John’s response to the double-sided, seven-sealed scroll is curious. We might have expected him to dance with joy at the fact that God has an exhaustive plan for the ages, that the events of history and our lives find a place and meaning within that plan. But he does not. He weeps instead. Why? Read his answer for yourself (Rev. 5:2-4):
And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
An unrevealed and therefore unknown plan is a cause for mourning. As Solomon put it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29.18, KJV). We die for lack of meaning, for the inability to see the purpose of our suffering.
Some time ago, I taught a Bible study on Hebrews 2.5–18, which addresses the paradox of Christ’s Lordship. Verses 8–9 are key: “Now in putting everything in subjection to Jesus, God left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Christ’s lordship is paradoxical because it is actual (“God left nothing outside Jesus’ control”) but not apparent (“we do not yet see everything in subjection to him”).
After the Bible study, I had the opportunity to speak with a spiritual seeker. We talked about how the Hebrews’ passage helps Christians face the problem of evil with a realistic optimism. (The problem of evil is the difficulty of understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God allows his creatures to suffer.) Christians are realistic because we frankly acknowledge that evil happens, just as it happened to Christ. But we are fundamentally optimistic because we know that resurrection, the end-times’ righting of wrongs, and eternal life also happen—just as they happened to Christ.
In his vision of the heavenly throne room, John sees the power of God. And he sees the reality of evil. (After all, he is looking through heaven’s door from exile on Patmos.) What he does not see is Jesus. So he weeps.
Without Jesus, John is trying to tell us, the problem of evil is unsolvable. Christ is the interpretive key to that mystery. He is the one worthy to “open the scroll and break its seals,” so that we can read the place of our pain in God’s plan for the ages. Specifically, it is on Christ’s cross that heaven and earth intersect, that the vertex of God power plunges through the horizon of human sorrow, acknowledging its reality but overcoming it with resurrection.
But John sees none of this, at least not yet. Until we understand his sorrow, we cannot understand the comfort the gospel provides.