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EPISODE 55: The Blessedness of Reading the Book of Revelation

The book of Revelation begins and ends with a promise that readers will be blessed. Yet many of us are intimidated by the book and leave it untouched. Nancy Guthrie helps us overcome our reluctance to read this crucial part of God’s word.

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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and I'm delighted today my conversation partner is Nancy Guthrie. Nancy teaches the Bible at her home church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee. She writes a number of books and articles. You can find quite a few of her writings and videos at The Gospel Coalition's website. She has written a recent book about the book of Revelation. It's called Blessed, and that's what we'll be talking about today. Nancy, welcome to Questions That Matter.

Thank you, Randy. So glad to be with you and your listeners.

I want our listeners to know that you also head up Biblical Theology Workshop for Women. Tell us a little bit more about that. What is that all about?

Yeah. I launched those in 2019. I do these workshops around the country and now really around the globe. I'm on a mission, Randy. My mission is to infiltrate the women's Bible study of the local church with biblical theology. And when I say biblical theology, I don't mean merely theology that is biblical. I really am on a mission to help women really own and grasp the story line of the Bible. I think a lot of women are like me, in that I grew up knowing a lot of stories in the Bible, but I would be a little bit embarrassed for you to know how recently I could actually articulate the story of the Bible, that story that runs from Genesis to Revelation. And I really think unless we really have a pretty firm grip on that, that there's lots of parts of the Bible we just don't read, or if we do, we just don't get them, because we don't get how they fit in on that story line. So I'm wanting to help women with that.

I'm also hoping to help them grow in their understanding of themes that the Divine Author has written into His book. Whenever we know the themes that an author is trying to write in their book, then we're better able to get their message, what they're really trying to get across with their story. And so, at these workshops around the country and I've got a recorded one online a lot of people pick up on and do, I'm introducing the idea of themes that the divine author has written into His book and training women to be able to trace a theme through every part of the Bible, through the Pentateuch and the history books and the wisdom books and prophets and gospels and epistles and into the very last book of the Bible, Revelation.

I kind of think a lot of times we're bored with our Bibles, and sometimes that's because we just haven't gotten the skills to really get at what the Divine Author is trying to communicate to us. And so I just love doing these workshops. It's fun to see light bulbs go on as those who are at the workshops are finally able to connect some of the scattered stories they're familiar with in the Bible and to be able to kind of put them together into a coherent whole.

Oh, man. And, you know, your passion for that comes through in some things that I've read by you online and some audio. This was really helpful for me when I first started grasping the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology. They're both absolutely important and crucial.

Yes.

But I think most Christians are familiar with more the systematic theology, meaning what does the Bible teach about whatever topic? What does the Bible teach about God's attributes? What does the Bible teach about prayer? What does the Bible teach about salvation? And that's absolutely crucial. We must do that. But biblical theology says: How do we see God revealing this particular theme as it moves along in Scripture? And you're right. It's a different set of skills. Well, they're obviously overlapping, but there are some skills and new muscles we need to develop. So I'm very excited about your ministry.

I think that there's something about us as modern Americans that we became certainly more focused and adept in systematic theology. Somewhere along the way, we lost the biblical theology. I tried to figure out exactly how that happened. I tend to think, Randy, it has to do with our American pragmatism.

Right. Yeah, I’m afraid so.

That, at some point, we got a little too concerned with the practicality of being able to read a passage and saying, “So what am I supposed to do?” and seem to have lost, “What does this show me about what Christ has done?” Because maybe that doesn't feel like we can do as much with that. But, of course, that's what leads us to love Christ more and to long more for His return and to see how sufficient and beautiful and necessary Jesus Christ is for us, that the Bible is so much more, about who He is and what He has done, than about what we're supposed to do.

And when you're saying about pragmatism, if all we really need are just some pragmatic pieces of information about how to live, the Bible is amazingly and unnecessarily long and complex.

And why would it be in all of these different genres of literature if it was just a book of instructions, right? But instead it's giving us historical narrative and wisdom sayings and prophetic literature, as well as some of this didactic instruction. So we need all of it to get the message that God has for us, and I just think it's an incredible thing that the God who made the world has condescended to speak to us in human language that you and I can understand. And if He has spoken, and He is speaking, which, you know, you get to the book of Hebrews. The writer refers to the Old Testament, he says, “The Holy Spirit says…” He’s still speaking. And I just think, “Let’s lean in and listen! We want to hear everything He has to say to us.”

Well, and when you say everything that must include the book of Revelation.

It does!

