Posted by: Andrew Webb | November 11, 2008

When does the Christian Sabbath Begin and End?

dawnThose who desire to keep the Lord’s Day Holy are necessarily faced with the question of deciding when it begins. Should we consider the Lord’s day to begin at sundown on Saturday or 12:00 AM on Sunday Morning, or is there, as I would argue, another and better option?

Surprisingly, very few Reformed commentators have sought to answer this question, and I believe the reason for that is related to the broader concern that we not develop the same kind of petty legalism that marked the Pharisees. I’ve known people who will literally wait with TV remote in hand for the clock to strike 12 before turning on the TV.  If we are constantly watching the hands of the clock to see when the Sabbath begins and ends, is it not possible that we have a little too much in common with the merchants who camped outside the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath anticipating the moment when the gates would open again and they could get on with their trade? (Neh. 13:19-21) If we are looking forward to the end of the Sabbath so we can get on with what we want to do how are we really keeping the spirit of Isaiah 58:13? After all, we are preparing for an eternal Sabbath, are we not? (Heb. 4:9-11)  Shouldn’t we rather be saddened when the best day of the week ends and desire that it would last longer?

In answering this question, the Reformed commentator whose practice I personally follow (sun-up to sun-up) is Thomas Vincent. For me a sun-up to sun-up observance provides the easiest means of keeping the Sabbath; when I wake up in the morning on Sunday, the Sabbath has begun, when I wake up in the morning on Monday, the Sabbath is over, and at no point am I fretting about getting something non-essential done before midnight in time to observe the Sabbath. The following is from Vincent’s Family Instructional Guide which was an exposition of the Shorter Catechism endorsed by a number of Puritan divines including  Manton and Owen.

QUESTION 8: How do you prove by the Scripture that the weekly Sabbath begins in the morning?

ANSWER: That the weekly Sabbath is to begin in the morning, is evident:

1. By Ex. 16:23 , “ This is that which the Lord hath said, To morrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord. ” If the Sabbath had begun in the evening, Moses would have said, This evening begins the rest of the Sabbath. But he says “ Tomorrow is the rest of the Sabbath. ”

2. Most evidently it does appear that the Sabbath does begin in the morning, and not in the evening, by Matt. 28:1 : “ In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, to see the sepulcher. ” If the end of the Jewish Sabbath were not in the evening, when it began to grow dark towards the night, but when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, which it needs to be towards the morning, and in no rational sense can be interpreted of the evening, then the Sabbath did also begin in the morning, and not in the evening, for the beginning and ending needs be about the same time. But the former is evident from this place, concerning the Jewish Sabbaths ending, and therefore, consequently concerning its beginning.

3. Further it is also said in this place, that the first day which is the Christian Sabbath, did begin towards the dawning as it grew on towards light, and not as it grew on towards darkness. Therefore the Christian Sabbath does begin in the morning.

4. Moreover, the resurrection of Christ, in commemoration of which the Christian Sabbath is observed, was not in the evening, but early in the morning (“ Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, ” Mark 16:9 ). Therefore the Sabbath is to begin in the morning.

5. If the Sabbath did begin in the evening before, it would end in the evening after, and it would be lawful for men to work in their callings, or to go to their recreations, on the evening of the Sabbath, which surely would be very unsuitable after the holy engagements of that day.

I should note that some other excellent Reformed commentators like Fisher in his commentary on the Shorter Catechism support a midnight to midnight observance, but the problem with that is that nowhere to my knowledge does scripture acknowledge midnight to be the beginning of a new day. The 12:00 AM division is something that we moderns acknowledge but which was not part of the order of the ancient world. Also, Jesus did not rise from the dead at midnight as this was counted to be part of Saturday, He rose from the dead at dawn on Sunday morning – therefore if we are celebrating His resurrection, it doesn’t make sense to begin it before He arose.

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Responses

  1. Andrew, thanks so much for this.

    In earlier years, I had always followed the ‘wake-up on Lordsday morning til wake-up the next day morning’ as an order in keeping with the confessional provision that there are “some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

    But, more recently I see how morning to morning is not mere common social custom, but genuinely rooted in creation and revealed in Scripture.

    I have also benefited from Price’s discussion of the topic here:
    http://www.reformedpresbytery.org/books/sabbath/sabbath.htm

  2. For most Christians (who think about this at all), for all practical purposes, the Sabbath begins when they wake up Sunday morning and ends when they go to bed Sunday night. This avoids all that “clock fretting” that many people indulge in on this subject.

    Your “sun up to sun up” observance seems to be a variation of what I’ve described. A very interesting post, Andy.

  3. I’d agree, fwiw. The only rule of thumb I’ve ever heard about this is that the duration of the sabbath should be no shorter than the duration of any other day. If in practice the other days in your week start when you get up and end when you go to bed, then it should be the same on the Lord’s Day. (And, i think, not curtailed by long lies/early bed!)

    Counting down the minutes midnight to midnight is completely foreign to the spirit of the Lord’s Day – ie in that we should be thinking of it as a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable, etc.

