Recently I was thinking about the Sabbath and trying to figure out why it is that we observe the Sabbath on Sunday in Christendom rather than on Saturday like the Jews. I’ve always been taught that we have the Sabbath because on the 7th day God rested from his labors of creating the world and so we take that same 7th day to rest from our labors. However, that doesn’t explain why our Sabbath is on a different day than the Jews’ – our religious traditions come from the same source so ostensibly 7 days from the beginning of creation should be reckoned the same in either faith. In America we don’t even pretend that Sunday was the 7th day and it is on our calendars as the first day of the week rather than the last. I’ve often wondered why we couldn’t just agree as a global community that the Sabbath is either Saturday or Sunday and everyone could observe the same day worldwide and make it easier to live together. It seemed like an arbitrary distinction to me anyways – so long as we were observing one day out of seven did it really matter which of those days it was?
I was pondering this while taking the sacrament a few weeks back and realized that what I’d been told about why Sunday is the Sabbath all my life was wrong. On Sunday we’re not resting to recognize the 7th day of creation when the Lord rested – clearly that happened on Saturday and the Jews continue that tradition to this day. There must have been a completely different reason for this and I wanted to share my opinion on what that reason is.
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the disciples prepared for the Passover feast that week. Passover was on Thursday and was observed in what we now refer to as the Last Supper. Judas was excused from the celebration and went to find the men to whom he could betray our Savior. Meanwhile Christ went with a few of his apostles to Gethsemane to suffer for the pains and sins of the world. Just after that the guards came and arrested Jesus on accounts of treason. He was beaten and questioned all that night and into the following morning. On Friday, Pilate asked the Jews if they would have him release Barabbas or Jesus to them. The Jews sentenced Jesus to crucifixion on Calvary and he was taken there and nailed to a cross to die. In the afternoon the Jews were anxious for the men being crucified to die quickly so they could attend to the bodies before their Sabbath began. Their Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and would be observed through sundown on Saturday. Attending to corpses on the Sabbath would be a violation of the Law of Moses. So the soldiers broke the legs of the other two men so they could no longer hold up their weight with their legs and they would suffocate from the weight of their bodies more quickly (truly this was a barbaric way to be killed). When the soldiers came to Jesus they found him already dead. His disciples were given his body so they could hastily attend to his body before the Sabbath commenced. Not to give a full and proper burial but at least to wrap the body and lay it in a tomb until they could attend to it after the Sabbath had finished. On Saturday, the Sabbath, while they were surely mourning greatly for the loss of our Lord, the disciples focused on their worship and day of rest as they always had. It was the last time that day would mark the most remarkable event in the history of the world as the completion of the creation.
The following day – Sunday – it was no longer the Sabbath and so the disciples were able to return to the tomb to finish the burial they hadn’t been able to make on Friday. They arrived at the tomb and found it empty – the Lord had risen. This marked an occasion that surpassed the immensity of the reverence that they had for the creation. I don’t know when the change was made, whether that day or many years later, but at some point the Christians must have realized that this was so momentous that it was worthy of changing the very foundations of our calendar structure. No longer did they stop to worship their Lord simply for the blessing of the creation of the world, but they stopped to worship for his sacrifice and the miracle of his redemption. We stop to remember the price that was paid for our sins, and that through Christ we can live again.
Sunday is the not the last day, it is the first day. It is the first day of new life. It marks the day when our Savior forsook the tomb and rose so that we could live again. We don’t simply rest from our labors on Sunday, we stop and remember our Lord and all that He has done for us. Of course, part of our Sabbath is still to be a day of rest – to set ourselves aside from the cares of the world and focus on higher things. Surely there is nothing wrong with remembering the rest of our Lord after finishing the creation and to feel gratitude for all that we’ve been given. But commemorating the creation is not why our Sabbath is on Sunday. OnI Sunday we remember the Son of God, and that like the sun He is risen, and has marked the path for us to rise again.