I just enjoyed so much the way your book began, where you admitted that, no, you had kind of been ignoring this book because it's intimidating and it's scary. And we think that… Well, we have to come out of reading and studying the Book of Revelation is a chart. And it's really scary to have to put together a chart, because if you don't do it right, you get the chart wrong. So what turned the corner for you? Why did you say, “No, I have to stop ignoring this book. I've got to dig in.”

I would say two things, Randy. First of all, the promise that is at the very beginning and the end of the book. Verse three of chapter one says, “Blessed are those who read this book, those who hear and keep what is written in it.” And I remember the first time I was supposed to teach Revelation and started reading and came across that, I was just like, “My goodness. Is there any promised blessing from God that I would look at it and say, ‘You know, I don’t really need that.’ And the answer is, “Absolutely no!’” And so I want this blessing of hearing and keeping it, and so that means I've got to grow in some skills of being able to hear and understand its message, communicated uniquely through this genre of apocalyptic prophecy. But I do so believing that, as I gain some unfamiliar skills in being able to rightly understand that unique genre of literature, I believe in the perspicuity of scripture and that it will open up to me and that God does want me to understand this message, so that I can live it out, so that that second part of that promise—it's not only those who hear it. Those who keep it, those who live according to this message, those who properly respond and conform their lives to the unique calls of this book, and so that's what I want to do. And so that, to me, has been why it's been so worth investing myself in seeking to understand it.

Well, and I think you've really served the readers really well in this book because you just said we need to develop some skills. Because probably the first time people read Revelation, they may not necessarily feel blessed. They may feel-

Confused?

… confused and-

Intimidated?

… or maybe even discouraged. I hate to say that, but I think that could happen. So what you've done with your book is try to help people develop the kinds of reading interpretive skills so that, in fact, it does lead to great blessing. Let me ask you this. So when, at some point reading the Book of Revelation, you received blessing as a result of reading this and studying this, what were some of those blessings for you personally? If I can be that pointed.

Yeah. Well, I might challenge the premise of a question of touch, if you don't mind, Randy. Because the blessedness that's described here, it's in very eschatological terms, because it's kind of counterintuitive toward thinking about what we perceive as—let's equate blessedness to the good life, maybe. All right, so it's very counterintuitive to what we would think would be the good life in the here and now, because the book of Revelation… We think of Matthew 5 as being these beatitudes that Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount. But Revelation also has a set of beatitudes. It has seven beatitudes. “Blessed are those” statements. But, honestly, Randy. Most of those blessings that are described in these blessed statements, they're not for you and me here and now. They're very future focused.

So, for example, one of them is, “Blessed are those who die in the Lord.” So that's very future focused. Its first audience was believers who were facing very real persecution in their day, and many were beginning to be put to death for their faith. And so we always, whenever we study the Bible, we want to ask first, “What was the intended message for the original audience?” So that's a really important… we talked earlier about skills for understanding Revelation? That's an important skill actually for understanding all of the Bible. But I think it's uniquely important for Revelation that we think, “Okay, so what did this mean for the original hearers? Why did they need to hear that they were going to be blessed to die in the Lord?” Because facing death for their bold allegiance to Jesus Christ was a very real and present possibility. Now it is for many people in our day, Randy, you and I live in a time and in a place where that seems a little bit outside our probable experience, but we know that there are many people today who live with that very stark reality. And so here the book of Revelation, they look at that promise to the original recipients of this book, and they realize, “Okay, this is still the case for me today. I can face death out of allegiance to Jesus Christ and know that, while the world might look at that and see defeat, the world will see tragedy, the world would say, ‘Oh, that's just senseless.’ No. I’m getting heaven’s perspective on life and death out of this book Revelation. And what it's showing me is that actually that will be victory, not defeat. And actually that will lead into ultimate blessedness. It's not going to be a curse to die in the Lord.”

And that points to the necessity, Randy, of being joined by faith to Jesus Christ. Sometimes I think people are always looking, we always want something, and I'm going to put air quotes around this, something practical, in the Bible. And so people will be evaluating what book they want to study here or what study they want to go to, whatever, and they say, “Oh, well, we need something practical.” And I would say that the most practical thing you will ever get out of your study of the Bible is to see the beauty, the necessity, and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ and the urgency that you become joined to Him by faith. Because it is your only hope. My only hope, your only hope for living a life in this world right now that anybody would call genuinely blessed. I mean, there's the Instagram version of blessed, but we're not really interested in that. We want something deeper and richer and frankly more eternal, less fleeting than that. And that's the blessedness that Revelation is setting out before us, this eternal, unimpeachable, tangible blessedness that comes by being joined to Christ by faith right now. And the way Revelation presents that to us, that's a picture of being sealed to Christ, of being protected by Christ when judgment falls, and then entering into the new creation, that face-to-face experience with Him. I mean, that's what it means to be blessed.

