The white horse of the first seal symbolizes the gospel.

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.

In Revelation 5, the Lamb takes the scroll from the right side of the One sitting on the throne with the purpose of breaking the seven seals and opening the scroll. This brought great joy to the universe. In chapter six, the Lamb breaks the seals on by one in heaven, causing catastrophic events to unfold on earth.

SUMMARY

PARTHIANS

In the preterist view, 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 literal horses. The seals must be interpreted symbolically, as shown below. Furthermore, this horse “went out conquering and to conquer,” which implies it will never stop conquering and portrays events leading all the way up to the second coming. It cannot be limited to the beginning of the church age, as the Parthian interpretation does.

GOSPEL

For the following reasons, this article proposes that the white horse represents the gospel:

    • in Revelation, the color white always refers to the things of Christ.
    • A diadma crown symbolizes a ruler’s authority but this rider receives a stephanos crown, which is always used for Christ and His people.
    • The rider on the white horse “went out conquering and to conquer.” In the seals, the words for conquering (also translated as “overcome,”) refer to Christ and his people (Rev 3:21 and 5:5).
    • In the Synoptic Apocalypse, (Matt 24), Jesus predicted that the church age will be a period of gospel preaching, war, famine, pestilence, and persecution of His people. We see the same things in the seals, but if the rider on the white horse is not the gospel, then the gospel would be absent in the seals.
    • The other rider on a white horse in the book of Revelation is explicitly Jesus Christ (Rev 19:12).

ANTICHRIST

In the view of probably most interpreters, the rider on the white horse is a counterfeit of Christ. The primary motivation for this interpretation is that all the other horses bring plagues. However, for the following reasons, this view is not supported:

    • 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.
    • The white horse will continue conquering until everything is conquered but the Antichrist will be destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev 19:20).

CONCLUSION

The white horse represents the proclamation of the gospel, beginning with the enthronement of Christ in heaven (Rev 5) and until He returns. That implies that the next three horsemen portray the consequences of gospel preaching.

– END OF SUMMARY –

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 word “I saw” and simply open with “and when.” The sixth seal (Rev 6:12) returns to the wording of verse one, “and I saw when.” This indicates that the first four seals form a unit and the fifth brings a new emphasis.

A VOICE LIKE THUNDER

The four living creatures have different faces: lion, ox (calf), man, and eagle (Rev 4:7). If the first four seals present the living creatures in the same order as in Revelation 4:7, then the first living creature has a face like a lion and a lion would produce a voice like thunder.

COME

The first living creature addresses the rider on the white horse. In response, the white horse goes out.

Since it is the four living creatures that issue these commands, the events unleashed by each horse follow on from prior decisions taken in heavenly places.

A WHITE HORSE

The first living creature calls out the white horse. The rider carries a bow, has a crown on his head, and rides out as a conqueror. There are three main ways that the horsemen have been interpreted throughout Christian history:

      • The Parthian military conquests during the first century;
      • Christ, and
      • The Anti-Christ.

THE WHITE HORSE DOES NOT SYMBOLIZE THE PARTHIANS.

In the preterist view, the book of 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. More specifically, the white horse is understood as a 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, for the seals are not limited to the first century but portray events leading all the way up to the second coming (sixth seal). Furthermore, for the following reasons, the seals should be taken symbolically:

      • First of all, the vision that John saw was “signified” by Jesus (Rev 1:1). This means symbolic. It means that the book of 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 Rev 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.
      • Secondly, I am not aware of a single commentator who takes the horses themselves as literal. So if the horses are not to be taken literally, why should we take other aspects of the vision literally?
      • Thirdly, Revelation 4 and 5 are also symbolic. No one has ever suggested that “Lion” and “Lamb” should somehow be taken literally. These are images that symbolize Jesus’ different roles. If these chapters, which set the scene for Revelation 6, are symbolic, why would the events associated with the seals be literal?
      • Fourthly, as will be shown, Revelation 6 makes coherent sense if read symbolically. The images in this chapter depict the realities of the Christian age. Matthew 24 also describes this period, but more literally.
      • Fifthly, as will be shown, the souls under the altar are symbolic (Rev 6:9-11). They only become alive after Christ’s returns (Rev 20:4). They are similar to Abel’s blood that cried out in a figurative sense for justice (Gen 4:7). In light of the Abel story, the souls under the altar should be taken to mean that God is aware of the suffering of His people and has the intention of doing something about it.

