Review: Homeward Bound: Sabbath Rest for the People of God by Graeme Goldsworthy

Graeme Goldsworthy is an accomplished and requested Australian theologian who has written a good book on the theological and eschatological significance of the sabbath. The problem with the book is that Goldsworthy places this issue of the Sabbath rest firmly as an eschatological event and simply dismisses the physical command for a day of rest.

With regards to what he writes about the sabbath as an eschatological event, it is very good and extremely insightful.  Using Eden as a starting point Goldsworthy says that humanity was driven from this place of rest and has been looking for the place of rest ever since. Goldsworthy argues that Cain’s building of cities was a futile attempt to find rest and recreate Eden. Indeed this is one of the many fascinating thoughts in the book. Goldsworthy writes, “The city is presented in a surprising way very early in the biblical story as humankind s first attempt to find rest without God. If Eden or paradise is the original ideal of home, the biblical account comes to link a unique city with it, so that the final vision of Johns Apocalypse is that of the heavenly Jerusalem with the life-giving features of Eden.”

For Goldsworthy, in this period before the final eschatological work of God, humans remain homeless. Only in the heavenly city – the city to come – will we find true rest. 

Another fascinating discussion that Goldsworthy has is about the homelessness of Jesus. “The amazing truth of the incarnation is that God, in Christ, joined us in our exile.  The homelessness of Jesus of Nazareth is consistent with this fact of the divine submission to exile. He begins his earthly life as one born in a stable; Jesus was constantly on the move. Not only does the exile’ of Jesus fulfil the role of Israels exile, but it also recalls Isaiahs description of the return from- the Babylonian exile. Jesus is portrayed as never having had any sense arriving home while he was here on earth. This means that we also are sojourners and exiles in the world until we arrive at the new Eden.

Goldsworthy brilliantly ties the theme of Jesus’ homelessness with the theme of the city when he writes “While Jesus is referred to as a Nazarene he is not portrayed primarily as a city dweller.  Rather, the gospels emphasize the crisis in his ministry when ‘he set his face to go to Jerusalem: this great city for him is not the place of refuge or belonging, but where he must suffer and be put to death. The city, or town, is also the place where Jesus warns that the messengers will meet opposition: Cains city of refuge from the judgment of God was a futile gesture (Gen. 4:17), but the grace of God leads us through the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly city of God. What we are shown in the New Testament is the fulfilling in Christ of the central Old Testament images of city and temple. Israel is redeemed from slavery and exile in Egypt and given the promised land. God s chosen messianic king, David, transforms the godless Jebusite city of Jerusalem into the city of God. God’s messianic son, Solomon, is gifted to build the dwelling place for God, the temple. The three concentric circles – land, city and temple – express the presence of God dwelling with his people. All are fulfilled in Christ.”

The glaring issue with Goldsworthy’s book is the lack of any real engagement with the physical command for rest on the 7th day in the Hebrew Scriptures, other than a somewhat trite dismissal that a physical sabbath has any value.  He does not engage with scriptures such as Exodus 31: “16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”

This passage says two things very clearly – 1. The sabbath is a command from the living God who never changes – 2. The people are to keep the sabbath FOREVER.

Goldsworthy does not engage with such passages – which is a shame.

Also, Goldsworthy makes a sweeping statement regarding the lack of information in the Apostolic Scriptures about the sabbath – “The New Testament epistles give no encouragement to Sabbatarianism, neither do they say almost nothing about  physical rest and recreation.”

But the Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament) is a Jewish document – it was written BY Jews. Is it possible that they assumed that sabbath observance was a given? Also, Goldsworthy is not clear about what he means by sabbatarianism. He writes, “For Christians the Sabbath law is not a direction concerning what to do, and what not to do, on Sunday. Rather it is the essence of the eschatological hope of eternal rest.” 

Of course the New Testament would be silent about resting on a Sunday – because that is not the sabbath. Christians may have Sunday as a day of rest – or other days in the week – but that is NOT sabbath, There is ONLY one sabbath as established by god – Friday at Sundown to Saturday sundown.

There is much in this book which is challenging and fascinating. But it is a 30,000 feet, spiritualized look at the topic of the Sabbath.

For Goldsworthy, the reality of the sabbath, the day of rest, is experienced ONLY when our homelessness has finally come to an end at the end of the age and  we come into the presence of Christ.  All our experiences in life is a shadow, or foretaste of this final day.

In the meantime we are, as Goldsworthy says, homeless, exiled, journeying to our rest.

Goldsworthy, in his theological  and eschatological overview of the sabbath produces some excellent insights into the wider understanding of the spiritual day of rest but he sadly, in my opinion, does a disservice to the practical and physical issues of the sabbath. He also, I think, makes some typically unhelpful statements (which are especially common amongst reformed christian’s). One such statement is regarding the law of Moses, which Goldsworthy seemingly dismisses as irrelevant “To make Sunday our version of the Jewish Sabbath is to ignore it’s Christ-centeredness and to return to the Law of Moses, something the New Testament warns against.” This sentence is both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. We must remember – Jesus affirmed and promised that the law of Moses would never be abolished – this is because the law of Moses is good and the New Testament does not warn us against it. The Law of Moses IS the perfect word of God because it came from the mouth of God. The New Testament does not warn us against the law of Moses – the New Testament affirms that we have fulfilled and kept the law of Moses IN Christ.

Overall there is so much here to enjoy and learn from, just a shame that Goldsworthy falls into the same old traps about the Old Testament.




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