I regularly talk about all of the resources that we've put together at the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I want to highlight one right now. It's our Keeping the Faith, and it is a whole library and collection of resources for you, parents and grandparents. It's a whole entire program with courses and materials that have been developed to equip you, parents and grandparents and other caring adults, for intentional discipleship of the children that God has placed in your life. And we've got videos, we've got articles, we've got study courses. This is one of the things we've made as a major emphasis on our newly designed, award winning website. And I really want to encourage you to check it out. And even if you are not a parent, that you'll check it out and recommend it to the parents that you know or perhaps use it at your church in Sunday school. It's a wealth of things, resources for equipping the next generation of disciples.

Man! Well, you write in the book a nice summary statement. You say, “If someone were to ask you what the book of Revelation is about, a good answer would be, ‘Revelation is a call to patient endurance of tribulation as we await the coming of Christ's kingdom in all its fullness.’” That is…. You're right. That may not hit people as practical, but it's amazingly valuable, and it's amazingly strengthening for that kind of endurance. So I found myself reading your book, and at places thinking, “Okay, what kind of book is this, this book Blessed,” because it is a commentary-

What did you decide?

Well, it's a kind of commentary, but one unlike most commentaries that I've read, in that it was so accessible and so worshipful. I think that's the word.

Oh, boy, I hope so.

You point out early in the book that one of the things that the book of Revelation does is—perhaps more than many books of the Bible, not all, for sure, but it engages our imagination. It gives us these pictures, and if we get bogged down with, “Okay, now how is this image different from this image?” we've missed something crucial. We want to say, “Why did God give us this image of seals and lamp stands? What kind of emotions do those evoke and trigger?” And so…. I don't know. Well, it doesn't matter what genre your book is. It's a very, very helpful book, and it walks through the whole entire book of Revelation. So I found it very helpful but, like the Book of Revelation, sparking imagination and emotion.

Boy, I sure hope so. We want to love God with our minds, right? So we want to invest and engage our minds with His revelation, with what He has said and what He is explaining to us. But the beautiful and I think pretty unique thing about Revelation is He’s setting before us pictures, so many pictures. And if we think about that original audience, how was this getting communicated to them? Well, you know, somebody was taking around this letter, and they were going around to these seven churches, and they were standing up in front of this group and reading it. And so originally everybody's not dissecting every word. Rather, this person is standing up, and he's drawing this picture, this vibrant, engaging picture of reality that maybe the people of his day cannot see with their eyes because…. They can only see this life with their eyes, but what God is revealing—remember this is Revelation. Something is being revealed. A curtain is being drawn back, so we can see something.

And what is this revelation allowing us to see? Well, it's allowing us to see both earthly and heavenly realities from the perspective of heaven. Now, think about that a minute. That's just mind boggling and amazing, isn't it? That God would give that to us? That we don't have to go through this life and make decisions about how we're going to live in this world and assume perhaps that we've been left alone in this world or that the way things are now are the way it's always going to be. Or that this world has been just surrendered to random chance or fate or whatever. But instead we have this divine revelation that was given to John to write down for us, so that the curtain can be pulled back, and we can actually see things in this world, forces in this world, governments in this world, society, materialistic things, that we can see reality, get it from heaven’s perspective, and actually see into the spiritual battle being waged between that ancient serpent and the Warrior Christ. And we can see what's underneath some of the temptation and some of the persecution and confusion in our world today. We don't have to just deal with it, not knowing what's going on. No, we've been given this revelation, so that we will understand what's going on underneath it and behind what we can see, and so that we will know how to live depending on Christ, finding our refuge and solace and wisdom and value and meaning in Christ instead of this world.

Yeah. I think I had this recurring thought as I was reading through your book, that this perspective we've been given by God is so much better than all of the other perspectives that people kind of hang onto in other worldviews or something. If the only thing we have to hang on to is collecting things-

Oh, my goodness!

… for us to have or experience-

What a diminished life.

I did not laugh much reading your book, but I laughed in one place, and I can't resist sharing this with our listeners. And you said—this is a quote from Nancy Guthrie, the author of Blessed.

Okay. I'm so scared to know what you're going to read.

I'm trying to think about stretching this out longer to make you more nervous, but I'm not going to do it. You wrote, “Anyone who tells you that you can have your best life now and suggests that this is the message of the Bible is lying to you.” I thought that was well said and worthy of serious laughter. I spent a long time enjoying that. I won't ask who you had in mind, but variations of that theme are dominant in our world, and-

Yeah. And dominant in the Christian world.

