in my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday, published by the Pontifical Gregorian University, in Rome, Italy. The lack of a biblical authority for Sundaykeeping may well be a major contributing factor to the crisis of Sunday observance that John Paul rightly laments.

The vast majority of Christians, especially in the Western world, view their Sunday as a holiday to seek personal pleasure and profit rather than a holy day to seek divine presence and peace. I submit that a major contributing factor to the secularization of Sunday is the prevailing perception that there is no divine, biblical command to keep Sunday as a holy day.

The lack of a biblical conviction that Sunday should be observed as the holy Sabbath day may well explain why most Christians see nothing wrong in devoting their Sunday time to themselves rather than to the Lord. If there was a strong theological conviction that the principle of Sundaykeeping was divinely established at creation and later "inscribed" in the Decalogue, as the Pope attempts to prove, then Christians would feel compelled to act accordingly.

Difference in Meaning.
John Paul recognizes the need to make Sundaykeeping a moral imperative and he tries to accomplish this by rooting the day in the Sabbath commandment itself. But this cannot be done because Sunday is not the Sabbath. The two days have a different meaning and function. While in Scripture the Sabbath memorializes God’s perfect creation, complete redemption, and final restoration, Sunday is justified in the earliest Patristic literature as the commemoration of the creation of light on the first day of the week, the cosmic-eschatological symbol of the new eternal world typified by the eighth day, and the memorial of Christ’s Sunday Resurrection.23

None of the historical meanings attributed to Sunday require per se the observance of the day by resting and worshipping the Lord. For example, nowhere does Scripture suggest that the creation of light on the first day ought to be celebrated through a weekly Sunday rest and worship. Even the Resurrection event, as we shall see, does not require per se a weekly or annual Sunday celebration.

The attempt to transfer to Sunday the biblical authority and meaning of the Sabbath is doomed to fail because it is impossible to retain the same authority, meaning, and experience when the date of a festival is changed. For example, if a person or an organization should succeed in changing the date of the Declaration of Independence from the 4th to the 5th of July, the new date could hardly be viewed as the legitimate celebration of Independence Day.

Similarly, if the festival of the Sabbath is changed from the seventh to the first day, the latter can hardly memorialize the divine acts of creation, redemption, and final restoration which are linked to the typology of the Sabbath. To invest Sunday with the theological meaning and function of the Sabbath means to adulterate a divine institution by making a holy day out of what God created to be a working day.

Difference in Experience.
Third, the difference between Sabbath and Sunday is one of experience. While Sundaykeeping began and has remained largely the hour of worship, Sabbathkeeping is presented in Scriptures as twenty-four hours consecrated to God. In spite of the efforts made by Constantine, church councils, and the Puritans to make Sunday a total day of rest and worship, the historical reality is that Sunday observance has been equated with church attendance. John Paul acknowledges this historical reality in chapter 3 of the Pastoral Letter entitled "The Day of the Church. The Eucharistic Assembly: The Heart of Sunday." The thrust of the chapter is that the heart of Sunday observance is the participation in the Mass. He cites the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says: "The Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life."24

The end of Sunday church services represents for many Christians also the termination of Sundaykeeping. After church, they go in good conscience to the shopping mall, a ball game, a dance hall, a theater, etc. It came as a surprise for me to discover that even in the "Bible Belt" many shops open for business as soon as the church services are over. The message is clear. The rest of Sunday is business as usual.

The recognition of this historical reality has led Christopher Kiesling, a distinguished Catholic Liturgists, to argue for the abandonment of the notion of Sunday as a day of rest and for the retention of Sunday as the hour of worship.25 His reasoning is that since Sunday has never been a day of total rest and worship, there is no hope to make it so today when most people want holidays, not holy days.

Celebrating the Sabbath, however, means not merely attending church services but consecrating its twenty-four hours to the Lord. The Sabbath commandment does not say, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy by attending Sabbath school and church services." What the commandment requires is to work six days and rest on the seventh day unto the Lord (Ex 20:8-10). This means that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is the consecration of time. The act of resting unto the Lord makes all the Sabbath activities, whether they be formal worship or informal fellowship and recreation, an act of worship because all of them spring out of a heart which has decided to honor God.

The act of resting on the Sabbath unto the Lord becomes the means through which the believer enters into God’s rest (Heb 4:10) by experiencing more fully and freely the awareness of God’s presence, peace, and rest. This unique experience of Sabbathkeeping is foreign to Sundaykeeping because the essence of the latter is not the consecration of time but rather church attendance, generally followed by secular activities.

In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude that the Pope’s attempt to make Sunday the theological and existential embodiment of the Sabbath is doomed to fail because the two days differ radically in their authority, meaning, and experience.

Sabbath Under Crossfire Index
Chapter 1, Part 2a


Notes to Chapter 1, Part 1
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

1. Dies Domini, paragraph 3.
2. Dies Domini, paragraph 5.
3. Dies Domini, paragraph 30.
4. Quoted by R. H. Martin, The Day: A Manual on the Christian Sabbath (New York, 1933), p. 184.
5. Dies Domini, paragraph 4.
6. Dies Domini, paragraph 4.
7. Dies Domini, paragraph 6.
8. Dies Domini, paragraph 67.
9. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York, 1947), II, 0, 122 Art. 4, p. 1702.
10. Vincent J. Kelly, Forbidden Sunday and Feast-Day Occupations, (Washington, DC, Catholic University of America Press, 1943), p. 2; Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, trans. William J. Gibbons, (New York, 1961), p. 76, notes: "The Catholic Church has decreed for many centuries that Christians observe this day of rest on Sunday, and that they be present on the same day at the Eucharist Sacrifice." John Gilmary Shea, "The Observance of Sunday and Civil Laws for Its Enforcement," The American Catholic Quarterly Review 8 (Jan. 1883), p. 139, writes: "The Sunday, as a day of the week set apart for obligatory public worship of Almighty God, to be sanctified by a suspension of all servile labor, trade, and worldly avocations and by exercises of devotion, is purely a creation of the Catholic Church." Martin J. Scott, Things Catholics Are Asked About (New York, 1927), p. 136, adds: "Now the Church . . . instituted, by God’s authority, Sunday as the day of worship."
11. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City, 1994), p. 524.
12. Dies Domini, paragraph 8.
13. Dies Domini, paragraph 11.
14. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness (Rome, Italy, 1980), p. 67.
15. Dies Domini, paragraph 12.
16. Dies Domini, paragraph 15.
17. Dies Domini, paragraph 13.
18. Dies Domini, paragraph 15.
19. Dies Domini, paragraph 14.
20. Dies Domini, paragraph 17.
21. Dies Domini, paragraph 59.
22. Dies Domini, paragraph 18.
23. For a discussion of the theology of Sunday as developed in the early Christian literature, see Chapter 9 "The Theology of Sunday" of my dissertation From Sabbath to Sunday. A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome, Italy, 1977), pp. 270-302.
24. Dies Domini, paragraph 32. Cited from Catechism of the Catholic Church (note 11), p. 525, paragraph 2177. On paragraph 46 of Dies Domini, John Paul states: "Since the Eucharist is the very heart of Sunday, it is clear why, from the earliest centuries, the Pastors of the church have not ceased to remind the faithful of the need to take part in the liturgical assembly."
25. Christopher Kiesling expresses this view in his book The Future of the Christian Sunday (New York, 1970).

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University