Those 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.