The Catechism of St. Thomas Aquinas

THE THIRD COMMANDMENT: “Remember that You Keep Holy the Sabbath Day.”

This is the Third Commandment of the law, and very suitably is it so. For we are first commanded to adore God in our hearts, and the Commandment is to worship one God: “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.” In the Second Commandment we are told to reverence God by word: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” The Third commands us to reverence God by act. It is: “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.”[1] God wished that a certain day be set aside on which men direct their minds to the service of the Lord.


There are five reasons for this Commandment. The first reason was to put aside error, for the Holy Spirit saw that in the future some men would say that the world had always existed. “In the last days there shall come deceitful scoffers, walking after their own lusts, saying: Where is His promise or His coming? For since the time that the fathers slept, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. For this they are willfully ignorant of, that the heavens were before, and the earth out of water, and through water, created by the word of God.”[2] God, therefore, wished that one day should be set aside in memory of the fact that He created all things in six days, and that on the seventh day He rested from the creation of new creatures. This is why the Lord placed this Commandment in the law, saying: “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.”

The Jews kept holy the Sabbath in memory of the first creation; but Christ at His coming brought about a new creation. For by the first creation an earthly man was created, and by the second a heavenly man was formed: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.”[3] This new creation is through grace, which came by the Resurrection: “That as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, so shall we also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”[4] And thus, because the Resurrection took place on Sunday, we celebrate that day, even as the Jews observed the Sabbath on account of the first creation.[5]

The second reason for this Commandment is to instruct us in our faith in the Redeemer. For the flesh of Christ was not corrupted in the sepulchre, and thus it is said: “Moreover My flesh also shall rest in hope.”[6] “Nor wilt Thou give Thy holy one to see corruption.”[7] Wherefore, God wished that the Sabbath should be observed, and that just as the sacrifices of the Old Law signified the death of Christ, so should the quiet of the Sabbath signify the rest of His body in the sepulchre. But we do not now observe these sacrifices, because with the advent of the reality and the truth, figures of it must cease, just as the darkness is dispelled with the rising of the sun. Nevertheless, we keep the Saturdays in veneration of the Blessed Virgin, in whom remained a firm faith on that Saturday while Christ was dead.

The third reason is that this Commandment was given to strengthen and foreshadow the fulfillment of the promise of rest. For rest indeed was promised to us: “And it shall come to pass on that day, that when God shall give thee rest from thy labor, and from thy vexation, and from the hard bondage, wherewith thou didst serve before.”[8] “My people shall sit in the beauty of peace, and in the tabernacle of confidence, and in wealthy rest.”[9]

We hope for rest from three things: from the labors of the present life, from the struggles of temptations, and from the servitude of the devil. Christ promised this rest to all those who will come to Him: “Come to Me, all ye that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take up My yoke upon you, and

learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is sweet and My burden light.”[10]

However, the Lord, as we know, worked for six days and on the seventh He rested, because it is necessary to do a perfect work: “Behold with your eyes how I have labored a little, and have found much rest to Myself.”[11] For the period of eternity exceeds the present time incomparably more than a thousand years exceeds one day.

Fourthly, this Commandment was given for the increase of our love: “For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul.”[12] And man always tends downwards towards earthly things unless he takes means to raise himself above them. It is indeed necessary to have a certain time for this; in fact, some do this continually: “I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall ever be in my mouth.”[13] And again: “Pray without ceasing.”[14] These shall enjoy the everlasting Sabbath. There are others who do this (i.e., excite love for God) during a certain portion of the day: “Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee.”[15] And some, in order to avoid being entirely apart from God, find it necessary to have a fixed day, lest they become too lukewarm in their love of God: “If you call the Sabbath delightful . . . then shalt thou be delighted in the Lord.”[16] Again: “Then shalt thou abound in delights of the Almighty, and shalt lift up thy face to God.”[17] And accordingly this day is not set aside for the sole exercise of games, but to praise and pray to the Lord God. Wherefore, St. Augustine says that it is a lesser evil to plough than to play on this day.[18]

Lastly, we are given this Commandment in order to exercise works of kindliness to those who are subject to us. For some are so cruel to themselves and to others that they labor ceaselessly all on account of money. This is true especially of the Jews, who are most avaricious. “Observe the day of the Sabbath to sanctify it . . . that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest, even as thyself.”[19] This Commandment, therefore, was given for all these reasons.


