John was called to heaven in order to see “what must take place,” a reference to the events of history (Rev. 4:1). However, thus far in his vision, John has seen only the heavenly throne room and the worship that takes place therein (vv. 2–11). It is time for John to see the truth about human history, but as today’s passage indicates, a problem must first be overcome.
In Revelation 5:1, we read that in the right hand of God is a scroll, written on the front and back and sealed with seven seals. Here again, the prophet Ezekiel gives us some background. The Lord gave a scroll to Ezekiel with the oracles that he was to proclaim. Ezekiel’s scroll, unlike the one that John sees, was unrolled, and it was given to Ezekiel to eat, symbolizing the fact that Ezekiel was to receive the scroll into his very being and preach its contents (Ezek. 2–3). The contents of the scroll that John sees are yet to be disclosed.
For the scroll in John’s vision to be opened, its seals must be broken, so a search begins to find one who is worthy to break the seals and reveal the writing on the scroll (Rev. 5:2). In the ancient world, messages were commonly written on scrolls that were then rolled up and tied with a string. Dollops of hot wax were then put on the string, and the sender of a message and witnesses would press their signets into the wax, creating impressions that authenticated the message and proved that it was from the one who was identified as its author. One could unroll the scroll and read it only if the seals were broken, but not just anyone could break the seal. Only the addressee had the authority to break the seal. Anyone else who did so typically intended to tamper with the message.
Initially, the search for one with authority to open the heavenly scroll finds no one. Not even the glorious creatures have the right to break the seals and unroll the scroll (vv. 2–3). John begins to weep over the problem, and it is a significant problem, for a scroll from God must have an important message indeed (v. 4). John’s weeping does not last long, for thankfully, there is One who has the authority to open the scroll, read it, and carry out its message. “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (v. 5). Of course, this individual is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David of Judah. He has clear divine authority, for He can break the seals and bring God’s will to pass. He alone is worthy to open the scroll.