As I was preparing for my evangelistic meetings in Zimbabwe, I was going through all the sermons that were provided to me by Global Evangelism, making sure the notes went with the slides, checking Bible versions, and so forth. When I came to the sermon on the remnant church, I noticed that the sermon was built around Revelation 6:1-8. It interpreted the horses as representing various stages of the Christian church, but it gave no support for its interpretation.
Not having time to conduct a full study of the issue, I looked in several books and Bible study pamphlets for support for this interpretation. Nothing. I called my brother, who knows a lot more about prophecy than I do, and asked him. He didn’t know, and his books turned up nothing. I ended up preaching the sermon as it was with a disclaimer, but it bothered me to give an interpretation of the Bible without solid supporteven if the interpretation is correct.
Revelation 6:1-8 is part of a larger context. First, it is part of the seven seals. This means that the four horsemen cannot be taken completely independently of the seals. Second, it immediately follows the throne room scene of Revelation 4, 5. Chapter 5 begins by describing a scroll sealed with seven seals and the search for someone worthy to break the seals and the scroll. The second half of chapter five describes Jesus as worthy to break the seals and open the scroll.
When chapter 6 begins, the setting is the same as the previous chapter. Jesus is breaking the seals one by one, and John is describing what he sees in connection with each seal. It is plain that what he sees is symbolic. Most of the imagery in Revelation is symbolic and there is no indication that this passage is different. Furthermore, a literal interpretation does not make sense, especially when all seven seals are considered.
Bible prophecy frequently deals with sequences of events. This makes it quite possible to understand the seals as a sequence of events. Ranko Stefanovic notes that
Revelation 4-5 describes the enthronement of the resurrected Christ on the heavenly throne and the inauguration into his royal office, the event that took place at Pentecost. Thus, the opening of the seven seals begins with the inauguration and enthronement of Christ. Yet the opening of the sixth seal describes the Second Coming and the events that accompany it (6:15-17). This suggests that the scene of the opening of the seven seals covers the historical era from the ascension of Christ . . . to the Second Coming.
This gives a historical sequence to work with.
Revelation 6:2 describes the first horse and rider: “I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.” Both Stefanovic and Maxwell identify this rider with Jesus. Given the sequence of time, it most likely concerns the first century church, although Jesus’ victories will continue until the end of time, as Stefanovic observes.
The situation is somewhat more muddled in the following verses. Verse 4 says that when Jesus opened the second seal, “out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.” That this horse produces great violence is obvious. If we understand the seals as a sequence, it is easy to relate this seal to the time of persecution after the first century, when Christianity was outlawed by Rome. Although he does not connect this seal to a specific time period, Stefanovic notes that persecution is the result of following Christ.
Maxwell apparently sees this seal as referring to persecution of any kind that Christians face throughout history. While it is true that persecution can and does happen at any time, this does not seem to be the natural understanding.
The third seal is described in verses 5, 6:
When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, “Come!” I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!”
This passage describes scarcity. According to Stefanovic, a pair of scales symbolized famine in the Old Testament; the idea was eating bread by weightrationing it. However, all is not lost; olive oil and wine are untouched.
Amos 8:11 refers to spiritual faminea shortage of God’s words. Indeed, this has happened. The Bible was outlawed and people were expected to rely on religious leaders to know God’s will. But as the oil and wine were not harmed, the Holy Spirit worked through the shortage; all was not lost.
The final horse and rider is described in Revelation 6:7, 8. John describes “a horse whose color was pale green like a corpse. And Death was the name of its rider, who was followed around by the Grave. They were given authority over one-fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword and famine and disease [Greek: death] and wild animals” (verse 8, NLT). The result of spiritual famine is death. This is exactly what happened to the pre-reformation church. Corruption was rampant and churchmen were more interested in secular matters than sacred.
This paper has examined the historical sequence of the first four seals. However, the seals carry a practical applicationa secondary meaning. Stefanovic notes that the first horse depicts the spread of the gospel; the remaining three show the consequences of rejecting the gospel. “All these scenes,” he says, “are drawn from the Old Testament, and they contain the permanent truth of what happens when people reject the gospel and choose to live in sin.”
Maxwell, C. Mervyn. God Cares. Vol. 2. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 1985.
Stefanovic, Ranko. Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2002.