“Remember that you keep holy (sanctify) the Sabbath day.” We have already said that, as the Jews celebrated the Sabbath, so do we Christians observe the Sunday and all principal feasts. Let us now see in what way we should keep these days. We ought to know that God did not say to “keep” the Sabbath, but to remember to keep it holy. The word “holy” may be taken in two ways. Sometimes “holy” (sanctified) is the same as pure: “But you are washed, but you are sanctified”[20] (that is, made holy). Then again at times “holy” is said of a thing consecrated to the worship of God, as, for instance, a place, a season, vestments, and the holy vessels. Therefore, in these two ways we ought to celebrate the feasts, that is, both purely and by giving ourselves over to divine service.

We shall consider two things regarding this Commandment. First, what should be avoided on a feast day, and secondly, what we should do. We ought to avoid three things. The first is servile work.

Avoidance of Servile Work.–“Neither do ye any work; sanctify the Sabbath day.”[21] And so also it is said in the Law: “You shall do no servile work therein.”[22] Now, servile work is bodily work; whereas “free work” (i.e., non-servile work) is done by the mind, for instance, the exercise of the intellect and such like. And one cannot be servilely bound to do this kind of work.

When Servile Work Is Lawful.–We ought to know, however, that servile work can be done on the Sabbath for four reasons. The first reason is necessity. Wherefore, the Lord excused the disciples plucking the ears of corn on the Sabbath, as we read in St. Matthew (xii. 3-5). The second reason is when the work is done for the service of the Church; as we see in the same Gospel how the priests did all things necessary in the Temple on the Sabbath day. The third reason is for the good of our neighbor; for on the Sabbath the Saviour cured one having a withered hand, and He refuted the Jews who reprimanded Him, by citing the example of the sheep in a pit (“ibid.”). And the fourth reason is the authority of our superiors. Thus, God commanded the Jews to circumcise on the Sabbath.[13]

Avoidance of Sin and Negligence on the Sabbath.–Another thing to be avoided on the Sabbath is sin: “Take heed to your souls, and carry no burdens on the Sabbath day.”[24] This weight and burden on the soul is sin: “My iniquities as a heavy burden are become heavy upon me.”[25] Now, sin is a servile work because “whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.”[26] Therefore, when it is said, “You shall do no servile work therein,”[27] it can be understood of sin. Thus, one violates this commandment as often as one commits sin on the Sabbath; and so both by working and by sin God is offended.[28] “The Sabbaths and other festivals I will not abide.” And why? “Because your assemblies are wicked. My soul hateth your new moon[29] and your solemnities; they are become troublesome to me.”[30]

Another thing to avoid on the Sabbath is idleness: “For idleness hath taught much evil.”[31] St. Jerome says: “Always do some good work, and the devil will always find you occupied.”[32] Hence, it is not good for one to keep only the principal feasts, if on the others one would remain idle. “The King’s honor loveth judgment,”[33] that is to say, discretion. Wherefore, we read that certain of the Jews were in hiding, and their enemies fell upon them; but they, believing that they were not able to defend themselves on the Sabbath, were overcome and killed.[34] The same thing happens to many who are idle on the feast days: “The enemies have seen her, and have mocked at her Sabbaths.”[35] But all such should do as those Jews did, of whom it is said: “Whosoever shall come up against us to fight on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him.”[36]


“Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.” We have already said that man must keep the feast days holy; and that “holy” is considered in two ways, namely, “pure” and “consecrated to God.” Moreover, we have indicated what things we should abstain from on these days. Now it must be shown with what we should occupy ourselves, and they are three in number.

