The Scroll (Part One) – Revelation 5:1

by Roger McCay
12 September 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 5:1
Link to Audio Version

The place of the Book of Revelation in redemptive history is a critical aspect of covenant theology. It speaks directly to how God acted at a particular point in history according to his overall plan to redeem his people, to set us free, according to his promise, with a view towards our consummated hope in Christ. Even so, while we in Reformed, Covenantal circles (like us in the PCA) are well-versed, overall, in how God’s Covenant of Grace works out in Scripture and history,[1] from what I’ve observed, we are lacking by not having a strong and consistent statement as to how and where the prophecies and events of the book of Revelation fit into God’s working out his covenant in history.

Now, I’m not specifically talking about millennial views, here. In fact, I think our understanding of the millennium should be derived mainly outside of the Book of Revelation to then find its fit in Revelation—and I say that not to diminish the millennial reign of Christ, as it certainly is in the backdrop, as Jesus reigns. And that is certainly foundational. Rather, I’m talking more towards how Revelation lays out key events in redemptive history that are critical steps in God’s Covenant of Grace. The problem with this lack of clarity, even confusion, is that how we understand Revelation impacts how we frame our hopes in Christ. Revelation should cause neither anxiety nor indifference among believers. Rather, it should relieve anxiety, encouraging and quickening us in our discipleship, as we live in anticipation of Jesus’ imminent return.

Why we are in this boat is a long story going back centuries into church history, with errors of scholarship being picked up and passed on. Those errors, along with some overly active imaginations (informed by some extremely problematic theologies) have infected the general Christian population’s understanding of what the book of Revelation actually communicates. And, in some cases, these infections distort the book’s entire meaning. On top of that, in our circles, not only has that infection filtered into our thinking, but the relative silence of Calvin and Luther on Revelation seems to have left many rudderless or even sitting at full stop in their own studies and interpretations of the book. So, there is confusion as to how the prophecies of Revelation actually fit into redemptive history (in other words, how it fits into the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation for his people across all time).

However, I think this may be changing. Maybe I’m just being optimistic here, but over the past few decades there has been some very good work towards a sound understanding of how Revelation rightfully fits in the scope of redemptive history and its role in covenant theology. Scholars and scholarly pastors are identifying and rejecting perpetuated errors, getting past the mental blocks of Calvin and Luthor, calling out the absurd fantastical theologies, and are bringing Revelation to a point that can be understood by the typical Christian in the pew. The scholarship is out there, ongoing and battling, but honing. And my hope is that our study in Revelation contributes towards these efforts, so that you (God’s people) might be better edified by the truths revealed in this magnificent portion of God’s Holy Word.

With that goal in mind, today we are looking at one verse, Rev. 5:1, for the specific purpose of highlighting the object laying upon the palm of God’s right hand—the scroll written within and upon the back, sealed with seven seals. Rev. 5:1 is a critical point in the book. From this point we can either jump the rails or we can continue along securely in our understanding. And whichever way we go from here depends on how we understand what God has in his hand.

So, bottom line up front, what is the scroll? I suggest, similar to how Kenneth Gentry has defined it, that the scroll, in the symbolic form of an official document, has specific covenantal significance, acting as “a divorce decree” [2] against apostate Judaism (God’s adulterous wife), heralding the execution of the covenant curses (God’s wrath) upon them due to their unfaithfulness. Thus, it definitively announces the end to the Old Covenant under the law, and frees up the inheritors of the Covenant of Grace (the bride of Christ) to experience the fullness of the New Covenant blessings under the gospel.

Now, that explanation does not come in a vacuum. Context is essential in defining the scroll, as it is identified not by a label but by context and the brief description given in 5:1. And, on top of that, the scroll is symbolic, so the matter is more towards grasping the realities to which it is pointing. Thus, we need to review some foundational elements (the prior context), which set the stage for this pivotal point in Revelation. And then, next week, Lord willing, we’ll look out over the journey ahead (at least from a big picture perspective—with a basic outline of events). So, today, my intent is to lay before you certain critical pieces of the puzzle, mostly from what we’ve already covered, so that you might have an overall impression of the picture that John has painted for us, with God then holding out the scroll.

