Three Reasons the Lord’s Day Begins at Midnight

Having already seen that the Lord Jesus Christ instituted the first day of the week as the one day in seven to be set aside specifically for worship, and that his Apostles maintained this practice after him—another question may be raised: When does the Lord’s Day begin? Does it begin sometime the night before, as the Jews and Adventist cults today consider their Saturday Sabbath to begin? Or does it begin in the morning, when all of our other days begin and end?

At first, this may seem like an overscrupulous issue to worry about. And while of course there are many things about our weekly worship of higher priority than this, it is nonetheless relevant to the church’s sanctification of the Lord’s Day. Daniel Cawdrey and Palmer give five reasons why it is important that the Lord’s Day should be observed at the same time in a society, rather than individuals accounting it to begin and end however they chose. 1) For the honor of God in society, 2) the unity and communion of the saints in the church, 3) to prevent confusion, 4) the dangers of scandal if otherwise, and 5) to prevent interruptions of one another in our religious and secular activities. [1]

The vast majority of Reformed theologians have said that the Lord’s Day begins at midnight in the morning of the first day of the week. [2] What is the biblical basis for this position?

We will briefly go through the New Testament evidence, then an argument from the light of nature and circumstances of worship, and finally we will see that even the Old Testament assumes days begin and end in the morning. But first, by way of preface, we must remember a few basics about the Sabbath itself.

The Natural and Positive Aspects of the Sabbath

Westminster Confession of Faith 21:7 summarizes the biblical teaching on the Sabbath:

“As it is of the law of nature that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him (Ex. 20:8, 10-11; Isa. 56:2, 4, 6-7): which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week (Gen. 2:2-3; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2), which in Scripture is called the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10), and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath (Ex. 20:8, 10 with Mat. 5:17-18).”

Men intuitively know from the light of nature that God ought to be worshiped, and that since he is a spirit, he cannot be depicted and worshiped by graven images. Yet, without direct instructions from God himself, we would not know how God desires to be worshiped. In the same way, men intuitively know from the light of nature that a due proportion of time should be set apart for the worship of God. But without positive special revelation from God, it cannot be determined how much time, and which times specifically, should be set apart. In the old covenant, God set apart the seventh day, and in the new covenant, he has set apart the first day of the week. cf. Natural Law and Divine Positive Law.

It is important to keep this natural/positive distinction in mind when considering the question of when the Lord’s Day begins. Note, as Christians, we are not so much concerned with when the old covenant Sabbath begins, so even if these days are accounted differently, our concern as Christians is with the Lord’s Day, not the ancient Jewish Sabbath—which has been abrogated in Christ (Colossians 2:16).

1. The New Testament Evidence

For the New Testament evidence, let us begin with Westminster divine William Gouge, who deduced from Acts 20:7 that the Lord’s Day begins in the morning:

“When Paul came to the Church at Troas, he had a mind to spend a Lord’s Day with them, though he was in great haste to depart as soon as he could. He came, therefore, to their assembly at the time that they came together according to their custom, but he kept them till the end of the day (for he would not travel on the Lord’s Day). And having dismissed the assembly, he departed. Now it said that he continued his speech ‘till midnight’ (Acts 20:7), even ‘till break of day’ (v. 11), and then departed—which departure of his is said to be ‘on the morrow.’ By this punctual expression of the time, it appears that the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, ended at midnight, and that then the morrow began.

“Now to make a natural day, which consists of twenty four hours, it must begin and end at the same time—for the end of one day is the beginning of another. There is not a minute between them. As, therefore, the Lord’s Day ended at midnight, so it must begin at midnight, when we count the morning to begin.” [3]

Gouge then confirms this by comparing it with the good and necessary consequence from additional passages pertaining to the same timing:

“Which is yet more evident by this phrase from Matthew 28:1, ‘In the end of the Sabbath’ (namely, of the week before which was the former Sabbath) ‘as it began to dawn’ (namely, on the next day, which was the Lord’s Day). Or, as John 20:1, ‘when it was yet dark’ there came diverse [people] to anoint the body of Jesus, but they found him not in the grave. He was risen before; so as Christ rose before the sun.” (ibid.)

