Blessed: The Apocalyptic Nature of Revelation with Iain Duguid (Episode 2)

This article is part of the Blessed: Conversations on the Book of Revelation with Nancy Guthrie series.

The Apocalyptic Nature of Revelation

Join Nancy Guthrie as she talks with pastor, professor, and author Iain Duguid about how we can understand Revelation in new ways when we read it as a letter, as a promise, and as apocalyptic prophecy.

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Blessed

Nancy Guthrie

Blessed, by bestselling author and speaker Nancy Guthrie, gives individuals and small groups a friendly, theologically reliable, and robust guide to understanding the book of Revelation.

Nancy Guthrie
Welcome to The Blessed Podcast. I’m Nancy Guthrie, author of the newly released book, Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation. Revelation begins and ends with the promise that those who hear and keep what is written in it will be blessed, and we want that blessing. And so, we need to hear what this book has to say to us and then live in light of us. On this podcast, I’m having conversations with people who can help us to hear it, and to understand its message to us. Also, to help us reckon with what it is going to mean to live in light of that message. My guest today is Dr. Iain Duguid. Iain, thank you so much for being willing to help us as we explore the book of Revelation.

Iain Duguid
It’s a pleasure to be here.

Nancy Guthrie
Dr. Iain Duguid is professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, and I’m loving getting to sit here at this seminary and have this conversation with him. Now, his doctoral research was on the book of Ezekiel, and if you have dipped into Revelation at all, then you’re going to know that you’re going to have to understand some Ezekiel to understand the book of Revelation. He’s published a commentary on Ezekiel, Song of Songs, and so many others. . . Esther and Ruth, Daniel. One reason I wanted to talk to Dr. Duguid is that last year I heard him give a talk as I was working on my book, Blessed. I heard him give a talk called “Doxological Evangelism in Practice Preaching Apocalyptic Literature” which he gave for the Westminster Conference on preaching and preachers here at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Now, you might wonder why I’m going to talk to an Old Testament expert and professor about the book of Revelation, and some of you would ask that question, Iain. Why would you say that maybe it’s a good idea to talk to someone who really understands especially those prophetical books of Ezekiel and Daniel if we’re going to talk about the book of Revelation?

Iain Duguid
Well, there was a 19th Century scholar who said before he started studying the book of Revelation, he committed himself to study the book of Ezekiel for ten years, the book of Zechariah for ten years, and the book of Daniel for ten years, and then he felt he was ready to tackle Revelation. Revelation is just built on the Old Testament. The New Testament as a whole is just built on the Old Testament. But, particularly the book of Revelation, with its images, pictures, and figures which draw so heavily on the images and pictures and figures of the Old Testament. .. we’re likely to misunderstand and misapply them if we don’t see the larger context. It’s written to people John expects to understand; he expects them to pick up these allusions and to pick up the whole background of those allusions as well.

Nancy Guthrie
That’s what differs for us as a modern audience, isn’t it? Because I think most of my life, honestly, the books I avoided for most of my life, probably, were books like Ezekiel. Many not Daniel because the first half of it is a great story, so we kind of know the first half of Daniel. But, a book like Zechariah. I mean, we avoid those because they seem kind of intimidating, kind of challenging.

Iain Duguid
Well, often, we avoid the books that we haven’t heard. Preachers have a great opportunity to help their people by preaching on the harder texts of the Bible. We often gravitate toward the easy texts, but then we don’t help our people to read the harder texts. People read the Bible the way they hear it preached, for better or for worse, so if all the preaching is “Here are five tips for your spiritual life,” you’re never going to get into the heart of Daniel or Zechariah or Ezekiel because that’s not what those books are about. But, those books are vital to help us at different times in the Christian life. If we’re not prepared to know how to read them, we won’t have them in our arsenal ready to use, when we actually come to need them.

Nancy Guthrie
So, these books that we’re talking about in the Old Testament, they include a particular literary genre type of apocalyptic, and so, maybe one reason we don’t read them and are challenged by Revelation, is that that’s just such a unique genre of literature. I mean, poetry has its challenges, narrative—maybe that’s a little bit easier for us, or at least we think so, to find a story and try and get the point. So, maybe a good place for us to begin is simply to define what we mean when we talk about apocalyptic literature.

