During the 20th Century, the Catholic Church greatly encouraged the study of scripture among all the faithful. At the Second Vatican Council, the Church Fathers taught that scripture and tradition form “one sacred deposit of the word of God” (Dei Verbum 10). The Church has maintained both scripture and tradition “as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.”
This means that no one can read scripture alone. Rather, one must read scripture with the Church, which continues to hand on the Gospel through both tradition and scripture. But how do we interpret scripture? To answer this question, we must first recall what scripture is. Indeed, it is the inspired word of God, but it is a word expressed in human words: “In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted” (Dei Verbum 11).
This means that we can trust the words of scripture, since they are indeed “God-breathed” (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). At the same time, to appreciate how divinely inspired the text is, we need to pay attention to how God inspired the authors to craft their message in letters, poetry, wisdom, history, prophecy, and so forth. We have to note how some authors were inspired to make an “orderly account” of the life and teachings of Jesus (cf. Luke 1:1-3). Others were compelled to address the situation using early hymns (Phil 2:5-11). In the case of John of Patmos, he was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” and through that atmosphere of prayer, he communicated a powerful message using many tools. Therefore, we have to ask what the author intended, and what God wanted to express through the author (Dei Verbum 12).
Because of this, we must pay attention both to the “literary forms” in a text and that book’s relationship to all of scripture (cf. Dei Verbum 12). Indeed, the divine inspiration of scripture becomes evident when we note both the ways that the human authors were guided by the Holy Spirit to express God’s message using the styles and forms of their time, and when we see how all the texts work together.
Classifying the Book of Revelation: Intent and Forms
Let us now apply this method of examining “authorial intent” and “literary forms” to the Book of Revelation. What exactly is Revelation? Revelation is classified first as an “apocalyptic” text (the Greek word for Revelation is apokalypsis). It is in the same genre as Daniel, parts of Ezekiel, and other texts both within the canon of scripture and outside of it. “Apocalyptic” is a genre in which a “seer” is given access to divine realities. He has visions of the heavenly court and strange creatures, and needs the help of a divine figure (typically an angel) to explain the meaning of these visions. In this instance, John encounters the heavenly throne, the Risen Jesus and also heavenly angels who direct him and explain the meaning of the visions.
Revelation is also a prophetic text. This is evident from its prologue: John writes, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy” (Rev 1:3). After reading the whole text, it becomes clear that Revelation is prophetic; it looks like and draws from the Old Testament Prophets. But we must recall that prophecy does not merely mean the foretelling of a future event, which is oftentimes the first definition we think of. Rather, Judeo-Christian prophecy is primarily about speaking God’s perspective on the situation. Prophecy always addresses a real situation and arises out of a crisis or issue. In prophecy, God inspires and equips the Prophet to give us God’s perspective on the crisis of the moment. Typically the historical context (especially the crises that Israel faced) of the Old Testament Prophets is known in the text, but in the case of Revelation it is not immediately clear. We will return to this below when we discuss the seven churches addressed in Revelation.
It is helpful to note what a prophet does. As Yves Congar has explained, a prophet’s mission is to “push God’s people to growth.” It will be evident in what follows that John of Patmos is pushing his addresses to growth in true faith, and he will be interpreting their situation from God’s perspective with insight into the things of God. We will see that what John desires is conversion and perseverance in the midst of a hostile, “beastly” environment and the threat of idolatry.
When one reads Revelation, the attentive reader will notice how John of Patmos has a deep knowledge of and devotion to the Old Testament. He knows the Prophets and the great stories of God’s saving actions in Israel’s history. John demonstrates an insight expressed in Dei Verbum: “God, the inspirer and author of both testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be manifest in the New” (Dei Verbum 16). This means that when we read Revelation, we have to be attentive to the history of Israel, the Torah, and the whole canon of the Old Testament from Genesis to the Prophets to fully experience the divinely-inspired message of Revelation. All of this will be manifest in this New Testament text, and conversely we can find the core of the New Testament hidden in the apocalyptic vision of “one like a son of man” (Dan 7:13), the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the connection of creation in Genesis, the Fall, and God’s new creation that concludes Revelation, and much more.
