Why do we observe the Sabbath on Sunday?
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“Why do we observe the Sabbath on Sunday?” Tambuli, July 1978, 10–11

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 worshiping 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.

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 reflect 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.

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 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.)

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. 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 (see Mark 2:23–28) 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.