Oh, yes. But I'm not going to go there. But it's so empty. It can't work. It can't help us through the kinds of challenges that life throws at us, that are the realities of living in a fallen world. And we need the weight of what Revelation teaches and says.

Yeah. Randy, I know you're not wanting to poke at anybody, but let me just say this: When suffering comes into our life, that's when what we really believe is revealed. Not what it says on the belief statement at our church, but what we really believe. And the truth is that, in modern day West, the health and wealth gospel has very much infiltrated even orthodox faith. We don't even realize how we've absorbed it until the bottom drops out.

Yeah.

And so one thing about me and my ministry, and maybe you know this or maybe you don't, Randy, but my husband and I, we have a living son who is 32, and then we have two children who have died. And, for the past 14 years, David and I have hosted weekend retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child. And so these couples, they come from all different kinds of religious or denominational background. And so many of them arrive so angry. And they're so angry because what they really expected…. Maybe nobody ever said this straight out, but what they'd imbibed about what the Christian life is all about is, “I make a commitment to Christ, and I get on His team, and He gets on my team, and then I use prayer as my mechanism to get Him to preserve my life from any pain or difficulty.” And so it's not until pain, unbearable, unspeakable loss comes into their life that they even realize that that was their expectation of God, that He was supposed to keep them from loss. And what exposes that that was their expectation is their anger toward Him. That sense of, “You have not done right by me. You have not lived up to this deal. You've not lived up to what I at least assumed You had promised me when I came to Christ.”

And so actually Revelation's message is so pertinent to that because, you get into like Revelation 6 and 7, and it's this picture of these persecuted believers. It says what John can see, he can see the souls of martyrs. So people who have been killed for their allegiance to Christ, these souls of martyrs, and he hears what they're saying to God, and what they're doing is they're crying out and they're saying to God, “How long?” I mean I hear the tears in their voices when I read it in Revelation 6 and 7. “How long?” Basically, “God, how long are You going to let evil in the world have its way? How long are You going to allow the enemies of the gospel to put to death fellow believers?” And so, when I read that in Revelation, here's what I want to hear God to say, “Well, let's just be done with that. I'm done right now. I mean, we're just not going to let anyone else die for their faith and allegiance to Me.” And that is not His answer. He basically says, “You’re going to have to wait until the full number of those who, in His sovereign plan, He has determined are going to lose their lives out of allegiance for Him, until that full number comes in. And boy, you read that, and that can just really mess with you if you're thinking that Christianity is all about God protecting you from any kind of suffering. Because then you've got to wrangle with the reality of who God is and His sovereign plan in history and where that plan is headed and frankly, what that might mean for you in your life.

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But you know, you express it so well, because it brings about the hope that we have in the gospel. And I'm really grateful that you shared about the pain your family has gone through. And I've seen how your ministry has helped so many people going through very similar things and the loss of a child. And the contrast is so stark, of the hope we have in the gospel, even in the midst of excruciating pain, contrasted with there's no hope whatsoever in other perspectives. Without the cross, well, those kinds of things then are just a really horrible, cruel joke. And so you didn't shy away from that in your book, you didn't just now, and I'm really grateful for that. It really gives people this sense of stability and strength and endurance, at the same time acknowledging just how very, very difficult life can be in these places. So I'm really very grateful that…. I'm sad that your family had to go through that. That has given you a platform to be able to speak with a great deal of credibility, to say the very least. So thank you for being willing to do those kind of workshops for people.

Certainly. And here’s the thing where that comes around, back in Revelation, Randy, is that maybe another reason people avoid Revelation is there's so much about judgment.

There is. Quite a bit.

And God's wrath. And there’s a part of us that…. We're really uncomfortable with that. It doesn't sound like good news, and we just always want to end on good news. And I think ultimately we're a little bit afraid that somebody who, in our view, doesn't deserve it, is going to come under God's wrath in a way, and boy, that's just really uncomfortable. So we really need to hear what Revelation tells us about judgment. And one thing that we reckon with when we see what Revelation reveals about judgment is how people who are in heaven, how they view God's judgment, and what's shocking is that they're celebrating it!

Yeah, yeah.