Gouge concludes arguing from the resurrection accounts in the four gospels:

“Christ then rose (Mark 16:2, 9). Of Christ’s rising in the morning, no question can be made, all the evangelists agree in the narration thereof. Now the Lord’s Day being a memorial of Christ’s resurrection, if it should begin in the evening, the memorial would be before the thing itself, which is absurd to imagine. As all God’s works were finished before the first Sabbath, so all Christ’s sufferings before the Lord’s Day. His lying dead in the grave was a part of his suffering. Therefore, by his resurrection was all ended. With his resurrection, therefore, must the Lord’s Day begin.

“To make the evening before the Lord’s Day a time of preparation thereunto is a point of piety and prudence; but to make it a part of the Lord’s Day is erroneous, and in many respects very inconvenient.” (ibid.)

The gospels clearly show that Christ rose from the dead “on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, while it was yet dark” (John 20:1; Luke 24:1). From which Thomas Ridgley concludes, “Therefore the Lord’s Day begins in the morning, before sun rising; or, according to our usual way of reckoning, we may conclude that it begins immediately after midnight, and continues till midnight following.” [4] Taken in isolation, without comparing Scripture with Scripture, these texts would exclude the Lord’s Day from beginning at sunrise. But when we consider John 20:19, it also becomes clear that it cannot be said to begin at sunset the night before. John 20:19 states: “The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut, where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus, and stood in the midst, and said unto them, Peace be unto you.” From this, we must necessarily infer,

“It is called the evening of the same day; so that the worship which was performed that day, was continued in the evening thereof. This is not called the evening of the next day, but of the same day in which Christ rose from the dead; which was the first Christian Sabbath.” (Ridgley, ibid.).

Lastly, when we compare the sequence of Christ’s death and resurrection together, it becomes abundantly clear that the Lord’s Day begins at midnight. James Durham observes:

1. [Christ] was laid in the grave on Friday night, being the preparation to the great Sabbath, which followed. 2. The women who rested and came not to the grave till Sunday morning (to use our known names) are said to rest according to the commandment—as if coming sooner had not been resting according to it. 3. His lying in the grave must be accounted to be some time before the Friday ended, otherwise he could not have been three days in the grave. And therefore a part of Friday’s night is reckoned to the first day, then the whole Sabbath or Saturday is the second, and lastly a part of the night, to wit, from twelve o’clock at night, belonging to the first day or Sunday, stands for the third. And so he arose that morning, while it was yet dark, at which time, or thereabouts, the women came to the grave, as soon as they could because of the Sabbath, and therefore their seventh day Sabbath ended then, and the first day Sabbath began.” [5]

So from the New Testament evidence we see that Christ rose on the first day of the week, after midnight, before sunrise, and it was still the first day of the week the evening after he rose.

2. The Light of Nature & Circumstances of Worship

Gouge gives another reason from circumstances “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” (WCF 1:6). He argues that every other day begins at midnight, therefore the Lord’s Day does also, because in this circumstantial respect, it is the same as any other day. “Other days then begin. That they do so with us is evident by the account of our hours. For midnight ended, we begin with one o’clock; then the first hour of the day begins.” [6]

In addition to the New Testament assuming midnight as the marker of days, Thomas Ridgley states that midnight is also “our common method of computing time, beginning the day with the morning, and ending it with the evening,” he continues:

“and it is agreeable to the Psalmist’s observation, ‘Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour in the morning, until the evening’ (Ps. 104:23; [cf. John 9:4]). Rest, in order of nature, follows after labour. Therefore the night follows the day. And consequently the Lord’s Day evening follows the day, on which account it must be supposed to begin in the morning.” (ibid.)

He then points out some absurdities that would follow if we observed the Lord’s Day starting in the evening:

“If the Sabbath begins in the evening, religious worship ought to be performed sometime, at least, in the evening; and then, soon after it is begun, it will be interrupted by the succeeding night, and then it must be revived again the following day. And, as to the end [i.e. purpose] of the Sabbath, it seems not so agreeable, that, when we have been engaged in the worship of God in the day, we should spend the evening in secular employments—which cannot be judged unlawful, if the Sabbath be then at an end. Therefore, it is much more expedient that the whole work of the day should be continued as long as our worldly employments are on other days; and our beginning and ending the performance of religious duties, should in some measure, be agreeable thereunto.” [7]

