I have been reading with profit Grant Osborne’s commentary on Revelation in the Baker Exegetical series. I have worked my way through four commentaries on Revelation and like this one the best overall. And in spite of what I am going to say here, I still do. I think Osborne has a blind spot when it comes to Israel’s continuing role in God’s plan to redeem and consummate this world. I will set out to show that in the essay below. Yet I still believe his commentary does an excellent job of interacting with other commentators from many points of view and offering sane alternatives. He is a gifted exegete.
Nonetheless, you can imagine how disappointed I was to find that Osborne consistently reads Israel out of the book of Revelation.
I have two previous blog posts (which I should update into one essay and perhaps I will) called “Is Israel Missing From Revelation?”:
Let me state the overriding issue at the beginning and then give a brief summary of the details. The question we have to ask when interpreting Revelation with regard to Israel is this: is Revelation an expansion of God’s promises to Israel so that they include the nations or is Revelation a reinterpretation and/or abrogation of God’s promises to Israel?
Osborne sees Revelation as a reinterpretation (and maybe abrogation) of God’s promises to Israel. I will list a few of his arguments for this position and then present what I see as theological and hermeneutical problems with Osborne’s approach.
Grant Osborne’s Case For Reading Israel Out of Revelation
Osborne does not think that the 144,000 listed tribe by tribe in Revelation 7 and 14 are Jews, but instead are a symbolic representation of Christians. He also does not think the woman “who brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all nations” (i.e., Messiah) is Israel, but the church.
These readings feel natural to some, who are used to reading the Bible as if the New Testament were the beginning and end of theology. This kind of thinking is a natural product of a Christian culture which sermonizes the letters Paul over and over again to the neglect of the other 95% of the Bible. Contemporary and even historical Christianity is a racehorse with narrow blinders.
The following are a few of Osborne’s arguments for his readings of Revelation 7, 12, and 14:
–There is no mention of Jewish believers apart from the Gentile church anywhere else in Revelation.
–Revelation emphasizes one group, the overcomers, and does not divide this group into Jews and Gentiles.
–The New Testament teaches that the church is the New Israel.
–Paul dismisses Jewish identity as of no value in numerous verses.
–Israel’s calling is given to the church in numerous verses.
–The 144,000 couldn’t be literally from the twelve tribes because ten tribes are lost to history.
–In Revelation 12, the church gives birth to the Messiah in the sense that the last days church hastens the coming of Messiah through its martyrs and faithful witnesses.
Some Theological Arguments Against Osborne’s Reading
Should we expect Revelation to depict God’s plan in light of the whole canonical narrative (Genesis through the New Testament) or to give only a limited view from the culture of Asia Minor and the Gentile situation?
I would hope that Revelation would do the former. And I find, in my reading, that it does. This fact in no way lessens the Gentile focus of Revelation. The fact that Revelation in a few places makes clear that its promises are the continuation of the promises to Israel in no way undermines the beauty of every tribe and tongue joining the priestly people of God. In other words, it is not necessary to read Israel out to appreciate the Gentile-centric beauty of Revelation.
To read Israel out of Revelation should give us pause because of the nature of God. Is he the God of the switcharoo or the God of faithfulness? And if he switched plans and left Israel out who is to say he won’t do the same to the church?
What I mean is that God made promises to renew Israel and through Israel save all the nations. Read Deuteronomy 30, Isaiah 2 and 11, Jeremiah 23 and 31, Ezekiel 36 and 27. Try to read Israel out. You can only do it through dishonest creativity. (And I assume that Grant Osborne would agree with me here — I am not saying he reads the Hebrew prophets incorrectly).
Shouldn’t we then read the New Testament as if God is faithful to Israel and expect to see Israel’s continuing role in the New Testament texts? I think so and I believe John delivered a balanced picture as he received it. These Gentiles in Asia Minor to whom Revelation is addresses were all readers of the Hebrew Bible (far more so than in modern churches). They would not be surprised at all to find that 144,000 Jewish men who were single and sexually pure would play a major role in last things. Nor would they assume that the church, as opposed to Israel, gave birth to the Messiah.
Some Hermeneutical Problems With Osborne’s Reading
Grant Osborne wrote one of the leading textbooks on hermeneutics (how to interpret the Bible). I would be a fool to debate him on specifics. He would make me look foolish except where I agreed with him. He has read more on hermeneutics since breakfast than I have read all my life.
So I don’t understand why he abandons two sound principles when he decides to read Revelation 7, 12, and 14 as he does.
First, the Bible should be read in its order as a canonical narrative (one overarching story with many parts). We should proceed from the Torah through the New Testament and, because of our faith in divine inspiration, assume a basic, coherent unity to the narrative. Thus, as we read Revelation we should constantly note how John affirms but adds a new twist to Hebrew prophecies. John does not discard the former things to replace them with a new people of God and a new plan. Rather, God adds the developments of the church to the existing prophecies of Israel. This can be seen time and time again with the way John subtly updates, not replaces, specific prophecies such as Zechariah 12:10.
Second, the Bible frequently contains complex discourses from both sides of an issue. I could name dozens: God’s transcendence and immanence, the truth of retribution and the truth of unpunished evil, faith and works, and so on. Why then, does Osborne engage in prooftexting the idea that Christians are the New Israel without engaging the other side: God continues to work with and through Israel in the New Testament and to distinguish Jews and Gentiles?
Specific Counter-Arguments to Osborne
—There is no mention of Jewish believers apart from the Gentile church anywhere else in Revelation. But the New Testament is full of examples of such distinction between Jews and non-Jews. And Revelation would have such references in Osborne’s reading if wouldn’t rule out Revelation 7, 12, and 14 (not to mention the key chapter on Israel, chapter 11).
—Revelation emphasizes one group, the overcomers, and does not divide this group into Jews and Gentiles. Revelation is capable of having multiple emphases and we should not limit its message with oversimplification.
—The New Testament teaches that the church is the New Israel. I would say the New Testament teaches that the church is included with Israel but does not replace it (try Romans 11 and the olive tree parable). The New Testament contains dialogue from both sides: the church as Israel and Israel continuing in God’s plan as the priestly people.
—Paul dismisses Jewish identity as of no value in numerous verses. Paul is dismissing something more subtle and insidious: the notion that non-Jews are second class in God’s eyes. His rhetoric should be understood in that light.
—Israel’s calling is given to the church in numerous verses. Yes, the church now shares in Israel’s calling as the priestly people of God, but that does not eliminate distinction and a mission for the Jewish believers that is parallel to but distinct from the mission of the Gentile believers.
—The 144,000 couldn’t be literally from the twelve tribes because ten tribes are lost to history. The so-called disappearance of the ten tribes is vastly overblown. Anna in Luke 1 is of the “lost” tribe of Asher. Some seven centuries had elapses since the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, a destruction which did not wipe out the ten tribes as many had emigrated down to Judah. Even by the first century, and how much more now, the Jewish people included all twelve tribes. If God is the only one who can sort out the complexity of who belongs to which tribe, then so be it.
—In Revelation 12, the church gives birth to the Messiah in the sense that the last days church hastens the coming of Messiah through its martyrs and faithful witnesses. On the one hand, we have the strained interpretation that the last days church gives birth to the Lord of the Universe and on the other we have the natural, Biblical inference that Messiah comes from Israel. Which should we choose?