Why does the apostle “[weep] much”? Was he emotionally overwrought because his desire to see the scroll's contents was denied, or is there more to it? His weeping signifies something momentous taking place. John, probably in his 90s at this point, had already seen and experienced extraordinary things. Given the amount of time God had worked with him, he must have attained a level of spiritual maturity of the highest order. Yet, this faithful servant—not given to whimsy—sobbed over what was at stake. Something shook him to the core—something far beyond mere disappointment over not having a prophecy opened.
In Revelation 5:4, John gives the primary reason for his weeping, and the issue is one of worthiness. Isaiah describes a similar circumstance where the prophet also has a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne (Isaiah 6:1). Seraphim are praising God, and at the sight of all this, Isaiah becomes unglued (verses 2-5), painfully aware of his uncleanness. He knows that in his state he is not worthy to look upon the Lord of Hosts.
However, a seraph touches Isaiah's mouth with a coal, removing his iniquity and purging his sin (verses 6-7). Then the prophet hears the Eternal asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Isaiah eagerly answers the call and receives his commission (verse 8). With cleansing, he was fit—worthy—for God to use him to take a message to Judah.
However, in John's vision, something like a call goes out, but nobody answers it. Even with the cleansing that God is willing to do for His people—as He did for Isaiah—nobody can be found who is worthy. John, looking forward in vision to the Day of the Lord, sees that no angel in heaven, no servant of God on earth, and no spirit under the earth can open the scroll.
The matter of worthiness, then, must go beyond the matter of sin, because heaven is filled with angels who have not sinned, yet they still are unworthy to take the scroll. Likewise, as with Isaiah, God can purge the sin of His servants, but something even above sinlessness is needed to be worthy to open the scroll of Revelation.
What, exactly, makes this scroll's worth so great? John's reaction to it indicates that he was not ignorant of what it was; instead, he felt the full weight of its significance and expressed great distress over the absolute need for it to be opened. The apostle greatly desired the scroll to be opened, suggesting he knew that it contained something of tremendous worth, in addition to including judgments like the other prophetic scrolls.
David C. Grabbe
Worthy to Take the Scroll
The setting for the release of the four horsemen begins in Revelation 4, which describes God's throne room in heaven with all its splendor and attendant beings. As chapter 5 opens, a scroll with writing on both front and back and sealed with seven seals is introduced, shown in the right hand of the Father. This last detail highlights His sovereignty and the divine origin of the scroll. That He holds it in His right hand suggests might or authority (Exodus 15:6; Psalm 20:6; 44:3; 110:1; Lamentations 2:3-4; etc.), and that He is sitting on the throne alludes to coming judgment (see Proverbs 20:8; Matthew 27:19; Acts 25:6).
The scroll itself includes a few peculiar details not found in ordinary scrolls. First, John uses the word biblion for it, a diminutive of the normal biblos, implying that this particular scroll was not lengthy—a booklet as compared to a book. Biblion is often used of letters, contracts, and other documents whose contents would not fill more than one sheet of parchment or vellum.
However, this scroll is "written inside and on the back," or as it is literally in the Greek, "written within and behind." The Greeks had a specific term for such a relatively rare document: opisthografon, literally "behind writing." Since writing covered the entire surface, nothing could be added to it. Thus, the image symbolizes a complete and finished work.
Finally, this scroll bears seven seals, a detail that has provoked various interpretations down through the centuries. The best, most logical solution is that the scroll is successively sealed along one edge so that, as a seal is broken, the parchment can be opened only so far as the next seal. Thus, a scroll like this was sealed as it was rolled closed, and the seals must be broken in reverse order. This also means that, as the seals are broken, the previous ones remain open until all seven parts of the document lay revealed.
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 loose its seven seals" (verse 5).
This figure, called "a Lamb as though it had been slain" (verse 6) is obviously Jesus Christ our Savior (see John 1:29), and He proved worthy by prevailing, enikeesen, a word that can also be translated as "overcome," "triumphed," or "conquered," all of which imply victory through conflict or struggle. As Hebrews 2:10 puts it, "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the author of their salvation perfect through sufferings." He proved Himself worthy to be our Redeemer, High Priest, and soon-coming King by living sinlessly against the pulls of human nature and by dying as a perfect sacrifice in our stead (see Revelation 5:9, 12).
In so doing, He also qualified to be Judge of all (John 5:22; II Timothy 4:1, 8; Jude 14-15). Taking on this last role, "He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne" (Revelation 5:7).
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Four Horsemen (Part One): In the Saddle?
This scroll is unique in that it is sealed with seven seals. 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.
This particular scroll had seven seals binding it—that is, the document was completely written and then it began to be rolled. Part way into the rolling, a seal was put on. The wax solidified, 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.
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.
The last seal put on must be the first seal to be broken. This indicates the progression of time. It takes time to break the seal and to reveal what the seal's message is. In actual history, it means that a seal is broken, and then the seal begins to be fulfilled. Another seal is broken, and it too begins to unfold in history; and then a third one, and it begins to unfold. So time moves along. It begins with the first one, the second is joined to it, and then the third one is joined to them.
When the first seal is opened, it continues until all the seals are broken. The intensity is increased by adding the next seal to it. We have two fulfillments occurring at once. Then the third one is opened, and now we have three being fulfilled, etc.
As we approach a specific point in time, the intensity of the unfolding of the seals' event becomes greater and greater. By the time we get to the end, the intensity is so great that the people on earth are barely able to stand it.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Revelation 10 and the Laodicean Church
Several passages can provide insight into this scene. Obviously, the aged apostle was familiar with the Scriptures, so when he saw this vision of God's throne, the One who sat on it, and a sealed scroll, several writings of the prophets probably came to his mind.
