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Why We Worship On Sunday

April 16, AD2017 7 Comments

As children, all Catholics are taught the Ten Commandments. We learn that it is wrong to kill, to steal, to commit adultery, to worship other gods, etc. The Ten Commandments come from the Old Testament, and for the most part they transfer over to Christianity quite seamlessly. However, there is one exception: the third commandment says to keep holy the Sabbath, which is Saturday, but Christians worship on Sunday, which we call the Lord’s Day. This should raise an immediate question for every one of us: if worshiping on Saturday was so important that it was one of the Ten Commandments, why do we now worship on Sunday?

The simple answer is because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, as all four Gospels tell us (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1). However, that just raises a further question: why should the day of Jesus’ resurrection change the weekly day of worship? Is that really enough to justify this change? Or is there something more than the mere fact that Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday?

The first step to understanding why Christians worship on Sunday is to see what Saturday meant in ancient Israel. Once we do that, we can then see how the Resurrection fulfills that meaning, making sense of the change. The Old Testament gives two explanations of the significance of Saturday, so we need to look at both of them.

The Meaning of the Sabbath in Exodus

The first one comes in Exodus:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

This is the more well-known explanation of the Jews’ observance of the Sabbath. In the first creation story in Genesis, God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. God wanted the Israelites to imitate that pattern. In the Old Testament, then, Saturday represented creation; it was a commemoration of the work God did to make heaven and earth and everything they contain.

The Meaning of the Sabbath in Deuteronomy

The second explanation of the Sabbath comes from Deuteronomy:

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

This passage adds a second layer of meaning to Jewish rest and worship on Saturday. In addition to commemorating creation, it also commemorates the Exodus, God’s great act of deliverance for his people. As a result, when we turn to the New Testament to see how the Resurrection fulfills the meaning of the Sabbath, we actually have to look for two things: it has to fulfill both creation and the Exodus.

Sunday as the New Creation

The Resurrection fulfills the first meaning of Saturday in the Old Testament because it marked the beginning of the new creation. When Adam and Eve committed the world’s first sin, all of creation was affected (Genesis 3:17-19). God’s plan of salvation includes rescuing his whole creation, not just the human race, from those effects (Romans 8:20-21). This restoration will be completed when Jesus comes again at the end of history. The Book of Revelation describes God’s work at this time as “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), a clear synonym of the phrase “new creation.”

However, even though the restoration of creation is not complete, it already began with Jesus’ body when he rose from the dead. When we live with God in the new creation, we will not be disembodied spirits; rather, we will rise again and receive new bodies just like Jesus did (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). As a result, when Jesus rose from the dead, he in fact began this restoration, this new creation. Now, the New Testament never explicitly describes the resurrection in this way, but it strongly implies this understanding. For example, we read:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

Jesus, the New Adam in the New Creation

In this passage, St. Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus as sources of curse and blessing for the human race, implying that each brought about a new era in human history. Adam passed down the curse of sin and death to the rest of mankind. Jesus reverses that curse and offers us eternal life through his death and resurrection. The implication here is that since Adam was the first man of the old creation, Jesus is then the first man of the new creation.

As a result, when we celebrate the Resurrection each Sunday, we are in fact celebrating the beginning of the new creation. This will be the restoration of the world that began with Jesus and that will be completed when he comes again in glory. We are celebrating the fulfillment of the old creation, the first meaning of the Sabbath in the Old Testament. It makes sense then that our weekly day of worship would change from Saturday to Sunday. However, the Sabbath also had another meaning. We need to see how the Resurrection fulfills that one as well.

Sunday as the New Exodus

In a nutshell, Jesus’ Resurrection marked the new exodus because it was God’s new act of redemption for his people. Just as he saved Israel from the oppressive Egyptians in the Old Testament, so now he offers salvation to all people through the cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As with the new creation, the New Testament never explicitly applies the phrase “new exodus” to Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it strongly implies it. For example, St. Paul calls Jesus “our paschal lamb” who “has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The word “paschal” refers to the Passover, so St. Paul is actually calling Jesus our Passover lamb. This is significant because the Jewish feast of Passover commemorates the Exodus. In fact, the first Passover was celebrated by the Israelites right before they left Egypt, and God commanded them to repeat it year after year (Exodus 12:1-28).

By calling Jesus our Passover lamb who “has been sacrificed,” St. Paul is implying that Jesus’ death on the cross (the moment of his sacrifice) marked a new exodus. However, the Passover was just the beginning of the first exodus. The cross, then, must be just the beginning of the new exodus. In another letter, St. Paul implies that it continued in Jesus’ resurrection. He tells us that Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25), which means that it too was part of God’s new act of salvation and thus also part of our new exodus.

Transfiguring the Sabbath

We can look to the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospel of Luke for confirmation. In it we read:

“Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:28-31)

In English, this passage doesn’t seem like it has much to do with the new exodus. But in Greek, the original language of the New Testament, the connection is obvious. The last line talks about Jesus’ departure, but the Greek word translated here as “departure” literally means “exodus.” Luke thus is telling us that Moses and Elijah talked to Jesus about his “exodus.”

The passage does not tell us what this exodus involved, but it gives us a clue by saying that it happened in Jerusalem. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus told his disciples that he was to “suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). All of that took place in Jerusalem. Thus when we read a few verses later about the exodus that Jesus “was to accomplish at Jerusalem,” it is clear that Luke was referring to Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Resurrection thus fulfills the both meanings of the Sabbath. The Sabbath commemorated God’s great rescue of his people from the Egyptians. Sunday commemorates the salvation from sin and death he offers to all of us through the death and Resurrection of his Son, Jesus.

Putting It All Together

When we understand the biblical background to our Sunday worship, the change from Saturday makes sense. In fact, we can even say that Sunday doesn’t just replace Saturday; rather, Sunday fulfills it. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were commanded to observe Saturday, the Sabbath, as a day of rest and worship in order to commemorate creation and the exodus from Egypt. In the Church today, we set aside Sunday as our day of rest and worship because it’s the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Sunday marks the new creation and our new exodus from sin and death, thereby fulfilling everything that Saturday represented in the Old Testament.

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About the Author:

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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