For these reasons, the preterist approach is not the most faithful to the evidence of the text.

CHRIST

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 which this commentary takes and will be motivated below.

ANTICHRIST

The third main way to interpret the white horse is as the antichrist appearing as an angel of light; a counterfeit of Christ or the gospel. This view is based on the following considerations:

      • Since the other horses all bring disasters, the military conquest mentioned in the first seal is also to 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 (Revelation 11 & 13), using the same word for conquest as the first seal.
      • Counterfeit is a regular theme in the book of Revelation.

Below, I list the evidence that the white horse does not represent the Antichrist, but in fact, does represent Christ and the gospel:

WHITE REPRESENTS GOD’S PEOPLE.

First of all, the color of the horse is white. The color white in the book of Revelation always refers to the things of Christ and His people and 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).

BOW

The symbol of the bow is a bit more ambivalent. 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 can also be used as a weapon of God (Psa 7:12-13; Isa 41:1-4; Hab 3:9; Zech 9:13-14). So the holding of the bow by itself is not decisive for deciding whether the rider on the white horse represents Christ or Antichrist.

GOD’S PEOPLE HAVE VICTORY CROWNS.

The rider receives a crown. The underlying Greek word is stephanos. The name Stephen comes from this word. This is in contrast to the word for “crown” in Revelation 19:12 (Greek: diadma—from which we get the English word “diadem”), which refers to the royal crown; the symbol of a ruler’s authority. One manifestation of the ancient stephanos was the laurel wreath placed on the heads of Olympic victors in New Testament times.

In the New Testament and the Book of Revelation, the word stephanos is always used in relation to Christ and His people (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 are the two witnesses, who “strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire” (Rev 11:6). In other words, even in Rev 9:7, the stephanos is used for Christ and His people.

THE WHITE HORSE WILL NEVER STOP CONQUERING.

The rider on the white horse is “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 Greek, the same word appears in the following three texts but it is translated differently:

      • Jesus “overcame” and His people “overcome” (Rev 3:21).
      • Jesus “has overcome” (Rev 5:5).
      •  The rider on the white horse “conquer” (Rev 6:2).

These terms, therefore, express the victory of Christ and of His people.

Furthermore, in 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 conquering until there is absolutely nothing left to conquer. It is an on-going process that never ends until the victory is complete. This process is certainly not limited to the first century. Such an expression is inappropriate to the Antichrist, who is utterly defeated when it is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 19:20).

THE SYNOPTIC APOCALYPSE INCLUDES THE GOSPEL.

In Matthew 24, Jesus mentions a series of events taking place from the cross to His second coming: gospel, war, famine, pestilence, persecution, and heavenly signs. We see the same things in the seals, but if the rider on the white horse is negative, then the gospel would be absent in the seals.

NO AFFLICTION

The rider of the first horse produces no affliction in the world but the riders of the other horses do: They take peace away from the earth and cause people to slay one another (second seal); they produce famine and suffering (third seal), and they produce disease and death (fourth seal).

REVELATION IS CLEAR WHEN SOMETHING IS A COUNTERFEIT.

Counterfeit is a major theme in the book of Revelation: The forces of evil use deception (Rev 12:9). However, the 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). The dragon is Satan (Rev 12:9). Here Revelation tells us that this beast has a Christian face but is a deception. And there is no direct indication in the text of the first seal that the rider of the white horse is evil.

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 riders of the white horses in Revelation 6 and 19 are due to the context. In Revelation 6, Jesus has conquered at the cross but must go on conquering during the entire Church age. Revelation 19 describes Jesus in the context of His return. 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.

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. But the rider in Habakkuk is Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.

CONCLUSION

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 became evident with seals two through four, the conquest would be long and hard. Visions of war, famine, pestilence, and death would fill the intervening years. The vision of Revelation was preparing them to endure in the face of hardship, knowing that victory, in the end, was assured.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

For further reading on Revelation, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

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