Revelation appears to be a complex book – I say appears because the more one reads the book the more one can get the general drift of the narrative and how each part connects to the others. And although there is no universally agreed structure, there are various indicators in the text, such the occasions when John writes about being ‘in the spirit,’ that the story is moving on. But it is true that for our times some of the symbolism is complex, and perhaps some of it will never be fully understood. So how can people frightened of this complexity, and who keep Revelation at arm’s length, be helped to see the shape of the book and encouraged to engage with the text. Is there a relatively simple heuristic tool for them?
When I was younger, so much younger than today, there were slogans around to summarise the message of the book – like, ‘God Wins,’ or ‘God rules ok.’ There is more than a measure of truth in what these slogans affirm, as we can appreciate from the constant use of the themes of ‘victory’ and ‘the throne.’ But deeper engagement with the message of Revelation shows that they do not give anything like the breadth needed to sum up the message of this puzzling book. While pondering about a way to convey in relatively simple terms how to understand the book as a whole, I was reading Craig Koester’s magisterial Anchor Yale Bible commentary on 5:1, and it reminded me that the events that take place on the opening of the seals of the Scroll are not themselves the contents of the Scroll (383f). It was then that the idea came into my head that might be a solution to my problem. Whether I have come across it already elsewhere I don’t know (will keep you in touch if I find it!), but it was as if the whole structure of the book fell into place all at once. Revelation is the story of a Scroll. In fact, it is a scroll telling the story of a Scroll (see below).
Having had this alleged epiphany (rather than apocalypse!) my first question to myself was, ‘does this fit the evidence of the book?’ so I quickly scribbled down how the various movements in the book might relate to the idea of the story of the Scroll. I believe that the evidence does support the idea, although I’m not necessarily arguing that John saw his own scroll this way. It is simply a tool for getting a handle on the whole book.
The first thing we must grasp, and which comes across clearly in the ‘narrative commentaries’ of scholars such as Barr and Ressiguie, is that Revelation has an unfolding story. Whatever disputes there are about ‘editions’ and ‘compilations,’ it is the threads and themes of the narrative that drive it forward and hold it together. The book is comprehensible as a unity when we realise it is a story with various episodes. But what is it a story about? Good arguments could be made for a variety of answers, such as ‘the victory of the Slaughtered Lamb, and his Martyr Army, over the forces of evil.’ However, I believe that while that theme is a dominant one as the contents of the Scroll are delivered to us in John’s scroll, it does not give us the heuristic tool needed to encompass the whole book. How might we see the narrative episodes of Revelation using the idea of the book being the story of a Scroll?
Many interpreters of Revelation see the Throne Room scenes of chapters four and five as crux point of the book, and crucial to the ‘story of the Scroll’ idea is the significance of the βιβλίον in 5:1. Καὶ εἶδον ἐπὶ τὴν δεξιὰν τοῦ καθημένου ἐπὶ τοῦ θρόνου βιβλίον γεγραμμένον ἔσωθεν καὶ ὄπισθεν κατεσφραγισμένον σφραγῖσιν ἑπτά. ‘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 (NIV).’
What is this Scroll? It is held in the right hand of the one who sits on the throne, so ‘it presumably expresses the will of the God who holds it (Koester 383).’ Its seven seals underscore ‘the gravity of the contents (Koester 383).’ Whoever opens and reads this Scroll must be a worthy ambassador of the one who sits on the throne. As yet we have no clue of its contents but there is no doubting its importance.
We are prepared for its appearance from the very beginning of the book. An ‘apocalypse’ is on its way from God via several intermediaries, and while the word could apply to the whole book, I would argue that the narrative suggests the term might be equally, or more, applicable to the Scroll of 5:1. However, there is a prior scroll referred to in 1:11, and that is the scroll John is instructed to write, sending it to the seven churches of Asia. So Revelation is John’s scroll telling the story of the Scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne.
The seven churches are prepared in advance for the contents of God’s Scroll by the fact that John’s scroll (within which God’s Scroll is contained) is authorised and instructed by the Risen Christ. The various messages of salvation and judgment are prior echoes of God’s Scroll and show that they are required to respond to its contents.
The following Throne Room scene has, literally, brilliant descriptions of the worship of heaven to the one sitting on the throne and to the slaughtered lamb (creation and redemption), showing how foundational gatherings for worship are to the ecclesial experience of the seven (and all) churches. But the main narrative driver in this scene is the appearance of the Scroll and the worthiness of the lamb to unseal it. From now on, the narrative of John’s scroll is dominated by preparation for seeing the contents of God’s Scroll (its unsealing), conveying its contents and responding to them.
Whether it is argued that the content of God’s Scroll is relayed to us from the beginning of the unsealing (6:1), or (around 10:9) when John is give the ‘little scroll,’ – or ‘Scroll,’ in our terms – will not matter much to our thesis. Either can be encompassed in a ‘story of the Scroll’ metanarrative. What is significant for us is that the scroll/Scroll theme appears yet again at the end of the book, when the contents of God’s Scroll have been told. In the space of a few verses ‘scroll/Scroll’ is used seven times (22:7, 9, 10, 18 twice, 19 twice). John is instructed not to seal up the prophetic words of this scroll, and a positive response to its words is urged. I believe it could be argued that the uses of τοῦ βιβλίου τούτου (‘of this scroll’) here could be bringing to a close the contents of God’s Scroll rather than John’s. But again, it may matter little to our thesis. It is clear that the story of both is coming to a close.
To sum up, at the beginning of Revelation, John is instructed to write in a scroll (1:11) and circulate it to the seven churches. That scroll contains preparation for and the introduction of God’s Scroll (5:1), tells its story (from 6:1 or c10:1) of witness, suffering and new creation, and draws the story to a close by emphasising the importance of this scroll/Scroll (22:7ff) for communicating the prophetic message John is passing on, obeying it and not adding to or subtracting from it.
It seems to me, therefore, that the idea of Revelation as ‘the story of a Scroll’ could be a helpful heuristic tool to help people understand how the book fits together.