Iain Duguid
Right, so, apocalyptic literature depicts the ending of the current age of chaos and strife and turmoil and its replacement with a final eschatalogical age of peace and joy and happiness. It’s addressed to people who are persecuted and suffering. We often read apocalyptic as if the message of the book was “The end is nigh!” Actually, it’s not. If the end is nigh, you are thrilled in those circumstances.

Nancy Guthrie
We’re almost done with all this suffering.

Iain Duguid
Yes, please, please, Lord come back now. What you need and what apocalyptic supplies is: How do I get through this if the end is not nigh? If I still have years to go? If I still have many of my family members to watch being martyred in front of my eyes? How do I survive that? That’s what apocalyptic gives us.

Nancy Guthrie
What it doesn’t tell us very straightforwardly, or at least in a way that maybe we want it described to us. . . It uses strange creatures and this otherworldly kind of imagery. So maybe that’s what’s so off-putting to us.

Iain Duguid
Yes, if you think about propaganda as kind of a negative word, but if you think of the positive aspect of propaganda, of communicating hope. . .Imagine yourself in an occupied Dutch village in the second world war and the Nazis are everywhere. You’re not worried about the most beautiful village of the Netherlands that your village has won the last ten years. That’s all gone. The Nazis want you to believe this is the way it will be forever. Resistance is useless, you will be assimilated, as the Furor put it in Star Trek.

What you need to do is to maintain hope that there is a different future—that this is not the way the rest of the story goes. And, the way, often you see that communicated is in characatours that depict the Nazis in very Indiana Jones-ish terms. They are the ultimate bad guys. When you depict the Allies who you hope are going to come and rescue you, there’s no black-and-white. They’re the good guys. Even though the real Allies, when they come and rescue you, will be anything but that. But, in order to maintain hope, you view them as the knight in shining armor (that’s another image, from fairy tales) because you need to make this sharp disjunction between good and evil, between the present and the future. And all of that with the goal of maintaining hope that what you see is not what you get. This present evil age is not the end of the story. There is a happy ending for those who remain faithful. That’s the payoff pitch for apocalyptic is: Stay faithful. Stay in the game. Give it all you’ve got. It is worth it. You will never regret in eternity the sacrifices you made for Christ and the gospel.

And, in the face of opposition that is in-your-face, that is massacring people in front of you, that is pulling your fingers nail out, it's not enough just to say, Oh yeah, heaven is a real place. You’ve got to paint me a picture and that picture has to be video rather than audio. It has to be bright, very bright, very vivid, grab-you-by-the-throat and show you that it really matters that you remain faithful. Because, heaven is glorious and hell is awful. Whatever you suffer in order to get into heaven and avoid going to hell will be absolutely worth it on the last day.

Nancy Guthrie
Thereby, the vividness, what you talk about the grab-you-by-the-throat. . . we read some of the passages and we just think This is so strange. I can’t understand it. And, you’re saying, it’s meant to grab us by the throat with this vivid image and shake us a bit, right?

Iain Duguid
Right, I think often we get too caught up in the details. Well, it’s an impressionist painting. If you get too close to an impressionist painting, all you see is dots and color. You have to step back a bit and see the whole. Well, it’s the same way. If you get too close to apocalyptic and too focused on the details, then you miss the whole thing. It’s like being in a movie theater. Nobody wants to sit in the front row? Why not? Because you need to sit back a bit to see, to get the force of the big screen. Otherwise, you just get a headache. I think a lot of people have gotten too close and gotten a headache from apocalyptic, and they’ve missed the power of the big picture.

This is why children don’t have a problem with apocalyptic. Talk to kids about the book of Revelation. My son, Jamie, was obsessed with the book of Revelation when he was about eleven or twelve years old. There was a Reformation Day party at our church where the kids got to dress up as their favorite Bible character or person from church history. There were all of these little Martin Luthers and Davids.

Nancy Guthrie
My son was a Martin Luther. We still have the wig. It’s really good.

Iain Duguid
My son was the angel of judgment, the seventh bowl of judgment from the book of Revelation.

Nancy Guthrie
I’d like to see a picture of that.

Iain Duguid
Yeah, he was always a little different kid, but he was fascinated by it because he saw the big picture. This is an amazing battle in which God wins, and it’s glorious. He got that. Since, he’s brought the book of Revelation to middle school retreat because kids get it. They understand it.