Not only would Christians 1) break up the day of worship by sleeping Saturday night right after it began, and 2) begin their secular employments on Sunday night, it would also, as James Durham adds, 3) “confound the preparation…and the day together.” He elaborates:

“It is not questioned, if on the evening before, people should be preparing for the Sabbath following. We said that this is included in the word ‘remember.’ But if we speak of the Sabbath to begin at the evening before, then it will be comprehended as a part of the very day, and so it will conclude the work or observation of the day to close at the next evening.” [8]

Cawdrey and Palmer similarly write, “It seems most consonant to the Law and Light of Nature, and Scripture reason, that (unless God otherwise determine it himself) the beginning of the Lord’s Day should be in the morning, that is, after midnight, rather than the evening before.” They then give five reasons “from the many incongruities and inconveniences of beginning it at evening, and the contrary commodities for the morning.” (cf. Midnight Sabbath and the Light of Nature).

Thus, by the light of nature and Christian prudence, in addition to good and necessary consequence deduced from the New Testament, the Lord’s Day begins at midnight—just as all other days do.

3. The Old Testament Sabbath

Before coming to the Old Testament evidence it is important to emphasize that as Christians we observe the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. We do not observe the Jewish, seventh day Sabbath. As noted above, the Lord’s Day was instituted by Christ at his resurrection, and begins at midnight. Hypothetically however, even if the abrogated Saturday Sabbath did begin at a time other than midnight, that would not be relevant for our practice of observing the Lord’s Day. Nevertheless, it can be persuasively shown that even the old covenant Sabbath, in the same way, began at midnight.

Tomorrow” is the Sabbath

William Gouge writes that even in the old covenant, days appear to have begun and ended at midnight, from Scripture’s use of the term tomorrow:

“And it appears to be so among the Jews; for when Aaron proclaimed, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord,’ ‘they rose up early on the morrow’ (Ex. 32:5-6). I deny not but that sundry of the Jewish feasts began in the evening, as the Passover (Ex. 12:6). But it cannot be proved that their weekly Sabbath so began. There were special reasons for the beginning of those feasts in the evening, which did then begin.” [9]

Similarly, Exodus 16:23 states, “Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord.” From which Ridgley observes, “Whereas, if the Sabbath had begun in the evening, it would rather have been said, this evening begins the rest of the holy Sabbath.” (ibid.)

The evening and the morning” (Genesis 1:5).

Gouge continues by addressing an easily misinterpreted passage,

“As for the supposed beginnings of the first days gathered out of this phrase: ‘the evening and the morning were the first day’ [Gen. 1:5, etc.], they cannot be necessarily concluded to be at the evening. For the evening and the morning there imports [conveys] the moment of the evening and morning parting from one another, and the return to the same period; which moment is rather at the beginning of the morning than of the evening. The evening is used to refer to the end of the day and the morning to the beginning, as Ex. 29:38-29; 1 Sam. 17:16; John 20:19.” (ibid.)

Again, the purpose of the statement, “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gen. 1:5), is not to denote the sequence of the parts of a day, but rather to emphasize that the day was, in fact, concluded. The time that a day concludes is immediately before the next day begins. Therefore, if the day concludes at the morning then it must also begin in the morning, not in the evening. [10] Further, evening in Scripture does not encompass a whole night. Only the first part of the night until midnight is called evening. And in the same way, morning does not extend all the way to sunset. So these terms cannot be synonymous with night and day. [11]

Similarly, renowned Hebrew scholar H.C. Leupold (1892-1972) wrote that Genesis 1:5,

“presents not an addition of items but the conclusion of a progression. On this day there had been the creation of heaven and earth in the rough, then the creation of light, the approval of light, the separation of day and night. Now with evening the divine activities ceased: they are works of light not works of darkness. The evening (‘erebh), of course, merges into night, and the night terminates with morning. But by the time morning is reached, the first day is concluded, as the account says succinctly, ‘the first day,’ and everything is in readiness for the second day’s task. For ‘evening’ marks the conclusion of the day, and ‘morning’ marks the conclusion of the night. It is these conclusions, which terminate the preceding, that are to be made prominent.” [12]

