12 August 2019

God's seventh-day rest: Skillen's achievement

James W. Skillen, God’s Sabbath with Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2019.

If you are reading anything else at the moment, put it aside and read this book! Yes, it’s that good. James Skillen, who has written several works on the implications of Christian faith for political life, has now turned his attention to a foundational eschatological theme. In so doing, he has managed to produce an intriguing argument that is fresh yet remains faithful to God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. This is not a book to be rushed through. It is not difficult reading, but it should be read and considered carefully and, I’m tempted to say, savoured like a fine wine. Do I exaggerate? I don’t think so, but do read it yourself and make your own judgement.

For more than a millennium and a half Christians have confessed in the words of the Creed: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Because Jesus was raised from the dead, the Scriptures promise that we too will be raised bodily to new life in the next age. But what will this look like? What will our life be like in the new heaven and new earth spoken of in Isaiah 65:17-25 and Revelation 21:1-5? Theologians, preachers and even hymn-writers have been grappling with the relationship between this world and the next, generally affirming both continuity and discontinuity, differing on how to balance the two. Some commentators think that we will be swept up out of the world into an ethereal realm above, while others appear to think that the world to come will simply see us picking up where we left off at death. Skillen does not accept either of these extremes, opting instead to focus on the sabbath rest mentioned throughout the scriptures in such passages as Genesis 2:2-3, Psalm 95:11, and Hebrews 3-4.

Although I have read through the Bible many times as part of my daily prayer regimen, Skillen sent me back to its pages, inviting me to see it in a new—but really not so new—light. I have underlined so many passages over the decades, but I am fairly certain that, in response to this book, I have visually highlighted more in the past few weeks than in the previous half decade.

Skillen begins with an analysis of the days in Genesis 1 and 2, in which the biblical author describes God’s creative activity in terms of six days followed by a seventh day of rest. These days are to be understood not as a temporal succession of events, but as a general framework for creation as a whole. Light and darkness are first-day creatures, the waters above and below the earth are second-day creatures, the dry land a third-day creature, and so forth. Because the solar-lunar order arrives only with the fourth day, we obviously cannot read God’s days as our own days. Neither can these creation days be said to have ended, as do our days. In so far as the seas exist, they exist as second-day creatures, meaning that the second day continues as an integral component of God’s creation.

We human beings, along with the beasts of the earth, are sixth-day creatures. But we are more than this; we are seventh-day creatures predestined by God to enter into his eschatological rest, when our sixth-day responsibilities in this life will find their ultimate fulfilment. “The creation reaches its climax not with the process of work, as honorable as that is, but with its completion and reward through Christ Jesus as part of the fulfillment of the entire creation in God’s day of rest” (56). This fulfilment is not an add-on to our life in this world. It is not a side trip in God’s plan for humanity. It is not a make-shift emergency measure adopted only after our first parents sinned and fell from grace. From the very beginning we were created to enter into God’s rest on that seventh day. The seventh day, in other words, is built by God into the very structure of his creation, and it is towards that day that we look with hope. As Skillen expresses it,

The meaning of rest in this case is not that God steps away temporarily to take a break. To the contrary, the seventh day is the climax of creation, the time of God’s celebration with all creatures. God’s creation week is seven days, not six. The seventh day overarches and serves as the aim of the entire progression of the first six days (14).

Within this six-day creation every creature has been given an assignment, a commission by God that will one day find completion and commendation in the seventh day. We human beings are God’s image, charged with a special responsibility as stewards of creation. The image of God is male and female and is multi-generational. “Humans . . . are able to think and reason, to work and rest, to socialize and economize, to use creative imagination, to love and care for one another, and to worship God” (30).

For Reformed Christians who understand the significance of the Cultural Mandate articulated in Genesis 1:26-28, much, if not all, of this will be familiar. But where does Jesus Christ fit into the picture? Yes, God sent his Son Jesus into the world to save sinners from the deserved consequences of their sins. But Skillen argues that the centrality of Christ is embedded in the very architecture of creation, as affirmed, for example, in Colossians 1:15-20: “for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” If we fail to focus on Christ’s role in creation, we may inadvertently conclude that he was merely God’s back-up plan in case things went awry. But no, Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Jesus played a role from the very outset of God’s creating work and was intended from the start to bring it to its culmination at the seventh day, quite apart from the fall into sin.

So what do we make of death? Was Adam’s punishment physical death? Was he created immortal—something he lost when he disobeyed God’s commandment? Skillen says no, drawing on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, where he contrasts the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus Christ. Although the Apostle’s contrast is partly based on that between sin and salvation, this is not the whole of the matter. According to Skillen, “[t]he natural body is like a good seed that is sown (vv. 35-38), and it is perishable by its very nature. It comes first and is made for planting, as a seed is planted” (165). As such it was never meant in the sixth-day age to endure forever. The natural body has its own glory, but it is a perishable glory meant to put on the seventh-day resurrection body when the fulness of time is complete.

This makes sense to me. Due to a host of easily observable natural processes, we know that everything is gradually wearing out and will eventually die. Left to itself, the sun is slowly losing energy, and the planets will be destroyed. Cells replicate only so many times and then cease to do so. This is not the result of sin. Long before the first human being walked the earth, countless creatures were born, lived and died, as the fossil record clearly indicates. This is simply part of the structure of the cosmos.

