Who is the first horseman in Revelation 6:1-2?

OVERVIEW – This article presents a step-by-step exegesis of Revelation 6:1-2. This exegesis employs techniques that are helpful when studying biblical eschatology, especially in the book of Revelation. The article also presents an overview of the flow of the book of Revelation and introduces the idea of three phases: the “thousand years,” the 42 months*, and the Last day.

A tour through the book of Revelation can be a bewildering journey, as visions of dragons and beasts and serpents writhe in our head, and angels blow trumpets and pour out bowls of wrath. What does all this mean? And how are we to interpret all this so that it makes sense?

To help shed some light on how to understand the apocalyptic language of Revelation, I wanted to look at a sample passage and seek to interpret it so that we know what it says.

GETTING OUR BEARINGS

Before we begin looking at the details of Revelation 6:1-2, the specific verses under consideration, we must do our preparation work. We must establish where we are in redemptive history. In what “phase” are we? To answer this question, and thus to complete our “homework,” some background is needed.

BACKGROUND AND OVERVIEW OF REVELATION 4-20

The contents of Revelation chapters 4-20 speak about the events in heaven and on earth during the time-period from the ascension of Christ after His resurrection to His return on the Last Day, when He will judge the earth. Then Revelation 21-22 describes the new heavens and the new earth. While Revelation 4-20 addresses the entire time between Christ’s advents, the great majority of this section of Revelation focuses on the end of the age, a period called “the end-times,” shortly before the return of Jesus Christ from heaven.

So, earlier I mentioned “phases.” What do I mean when I say “phases?” After Jesus commissions His church (Acts 1:8; Matthew 28:19-20), He ascends to heaven. Christ’s ascension inaugurates a long phase called the “thousand years,” which is explicitly mentioned in Revelation 20:1-6. This is not a literal “thousand years” but is a figurative expression simply meaning a long period of time when the church is fulfilling its mission of proclaiming the gospel and “making disciples of all nations” as Jesus builds His church (Matthew 16:18). During this “thousand years,” the church is relatively unhindered in its task of being Jesus’ witnesses.

But history is linear and is moving toward a definite end. Jesus is certainly coming back and all the prophecies about the end of the age and about His return must be fulfilled. Therefore, at a time determined by God, the “thousand years” will end, and the final phase of history will begin. Revelation 11-13 gives three different expressions for this final phase: “time, times, and half a time,” “forty-two months,” and “1,260 days.” Since these three expressions all equal a literal forty-two months, I refer to this phase as the 42 months*. Again, this is not a literal 42 months, but is a figurative expression simply meaning a fairly short period of time. It is during the 42 months* that the prophecies about the end of the age are fulfilled and the world is made ready for Jesus’ Second Coming.

After the 42 months* are completed, the world experiences the Last Day, also known as “the Day of the Lord,” when Jesus returns, the righteous are glorified, and the unrighteous are forever condemned to the lake of fire. Thus, there are three phases in the Revelation 4-20: The “thousand years,” the 42 months*, and the Last Day.

TACKLING THE PASSAGE

Having gotten some orientation to the overall flow of Revelation, we now encounter another difficulty in interpreting portions of the book, which is determining where a specific passage is located in redemptive history. In the previous section we defined three phases, but how do we turn to Revelation 6:1-2 about a rider on a horse with a crown and a bow, and fit this passage into the right phase and how do we understand the passage’s meaning? We will tackle this step-by-step.

First, a little more context is needed. Back up to Revelation 5 and notice that chapter 5 is about the Lamb, who is the Lion from the tribe of Judah, who “has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals (5:5).” This Lamb is worthy because He “purchased with His blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (5:9).” This is obviously the victorious Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, risen from the grave and now ascended to heaven. He is worthy to break the seals.

From earlier study, we know that Jesus’ ascension to heaven inaugurates the “thousand years.” The breaking of the first seal in Revelation 6:1-2, therefore, must be at the start of the “thousand years.” As a reminder, during this phase, the church is proclaiming the gospel and “making disciples of all nations” as Jesus builds His church (Matthew 16:18).