The Offering of Sacrifice.–The first is the offering of sacrifices.[37] In the Book of Numbers (xxviii) it is written how God ordered that on each day there be offered one lamb in the morning and another in the evening, but on the Sabbath day the number should be doubled. And this showed that on the Sabbath we should offer sacrifice to God from all that we possess: “All things are Thine; and we have given Thee what we received from Thy hand.”[38] We should offer, first of all, our soul to God, being sorry for our sins: “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit;”[39] and also pray for His blessings: “Let my prayer be directed as incense in Thy sight.”[40] Feast days were instituted for that spiritual joy which is the effect of prayer. Therefore, on such days our prayers should be multiplied.

Secondly, we should offer our body, by mortifying it with fasting:[41] “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice,”[42] and also by praising God: “The sacrifice of praise shall honor Me.”[43] And thus on these days our hymns should be more numerous. Thirdly, we should sacrifice our possessions by giving alms: “And do not forget to do good, and to impart; for by such sacrifice God’s favor is obtained.”[44] And this alms ought to be more than on other days because the Sabbath is a day of common joys: “Send portions to them that have not prepared for themselves, because it is the holy day of the Lord.”[45]

Hearing of God’s Word.–Our second duty on the Sabbath is to be eager to hear the word of God. This the Jews did daily: “The voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath.”[46] Therefore Christians, whose justice should be more perfect, ought to come together on the Sabbath to hear sermons and participate in the services of the Church! “He that is God, heareth the words of God.”[47] We likewise ought to speak with profit to others: “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth; but that which is good unto sanctification.”[48] These two practices are good for the soul of the sinner, because they change his heart for the better: “Are not My words as a fire, saith the Lord, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”[49] The opposite effect is had on those, even the perfect, who neither speak nor hear profitable things: “Evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake, ye just, and sin not.”[50] “Thy words have I hidden in my heart.”[51] God’s word enlightens the ignorant: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet.”[52] It inflames the lukewarm: “The word of the Lord inflamed him.”[53]


The contemplation of divine things may be exercised on the Sabbath. However, this is for the more perfect.[54] “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet,”[55] and this is because of the quiet of the soul. For just as the tired body desires rest, so also does the soul. But the soul’s proper rest is in God: “Be Thou unto me a God, a protector, and a house of refuge.”[56] “There remaineth therefore a day of rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, the same also hath rested from his works, as God did from His.”[57] When I go into my house, I shall repose myself with her” (i.e., Wisdom).[58]

However, before the soul arrives at this rest, three other rests must precede. The first is the rest from the turmoil of sin: “But the wicked are like the raging sea which cannot rest.”[59] The second rest is from the passions of the flesh, because “the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.”[60] The third is rest from the occupations of the world: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and art troubled about many things.”[61]


And then after all these things the soul rests peacefully in God: “If thou call the Sabbath delightful . . . then shalt thou be delighted in the Lord,”[63] The Saints gave up everything to possess this rest, “for it is a pearl of great price which a man having found, hid it, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.”[64] This rest in truth is eternal life and heavenly joy: “This is my rest for ever and ever; here will I dwell, for I have chosen it.”[65] And to this rest may the Lord bring us all!

(For “Questions for Discussion” see Chapter 6.)


1. St. Thomas also treats of this Commandment in the “Summa Theologica,” Ill Q. cii, art. 4, 10; “ibid.,” II-II, Q. cxxii, art. 4.

2. II Peter, iii. 3-5.

3. Gal., vi. 15.

4. Rom., vi. 4-5.

5. “The Apostles, therefore, resolved to consecrate the first of the seven days of the week to the divine worship, and they called it ‘the Lord’s Day.’ St. John makes mention of ‘the Lord’s Day’ in the Apocalypse (i. 10), and St. Paul commands collections to be made ‘on the first day of the week’ (I Cor., xvi. 2). . . . From all this we learn that even then the Lord’s Day was kept holy in the Church. . . . The Church of God has thought it well to transfer the celebration and observance of the Sabbath to Sunday. On that day light first shone on the world when the Lord arose on that day, and the gate of eternal life was thrown open to us and we were called out of darkness into light. . . . We also learn from the Holy Scriptures that the first day of the week was held sacred for other reasons, viz., on that day the creation began, and on that day the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles” (“Roman Catechism.” Third Commandment, 7, 18).