Many of us have puzzled over this reality and have wondered how it can be squared with the narrative in the first chapters of Genesis. Yet if we take seriously Paul’s words here, we will recognize the truth of the seed metaphor: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical [ψυχικόν] body, it is raised a spiritual [πνευματικόν] body” (15:42-44). Paul is describing the promised transition from sixth-day to seventh-day existence, when by grace those who are in Christ enter into God’s rest. Skillen sums up his argument here: “The entire passage of 1 Corinthians 15:35-50 is, I believe, built on the contrast between two modes of good creaturely existence rather than on the contrast between death due to sin and redemption through the last Adam” (170, emphasis mine). The seed has a goodness of its own, as does the child relative to the human adult, but it is not the mature plant that will grow from it.

What ultimately awaits us is described in Hebrews 3 and 4, whose author draws on a phrase at the end of Psalm 95: “that they should not enter my rest” (95:11). “So then,” the author reasons, “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labours as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:10-11). If we are looking forward to this seventh-day rest, what does this mean for our activities during the sixth day? Do we deny their value? Do we flee the world while awaiting the new one? Not at all. As Skillen sees it,

The way to live by faith in Christ is by engaging with utmost seriousness in the relationships and responsibilities we bear now, because it is precisely through obedient faithfulness as earthlings that we invest in the kingdom that will be revealed in its fullness when Christ returns (200).

We do not shirk our responsibilities in this age simply because the coming age is better. Our sixth-day labours continue to glorify God, and we should remain busy with them even as we look forward to their fulfilment, as the author of Hebrews 10:23-25 affirms.

Of course, entering God’s rest is not inevitable for everyone. Skillen is no universalist. Although the gospel is preached to every nation, many will fail to live up to the unfolding series of covenants God has made with his creation, culminating in his revelation in Jesus Christ.

Here Skillen makes a potentially significant contribution to the ongoing debates over supersessionism, or the historic belief that the church has replaced, or superseded, God’s covenant with Israel. Admitting that from ancient times most church authorities “have argued that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus brought an end to God’s covenant with Israel” (224), Skillen argues instead for a series of covenants, with each successive one building on and fulfilling the previous, beginning with creation and extending up to Jesus Christ. God’s covenant with Abraham does not abrogate the earlier covenants with Adam and Noah but is a further stage in the journey towards their fulfilment. Similarly, God’s revelation of Jesus Christ does not put an end to the covenant with the Jewish people. Rather “God is reconciling Jews and gentiles through the Messiah’s righteousness, making them a single covenant family” (240). Skillen demonstrates the relationship between the two covenants with an in-depth treatment in chapter 26 of Romans 9-11.

James W. Skillen
During a recent phone conversation with Skillen, he indicated to me that this book was half a century in the making and represents decades of reflection that began when he was a seminary student. Indeed this is evidently not the sort of monograph that one could put together in a few years, and I think it may prove to be his most important work yet. Among the writers with whom Skillen dialogues in this book are Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, N. T. Wright, Jürgen Moltmann, and Richard Gaffin. Although Skillen works out of the Kuyperian tradition, as is evident in his other books, with respect to sabbath rest he seems most appreciative of Gaffin’s work, which provides a foundation for what Skillen does here. Nevertheless, if the sheer number of sub-entries in the index is any indication, the prolific Wright’s presence is massive, providing much material with which to work and interact.

One possible wrinkle in Skillen’s argument revolves around the nature of the seven days. Once more he argues that the days are God’s days and are not meant to be read as a temporal succession of events. However, the seventh day appears to be a partial exception, as creation’s fulfilment still lies in the future, at least from our vantage point. We live in the “already but not yet” of God’s days. Skillen treats this as “an apparent paradox of time” in chapter 20. However, given that Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand, there is a sense in which, from God’s perspective, the seventh day has already arrived. As Jesus himself announced during his earthly ministry, the kingdom of God is at hand. In some fashion then, the seventh day is a present reality. “However, from the standpoint of the ongoing life of the human generations, the kingdom of God has not yet been fully realized. Earthly work remains to be done in this age by the living and those yet unborn; God has not yet brought to a close the exercise of sixth-day human responsibilities” (181). Could it be said then that those who are in Christ and have tasted physical death have already in some fashion entered into God’s rest? There are some biblical texts, such as Philippians 1:19-26, that might be said to point in this direction, although we properly confess, with due modesty, that God has not revealed to us his own timetable.

There is one more question that probably cannot be answered in this life. Once we enter into God’s rest and once our sixth-day labours are fulfilled and commended, what will we do as seventh-day image of God? Kuyper’s neocalvinist heirs make a strong case that, in the new heaven and new earth, our cultural activities will be redeemed and, presumably, continued in some sense. I’ve heard some Christians talk about learning new languages, taking up painting, or engaging in woodwork to occupy their eternal life. But Skillen’s account of the seventh day sounds more like a grand banquet with an awards ceremony. Indeed a final eschatological meal has a firm basis in such biblical texts as Isaiah 25:6-8; Matthew 8:11-12, 22:1-14; and Luke 14:15-24. The Lord’s Supper is arguably a foretaste of this banquet. But does this mean we will be partying into eternity? Will we ever get full from all those finger sandwiches and canapés or get drunk from all that wine? Skillen wisely refrains from engaging in what amounts to speculation. God has obviously chosen not to reveal to us the specifics of life in the redeemed and fulfilled cosmos, and once more we must leave the matter in God’s hands.

As I was writing this review, it occurred to me that the book would have been enhanced by a scripture index. Skillen covers a wide range of biblical texts, and while some of these are referred to in the general index, it would have been good to have all the references in one place. Perhaps the publisher might be willing to post a pdf of such an index on its website.

I hope Skillen’s book receives a wide reading. I would love to see some of his interlocutors, such as Wright, Moltmann (who is admittedly very old) and Gaffin, respond to Skillen. In the meantime, I urge you to go out and obtain a copy of this book at your earliest convenience. You will not be sorry.

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