Let’s consider these foundations (and I’ve honed in on five with the scroll in mind). First off, you may remember that we began our study on Revelation by examining the Olivet Discourse of Jesus, particularly from Matt. 24, but touching on Mark 13 and Luke 21. In our study, we saw how the Discourse provides a key to understanding the Book of Revelation. In the Discourse, Jesus concisely laid out what was to come—the same future that is revealed in Revelation from a later perspective. As such, there are distinct points of contact, when you look at them side by side. In effect, Revelation is essentially John’s Olivet Discourse. Thus, a framework for understanding the book of Revelation is provided in the Olivet Discourse.

In Matt. 24:4-35, Jesus broadly describes events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He sketches out events of the apostolic age after his ascension in AD 33; through the great tribulation; to be followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when he, the glorified Christ, comes in judgment, inaugurating the church age. Jesus then, in v. 36, jumps all the way to the end of history, referring to it as “that day”—his coming at the end of time, his Parousia, what is commonly called Judgment Day. Along those lines, the book of Revelation goes into more detail about the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, then jumps to the end of history, just like Jesus did in his discourse.

So, 1) Revelation is John’s Olivet Discourse.

Secondly, the date of the writing of Revelation is an absolute essential foundation to our understanding the book. If you get this wrong, your entire understanding of Revelation is thrown off from the very beginning. Knowing this, in the morning but mostly in the evening services, we examined, in detail, the evidence concerning the date of Revelation. There we saw how Revelation was written sometime in the mid-60s AD, corresponding to the timeframe of “this generation” that Jesus referred to in the Discourse in Matt. 24:34. This was during the time of Nero’s reign over Rome (evidenced in Rev. 17), while Jerusalem and the Temple were still standing (evidenced in Rev. 11). Thus, Revelation was written during the time that Nero was aggressively persecuting Christians (Rev. 1:9), prior to AD 68 when he committed suicide. It was also Nero who ordered Vespasian to take up the War with the Jews, which ultimately led to the utter destruction of the nation of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple, in AD 70. John tells us that the prophecies of Revelation (in either a realized or an imminent sense—in line with the Discourse) will take place “soon” and that “the time is near,”  in Rev. 1:1 & 3, then again in Rev. 22:6 & 10—using the time references as bookends for emphasis. John also grounds the prophecy in the historical reality of the seven churches to whom the book is addressed, in v. 4 of the epistle, to be followed by seven letters to those historic first century churches, in Rev. 2-3 (noting that it is written with meaning for Christian’s in all places and times).

So, 2) Revelation was written in the mid-60s AD.

A third critical foundation is the theme of judgment that is prevalent in Revelation, just like the Discourse. When we looked at Rev. 1:4-8, I summed up the major themes in the book, as “The Exalted Christ’s Victorious Judgment and Blessing.” We particularly honed in on Rev. 1:7, which lays down a central element of the exalted Christ’s work that would be expounded upon in Revelation—the contemporary judgment that Jesus is bringing upon those who “pierced him.” Important to our understanding, v. 7 corresponds with Matt. 24:30, of the Olivet Discourse. So, like in Matt. 24:30, the prophetic imagery in Rev. 1:7, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds” is a signal of the theme of divine judgment, referring to heavenly realities that would be felt upon the earth in Jesus’ vindication and vengeance upon Jerusalem (Isa. 19:1; Isa. 61:2; Luke 21:22).

Also, in Rev. 1:7, from a contextual and covenantal point of view, “those who pierced him” is a reference to the guilty Jews, as they utterly violated the covenant in the most horrendous way imaginable. The Lord lay the blame directly on the Jews, and the Scriptures repeatedly emphasize this condemnation, in that they were responsible for his crucifixion (e.g. Peter in Acts 2:23; Stephen in 5:30; and Paul in 1 Thess. 2:14-16, etc.). Even the Jews themselves screamed out, as they called for the Lord’s crucifixion, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matt. 27:25). Thus, like Jesus’ promise in the Olivet Discourse, when the smoke would rise from the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, all the tribes of Israel would wail and mourn (Matt. 24:30; Acts 2:19; Rev. 19:3).[3] Such would be the Jews reaction to the righteous judgment of the Christ, enthroned in heaven. Such would be their reaction to the wrath he would bring down upon them, destroying the heart of their culture and religion, ripping away their very identity as God’s people (except for a remnant of Jews, in Christ – Rom. 11:2-5), carrying out the curses of the covenant (Lev. 26). They would wail and mourn (Matt. 24:30; Rev. 1:7).