6. Ps. xv. 9.

7. “Ibid.,” 10.

8. Isa., xiv. 3.

9. “Ibid.,” xxxii. 18.

10. Matt., xi. 28-30.

11. Ecclus., li. 35.

12. Wis., ix. 15.

13. Ps. xxxiii. 2.

14. I Thess., v. 17.

15. Ps. cxviii. 164.

16. Isa., lviii. 13-14.

17. Job xxii. 26.

18. This is a reference to the great public spectacles and games.

19. Deut., v. 12-14.

20. I Cor., vi. 11.

21. Jerem., xvii. 22.

22. Levit., xxiii. 25.

23. John, vii. 22-23.

24. Jerem., xviii. 21.

25. Ps. xxxvii. 5.

26. John, viii. 34.

27. Levit., iii. 25.

28. St. Thomas’ comparison of sin and servile work follows from the words: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin,” quoted above. This does not mean that commission of sin on the Sabbath changes the species of the sin or gravely increases its malice.

29. This refers to the celebration and special sacrifices offered on the first day of the month. The Lord here is displeased not with the external ritual itself, but with the lack of proper internal dispositions on the part of the Jews.

30. Isa., i. 13.

31. Ecclus., xxxiii. 29.

32. “Ep. ad Rusticum.”

33. Ps. xcviii. 4.

34. I Mach, ii. 31-38.

35. Lam., i. 7.

36. I Mach., ii. 41.

37. For the Catholic, of course, the great Sacrifice is that of the Mass. And we are bound to assist at Mass on Sundays and Holydays of obligation unless we are excused for serious reason. “The pastor should not omit to teach the faithful what words and actions they should perform on the festival days. These are: to go to church and there with true piety and devotion assist at the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; and to approach frequently the Sacraments of the Church which were instituted for our salvatlon” (“Roman Catechism,” “Third Commandment,” 25).

38. I Paral., xxix. 14.

39. Ps. l. 19.

40. Ps. cxl. 2.

41. St. Thomas here refers not to the “fast of affliction” (“jejunium afflictionis”) but to the “fast of joy” (“iejunium exultationis”), which is a joyful lifting of the mind to higher things and proceeds from the Holy Ghost who is the spirit of liberty (cfr. “Summa Theol.,” III, Q. cxlvii, art. 5).

42 Rom., xii. 1.

43. Ps. xlix. 23.

44. Heb., xiii. 16.

45. II Esdras, viii. 10.

46. Acts, xiii. 27.

47. John, viii. 47.

48. Eph., iv. 29.

49. Jerem., xxiii. 29.

50. I Cor., xv. 33.

51. Ps. cxviii. 11.

52. “Ibid.,” 105.

53. Ps. civ. 19.

54. “The spiritual Sabbath consists in a holy and mystical rest wherein, the carnal man (vetus homo, Rom., vi. 4) being buried with Christ, the new man is renewed to life and carefully applies himself to exercise the spirit of Christian piety” (“Roman Calechism,” “Third Commandment,” 15).

55. Ps. xxxiii. 9.

56. Ps. xxx. 3.

57. Heb., iv. 9-10.

58. Wis., viii. 16.

59. Isa., lvii. 20.

60. Gal., v. 17.

61. Luke, x. 41.

62. “The heavenly Sabbalh, as St. Cyril observes on the words of St. Paul, ‘There remaineth therefore a day of rest for the people of God’ (Eph., v. 8), is that life in which, living with Christ, we shall experience all joy and all sin will be wiped away (“In Joan.,” lib. 4). And in this vision of God the souls of the saints shall obtain every good” (“Roman Catechism,” “loc. cit.,” 16).

63. Isa., lviii. 13-14.

64. Matt., xiii. 44-46.

65. Ps. cxxxi. 14.

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