I was invited to contribute an article for a popular Christian magazine about reading the Bible better. I suggest “What this verse means to me is …” can be a very poor way to start a Bible study discussion. It implies a verse can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. Rather, we should start with “What did the verse mean back then?” and then ask, “How does that meaning apply to me today?” If we do not intentionally think about their situation, we will unintentionally assume ours. This is the danger of musing about what a verse could mean instead of doing a bit of research.
In a heavenly vision, we are told:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. (Rev. 5:1-4)
Why would a scroll have seven seals? If I just wrinkle my brow and ponder why an ancient scroll might have seven seals, I could (wrongly) conclude seven seals meant “sealed really well.” Or maybe, I might spiritualize it and say that maybe seven seals meant “spiritually sealed.” Rather than just pondering, I should research it. Recently, I did that.[i] Someone hearing this story in the first century would have thought, “Seven seals? Oh, it was a will.”
In the Roman Empire, wills (as in a Last Will and Testament) were officially registered and filed at the government office. This was too expensive and official for most folks. There was another method (Gaius 2.147). A person invited the heir, the executor and (usually) five witnesses to attend. He dictated his will to a secretary. When the document was finished, it was rolled up. Each person attested that it was correct and official by wrapping a string around it, tying it, putting a drop of wax on his knot and then pressing his seal into the wax. Thus the will would have seven seals.
When it was time to make the inheritance official, the heir and the executor had to be there and a majority of the witnesses. A papyrus from A.D. 325 actually describes the opening of a will:
The executor says to the secretary: “In the presence of whom did you make out the will?”
The notary answers: “The signatories.”
The executor asks, “How many signatories are there?”
The notary answers, “Seven, and four are present.”
The executor says, “Let the four subscribe that they have recognized their own seals.”
After the signatories present had subscribed that they recognized their own seals, the will was opened and read.[ii]
Now, we understand their background (rather than reading ours into the text). Revelation 5 is about the opening of a will. We are also told that even rolled up, you could see the book was written on both sides, indicating that the entire document was full of text; it’s a will with a lot of stuff in it. The setting in the Revelation is a heavenly throne scene. The will is the Will and Testament of the Father.
John weeps because none of the seven were there to open the will. Then the Lamb steps forward. He opens all seven—that was the part we were to supposed to notice. He is the Heir and the Executor of the will. More than that, he is all five witnesses. The Will of the Father was written before anyone else was around, since there had been no one else to witness it. We see in visionary form what other Scriptures also tell us. The Father’s plan was made before creation and the Son will inherit everything.
A little research can throw a lot of light on a verse.