Further, in the tribulations of the seven churches in Asia, the highlighted Jewish persecution of the Christians enforces the theme of Christ’s coming in judgment on the Jewish population and their religion. The Jews’ persecutions of the Christians are particularly singled out in the letters to Smyrna (Rev. 2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9). There Jesus emphasizes that the Jews (in other words the apostate Jews who have rejected him) are no longer his people, but Satan’s people, where he states that they “say they are Jews but are not,” calling them “the synagogue of Satan.” And the letter of Philadelphia is particularly poignant concerning the consequences of the Lord’s judgment. It shows how the Lord had revoked it all from the apostate Jews: taking his name away from them, their very identity as God’s people; also taking away the status of their holy city (Jerusalem) and the status of their temple as being his temple (v. 12, consistent with Matt. 23:38)—giving it all to the inheritors of the Covenant of Grace, the elect Christians. These emphases communicate a definitive break of the Lord God from OT Judaism and the apostate Jews, preparing us for what is to come, as we continue through John’s Apocalypse.

Now, don’t think the Romans are forgotten. The Romans were the sword arm of the Jews, manipulated into crucifying Jesus, but then, in AD 70, the Romans were God’s means of bringing his wrath down upon the Jews—just like he used Assyria and Babylon before them. They are not forgotten in Revelation, as they are once again used by the Jews for persecuting Christians, but then persecuted Christians for their own reasons (things touched upon in the seven letters, and through the book). There is a reckoning, but I get ahead of myself.

So, 3) Revelation, from the point of view of circa AD 65, anticipates a coming judgment upon the apostate Jews; the carrying out of the covenant curses upon them for their apostasy, unfaithfulness, and their rejection of the Messiah; and also for the persecution of his people. The Lord’s wrath was coming down upon them soon.

And it needed to happen. Repeatedly (in Acts and the Epistles) the Jews (who rejected the Messiah), temple Judaism, and the Judaizers are shown to be a stumbling block for the apostles, the gospel, and discipleship, especially as long as the temple and Jerusalem stood (perhaps shown most explicitly in Acts with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem). Christianity (both Jew and Gentile) needed to be free of them. And what we see in history is that the anticipated judgment carried out upon them would break them. Although the apostate Jews from the diaspora would be a thorn, of sorts, in the side of Christians for many more years, throughout the empire, they had (in effect) been neutered and would diminish, their hold being broken. The Old, after a transitional period (Heb. 8:13) will have come finally to an end, making way for the fulness of the freedom of Christ under the gospel of the New Covenant and all its blessings—as the church age moved forward into the future.

A fourth foundation, in line with the judgment theme of Revelation, is the legal-judicial aspect of the covenant of marriage between God and his people, which is tied into the OT background of Revelation. Revelation is, as Gentry puts it, “the most Old Testament flavored book in the entire New Testament.”[4] These Old Testament allusions are critical for understanding the symbolism found in Revelation. Thus, as we move on in Revelation, we’ll be presented with two women, “the Harlot” and “the bride,” (starting in ch. 17, but are themes we’ve already touched upon in previous Revelation studies). “In the OT, Israel appears as God’s wife.”[5] This is a major covenantal theme, with, for example, God referring to himself as Israel’s husband in Isa. 54:5 and Jere. 31:31-32. So, when Israel is unfaithful to the Lord, the Scriptures say they are guilty of spiritual adultery—of playing the harlot (e.g. Jere. 3:9, 5:7; & Ezek. 23:37). This is a huge theme in the OT prophets, with Hosea being one of the most particularly striking cases.