Nancy Guthrie
Can we talk about the term itself a little bit and the development of an understanding of this genre of literature. As I understand it, you know more about this than I do. So, you’ve got the book of Revelation that uses a lot of the same imagery or the same purpose as books like Ezekiel, the second half of Daniel, Zecharaiah, but when Ezekiel and Daniel and Zechariah wrote, there wasn’t a known genre. What shall I write this in? Shall I write it in poetry? Or, I’m going to write it in apocalyptic.

No, but then we’ve got Revelation. Once that is described as this apocalypse, where this world actually is used in the very first verse of the book. This is an apocalypse. Am I correct that that in a sense gets applied backwards to these books of Ezekiel?

Iain Duguid
Nobody in antiquity sat back and thought, I’m writing a narrative. Or, I’m writing a poem. They didn’t have those terms. They just were familiar with different forms of literature and they adopted the ones that fitted their purposes. And those forms themselves grow and develop. So, poetry is a general term, but for example, haiku is a specific form of poetry with specific history in a specific place. You don’t find haiku in the Bible.

Well, apocalyptic as a developed form really starts to develop towards the end of the intertestamental period, but the precursors of that, I think you find earlier.

Nancy Guthrie
In biblical literature or outside biblical literature or both?

Iain Duguid
Yeah, within biblical literature. The clearest example in the Old Testament would be Daniel. And again, that’s part of the reason why some people want to date that very late because they want to put it alongside other apocalyptic literature. Ezekiel isn’t really apocalyptic. Ezekiel 38 and Ezekiel 39 have some similarities, but they also have some similarities with the psalms of Zion’s protection. And so, that could be overstated.

Isaiah 24-27 has some similarities to apocalyptic. I think it’s helpful to remember that these are labels that we put on from the outside, right? When Revelation calls itself apocalypse, an unveiling, that’s what that word means, maybe it’s helpful just to use that word. Instead of talking about apocalyptic, just talk about unveiling because that is more helpful. To most people, apocalyptic sounds crazy and weird. Unveiling gets you to what we’re actually doing here, which is here opening the windows of heaven and getting you a glimpse into the stuff you don’t normally see.

Nancy Guthrie
Which I think is the opposite of the way people think of Revelation. They think of it as being very hidden—that somehow you’ve got to dig deep to find these things because its not out there and obvious, which seems to go against exactly what the book is saying. It’s written to unveil something, to show us something.

Iain Duguid
Right. And I again think that is something. . . We confuse the book of Revelation with conspiracy theory stuff. Conspiracy theory stuff is all about this hidden stuff that only the illuminati can really understand. But, the book of Revelation is about an unveiling. It’s about a revelation of something. The reason we miss that is because we’re focused on all the wrong things. We’re focused on the difficult, confusing details, and we miss the big picture. We miss the fact that central to the book of Revelation is worship—the worship that is right now, going on in heaven. And, why do you miss that? Well, because life is hard.

So, we’re often focused on the world as it is in front of us, and we forget that what we see is that the act is on the stage, if you like. The real action is taking place behind the stage, behind the curtain, if you like, in heaven, where even now all nations and tribes and peoples are bowing down in worship to the lamb who was slain. And that heavenly song that we will one day join in is even now being sung by multitudes. We want the book of Revelation to give us some kind of secret knowledge that we can lord over other people and so we neglect the obvious stuff. That’s too typical, too trivial. But, if you’re in that situation where when you go to church on Sunday morning, you dress extra warmly because you don’t know if you’re going home, as some of our brothers and sisters in China do, then you need to hear this truth: the simple, central truth that there is a conflict between good and evil in which the Lord wins, and in which his saints reign forever, casting down their crowns before the golden throne. That image is what will sustain you in those moments as you don’t know when someone is going to burst through those doors and arrest you. You don’t need theories about what exactly the seventh horn is, or all of that stuff is. That doesn’t help you a bit. The big picture does. The glorious truths that Revelation is designed to unveil. That’s the blessing that it provides to its original hearers, and to us who will heed it.

Nancy Guthrie
What are some of the skills that maybe because we’re not very familiar with this kind of literature, that we need to develop as we come to reading apocalyptic—that we might just not have naturally?

