As in the previous chapter of Revelation, so here, the setting is the throne room of heaven. But whereas that chapter focused on the “one seated on the throne,” this one focuses on “the Lamb who was slain” (that is, Jesus Christ). In it, the Lamb takes a scroll from God’s right hand because he is “worthy to open the scroll and break its seals.” What is the scroll? Why must its seals be broken? Why is the Lamb worthy to break them? We must answer these questions if we are to hear and heed God’s Word to us through Revelation 5.
Like all prophets, John is a man of sight and sound. He reports his vision of God and declares whatever word of the Lord he has heard. Having seen heaven’s throne room with an awestruck gaze, now he narrows his line of sight and focuses on God’s right hand. It is open, and a scroll lies in it (Rev. 5:1).
In the ancient world, before the use of books became widespread, important documents were inscribed on scrolls made of reedy papyrus or leathery parchment. Those scrolls were often quite long, upwards of 30 feet. Only rarely was a scroll inscribed on both sides, and even then, the writing on the outer side was a simple précis of the scroll’s contents and took up little space.
John’s scroll, on the other hand was covered with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. The prophet Ezekiel saw a similar scroll in one of his visions, covered on both sides with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek. 2.9, 10). Later in Revelation, John is given “a little scroll” to eat and commissioned to “again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10.1–11). When the Lamb breaks the seals of John’s scroll, great and terrible events of salvation and judgment occur (6.1–8.5). Taking all this evidence together, it seems that the scroll is a “heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan and the future history of God’s creation,” as Grant Osborne puts it.[i] For some, its contents are words of weal, for others, of woe.
On occasion, we wonder if God in heaven knows what he is doing. Does he have a plan? If so, can we know it? The double-sided, seven-sealed scroll asks both questions.
Does God have a plan? Yes, he does. It is set and comprehensive, exhaustive in its detail, and it is written on the scroll lying in God’s open hand. Scripture is quite clear that God governs the course of history. Psalm 139.16 tells us as much when it says, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” In Ephesians 1.10, Paul writes of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”
God’s plan encompasses not only the happy ending but also the grievous suffering of all who believe in him. According to Peter, Jesus’ gruesome crucifixion “by the hands of lawless men” took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23). We can take comfort from such knowledge, for our seemingly meaningless suffering finds meaning in God’s plan. “You have kept count of my tossings,” the Psalmist writes, and “put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56.8).
So, God has a plan. But can we know it? Before John shows us that we can, he shows us the great sorrow if we cannot. To that sorrow we now turn.
[i] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 249.