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!” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and the one who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. – Rev. 6:1-2

 Our attention will now focus on the second verse, since it contains the information needed to interpret the meaning. The questions are, “Who is this rider? What does this rider symbolize?” In interpreting Revelation, it is crucial to find the clues that are placed in the text to aid in discovering the meaning. What do we observe in this text? We see a white horse, and its rider has a bow. He has been given a crown, and his mission is conquering and to conquer.

There are two more important clues that are not in this immediate context. The first clue is to note that, in Revelation 19:11-12, which is the climax of the entire book of Revelation, there is another Rider on a white horse, and on His head are many diadems (crowns). This is the glorious Lord Jesus Christ in His awesome Second Coming. A Rider on a white horse with many crowns. The comparison should be obvious.

The second clue is contained in the Greek word for “conquer” (from “conquering and to conquer”), which is nikao. In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, all seven churches are given a promise from Jesus Christ if they “overcome.” The Greek word for “overcome” is nikao. Yes, that is correct: “overcome” and “conquer” are the same Greek verb, nikao. This suggests that what Jesus declares to the seven churches (to overcome) is what we see happening in the first horseman (conquering and to conquer).

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER

In Revelation, white always symbolizes righteousness. This is without exception, so white is a huge clue. A white horse is, therefore, determinative in associating this rider with Jesus and His saints. We have also just pointed out that Jesus Christ will return on a white horse, crowned with many diadems (Revelation 19:11-12). This identical symbolism of the white horse confirms that the rider on the first horse (6:2) is related to Jesus and His church. These are obvious clues that cannot be ignored or dismissed.  

The rider is given a crown. It should be noted that this is the only one of the four riders (Rev. 6:1-8) who receives a crown. In Revelation, who else is given a crown? In Rev. 2:10, the church at Smyrna, representing the persecuted church, will be given the crown of life, if they remain faithful until death. In Revelation 12:1, there appears “a woman clothed with the sun,” representing the faithful saints of the Old Testament. “On her head was a crown of twelve stars.” Thus, we see that it is the faithful church that is given a crown. It is the same thing in the case of the first horseman. He represents the faithful church and receives a crown.

Notice that this horseman in Revelation 6:2 only has a single crown. “A crown was given to him.” By contrast, remember that Jesus had many diadems (Rev. 19:12). And this is as it should be. Jesus, the victorious Conqueror, is worthy of many diadems, while the faithful church, the representatives of the Conqueror, receive only a single crown.

What is the mission of this horseman on the white horse? His mission is “conquering and to conquer.” “Conquering” speaks of the ongoing, steadfast pursuit of the mission. “Conquering” conveys the idea of determination and persistence. “To conquer” declares the goal in uncompromising terms. The faithful church persistently, steadfastly continues in its mission, and the church will continue until the mission is decisively accomplished.

The rider also “had a bow.” Notice that the rider has the mission of conquering and to conquer, but his only weapon to accomplish this colossal mission is a single bow. The mission seems impossible, with too little ammunition to defeat even the weakest enemy. But although the bow appears to be weak and ineffective, it is actually “mighty before God for the pulling down of strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4).” For the bow represents the gospel, which is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).” The faithful church wields the bow of the gospel to conquer the hearts of men and women and bring them into the church.

THE MEANING OF THE FIRST HORSEMAN – SUMMARY

All the pieces have now been explained and the clues have been examined. Now we are ready to both correctly place this first horseman in redemptive history and declare what he is picturing for us. When the Lamb (Jesus) breaks the first seal, one of the four living creatures calls the church (the rider on the white horse who has been given a crown) to begin her task of proclaiming the gospel (using the bow) for the ingathering of the elect into the church (conquering and to conquer). This task of proclaiming the gospel will continue throughout the “thousand years.”

SDG                 rmb                 2/14/2021

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