Iain Duguid
We need to learn to understand images within their biblical contexts. So, for example, we read about a beast from the earth and a beast from the sea. Now, if you’re familiar with the Old Testament, that should immediately conjure up images of Job 38-41: Behemoth and Leviathan, which again, people want to turn into crocodiles and hippos and all the rest of it. But, the whole point of that passage is saying to Job, You’re not able to wrestle with these creatures, but guess what? The Lord is able to put a leash on them and take them on walks.

And, people do wrestle with crocodiles and did in antiquity, so that doesn’t get the point. And Job has not been in a Jurassic Park experience. Job has been assaulted by the evil one.

Nancy Guthrie
And he’s suffering.

Iain Duguid
And he’s suffering, and he needs to know that as Martin Luther put it, “The devil is God’s devil,” that Satan can only go so far, and no further, which we as readers know from the frame narrative of the book of Job. But, Job himself has not yet heard that, so it’s vital for him to understand that these are not earthly creatures. These are not dinosaurs. These are the forces of evil personified. And even in their personified, the Lord can roll them over and tickle their tummies. They’re chihuahuas. They’re not wolves.

Nancy Guthrie
So, we see something like beasts and we go back to the Old Testament and we can see it in Job, and we can see elsewhere this satanic evil that’s at work in the world, but that we realize God has total control over. But, as John writes about something such as the beasts, using that as our example, you’ve got a current day referent to this beast too, doesn’t he?

Iain Duguid
Yeah, well, potentially.

Nancy Guthrie
How is the evil in his day taking shape?

Iain Duguid
Right. You know, we talk about recapitulation as a theme in the book of Revelation—the fact that it’s presenting the same story from different perspectives. We have movies that do that. We have people that are living the same day over and over again and that’s a way of telling a particular story.

Nancy Guthrie
I’ve never thought of using that as an example, but you’re talking about a movie like Groundhog Day where we’re going to keep starting over and get to the end. Yeah, I like that.

Iain Duguid
Which of course is ultimately how the force of evil wants you to think about the world. The whole point of movies like that is that eventually the hero breaks out. There is an eschatalogical future. There is a meaningful life beyond that, and that’s part of the message of apocalyptic. But, so, too, in the world, there’s sort of a cyclical pattern of evil. It’s not coincidental that whenever you live, you can find people who will fit, in broad terms, the biblical depiction of the end times. You can see that as you look at the history of interpretation of Ezekiel 38-39. This figure of Gog, you find academics who want to find a historical figure, but you can’t find anybody who’s quite bad enough. There are some people who sort of fit, but not quite. And then you look through church history and in the time of Augustine, it’s Goths. Later on, it’s the Mongol empire. Then, it’s the Pope. Then, during the first World War, then Germany and Russia start to come onto the scene. And, it’s whoever is threatening the church in this age. Satan is really not all that creative. He only has three strategies: persecution, seduction, and deception.

I think persecution is his favorite. He enjoys that part but recognizes, but perhaps recognizes that it’s not always the most effective strategy. You see those three strategies in the book of Revelation. And you see them repeatedly in history. You know, we talk about the message of the book of Revelation, the persecuted church is the most obvious one. But, for us, who are not, at this point, most persecuted, we need to be really alert to the other strategies of seduction and deception because we live in a context in which we are very easily seduced and deceived. And apocalyptic has a message for those people too—for us.

Nancy Guthrie
We read through the seven letters in chapters two and three, some of them are dealing with persecution. Some of them are being seduced, some of them are being deceived. I love that framework you’ve given me now.

Iain Duguid
And notice, the churches that are being persecuted are the churches generally that the rioter has good things to say to. The churches he has the strongest words to are the ones being seduced and deceived.

Nancy Guthrie
It’s at the end of Revelation, chapters 17-19, you’ve got this picture of the harlot, and the issue is that she is out to seduce you, to keep you from being part of this pure bride.

Iain Duguid
Right, she’s also drunk with the blood of the saints, who you can persecute. But, she’s also out to seduce. Yeah, and so, when we think of Babylon, and people identify with Rome, which in that context of war, I think it’s a category mistake for us to think about it reappearing as modern Rome. I think we should see it in the forces that want to spread the word of materialism. It’s Madison Avenue. It’s New York. It’s L.A. For some of us, that’s too safe a target. It’s right there around the corner. And we’re being drawn in and seduced and deceived. Apocalyptic wants to warn us and keep us on our guards. And again, it wants to shake us because we’re sleepwalking through life.