Understanding this covenantal marriage relationship of God and Israel, under the Old Covenant, is crucial to understanding the why’s of the Lord’s judgment on the Jews that we find here in Revelation. Thus the throne-room presented in Rev. 4-5, (and the numerous throne references throughout the book) highlights the judicial aspect of what is going on. As Gentry explains, “We cannot miss a strong emphasis on John’s legal-judicial element.”[6] As you may remember, the penalty on the unfaithful spouse, according to the Law, was execution (Lev. 20:10). And there is a place in the law for presenting a certificate of divorce (Deut. 24:1). There is also a precedent of God’s divorcing Israel in the OT (Jere. 3:6-10). And we need to keep in mind God’s promise of covenant curses on Israel when she violated the covenant with him (e.g. Lev. 26). Hence, the introduction of the scroll in Rev. 5:1.

So, the fourth major foundation is the OT background of the marriage covenant between the Lord and his people, including its promised judicial action (the promised covenant curses) upon the unfaithful wife.

Which brings us to our fifth major foundation—covenant promises and blessings for the bride of Christ, the church, given by the bridegroom. Repeatedly, in Rev. 2-3, Christ promises blessing upon “the one who conquers” and “overcomes.” These are specific promises of hope for the elect, in Christ (faithful believers), going through tribulations—tribulations which are touched upon in the letters and elaborated on from what we know of history, in the mid-60s AD. The bridegroom would get his people through. And in Christ, promised blessings abound (as expanded upon through the whole of Scripture), blessings applicable across the whole church of the Lord. And without going into the details of the specific blessings mentioned in Rev. 2-3, note that we find glimpses of their fulfillment through the book, with explicit fulfilment in chs. 19-22. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

So, the fifth major foundation is the covenant promises and blessings for the bride of Christ given by the bridegroom.

With these five foundations singled out, we are then in a position to have some idea of the significance of the scroll laying upon God’s right hand, in Rev. 5:1:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.

What does 5:1 tell us? Well, the view presented, of God upon the throne, signifies his status as Ruler and Judge over all. The scroll laying literally “upon” God’s right hand then signifies the power and authority of the Lord to carry out his will. With the presence of the heavenly court, as is described in ch. 4, we know that court is in session. Furthermore, the scroll is sealed with seven seals (the number seven generally understood as signifying completion, or perfection, in the sense of completion).[7] The scroll also has writing on both sides of the parchment—what may be seen as a sign of the comprehensive and complete nature of the scroll’s contents. So, the scroll is perfectly sealed and comprehensively complete.

The whole context and form shows that the scroll is a legal document of some kind, and (no surprise) there are quite a few discussions as to exactly what it represents.[8] What is plain, however, is that the scroll exudes authority, inscribed with edicts of the Lord that must be carried out, once read. And there are parallels of this image in Greco-Roman art, with depictions of rulers holding scrolls to make such a point. So, it’s familiar imagery.[9]

Also, as Grant Osborne points out, behind this imagery is Ezek. 2:9-10 (our OT reading this morning). He explains, “where a scroll with words of ‘lament, mourning, and woe’ written ‘on both sides of it’ is found in the hands of God and shown to Ezekiel. The message of judgment given to Ezekiel provides the background to the scroll and the seven seals here.”[10] So, what that scroll signifies in Ezekiel, a scroll of judgment bringing “lament, mourning, and woe” upon the rebellious people of Israel (Ezek. 2:3), is a clue as to what the scroll signifies in Revelation. Indeed, step-by-step through each book, there are numerous such parallels.

But what, then, are the seals? It’s important to ask this question, for how one understands the nature and position of the seals determines how one understands Rev. 6-8. Some envision them as seals placed throughout the document, with a seal broken, then part of the scroll read, then another seal broken and another part read, etc. But that defies the context of the breaking of the seals first, in Rev. 6-8, to be followed by the judgments contained in the scroll, which we see in the trumpets, etc. that then follow after the seals are broken. Hence, Jay Adams describes the logical positioning: “Unquestionably” the seals were “spread in a row across the overlapping edge of the scroll.”[11] This is because, as he says, “All seven seals had to be broken before the roll could be opened. Therefore the breaking of the seals should not be interpreted as a progressive reading of the contents of a gradually opening book…. They are preparatory to the action which will take place once the book is opened.”[12] Indeed, as we will see, the seals are preliminaries to the judgments contained in the scroll, what Jesus called “the beginning of birth pangs” in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:8), prior to the destruction he foretold.

