Life Hope & Truth

When Does the Sabbath Begin?

The Jews and almost all Sabbath-keeping Christians start the Sabbath Friday evening. But recently a few have begun to teach that days begin in the morning. Does the Bible teach this?

Today, a day is considered to begin and end at midnight. But in the days before clocks, starting days at midnight was not really possible. There is no astronomical sign of midnight, and you can’t even use a sundial! So obviously ancient days did not begin at midnight, and neither did God’s Sabbath.

When did (and does!) it start? There can be some quibbling about exact wording, but almost all Sabbath-keepers agree that it begins in the evening on Friday, the end of the sixth day of the week. Sunset is the clearest marker and way to express the break between day and night.

The Sabbath command says:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work. … For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the 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).

And this is further clarified by a command about one of the annual Sabbaths, the Day of Atonement:

“It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath” (Leviticus 23:32).

Notice also the reference to evenings in the command about the Feast of Unleavened Bread:

“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening” (Exodus 12:18).

Read more about the Sabbath and the annual festivals in our booklets The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God and From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.

From creation

Genesis, the book of beginnings, records the events of the creation week. Six times in the first chapter God uses the phrase “the evening and the morning were the first [second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth] day” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). In creation, the evening preceded the morning, as it has ever since.

Some other Old Testament examples of a new day beginning in the evening are Deuteronomy 23:11, where ceremonial cleansing was complete “when the sun sets,” and Nehemiah 13:19, where the gates of Jerusalem were shut “as it began to be dark before the Sabbath.”

Jesus kept the same Sabbath the rest of the Jews kept

The Sabbath played a prominent role in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The religious leaders disagreed with how He observed the Sabbath, but never when He kept it.The Sabbath played a prominent role in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The religious leaders disagreed with how He observed the Sabbath, but never when He kept it. He remembered the same Sabbath that they did.

In fact, Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat, and He told people to do what they said: “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:3-4).

Jesus chided the Pharisees for the extra regulations they added to the Sabbath, but not for when they kept it.

The apostle Paul noted that to the Jews had been “committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). Again, there is no mention of the New Testament Church of God keeping the Sabbath at a different time from the Jews.

For more about the Sabbath in the New Testament, see “Did Paul Change the Sabbath Command?” “Which Day Is the Seventh Day?” and related articles.

Sunrise theories

Some have proposed the theory that biblical days started at sunrise, and that the Jews’ time in Babylonian captivity led them to change their observance of when the day begins.

But we have already seen that the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus Christ, kept the same Sabbath that the Jews of His day did. He created the Sabbath, and He would have corrected the timing if it had been wrong.

And surely the zealous Jews who knew they were in captivity because of previous Sabbath breaking (Ezekiel 20:23-24) would not have entertained a new way to break the Sabbath. The biblical accounts show that they became much stricter in their Sabbath observance. And there is no way righteous men like Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra or Nehemiah would have gone along with a change in when the Sabbath was remembered.

A crucial time

What do the descriptions of the timing of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ tell us about the beginning and end of a day?

Some quote Matthew 28:1 in support of the Sabbath ending at sunrise. Here it is in the King James Version: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher.”

However, the Greek phrase translated as “in the end” is translated differently in many other versions:

  • “After the Sabbath” (New International Version).
  • “After the close of the Sabbath” (Modern Language).
  • “Now after the sabbath” (Revised Standard Version).

Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words describes the range of meanings of the Greek word opse: “an adverb of time, besides its meaning ‘at evening’ or ‘at eventide,’ denotes ‘late in, or on,’ Matt. 28:1, RV, ‘late on (the Sabbath day)’ (KJV, ‘in the end of’); it came also to denote ‘late after,’ which seems to be the meaning here” (“Late,” 1985).

So the New King James Version renders the verse, “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.” There is no conflict in this passage with the Sabbath ending at sunset.

John even calls this time when “it was still dark” “the first day of the week” (John 20:1). This wouldn’t be true if sunrise marked the beginning of the day.

Note also that earlier in the account of the crucifixion, Luke makes clear that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in the afternoon as “the Sabbath drew near” (Luke 23:54). This also confirms that days begin in the evening.

Various meanings of day

Some confusion comes because of the multiple meanings of the word day. From the beginning, God used the word day (Hebrew youm or yom) to refer to the daylight portion, as well as to the entire 24 hours. Both of these meanings are demonstrated in the first uses of the word in Genesis 1:5:

“God called the light Day [youm], and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day [youm].”

So obviously the day (meaning daylight) begins with sunrise, but the Bible shows the full 24-hour day begins at sunset.

Day and night, night and day

Those advocating a sunrise beginning to the day sometimes point to the large number of verses that use the word day before the word night. But none of these verses purports to define when a 24-hour day starts.

Many of them, like many of the other verses that have night before day, are just expressing “continually,” and don’t have anything to do with the start time of a 24-hour day.

Resources

We have much more information about the Sabbath. You can access it in four formats:

If you have further questions, feel free to write to us using the “Ask a Question” form.

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