Now, one thing that the persecuted church is not doing is sleepwalking through life. Persecution wakes you up in very short order, but the church, when it’s being seduced, when it’s being deceived, is not seeing reality.

Nancy Guthrie
Persecution isn’t the only thing.

Iain Duguid
It is not. Nor even the greatest danger to the church in many cases.

Nancy Guthrie
As I worked on this book on the book of Revelation, I wrote in the introduction that going into it, I thought the greatest challenge to Revelation would be to understand it, but that now I think the greatest challenge of Revelation is to live out its call to patient endurance of suffering and to remain free of compromise. This call over and over again to not be seduced, to not compromise, that’s where the rubber meets the road, I think in my life, and in so many people’s lives as we live in a place of persecution. . . We might point to maybe being misunderstood or maligned or whatever. Maybe we want to quickly call that persecution. Probably not in light of the larger world. For most of us, it’s being lulled into compromise and being deceived.

Iain Duguid
We’re afraid of the wrong things. We’re afraid of somebody coming in with a rifle and putting it to our heads and saying Renounce Christ or die. I don’t want to diminish that, but in some respects, that’s easier.

Nancy Guthrie
It’s easier to recognize.

Iain Duguid
It’s a single decision and you’re done. In many respects, it’s harder, this patient endurane of suffering. You know, to me the harder endurance for a person in the church are those people who are locked up in solitary confinement, who are isolated day after day after day, who have to life out their faith in that context. That’s much harder, I think, than the kind of momentary courage that’s needed to die for your faith. And, we live in a culture that does not prepare us for patient endurance. What training do we have in that? We’re trained that whenever you want something, go get it. Buy it on credit.

Nancy Guthrie
DoorDash. Just call and get the food delivered.

Iain Duguid
Whatever you want, get it right now. And so, we’re very unprepared for lives of patient endurances. And Revelation wants to help us to get there.

Nancy Guthrie
You said in your lecture that the purpose of apocalyptic is to comfort and exhort the faithful, which I think most people, when they think about apocalyptic literature, sadly, they don’t think of that being at the heart of that. Rather than reveal something, they think about it being very hidden or covered up. And rather than comforting, they actually think about it as scary.

Iain Duguid
Yes, well, a lot of people were raised on thinking of the book of Revelation as a scary book, because there’s this fear that at any moment, the Lord could rapture his church, and if you’re not ready, then you’ll be left behind, and all that kind of thing. It leaves people with this terrifying sense of I’ve got to discern the time so I can figure out the day when the Lord is going to come to rapture his church. There’s very little comfort in that kind of preaching. There’s certainly an exhortation to turn to Christ, which is a good thing. But, it does seem to be a fear-driven exhortation. It’s not the comfort that God sees what’s going on. You know, theodicy: the justification of God is never far from the surface of apocalyptic. And, how could it be when you’re watching friends and family members die for their faith? What is God up to? The cry of the martyrs, How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood? That’s a reflection of the cry of the suffering church. In the book of Revelation and in other apocalyptic (you see the same thing in Daniel) is that the Lord has the days counted. You know, there are a number of days which, again, it’s impenetrable to us exactly how that number works. We have some ideas as to why that number, but it’s deliberately impenetrable. Daniel doesn’t understand. If Daniel doesn’t understand, I don’t feel too bad that I don’t understand, but the point is that these are days that the Lord has numbered. He knows exactly what day it is.

Nancy Guthrie
In some ways, you’re referring to the terms he uses in Revelation, this three and a half years. What is it? 1260 days. Three and a half months.

Iain Duguid
But, then in Daniel, comes 60 days, 335 days towards the end.

Nancy Guthrie
So you’re saying, rather than try to figure out a timeline based on that, understand what’s being communicated, which is God has determined it and it’s set.