For example, in Daniel's vision, thrones are set up, the Ancient of Days takes His seat, and books are opened (Daniel 7:9-10). We tend to focus on the four beasts in this vision, but the more significant theme shows the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven, given dominion, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, 27).
In Revelation, John sees the Ancient of Days likewise seated on a throne. Remembering Daniel's vision, John knows that court's purpose is to remove the dominion of man and the satanic power behind him and to give the Kingdom to the saints of the Most High under the Son of Man.
The prophet Ezekiel provides another related record. He also had a vision of the divine, including cherubim and a throne of God (Ezekiel 1:1-28) as a prelude to his commission to warn the rebellious house of Israel (Ezekiel 2:1-8). His vision contains another, similar scroll to the one John saw:
Now when I looked, there was a hand stretched out to me; and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. Then He spread it before me; and there was writing on the inside and on the outside, and written on it were lamentations and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:9-10)
Like Ezekiel's scroll, the one John saw had writing “inside and on the back” (Revelation 5:1), but there are some differences as well: Ezekiel's scroll was the symbol of a commission to a human servant, while the one John saw was not. Also, Ezekiel's scroll was open and readable, while in Revelation 5, the scroll is sealed. Both scrolls, though, do involve “lamentations and mourning and woe.”
Zechariah 5:1-4 contains another vision of a scroll, which may also have flashed through John's mind when he saw the scroll in the right hand of the Most High. An angel explains that Zechariah's scroll, also written on both sides, is “the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth”—specifically, a curse on thieves and perjurers. When John sees the divine scroll opened, it likewise contains a judgment for sin, but it affects far more than just thieves and perjurers.
Each of these scrolls symbolizes the judgments contained within them. In addition, each is written on both sides, indicating that nothing further will be added. The contents of each scroll are complete for its purpose, and once the scroll is opened, everything written on them will occur until God's purpose is fulfilled. As He says in Isaiah 55:11, “My word . . . goes forth from My mouth [and] it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Nothing more needs to be added, and nothing will change the judgment that has been decreed.
David C. Grabbe
Worthy to Take the Scroll
Scripture contains another sealed scroll that rarely receives a second glance, yet it more closely resembles the scroll John agonized over than the scrolls of Ezekiel and Zechariah.
In Jeremiah 32:6-15, just before the siege of Jerusalem, God instructs Jeremiah to perform an act as a sign that the Jews would return to the land. This passage is about inheritance and redemption of property, in which Jeremiah is the kinsman-redeemer, similar to Boaz (Ruth 4:1-11). At God's direction, Jeremiah pays the purchase price, signs and seals the deed, and performs it all in the presence of witnesses.
Verse 11 refers to the purchase deed in the singular but later describes it as “both that which was sealed . . . and that which was open.” These title deeds consisted of duplicates. One copy was left open so the contents could be read by any interested party, while the second copy was sealed to ensure that no tampering could be done. When it was time to buy back the property, the sealed copy would be unsealed to verify the original agreement. The only person with authority to unseal the deed, however, was the rightful owner—the one redeeming the property.
Consider how this applies to the scroll of Revelation 5. In type, it is not merely a prophetic scroll of judgment but a sealed title deed! Its sealing is not due to its contents being truly secret since the majority of its contents can be found in other places. God's prophets warn about religious deception; wars; famines; pestilences and earthquakes; the deaths of God's servants; great signs in the heavens; and the future Kingdom. In other words, in the words of the prophets, we already have the open deed, though it is fragmented and not in time-sequence. The essence of what John sees as the seals are opened has not been completely hidden from human knowledge; the prophets have already, at least in part, spoken of each of them.
Also, we have Jesus' testimony in the Olivet Prophecy, of which the Revelation scroll is essentially an expansion, particularly regarding the Seventh Seal. The two prophecies describe the same judgment events in the same order. In type, then, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, including the Olivet Prophecy, is like the open deed that we can consult at any time.
Thus, the Revelation scroll remains sealed until the right time for a different purpose—not because of wholly secret contents, but because the seals denote that only the one claiming the property at issue is legally allowed to open the scroll. John sees the scroll in the Father's right hand because the time has come to release the seals. It is time for the property to be redeemed and the proper ownership to be legally determined. With the sealed scroll in the Eternal Judge's right hand, a strong angel—an officer of the court, so to speak—issues a challenge for the worthy party to step forward and claim what is his.
Understanding this scroll answers why John wept so much: He was looking at the title deed of all things! God is praised for creating “all things” (Revelation 4:11), and He has appointed the Son as heir of “all things” (Hebrews 1:2). However, the world and its inhabitants are presently in Satan's hand. He currently holds the property in question, having the whole world under his sway (I John 5:19).
Thus, the ownership of the creation and the whole purpose of Elohim in creating humanity in God's image are hanging in the balance—and nobody is found who could claim it. The weight of what it would mean for the deed to go unredeemed—for the world to continue with Satan as its ruler—must have overwhelmed John.
Having paid the ultimate purchase price for His property, the Lamb alone is worthy to open the sealed deed. The Lamb even provides His own witnesses to testify of His eligibility—His claim on His property—throughout His earthly ministry (John 1:6-8, 15); after His death (Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 14:17; 22:15; 23:11); in every martyr willing to die for his Kingdom and King (Revelation 6:9-11); and in two final witnesses of the Lamb's right to all things (Revelation 11:3-13).
David C. Grabbe
Worthy to Take the Scroll