Book Review: Grant R. Osborne, Revelation: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  Revelation: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2017. 417 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

This short commentary on Revelation by Osborne is part of his series published by Lexham Press in both print and Logos Library editions. As of December 2017, six of the commentaries have been published. I have also reviewed Osborne’s Romans, Galatians, and Prison Epistle commentaries.

Osborne wrote the Baker Exegetical Commentary on Revelation (Baker 2002) and his interpretive methodology to Revelation is similar in this shorter commentary. In the 2002 commentary he stated on the first page of the introduction his approach would use elements of both preterism and futurism. Preterism takes the symbols of Revelation as referring to events in the recent past or present of the original readers. Futurism takes most of the symbols in Revelation as predictions of events in a coming tribulation period just prior to the return of Jesus. Idealism interprets the symbols as referring to the general struggle between good and evil and the ongoing challenge for the church in society.

For example, Revelation is talking about the Roman Empire, but it is also talking about the future judgment the ultimate Roman Empire. In his exegetical commentary, Osborne defined apocalyptic as “the present is addressed through parallels with the future” (p. 22). But Osborne also sees value in a third approach to Revelation which interprets the symbols generally as referring to the ongoing struggle of Christians in an evil world (usually called “idealism”). By combining all three of these interpretive strategies to Revelation Osborne demonstrates Revelation had a clear application to the original readers as well as readers who live closer to the Second Coming of Christ, but also to all Christians in any historical and cultural context.

With respect to other often debated issues in Revelation, Osborne accepts the traditional view that the John of Revelation is the apostle, John the son of Zebedee. He dates the book to the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) rather than to the reign of Nero. The earlier date has become more popular in recent years, especially among preterists who argue Revelation refers to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. During the reign of Domitian the province of Asia Minor experienced a surge of pro-Roman sentiment as well as further development of the imperial cult. As with his earlier commentary, Osborne sees this as background for many of the symbols in Revelation.

As with the other volumes in this Verse-by-Verse Commentary series, Osborne provides an outline in the introduction which becomes the chapters for the rest of the book. In general, this works out to one short chapter of commentary for each chapter of Revelation. He then works through the chapter commenting briefly on each verse. Although his comments certainly reflect an understanding of the Greek text, he limits his comments to the English text of Revelation. Likewise, he has certainly read secondary literature, but there are no footnotes to other commentaries on Revelation. When he contrasts several views he does so generally. For example, commenting on the 1000-year kingdom in Revelation 20, he contrasts premillennialism with post- and a- millennialism. His brief explanation is clear and does not need to be supplemented with citations of representatives of each view. This makes for a very readable commentary for the layperson using the book as a supplement to personal Bible study or in a small group context.

There are many symbols in Revelation which generate extensive discussion and debate. For the sake of this review, I will use an example drawn from Revelation 13, the mark of the beast. Osborne explains the practice of using letters for numbers and offers four possibilities for interpreting the number 666. In the 2002 exegetical commentary he offered five options, in the shorter he omits taking the number as chronological, linked to some future empire. He suggests the number refers to a world leader, likely Nero Caesar in Hebrew, but he is not dogmatic in the issue since there is merit to the view 666 is a repetition of a number symbolizing man’s failure. With respect to interpretation, Osborne points out John’s original readers would have seen the name and number of the beast as an allusion to the imperial cult (a preterist view), but all Christians ought to be warned against false teachers (“antichrists”) are remain vigilant as the world turns against the church (an idealist view). But he also says this will “culminate in a final ‘great tribulation’ (7:14) at the close of human history when the antichrist appears and establishes an ‘unholy Roman Empire’ with the false prophet the head of a ‘one-world religion’” (p. 236). This is a clear statement of a futurist interpretation of the mark of the beast.

This blending of approaches will not satisfy everyone. Interpreters of Revelation who are entrenched preterists will reject Osborne’s futurism, but futurists (especially classic dispensationalists) may find Osborne’s references to the Roman Empire or Imperial Cult distracting. In the end I think Osborne balances the three approaches to Revelation in a way which grounds the book in the real world of first century Asia Minor with clear application to the present experience of the church. This avoids dangers of a thoroughgoing futurism which makes the book irrelevant for the church today.

Conclusion. As with the other commentaries in this series, Osborne’s Verse-by-Verse Commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they prepare sermons on the text of the Bible. Osborne’s goal for this book is “to help pastors faithfully exposit the text in a sermon.” Osborne achieves his goal of providing a scholarly yet readable commentary on Revelation.


NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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