Finally, Revelation is not simply apocalyptic or prophetic; it takes the form of a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It even contains the typical New Testament greeting: “Grace and peace!” (Rev 1:4). As we know, epistles make up most of the New Testament, and from the first Christians up to today we have drawn inspiration not only from the letters in the New Testament, but also from other letters from various saints and thinkers. We also have the practice today of reading papal encyclicals, which are addressed to specific people. It might be helpful to imagine the Book of Revelation as an encyclical to these seven churches that would have been read aloud. Indeed, some interpreters suggest that the fact that John addresses seven churches suggests that John is also delivering a message that concerns the whole Church, since seven is a number that symbolizes perfection.
Outline of Revelation
It is important to also note how Revelation is structured. In fact, it is the symbolic structure of Revelation that often proves confusing. There are many sevens to encounter: seven churches, seven scrolls, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, and so forth. It is not easy even for scholars to organize the text into subdivisions. Raymond Brown offers the most straightforward outline:
Another suggestion to keep in mind as one reads Revelation is that the story appears to be cyclical. It is not so much a straight timeline as it is a roller coaster that reaches serene heights and intense lows. John constantly draws us up into the heavens, and then back down to earth. He offers us the inspiring vision of God and heavenly worship and the victory of God at one moment, and then he exposes us to God’s judgment the next. Even the events do not really unfold in a straight line.
For us, this is especially important to keep in mind to avoid the temptation of reading too much into Revelation. Many Christians tend to assume that Revelation is a puzzle to put together so that we can have a sense of what the “end times” will be like and when they will come. But again, this is not the purpose of Revelation as a letter, an apocalypse, and a prophecy. So we need to read Revelation on its own terms. Doing so will still let the text console us, shake us out of our complacency, and point us to the ultimate end, when God will renew all things.
This blog series will not be able to interpret chapter by chapter and verse by verse. Rather, the approach here is to explain the background, some of the key themes, the form of the text. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind the structure of the whole text in proceeding. We will come to see how rich and inspired the text is by bearing all of these things in mind.
In Part 2, we will address the context of Revelation by noting the intricate details in the Letters to the Seven Churches. The Letters reveal John’s concern for what he saw before him in the first century AD, not simply in and among the churches, but in the Roman Empire. In these Letters, John begins to declare the message of conversion and perseverance and witnessing. Part 3 will address the general themes and major symbols of Revelation. In Part 4, we will reflect on how to “actualize” the Book of Revelation today. In doing so, we will note how Revelation resonates with the rest of scripture and with all of Christian tradition.
 With regard to the New Testament, it is important to note that the Church discerned the canon of the New Testament. This process took over three hundred years.
 A popular early Christian apocalypse that was not included in the canon of scripture is the Shepherd of Hermas, which is available online at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0201.htm.
 Scripture scholars note that John never cites passages from the Prophets word for word, but it is clear that passages from the Prophets are behind much of the imagery in Revelation.
 The renowned rabbi and civil rights activist Abraham Heschel defined prophecy as “exegesis [interpretation] of existence from a divine perspective.” Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001). Pp. xxvii. Yves Congar, an influential theologian at Vatican II who was later named a Cardinal, defined prophecy as “(1) a specially insightful knowledge about things pertaining to God, (2) a knowledge or mission related to the execution of God’s plan, (3) the prediction of the future. Yves Congar O.P., True and False Reform in the Church. Trans. Paul Philibert, O.P. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2011). Pp. 169-194.
 Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., notes, “The prophetic word was always relevant to the historical moment of proclamation. Since it was born out of religious or political crisis, its purpose was to speak to that crisis… The primary intent of prophecy was to call the people to fidelity to their religious responsibilities here and now.” Dianne Bergant, “Prophecy,” in The New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermot Lane.
 The Book of Isaiah is a great example of this, as it begins by stating that the writings concern “the vision of Isaiah, son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). For our purposes it is important to note how Isaiah identifies the setting for his prophesying.
 Congar, True and False Reform.
 Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament. Pp. 774.