The seven-sealed scroll: Rev. 5:1-4

Previously — The four living creatures: Rev. 4:6-11

The scripture

Rev. 5:1 – Then I saw in the right hand of the One seated on the throne a scroll with writing on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2I also saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. 4And I cried and cried because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it (HCSB).


In the opening verses of this chapter we are introduced to a scroll, an ancient means of preserving text prior to the development of the codex, or today what we would call a book. Scrolls typically are made of papyrus or animal skins and, if handled carefully under the proper conditions, may last hundreds of years.

The scroll John sees in heaven is of great interest to all creatures for a number of reasons. First, God the Father is holding the scroll in His right hand as He sits on the throne. Second, there is writing on both sides of the scroll, indicating that it contains a great deal of information. Third, it is sealed with seven seals – normally blots of hardened wax upon which a ruler’s signet ring has created a mark, meaning only the authorized person may break the seal and open the scroll. Fourth, a mighty angel cries out for any person in heaven, on earth, or under the earth to break the seals, as long as he is worthy; no one responds. Fifth, John cries bitterly for a long time because no one is found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it, a clear indication that God is holding a document of eternal significance.

A scroll with seven seals

The scroll in God’s right hand is unusual because there is writing on both sides. Normally, the uneven texture of animal skins and papyrus makes writing on both sides difficult. Reading a two-sided scroll is challenging as well. Yet John sees writing on the “inside and on the back” (v. 1). The doubly inscribed scroll resembles a Roman will or contract deed, with the details inside and a summary on the outside, then sealed with seven seals. “The scroll John sees could symbolize a will that is to be opened and its contents executed; or it could symbolize God’s covenant with mankind, with the covenant curses that will be poured out due to mankind’s breaking of the contract,” according to the ESV Study Bible. “In a broader sense, the scroll contains God’s purposes for history, but its seven seals prevent the full disclosure and enactment of its contents.”

Several books are mentioned in Revelation. There is the book of life (Rev. 3:5; 17:8; 20:12, 15), which some believe is synonymous with the Lamb’s book of life (compare Rev. 13:8; 21:27) containing the names of the redeemed; others say the two books are separate, with the book of life recording the names of all human beings, and the lost having their names blotted out so that in the end the book of life and the Lamb’s book of life are identical. Next, there is the book of works (Rev. 20:12), in which God records the deeds of all people. But this book – this seven-sealed scroll – is distinct from all the rest.

The Greek indicates that the scroll lies in God’s open hand. He does not withhold the information contained within; He simply waits for one who is worthy to take the scroll and break its seals. No doubt this scroll has been sealed for a long time. Likely, it is the scroll referred to in Isaiah 29:11 and Daniel 12:4, sealed until “the time of the end.” The contents may be seen as the continuation of the Book of Daniel, describing from God’s perspective the judgments necessary to fulfill all that He has foretold. The opening of each seal results in judgment. This is similar to the scroll given Ezekiel: “When He (God) unrolled it before me, it was written on the front and back; [words of] lamentation, mourning, and woe were written on it” (Ezek. 2:10). But there is more to the book than judgment. There is an object, a purpose: the redemption of the forfeited inheritance.

But what, exactly, does this book mean? Commentators offer a number of suggestions. Some argue that it represents the giving to Christ the reins of sovereignty and government on earth. Others say it depicts the eternal counsels and decrees of God. Still others contend that “the time of the end” has come and the purposes of God are about to be executed on the earth. W.A. Criswell offers this view: “[I]t is my understanding that the primary, fundamental, chief reference and significance of this book has to do with the redemption of God’s created universe and everything in it. That book is a book of redemption” (Expository Sermons on Revelation, p. 56).