They're not embarrassed by it at all. And in fact, over and over again, they say to God, “Your judgments are just and altogether righteous and true.” And so, from heaven's perspective, they can see that God's judgment is always perfectly just. But the other big thing that I think about for judgment, especially for people who have experienced injustice, and Lord knows, Randy, that most parts of the world, when you start talking about injustice, so many people live under corrupt governments and in environments that they never expect that justice will be done. But more than that, when I think about people who have experienced abuse, violence, who have had their innocence taken from them, who have experienced evil in very tangible, real ways, and maybe the cry of their heart is, “God, when are you going to do something about the evil in the world? Can I trust that justice is going to be done? Can I entrust vengeance to you? You say, ‘Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord.’ Well, when is that going to happen? Can I really count on that?” And I just think, “That’s why you need the book of Revelation,” because you're going to see it in very tangible terms that, yes, you do have to wait, but you won't have to wait forever, because you can be sure that justice will be done better than you could ever expect to do it. It will be done perfectly. It will be done right in time. And if you wonder, “What is God going to do about all of the evil injustice in the world?” Revelation shows you. He’s going to deal with it. You don't have to be afraid that anybody is going to get away with anything. Either justice is going to be done, that person, those systems, whatever, are going to experience it, or it's been dealt with at the cross, one or the other. But justice will be done. And Revelation is really…. Its message about judgment is really good news in those terms.

Yes, yes. There’s so many more directions we could go. We're kind of coming to the end of our time, and if there are specific things you want to really make sure to say, please do so. But I want to land here: You have a statement that I highlighted, and it has just sparked in my mind a kind of a meditation of thinking what this looks like. You wrote, “What we're being called to here,” and here being in the entire book of Revelation but in the particular part you were, “What we're being called to here is not separatism but distinctiveness.” Can you spell that out for us a little bit? I think people understand the idea of separatism. “Well, don't be part of the world and separate yourself and don't even get involved in those things.” But you're saying that the book of Revelation is calling us to distinctiveness. Can you help us grasp that a little bit more?

Yeah. Well, throughout the book of Revelation, believers, they're described as wearing white robes. It’s this symbolic picture of righteousness. And I think when we see that picture, we're meant to understand both the righteousness of Christ given to us as a gift in place of our own filthy rags of unrighteousness. But I also think that the writer of Revelation is very concerned that the grace that has cleansed us and provided the righteousness of Christ to us, that it goes to work in us and it works its way out through us in the way that we live. And it just means that you and I just have a whole different way of looking at the world and looking at our lives and a whole different way of what we're aiming for in life than our neighbors who have no hope in Christ, than our neighbors who have no expectation of judgment, our neighbors who have no knowledge of the Christ who has died for them and the Holy Spirit who has sealed them to Christ and is at work in them, sanctifying them, for what purpose? For the purpose of entering once again into the presence of the Holy God.

That's what the whole of the Bible has been about. I mean, Revelation isn't just an interesting book. It's the way the Bible concludes. And it shows us where you and I, where our lives and where this whole world is headed. And the Bible began with God creating a realm, Eden, where He could live with His people, Adam and Eve, and sin put an end to that. And Adam and Eve were ejected from the garden because of their sin. And throughout the rest of the Bible, we've been looking to see: How is God going to deal with human sin in such a way that He can welcome us back into His presence? Because that's what He’s always been about. That's what that tabernacle was about, and that temple, and then Him becoming flesh, to live among us, to dwell among us. He wants to be with us. Don't ask me why, Randy. I totally don't get what that is, except I just take it by faith. He says that He loves us and He wants to be with us. And His goal throughout the Bible, He says, “I'm going to be their God, and they're going to be my people, and I'm going to dwell with them.” And so, when we come to the end of Revelation, we read in Revelation chapter 21, verse three, we read this incredible statement: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is now with man, and He will be their God, and they will be His people, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there's going to be no more sorrow and no more death.” And that's where the future is headed. And you and I… to have that hope held out to us, that gives us something so different to live for than just getting a new car or a nicer house or even getting our kids educated and well married or any of those things. It's just such a far greater purpose and future to orient our lives toward.

Oh, that's wonderful! That's really, really wonderful. And I hope our listeners grasp just a touch of the wonder in your voice. It's in your book. It's in the book of Revelation. It's this marvel of God wants to be with us. He wants us to be with Him. And there is a certain element of, “Really, how could that be? How could we?” And yet that's the wonder and the difficulty of putting words to the majesty of the gospel. And I'm sorry to bring this to a close, but I want our listeners to get excited about reading the book of Revelation and also reading your book, Blessed, to help them develop some of those skills and those muscles.

Nancy, thank you for joining us for this conversation. I will pray for God to bless your various ministries, your writing ministry, those workshops for grieving parents, those workshops for women and biblical theology. The Lord has blessed you with some great gifts, and I'm really grateful that we had this conversation.

Thank you, Randy. It's been great being with you and your listeners.

To our listeners, we just want to say we hope this podcast, this episode, all of the podcasts, all of the resources that we provide for you through the C.S. Lewis Institute will be strengthening for you, help you to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks for joining us.


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