In Revelation 5, there is a book in heaven that is sealed up with seven seals and NONE of the beings in heaven is able to open it (Rev 5:1, 3). The book is the book of life, identifying the people God elected to eternal life. The crisis symbolized by the sealed book is another representation of the war in heaven (Rev 12:7-17). Since Satan’s role in that war is to accuse the people God elected to eternal life (Rev 12:10), the seven seals with which the book is sealed up are Satan’s accusations against God’s people. His brilliant accusations have created a cloud of doubt over God’s judgments and nobody is able to refute Satan fully.
But then, Jesus Christ “has overcome” so as to open the book and break its seals (Rev 5:5-6). He has overcome sin. He came to this world to be tested, and Satan tested Him to the maximum severity with every possible temptation, but Jesus never sinned. The hours of His death were His most severe temptation, but He never used His powers contrary to God’s will. Like a lamb lead to the slaughter, He allowed evil men to nail Him to the Cross BECAUSE HE KNEW THAT THAT WAS THE WILL OF HIS FATHER. See – In the book of Revelation, why did Jesus have to die?
Jesus takes the scroll from the right side of the One sitting on the throne to break the seven seals and open the scroll (Rev 5:7). Since He appears here as a slain lamb (Rev 5:6) and for other reasons, He took the book after He ascended to heaven. This brought great joy to the beings in heaven, as described in the rest of Revelation 5 (cf. Rev 5:9).
To break the seals means to provide evidence to refute Satan’s accusations. (See – Why has Christ not yet returned? What is God waiting for?) In chapter six, the Lamb breaks the seals one by one in heaven, causing catastrophic events to unfold on earth. The purpose of this article is to discuss the meaning of the first seal.
“When the Lamb broke one of the seven seals …
and behold, a white horse,
and he who sat on it had a bow;
and a crown was given to him,
and he went out conquering and to conquer”
In the preterist interpretation of critical scholars, the first seal describes the Parthians, a first-century enemy of the Roman Empire, who rode on white horses. However, the seals symbolize spiritual realities; not literal things such as horses. Furthermore, this horse “went out conquering and to conquer.” This implies that it will never stop conquering. Therefore, it symbolizes events leading up to the second coming. It cannot be limited to the beginning of the church age, as the Parthian interpretation does.
For the following reasons, the white horse symbolizes the gospel:
1) The color of the horse is white and, in Revelation, the color white always refers to the things of Christ (e.g., Rev 1:14; 2:17; 3:4-5; 6:11).
2) This rider receives a crown. A diadem crown symbolizes a ruler’s authority (e.g., Rev 19:12) but this rider receives a stephanos crown, which is always associated with Christ and His people (e.g., Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 12:1).
3) This horse and rider “went out conquering and to conquer.” In the seals, the Greek words for conquering, which are also translated as “overcome,” refer to Christ and his people (Rev 3:21 and 5:5).
4) Furthermore, in the Greek, “conquering and in order that he might conquer” is the most continuous expression possible, meaning that the white horse will never stop conquering. Such an expression fits the gospel because God’s people will suffer but never stop testifying (cf. Rev 2:10; 12:11).
5) In the Synoptic Apocalypse, (Matt 24) Jesus predicted that the church age would be a period of (a) gospel preaching, (b) war, (c) famine, (d) pestilence, and (e) persecution of His people. We see the same things in the seals, implying that the seals also describe the church age. But if the rider on the white horse is not the gospel, then the gospel would be missing in the seals.
6) The other rider on a white horse in Revelation is explicitly Jesus Christ (Rev 19:12).
In the view of probably most interpreters today, the rider on the white horse is a counterfeit of Christ; mostly because all the other horses bring plagues. However, the arguments above show sufficiently that this rider symbolizes the gospel. Furthermore:
1) When something is a counterfeit, Revelation does not leave us in doubt (cf. Rev 13:11) and there is no direct indication in the text that the rider of the white horse is evil or causes affliction.
2) The white horse will continue conquering until everything is conquered but the Antichrist will be utterly defeated when it is destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev 19:20).
The white horse represents the proclamation of the gospel, beginning with the enthronement of Christ in heaven (Revelation 5) and until He returns. That implies that the next three horsemen portray the consequences of gospel preaching.
– End of Summary –
6:1 Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals,
and I heard one of the four living creatures saying
as with a voice of thunder, “Come.”