Criswell comments further. This is a lengthy quote but one that bears reading slowly:

“The book represents a forfeited inheritance. The inheritance is what God created for us, for Adam’s seed. We lost it in sin and transgression. A usurper took it; sin, death, hell, Satan, iniquity, judgment, wrath and the curse took away our inheritance as it is unto this day. According to the law and customs of the ancient Jewish people, the sign of a forfeited inheritance was a sealed book. The fact that it is seven-sealed emphasizes the encumbrances that are upon this inheritance. An interloper, an intruder an alien, an enemy, has taken it, and that book of redemption awaits a goel, a kinsman-redeemer, a worthy, qualified and legal kinsman to buy it back and to restore it to its rightful owners. When that book of redemption is taken by one who is worthy, and those seals are opened, then that interloper, that intruder, that alien, that enemy is to be cast out; and finally the whole purchased possession is to be redeemed, and sin, hell, death, and Satan are to be cast into the lake of fire, forever destroyed. The judgment of God creates for us a new heaven and a new earth, and gives us back the inheritance that we lost in Adam. Such is the meaning of the seven-sealed book that lies upon the hand of God. It is the symbol of a forfeited and lost inheritance” (pp. 66-67).

The seals are placed throughout the scroll so that as each seal is broken, a portion of the hidden text is revealed but the rest remains closed off. The number of seals – seven – is significant. It is the number of completeness and it combines the number often ascribed to the earth (four) with the number of the triune Godhead (three). “Thus, the seven seals, representing all power given to the Lamb; the seven trumpets, by which the world kingdoms are shaken and overthrown, and the Lamb’s kingdom ushered in; and the seven vials, by which the beast’s kingdom is destroyed” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).

Matthew Henry adds this thought about the scroll and its seven seals: “This represented the secret purposes of God about to be revealed. The designs and methods of Divine Providence, toward the church and the world, are stated, fixed, and made a matter of record. The counsels of God are altogether hidden from the eye and understanding of the creature. The several parts are not unsealed and opened at once, but after each other, till the whole mystery of God’s counsel and conduct is finished in the world. The creatures cannot open it, nor read it; the Lord only can do so” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Re 5:1–5).

The sealed book in the hand of God is a sign of the forfeiture of Adam’s inheritance. The world now belongs to someone else. But not for long. “The Lord never created Adam to die,” writes W.A. Criswell. “Death is an enemy…. God never made the earth to groan and to travail in agony and in pain, a place where the animals eat one another, where the earth is blasted with desert and with the burning of the sun and the cold of the winds. God never intended this earth to be bathed in tears and in blood. ‘An enemy hath done this,’ saith the Lord, ‘an interloper.’ The sign of that forfeiture lies in the hand of God. The Book represents the instruments, the mortgages, the bonds, of our lost inheritance. The completeness of that forfeiture and the terrible encumbrance upon it is signified by seven seals – seven of them, Adam’s race has forfeited the inheritance altogether. The breaking of those seven seals represents the restitution of the creation to God and to Adam’s fallen race” (p. 60).

One other view is worthy of mention. Robert Fullerton, in God’s Strategic Plan, writes that this scroll is in fact a “judgment lien.” As Fullerton explained to me in an email, “A judgment lien is a document issued by a court where a debtor (man) is unable to satisfy a debt (caused by our sin) and this document authorizes that the debtor’s assets (our very souls) be forfeit in judgment. A person subject to a judgment lien is subject to lawful judgment and forfeiture and is often forced to declare bankruptcy (seek protection of the court). The scene in Revelation 5 is in fact a court session being called to order by the strong angel before the Righteous Judge, in which the accused man (possibly vicariously represented by the weeping John) is subject to sentence of eternal death. John wept because he knew that man’s fate was sealed in that scroll. Then, steps forward, the only Person worthy to take the  scroll of judgment from the right hand of the Righteous Judge: the Lamb who was slain and whose righteous sacrifice paid the debt on behalf of man. According to God’s law, without the shedding of (innocent and worthy) blood, there is no remission or release of judgment for sin. Therefore only the innocent Lamb that was slain was worthy to take the judgment scroll and legally discharge it as a lien on the souls of all men. This was a critical aspect of God’s Strategic Plan.”

Next: A mighty angel (Rev. 5:2)