Scroll is a roll as of papyrus, leather, or parchment for writing a document. In this digital age, to move text or graphics up or down or across a display screen as if by unrolling is a scroll. Scrolls were the first form of editable record keeping texts, used in Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations. Parchment scrolls were used by the Israelites among others before the codex or bound book with parchment pages was invented by the Romans, which became popular around the 1st century AD. They did not write many books in those days. Most long correspondence was written on a scroll. And a scroll was a long sheet of parchment that was rolled up like paper towels. As one read the message, the document had to be unrolled. This document was sealed with a heavy, sticky wax that was heated to a liquid and then dropped on the end of the document, sealing it. No one could then read the document until the seal was broken. In addition, the seal was usually impressed with some kind of identifying sign or mark to confirm who had written the document—to identify the sender.
In this article I am trying to take your attention to Revelation 5:1-5 to examine the scroll and its meaning in the Bible. The focus of Revelation 4 was the throne. Here, John begins with reference to the throne, but now shifted his focus to the scroll held by the enthroned Lord. It was not common practice to write on both sides of the scroll. This means that whatever information was on this scroll, there was a lot of it – almost more than the scroll can contain. Through the centuries, commentators suggest many different ideas for what this scroll is, and what was written upon it. It is important to remember that whatever was on this scroll, no one except Jesus was (and is) worthy to open it. Different people say differently about the contents of the scroll but I wish to see the scroll as “God’s will, his final settlement of the affairs of the universe. This is based on the idea that customarily, under Roman law, wills were sealed with seven seals, each form a witness to the validity of the will.
We see John spend three chapters opening the scroll, with significant events for each seal being opened. But what is the significance of the scroll itself? There is a lot of excitement about finding one worthy to open it, and trouble caused by its opening, but we never find out anything about its contents. Is there some implied information here? Is it something cultural and only assumed by the original audience? What is the scroll with the seven seals? The “one on the throne” holds a seven-sealed scroll with writing on both sides (Rev 5:1). No one in all of creation can be found worthy to open the scroll except the “Lamb that was slain” (5:2-5). This scroll is not only an important symbol in this chapter but also for chapters 6-7 since a series of things occur as the seals on the scroll were opened.
Normally a scroll is only written on one side; a two sided scroll is rare. This scroll is “written inside and on the back,” or as it is “written within and behind.” Since writing covered the entire surface, nothing could be added to it. Thus, the image symbolizes a complete and finished work. In chapter 5, we find ourselves amidst a vision of the heavenly throne room. A scroll with seven seals, symbolic of God’s judgment, waits to be opened. The number seven is of critical importance in this text, as it symbolizes completeness and perfection. One of the twenty-four elders, a number perhaps symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel plus the twelve apostles tells us to expect the appearance of a lion, a symbol of royal strength. Turning our attention once more to the throne, we find, not a lion, but a lamb. This lamb has been slaughtered, becoming a symbol of weakness twice over, but it is the only one able to open this mysterious scroll and enact God’s justice. The lamb has seven horns, the symbols of strength and seven eyes; the symbol for it is all-seeing. The lamb represents a God who is present, witnesses and challenges injustice, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.
This scroll is unique in that it is sealed with seven seals. This particular scroll had seven seals binding it. That means the document was completely written and then it began to be rolled. Some commentators seem to take this as a progressive unrolling and reading of the scroll as the seals are broken. However, others insist that the scroll cannot be read until all seven seals are opened. Should the judgments be taken as a progressive reading of the scroll as it is opened 1/7th at a time? I have always imagined that the scroll sealed with seven seals and only after all the seals are broken one could read the scroll. But some commentators think about the sealing as part way into the rolling and a seal was put on. The wax hardened, then it was rolled some more, and a second seal was put on it. It was rolled some more, then the third seal and so on until seven seals were affixed to it. The last seal put on must be the first seal to be broken. This indicates the progression of time.
Verse 2 asks who would be able to open up and read what was written. John is heartbroken until he finds out that the Lamb is worthy to open it. Then we begin to find that the seals could be broken and the revelation could commence. In the scene in Revelation 5, though, “no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it” (verse 3). The apostle John weeps because no one worthy comes forward. He is soon comforted: “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to open its seven seals” (verse 5). John hears a heavenly elder speak about the Lion of Judah, an expression that recalls God’s promise to send a powerful king from David’s line, who would build the kingdom of God. When John turns to see the Lion, however, he sees a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered. This is the one who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Perhaps John notices the scars, so the Lamb looks as if he has been slain. But he is standing. He was dead but now he is alive! Jesus, who conquered sin and death, steps forward and takes the scroll. He is worthy! The Lamb is found worthy to open the scroll, and in chapter six the Lamb opens the seals one by one with various judgments ensuing.