So, stopping for a moment in our journey through John’s Apocalypse and gathering our thoughts, both feet planted firm on the ground, we’ve taken a look behind to make sure our course is straight as we move ahead. We reviewed 1) that a key to interpretating Revelation is the Olivet Discourse; 2) the date of writing was in the mid-60s AD; 3) the theme of judgment coming upon the apostate Jews and their religion; 4) the legal-judicial aspect of the covenant of marriage between God and his people, which was broken by the Jews, invoking covenant curses; and 5) the covenant promises and blessings for the bride of Christ, the inheritors of the covenant, given by the bridegroom. Then we took a look at the scroll in light of those foundations.

With these foundations before us, I once again suggest that the scroll signifies a legal document with specific covenantal significance, acting as “a divorce decree” against apostate Judaism (God’s adulterous wife), heralding the execution of the covenant curses (God’s wrath) upon them due to their unfaithfulness. Thus, it definitively announces the end to the Old Covenant under the law and frees up the inheritors of the Covenant of Grace (the bride of Christ) to experience the fullness of the New Covenant blessings under the gospel.

My friends, a wise man once suggested that sometimes the application of a sermon is the teaching itself. Consider these teachings, ponder them, for there is great blessing in their understanding. Let these truths bolster your hope, encourage you and quicken you in your walk with Christ, in the assurance that the Lord keeps his word, his covenant, bringing wrath upon his enemies and blessings upon his people. Because the scroll marks the end of the Old Covenant,  the Bride of Christ should live in anticipation of the bridegroom’s imminent return.



[1] Cf. The Westminster Confession of Faith, VII. The confession generally defines the Covenant of Grace as consisting of two key dispensations (“testaments”) with the Old Testament (i.e. Old Covenant under the law) and the New Testament (The New Covenant under the gospel). There is also discussion as to whether the Covenant of Grace actually includes “the covenant of works” outlined in the confession, as the Covenant of Grace has its roots in the counsel of God before the creation of the world, thus before the so-called “covenant of works”—e.g. Ephesians 1:4.

[2] Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, 2nd ed. (Fountain Inn, SC: GoodBirth Ministries, 2010), 45ff. Also, Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 50.

[3] The ESV translates κόψονται in Matt. 24:30 as “mourn” and then in Rev. 1:7 as “wail”– same word and form.

[4] Gentry, Revelation Made Easy, 48.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 49.

[7] Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation: I Saw Heaven Opened, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 62–63, suggests, in a poetic way, “May it be that seven represents not the entirety of a thing, but the essence of it? Under the swirl of notes, the steady tread of a basic rhythm—‘This is the way things are’. Though the seven churches of Asia do indeed stand for the church in general, it is because they represent not so much the whole church, as the real church. And if the seven Letters show the church as it really is, the seven Seals show the world as it really is; and so with the seven Trumpets and the seven Bowls—God’s warnings as they really are, then his judgments as they really are.” What he posits makes sense, but more in an expansion of the generally understood meaning of seven’s symbolism.

[8] Some examples, derived from Osborne (Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 248-249) that Keith Mathison highlights are “(1) the Lamb’s book of life, (2) the Old Testament Torah; (3) a last will and testament; (4) a divorce bill; (5) a contract deed; and (6) a heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan” (Keith A. Mathison, From Age to Age (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 664).

[9] Cf. David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, vol. 52A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1997), 341, who gives a short study of this issue and states: “More directly relevant to this passage are the numerous reliefs from the period of the Roman empire that depict an emperor holding a scroll in his hand (Birt, Buchrolle, 68–73; Reichelt, Buch, 164–66). This scroll in the hands of various emperors apparently functions as a symbol of imperial power and authority.”

[10] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 247.

[11] Jay Adams, The Time is at Hand (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 2000), 62.

[12] Ibid.