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Why do we observe the Sabbath on Sunday?

TitleWhy do we observe the Sabbath on Sunday?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1978
AuthorsMatthews, Robert J.
Issue Number1
Date PublishedJanuary 1978
KeywordsSabbath Day; Ten Commandments

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Why do we observe the Sabbath on Sunday when the biblical Sabbath seems to have been on the seventh day?

Robert J. Matthews, chairman of the department of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University The Sabbath has several purposes. It is a holy day specified in the scriptures as a day not only of rest but also of worship. The word sabbath is derived from the Hebrew shabbath, meaning “to break off” or “to desist,” and in this can be seen the idea of rest.

But in the best sense, rest does not mean idleness; it signifies rather a change of emphasis. In plain terms, “keeping the Sabbath day holy” means to cease or to rest from the secular labors of the week and to use the specified day in worshipping God and doing good to our fellow beings. It is a day for spiritual works and refreshment as compared to the secular accomplishments of other days.

The various dimensions of the Sabbath are sometimes spoken of separately in the scriptures. For example, one mention of the Sabbath is found in Exodus 16:23, [Ex. 16:23] and has to do with instructions for the Israelites to gather a double amount of manna the day before the Sabbath so that such labor should not be performed on the Sabbath.

However, Exodus 20:8–11 and 31:12–17 [Ex. 20:8–11, Ex. 31:12–17] deal with a different aspect of the Sabbath and emphasize that the Lord rested on the seventh day after having created the world. This reconfirms the event told in Genesis 2:1–3, [Gen. 2:1–3] reminding us that the Sabbath was inaugurated in the very beginning. No doubt the sacredness of the Sabbath day was known to the true believers from the time of Adam, although the Bible is not very clear on this point. The scriptures appear to establish the Sabbath at the time of Moses, but this is probably due more to an incompleteness of the earlier record than to an absence of teaching at the time of the early patriarchs.

Still another dimension is shown after the exodus from Egypt, wherein the Sabbath is used to commemorate Israel’s deliverance from bondage. (Deut. 5:12–15.)

And in the last days the Lord has explained that another purpose of the Sabbath is “that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world” by keeping it holy in the way he has commanded us. (D&C 59:9.)

In New Testament times the Sabbath day was called the “Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and was observed on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), honoring the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb. In the present dispensation the Lord called the day of worship “my holy day” in a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith on Sunday, 7 August 1831. (D&C 59:9–10.) Since Jesus is Jehovah, the Creator and the God of Israel, these different aspects of the Sabbath all bear witness of the same Lord Jesus Christ but emphasize different features of his ministry.

When the Pharisees criticized the disciples for picking ears of corn on the Sabbath, Jesus explained to the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

“Wherefore the Sabbath was given unto man for a day of rest; and also that man should glorify God, and not that man should not eat;

“For the Son of Man made the Sabbath day, therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath.” (JST, Mark 2:25–27.)

Not only does this manifest a practical view of the Sabbath, it also illustrates its multiple nature: (1) the Sabbath is for man’s benefit; (2) it is a day of rest; (3) it is a day of worship; and (4) Jesus is the maker of the Sabbath and is the Lord thereof in any age of the world.

Public and private worship. 

Proper observance of the Sabbath is a sign and even a test that distinguishes the covenant people of the Lord from those who follow the ways of the world. (See Ex. 31:13–18; Neh. 13:15–22; Isa. 56:1–8; Isa. 58:13–14; Jer. 17:19–27.) In this respect it serves a purpose similar to the Word of Wisdom and tithing, which soon divide the believers from the nonbelievers in their performance.

Sabbath observance entails more than simply staying at home. It also involves public worship. It was and is a day for the believers to meet together for worship and for instruction. The New Testament informs us that Jesus, “as his custom was,” frequently went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. (Luke 4:16.)

The most extensive revelation in the current dispensation that deals with the Sabbath day is recorded as Doctrine and Covenants section 59. In this communication the Lord emphasizes the public nature of Sabbath worship by indicating that one should “go to the house of prayer” on the Lord’s holy day and “pay thy devotions unto the Most High.” (D&C 59:9–10.)

Which day is the Sabbath? 

The Sabbath has eternal significance. The Old Testament declares the Sabbath is to be observed as a “perpetual covenant” (see Ex. 31:13–17), which does not necessarily mean that it should be forever on the same day, but rather that the Sabbath is a covenant for eternity—that is, of eternal significance—and is needed by mortals in every generation for their frequent spiritual rejuvenation. The context of the passage seems to make that point clear. It is evident from the Bible that the sacred day was the seventh day of the week during Old Testament times, whereas in the New Testament it was observed on the first day of the week by the church after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.

Traditionally The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recognized Sunday as the day of worship, according to the pattern given in Doctrine and Covenants section 59. [D&C 59] However, in the Middle East today, some branches of the Church observe the Sabbath on days other than Sunday, consistent with the custom of the countries in which they are located. This is necessary so that meetings can be held at a time when the members of the Church can be present.

Since the Sabbath is for man and not man for the Sabbath, with its purpose not only to be a day of rest for the individual, but also to be a day of spiritual instruction and public worship, it is important that the Sabbath day be observed at a time when the people can attend. The significant fact seems not to be which day is observed so much as how and why the day is observed and that the local group of believers observe the same day each week.

In the Church the matter of Sabbath-day observance can be settled quite effectively from the fact that the twelve successive Presidents of the Church from the Prophet Joseph Smith to President Spencer W. Kimball have all seen fit to observe Sunday as the proper day, and have thus set the pattern. The important factor is that the programs of the Church are under the direction of the holy priesthood and have the approval of the President of the Church—the prophet, seer, and revelator, and the Lord’s representative on earth. When rare exceptions to the established day have seemed necessary, as noted above, the proper priesthood authority is able to make the decision.