Iain Duguid
Right, three and a half times is half of seven. So, it’s not a full period of judgment. That would wipe everybody out. God has cut it short for the sake of his elect. But, equally, it’s not just Oh, roughly three and a half years. Somewhere in there. . .the Lord will decide it’s time. The Lord has it down to the day, exactly figured out because the Lord knows the suffering of his people, and the Lord cares about that. And that’s not accidental, not trivia to God. That matters to God. And he’s listening to the cry of the martyrs. What’s crucial is that the cry of the martyrs does not go unheard. He doesn’t get an immediate answer.

Nancy Guthrie
I think it’s a troubling answer in some ways in the book of Revelation when it says, You’ve got to wait until the full number of those who are going to be killed for their faith comes in.

Iain Duguid
Which is not what we expect. We expect perhaps. . . .

Nancy Guthrie
Let me come and take care of that.

Iain Duguid
Or, at least, the answer we get in 2 Peter, You have to wait until the full number of the elect is gathered in, until salvation is complete. But, no, the Lord says You have to wait until the full number or the martyrs is complete. In other words, there’s something uniquely glorifying to God about people giving up their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

Nancy Guthrie
What a counterintuitive message, even, I think, countercultural in much of our Christian culture, isn’t it? Where Christianity is about this thing we apprehend to make our lives work right. I guess that’s part of my point in calling the book Blessed. I think Revelation shows us a very different picture than what the world tells us about what a blessed life is.

Iain Duguid
Right, we call our churches “Thrive” or “Elevation” or something. We don’t call it “Martyrs.” That’s not completely unbiblical. We want to be blessed, but we have this definition of blessing that’s different, that’s all about us firstly being comfortable. When people say, Have a blessed day, what they really mean is Be comfortable today. I hope things go well. They’re not thinking I hope you get martyred today, and yet to those John is writing, who are blessed, many of them are facing that same persecution.

Nancy Guthrie
Seven blessed statements in the book of Revelation. Blessed are those who die in the Lord. Blessed are those whose robes have been washed and made white. So many of them, they’re all very forward-looking, certainly, but some of them are certainly counterintuitive.

Iain Duguid
It’s because we’ve lost sight of heaven. So much of our preaching, even in our evangelical churches, is about life here on earth, and being effective, growing in our earthly sanctification, but we’ve lost sight of the glory. We’re afraid that people will be so heavenly minded, they’ll be of no earthly use, which is utter nonsense. The conviction of the book of Revelation is that we need to be more heavenly minded in order to be of earthly use.

Nancy Guthrie
In order to endure.

Iain Duguid
In order to endure. Absolutely.

Nancy Guthrie
To be equipped for patient endurance, or as John says at the beginning. He’s writing to “my partners in the kingdom and patient endurance in the suffering that is in Christ Jesus.”

Iain Duguid
Where is that message in our churches? That’s why we need to preach in Revelation because if we preach Revelation faithfully, we’re going to get that repeatedly.

Nancy Guthrie
So someone, maybe they’re thinking about either doing their own study of Revelation, they feel intimidated, or maybe even leading a study on the book of Revelation, how would you encourage them?

Iain Duguid
I think you probably need some help to read the book of Revelation unless you’ve spent decades in Ezekiel or Daniel or Zechariah, in which case, you might be ready. But, most of us need help. There are good commentaries and resources. Your book is a great resource. Dennis Johnson’s book, Triumph of the Lamb, is a great resource. Vern Poythress’s Return of the King. There are resources. If you really want to delve into details, there’s Greg Beale’s massive commentary.

Nancy Guthrie
Or you can do his shorter commentary that’s still like 700 pages.

Iain Duguid
Shorter, massive commentary.

Nancy Guthrie
It was really a help to me as I worked on this book, that’s for sure. Well, thank you Dr. Duguid. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and insight into this kind of literature and into God’s Word. I’m really grateful for the way God has made you and the mind he’s given you and the heart he’s given you and the ability he’s given you to communicate these important truths of the gospel.

Iain Duguid
Thank you very much.

Nancy Guthrie
This has been The Blessed Podcast, a Crossway Podcast, hosted by Nancy Guthrie, the author of Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation. I hope you’ll join us for the next episode of The Blessed Podcast.



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In this new podcast, Nancy Guthrie—author, Bible teacher, and podcast host—leads listeners to a deeper understanding of the book of Revelation through conversations with respected Bible scholars, pastors, and other Bible teachers.


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