Chrysostom and Ambrose also agreed that “evening” marks the conclusion of the day, and “morning” marks the conclusion of the night. [13] This explanation seems the most plausible. However, other theologians have argued that Moses mentions them in reverse order on purpose, using a figure of speech called hysteron proteron. This is where the last thing is mentioned first and the first is last, reversing the logical or temporal order, e.g. “putting on shoes and socks” or “thunder and lightning.” The purpose of hysteron proteron is to call attention to the more important idea by placing it first. In this case, “evening” is the end of the first day, and the “morning” came before it, as Cawdrey & Palmer write: “having spoken of the first 24 hours, the first night being ended, he says this evening and the morning before; that is, this night and the day before made the first day, and so proceeds to the works of the second day.” [14]

Ceremonial Sabbaths observed “from evening to evening

Here, an objection might be raised from the old covenant ceremonial Sabbaths, which are explicitly described as beginning in the evening. “In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the Lord’s Passover” (Leviticus 23:5). Jehovah commands in verse 32 that the Day of Atonement “shall be unto you a sabbath of rest, and ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye celebrate your sabbath.” James Durham responds:

The sanctifying of the ordinary Sabbath was from morning to evening. I say of the ordinary Sabbath, because for extraordinary Sabbaths, as of the Passover (Ex. 12), and of the Atonement (Lev. 23), there were special reasons. And though otherwise they were to be sanctified as Sabbaths, yet that they were to begin in the evening before, was added as a special solemnity of these solemn times. And therefore the example of these will not be concluded here to the prejudice of what we assert—but rather to the contrary, seeing there is a particular excepting of them from the ordinary rule. And the particular intimation of their beginning in the evening will rather confirm our assertion, that the ordinary Sabbaths did begin in the morning.” (ibid.)

Durham’s point is strong: if it was common knowledge that days begin and end at evening, then why would Scripture need to emphasize this and positively institute it for these holy days? Clearly then, this is a case where the exception proves the rule. And while these ceremonial Sabbaths had extraordinary special solemnity requiring preparation time the evening before, Keil and Delitzsch give another possibility:

“The reckoning of days from evening to evening in the Mosaic law (Lev. 23:32), and by many ancient tribes (the pre-Mohammedan Arabs, the Athenians, Gauls, and Germans), arose not from the days of creation, but from the custom of regulating seasons by the changes of the moon.” [15]

Did the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sabbath begin at different times?

Some theologians have conceded that the Jews considered days to begin and end in the evening. But even in these cases they nevertheless maintain that Christians have rightly observed the Lord’s Day beginning in the morning, and not the evening prior. For example, William Ames wrote:

“Just as the beginning of the old sabbath occurred in the evening because the creation also began in the evening (the formless earth being created before the light) and the cessation of the work of creation also began at evening, so also the beginning of the Lord’s Day appears to begin in the morning because the resurrection of Christ was in the early morning (Mark 16:2; John 20:1).” [16]

First, notice how even in conceding this, Ames (and others) nevertheless maintains that Christians have rightly observed the Lord’s Day beginning in the morning, and not the evening prior. Thus, in practice, these theologians are in agreement with the position propounded here.

This concession, however, has multiple problems. First, it does not consistently account for the multiple clear instances of the term “tomorrow” as discussed above by Gouge and Ridgley. And it would violate the hermeneutical principle that the clearer text should interpret the more unclear text.

Secondly, the “darkness upon the face of the deep” (verse 2) is not the same as the darkness later mentioned which is called “night” (verse 5). Rather, it is the night which followed the first day after God had divided the light (verse 4). As Basil wrote, “that first state of the world, viz. before the first light was risen, was not called night, but darkness” (Hexameron, Hom. 2, in locum). The primordial darkness and chaos of verse 2 was metaphysically negative, light not having been created yet. But the darkness of night (verse 5), on the other hand, is a privation of light, just like night is a privation of day. Hence, light is before darkness, and day before night. Metaphysically considered, it would make no sense to call something “night” without the existence of a corollary “day.” The primordial darkness was such of absolute necessity, whereas the darkness of night was such only conditionally, supposing the existence of day. Thus, the evening was not the primordial darkness, but rather the night which followed the day after the creation of light. [17]

Thirdly, this view seems to imply that the particular works of creation on day one were not instantaneous, but rather twelve hours apart. It seems to imply that God created the formless earth, beginning day one in the dark, and then twelve hours later created the light, being the latter half of day one. But it seems much more simple and consistent with Scripture to understand that God’s “particular works of each of the six days were created without motion and succession of time” as Francis Turretin persuasively argues. [18]

Regardless, it is important to emphasize again that the Lord’s Day begins in the morning. And that is the most relevant point informing our practice today as Sabbatarian Christians in the new covenant who orient our holy convocation around the resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

See also the numerous Puritan and Reformed quotes on this subject compiled by the Virginia Huguenot: Midnight to Midnight (Part 1); Midnight to Midnight (Part 2).