2 I looked, and behold, a white horse,
and he who sat on it had a bow;
and a crown was given to him,
and he went out conquering and to conquer.
Verse 1 begins with the phrase “then I saw.” This phrase tends to introduce major sections of the book of Revelation (Rev 5:1; 7:1, 9; 10:1; 15:1). The next four seals (Rev 6:3, 5, 7, 9) drop the phrase “I saw” and simply open with “and when.” The sixth seal returns to the wording of verse one, “and I saw when” (Rev 6:12). This implies that the first four seals form a unit and that the fifth brings a new emphasis.
That “the Lamb broke one of the seven seals” indicates that Jesus Christ directs these events. It is one of the four living creatures who gives the command to the rider on the white horse because the living creatures are now being directed by Jesus.
In each of the first four seals, one of the living creatures gives the command. Perhaps the first four seals present the living creatures in the same order as in Revelation 4:7. Then the living creature in the first seal would look like a lion and “a voice of thunder” would be appropriate.
Over Christian history, the first horse has been interpreted in the following three main ways:
- The Parthian military conquests of the first century;
- The Gospel, and
- The Antichrist.
In the preterist interpretation of critical scholarship, Revelation does not predict events in the far future. Revelation 6, in preterist thinking, is a fairly literal description of military conquests during the first century of the Christian era. Specifically, the white horse is understood as an ancient threat to the Roman Empire by the Parthians (who lived in ancient Persia, today’s Iran), who rode white horses.
However, the text of Revelation suggests that such a reading is not appropriate:
One reason is that the seals are not limited to the first century but portray events leading all the way up to the second coming (cf. Rev 6:12-14 – see The Sixth Seal).
Another reason is that, for the following reasons, the seals should be taken symbolically:
1) Revelation 1:1 uses the word “signified” to describe the visions that John saw, as recorded in the Book of Revelation. “signified” means symbolic and means that Revelation is a symbolic book. In Scripture, generally, it is advisable to take what you read literally unless it is clear that symbolism is intended. But if we take Revelation 1:1 seriously, the opposite stance is advisable in Revelation: Take everything you read symbolically unless it becomes absolutely clear that a literal reading is required.
2) Nobody takes the horses themselves as literal. So, why should we take other aspects of the vision literally?
3) Revelation 4 and 5 are symbolic. For example, no one has ever suggested that “Lion” and “Lamb” (Rev 5:5-6) should be taken literally. These images symbolize different roles Jesus performs. If these chapters, which set the scene for Revelation 6, are symbolic, why would the events associated with the seals be literal?
4) As will be shown, Revelation 6 makes coherent sense if read symbolically. The images in this chapter depict the realities of the Christian age.
For these reasons, the Parthian view should not be accepted.
A second main way to interpret the white horse is to see its rider as Christ and the white horse as representing the preaching of the gospel. This is the position that this commentary takes and is motivated below.
The third main way in which the white horse is interpreted is as the Antichrist appearing as an angel of light; a counterfeit of Christ or of the gospel. This view is based on considerations such as the following :
- Since the other horses all bring disasters, the military conquest mentioned in the first seal should also be understood as bringing disaster.
- In the Old Testament, the bow can be used as a symbol of enemy nations, such as Gog and Babylon.
- In Revelation, there are beasts that “conquer” God’s people (Rev 11 & 13), using the same word for conquest as the first seal.
- Counterfeit is a regular theme in the book of Revelation.
Christ or the Antichrist?
The text gives us four characteristics to determine whether this horse represents Christ or the Antichrist:
- The horse is white,
- The rider had a bow.
- He receives a crown, and
- He went out conquering and to conquer (Rev 6:2).
For the following reasons, the white horse does not represent the Antichrist but represents Christ and the gospel:
1) White represents God’s people.
Firstly, the color of the horse is white, and white in the book of Revelation always refers to the things of Christ and His people; never to things that are evil. This observation is without exception in the book. For example:
- Christ’s hair is white (Rev 1:14).
- Overcomers in Pergamum receive a white stone (Rev 2:17).
- The redeemed of Sardis and the souls under the altar receive white robes (Rev 3:4-5; 6:11).
2) The Bow
Secondly, the rider has a bow. The symbol of the bow is a bit more uncertain. The bow can be used in the Old Testament as a tool of enemy powers like Gog or Babylon (Psa 11:2; 37:14; Jer 6:22-23). But the bow is also used as a weapon of God (Psa 7:12-13; Isa 41:1-4; Hab 3:9; Zech 9:13-14). So, the bow by itself is not decisive for deciding whether the rider on the white horse represents Christ or Antichrist.