    This might be slightly off-topic (and if so feel free not to take it up) – but did you ever notice in the Larger Catechism the advice that’s given about sanctifying the Lord’s Day – “to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and … dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.” One general question would be, is there any practical advice available about how we should prepare our hearts for the Lord’s Day? But maybe more relevantly — Would you say that a time (or at least an attitude) of preparation in advance of the onset of the Sabbath would perhaps act as something of a buffer that would discourage the kind of clock-watching that’s been mentioned ?

  4. Andy,

    Much of the rabbinical opinion of the Sabbath is based on the creation account, i.e., “there was evening and there was morning.” This is taken as meaning that a day is constituted of an evening and a morning, hence the Jewish practice of Sabbath observance from sundown to sundown. (Of course, this was much debated in the Talmud.) What is your opinion of this understanding of the days of creation? If the phrase, “evening and morning,” meant to indicate the composition of a day, or the marker of the end of a day, or something else?

  5. That should be “IS the phrase…” not “IF the phrase…”

  6. John Owen provides basic principles to this and other questions related to it in his Exercitations of A Day of Sacred Rest, which is in volume 2 of his set on Hebrews. Particularly useful is “Exercitation VI: The Practical Observance of the Lord’s Day”. You may find it in Hebrews, volume 2:437-460. This is the final section of an excellent treatment on the subject.

    Good discussion. May the Lord awaken many more to call the Sabbath a delight.

  7. Owen notes that an evening to evening observance belonged to the Old Covenant. He particularly argues that the Christian observance “is to be reckoned from morning to evening…The day of labour is from the removal of darkness and the night, by the light of the sun, until the return of them again; which, allowing for the alterations of the day in several seasons of the year, seems to be the just measure of our day at rest.” (442)

    Later he clarifies his point. “Upon the whole matter, I am inclinable to judge, and do so, that the observation of the day is to be commensurate unto the use of our natural strength on any other day, from morning to night.” (443) Thus, all our waking energies are to be spent in honoring the Lord’s day.

    He does not disregard preparing for the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. Rather he distinguishes between the Sabbath proper, and Sabbath preparation. Just as we ought to prepare ourselves for worship which is distiguished from worship itself, Owen sees a duty belonging to Sabbath preparation in distinction from Sabbath sanctification itself. “And nothing is hereby lost that is needful unto the due sanctification of it; for what is by some required as a part of tis sanctification, is necessary and required as a due preparation thereunto.” (443)

    I might add that Larger Catechism 117 seems to state a similar position when, after discussing the sanctifying actions belonging to the day itself, it adds the following, “and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.” Thus, preparation the evening before belongs not to the Sabbath itself, but as a means to the proper sanctifying of the day. Nonetheless it stands as a duty.

    I will add that one of my favorite authors on the subject, John Willison of Dundee (A Treatise Concerning the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day), argued that the Christian Sabbath was 24 hours, midnight to midnight: “…I do, upon solid ground assert, that the whole natural day, consisting of twenty-four hours, is to be set apart for the Sabbath day; and that we ought to measure this day, and begin and end it, as we do other days, that is, from midnight to midnight; during which time we are to abstain from our own works and sanctify the Lord’s Sabbath.”

  8. Hello Kyle,

    First let me say that I agree that Saturday evening is a time of preparation for the Lord’s Day, not part of the Lord’s Day itself. We need to remember that during this period Christ was still in the tomb and not yet risen. So to start celebrating his exaltation when his humiliation is still being memorialized strikes me as wrong. We don’t show up for corporate worship on Saturday night, etc.

    Regarding the evening/morning order in Creation Days I agree with Calvin, and I really appreciate his common-sense “let’s not get absurdly pedantic here” approach:

    “What Moses says however, admits a double interpretation; either that this was the evening and morning belonging to the first day, or that the first day consisted of the evening and the morning. Whichever interpretation be chosen, it makes no difference in the sense, for he simply understands the day to have been made up of two parts. Further, he begins the day, according to the custom of his nation, with the evening. It is to no purpose to dispute whether this be the best and the legitimate order or not. We know that darkness preceded time itself; when God withdrew the light, he closed the day. I do not doubt that the most ancient fathers, to whom the coming night was the end of one day and the beginning of another, followed this mode of reckoning. Although Moses did not intend here to prescribe a rule which it would be criminal to violate; yet (as we have now said) he accommodated his discourse to the received custom. Wherefore, as the Jews foolishly condemn all the reckonings of other people, as if God had sanctioned this alone; so again are they equally foolish who contend that this modest reckoning, which Moses approves, is preposterous.”

  9. Hi Cath,

    We prepare as a family for the Lord’s Day on Saturday night by using the verses I’ll be preaching on for our family worship and then spending time praying for the service. We also try to get the kids in bed and down for the night early so they won’t be tired in the morning. We also have a practice of NOT going out after 8:00 PM on Saturday evening or having people over to dinner. I dunno whether it helps to alleviate clock watching as we aren’t watching the clock. ;-)


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