[1] Daniel Cawdrey & Herbert Palmer, Sabbatum Redivivum: The Christian Sabbath Vindicated, part 3, ch. 2, p. 350-2.

[2] While some have considered the morning to begin at sunrise Sunday morning, this position is not practically different from holding to midnight as the start and end of every day (including the Lord’s Day), because in practice, the first thing in the morning when one wakes up, the Lord’s Day is to be honored.

[3] William Gouge, The Sabbath’s Sanctification, pp. 24-26.

[4] Thomas Ridgley, Commentary on the Larger Catechism [Still Waters Revival Books (1993)], vol. 2, pp. 352-353.

[5] James Durham, A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments [Naphtali Press (2018)], pp. 191-192.

[6] Gouge, ibid. Similarly, James Durham: “It is granted by all, and is clear from this command, that as we account the six working days of the week, so must we account the seventh, for one must begin where another ends; and if one of them begin at the evening or morning, all the rest must do so likewise.” (p. 188).

[7] Ridgley, ibid. Similarly, James Durham: “Again, if by virtue of the command of a day to be sanctified, we should begin the night or the evening before, then, these two or three absurdities would follow: 1. Then we would confound the preparation by the word remember, and the day together. 2. Then we Christians might also, by virtue of the concession of six days for work, begin to work the night before Monday, as the Jews on this supposition might have begun their work the night before Sunday. 3. Then we were almost no sooner to begin the sanctifying of the day, then to break it off for rest, and when its sanctification is closed, as soon to fall to our ordinary callings.” (p. 190).

[8] Durham, ibid., p. 188.

[9] Gouge, ibid. The Hebrew use of these terms in this way is confirmed by comparison with other Scriptures: Exodus 18:13; 1 Samuel 5:4; 1 Samuel 11:11; 1 Samuel 19:11. Greg Price discusses this in detail, “When expressions like ‘tomorrow’, ’that night’, ‘the next day’, or ‘the same day’ are used in Scripture, the context in certain texts indicates that the night is a continuation of ‘the same day’ that preceded it (and not the beginning of a new day). Whereas the following morning is distinguished from the previous night by being designated as ‘tomorrow’ or as ‘the next day.’” (When Does The Sabbath Begin? Morning or Evening?)

[10] cf. Keil & Delitzsch, com. Gen. 1:5; James Durham, The Ten Commandments, pp. 189-190; E.J. Young, Studies in Genesis One, p. 89.

[11] Cawdrey & Palmer, ibid., p. 372.

[12] Exposition of Genesis, vol. 1, pp. 57-58; cf. Greg Price, ibid.

[13] Ambrose in Hexameron and Chrysostom in locum; cf. Cawdrey & Palmer, ibid., p. 395.

[14] Cawdrey & Palmer, ibid., p. 394; cf. John Gill com. Gen. 1:25. Other Scriptural examples of hysteron proteron include the angel saying “Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?” (Rev. 5:2); Isaiah’s prophecy against Assyria in the context of his prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 14:24-27 (cf. Keil & Delitzsch); 1 Samuel 6:14-15 (cf. Poole’s Synopsis); “God saw that it was good” missing from the narrative of the second day (verse 6) and rather being included after one of the creations of day three (verse 10) (cf. Poole’s Synopsis and Calvin’s editor on Gen. 1:6); 2 Samuel 14:4 (cf. Keil & Delitzsch); etc.

[15] Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on Gen. 1:5.

[16] William Ames, Marrow of Theology, pp. 297-298; cf. Nicholas Bownd, The True Doctrine of the Sabbath, pp. 130-131.

[17] cf. Cawdrey & Palmer, ibid., p. 370, 393.

[18] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology V.v, vol. 1, pp. 444-446.

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