3) The Rider has a Victory Crown.
Thirdly, the rider receives a crown. The underlying Greek word is stephanos. The name Stephen comes from this word. One instance of the ancient stephanos was the laurel wreath placed on the heads of “gold medal winners” in the ancient Olympic Games.
In contrast, the “crown” that Jesus wears in Revelation 19:12 is translated from the Greek word diadma — from which we get the English word “diadem.” A diadem is a royal crown; the symbol of a ruler’s authority.
In the New Testament and in the Book of Revelation, the stephanos crown is ALWAYS associated with Christ and His people (e.g., Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Tim 4:8; Rev 12:1). The only possible exception is in the fifth trumpet (Rev 9:7). Some regard the agent in this trumpet to be an evil power. But, in this commentary, the agent in the trumpets is the two witnesses, who “strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire” (Rev 11:6). In other words, even in Revelation 9:7, the stephanos is used for Christ and His people.
4) The white horse never stops conquering.
The rider on the white horse is described as “conquering and in order that he might conquer.” In the seals, the words for conquering always refer to Christ and his people (Rev 3:21 and 5:5). (In the Greek, the same word appears in the following three texts but it is translated variously:
- Jesus “overcame” and His people “overcome” (Rev 3:21).
- Jesus “has overcome” (Rev 5:5).
- The rider on the white horse “conquers” (Rev 6:2).)
Furthermore, in the Greek, “conquering and in order that he might conquer” is the most continuous expression possible. The rider on the white horse goes out conquering and will continue to conquer until there is absolutely nothing left to conquer. Consequently:
- Firstly, this horse cannot be limited to the first century.
- Secondly, such an expression is also inappropriate to the Antichrist, who is utterly defeated when it is destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev 19:20).
- Thirdly, it fits the gospel because, in Revelation, God’s people will suffer but never stop (cf. Rev 12:11; 2:10).
5) The Synoptic Apocalypse includes the gospel.
In Matthew 24, Jesus describes the conditions from the cross to His second coming, including:
- the gospel,
- persecution, and
- heavenly signs.
We see the same things in the seals. The similarity implies that the seals also describe the church age, but if the rider on the white horse is the Antichrist, then the gospel is missing in the seals.
6) No Affliction
The riders of the other horses produce affliction in the world: They take peace away from the earth, cause people to slay one another (second seal); produce famine, suffering (third seal), disease, and death (fourth seal). Since the rider of the first horse produces no affliction, it must be something very different.
7) Revelation is clear when something is a counterfeit.
Counterfeiting is indeed a major theme in the book of Revelation: The forces of evil use deception (Rev 12:9). However, counterfeits are always exposed to the reader. For example, the beast from the earth has two horns like a Lamb but speaks like a dragon (Rev 13:11). Here Revelation tells us that this beast has a Christian face but is a deception.
Since there is no direct indication in the text of the first seal that the rider of the white horse is evil, we need to accept that the color white, the stephanos crown, and its never-ending conquering identify it as the gospel.
8) The white horse of Revelation 19 symbolizes Christ.
There is another rider on a white horse in the book of Revelation and that is explicitly Jesus Christ (Rev 19:12). The differences between the two riders of the white horses in Revelation 6 and 19, for example, their crowns, are due to the context: In Revelation 6, we see the Rider on the white horse at the beginning of the church age; Revelation 19 shows Him at the end of that journey.
9) Habakkuk 3:8-9
Hab 3:8-9 is very similar to the first seal. Both texts concern horses, victory, and the rider employing a bow. The rider in Habakkuk is Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament; not an evil power.
The rider on the white horse represents the proclamation of the gospel, beginning with the enthronement of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary (see Revelation 5) and continuing on until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The gospel must go out to the whole world as a witness to all nations before the end comes (Matt 24:14).
Understood in this way, the other three horsemen do not portray obscure apocalyptic disasters. Instead, they symbolize the consequences of the preaching of the gospel.
But the seals also show that the conquest would not be easy or quick. As seals two through four show, the conquest would be through suffering. Visions of war, famine, pestilence, and death would fill the intervening years. The vision of Revelation was preparing God’s people to endure in the face of hardship, knowing that victory, in the end, was assured.