The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8)
In his book, The Great Awakening, Joseph Tracy highlights the context of New England in early eighteenth century. Unbelievers were allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper as long as they had been baptized. There was little to no regard for theological and moral examination. Eventually, even the pulpits were filled with unconverted men.
When Jonathan Edwards began preaching a series on “Justification By Faith,” he attacked the notion that any could escape the judgment of God by their works. He proclaimed the holiness of God and the rules of justice that demands the punishment of sin. He writes,
It was then a dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon was, to escape for their lives, and to fly from the wrath to come.
That is one reason God inspired Revelation. It describes the terrifying wrath of God in such vivid detail that we will do whatever we can to ensure our ultimate safety, even if that means we won’t escape it’s effects entirely.
The first section of Revelation focused upon the letters to the seven churches, but it opened up with a glorious vision of the son of man dressed for judgment. The two-edged sword extending from his mouth revealed his readiness to execute any opposition. His letters encouraged the Universal Church to persevere through tribulation in every age and warned them to repent.
Section two focuses upon seven seals. But, just as the first section began with a glorious vision of the son of man, the second section opened with a glorious vision of the heavenly throne room in chapters four and five. We considered the worthiness of God as Creator and Jesus as Redeemer. As the Lamb took the scroll from him who was seated on the throne, the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, the myriads upon myriads of angels, and eventually all of creation joined in a chorus of praise.
We need to keep that context in mind. Jesus has just received authority upon his ascension to the throne of his Father (cf. Dan. 7), and now we find him opening up the seven seals. Rather than these seals representing the beginning of a future tribulation, they actually reveal a tribulation that began upon his ascension and marks this entire church age.
The tribulation that is revealed in the seven seals has an impact upon the whole world. The Church does not escape the effects of these judgments, but she is preserved through them by her sovereign Lord. So even here, we must remember who is seated at the center of the heavenly throne and who is opening these seals.
This morning we will look at the first four seals of judgment, united by the image of a horse with a rider. In a few weeks we will see the next few seals. Then, before John witnesses the Lamb opening the seventh and final seal (8:1), he describes the sealing of the saints for salvation and protection in chapter 7.
Resseguie As the seals are unsealed, the saints are sealed.
While these saints gather before the throne and before the Lamb (7:9) John asks one of the elders about their identity. The elder replies, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).
In other words, while Jesus is bringing judgment upon the world, he is sanctifying and sealing a people for himself. In the midst of tribulation, Christ is building his Church. And nothing, including the devil himself, can prevail against his sovereign will. Christ sovereignly uses tribulation to both sanctify his people and execute judgment upon his enemies.
Read Rev. 6:1-8
THE FIRST SEAL: CONQUEST (1-2)
In Zechariah, God sends four groups of almost identical colored horses to “patrol the earth” (1:8-15; 6:1-8). They are sent to judge the nations who treated Israel harshly. Likewise, in Rev. 6:1-8 God is sending these judgments upon the enemies of his people.
Who is this first rider? In 19:11-16, Jesus returns in judgment, riding upon a white horse, and wearing many crowns. Many scholars have argued that the rider of this first horse must also be Jesus. They argue that the description of victory is fitting for Christ who is often referred to as conquering his enemies. He is found with a sharp sickle, wearing a crown, and sitting upon a white cloud in 14:14. “White” appears 14 times in Revelation, positively describing the holiness of God, Christ, or the saints.
However, the beast is also said to “conquer” the saints (11:7; 13:7). The background of Zechariah groups the purpose of these four horses together. The formula for each seal is same, pointing to their shared purpose. None of them are portrayed as having a positive purpose in Zechariah.
Part of how Satan deceives is by imitating Christ (Rev. 12-13). Thus, wearing white and a crown would mislead many. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray the deceptive purposes of Satan during the last days. He will send many “false Christs and false prophets” into the world.
Resseguie The similarities are to be expected, for the first horseman is a demonic parody of Christ, evil masquerading as good.
The four seals should be taken as a unit that depicts various kinds of satanic judgment, yet remains under the authority of Christ. In this case, that judgment is through human conquest or victory. And it is achieved through the deceitful schemes of the Devil. This seal depicts a powerful army (signified by the bow) achieving remarkable victories (signified by the crown).
This first seal is fulfilled by the many conquering armies throughout history since Christ’s ascension. It is fulfilled by the Roman army in the first century, the Vikings during the Dark Ages, the Mongol Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries, etc. We continue to see nations conquering and being conquered today.
The cycle of conquest is on repeat until Christ returns. There is not one single conquerer who fully satisfies this seal. It has multiple manifestations throughout the present age.
Conquering world powers are ultimately under the sovereign reign of Christ. He uses them to bring divine judgment, as well as the purification of his people. As we see this happening, our knowledge of God’s divine will should motivate our perseverance in the face of persecution.
The first seal of conquest is followed by…
THE SECOND SEAL: WAR (3-4)
All four of these horses bring a judgment that is related to war. This second seal is certainly related to conquest, but focused specifically on bloodshed. And yet there is also a connection to persecution that we will explore in a bit. This warfare is physical and spiritual. Once again, there is demonic motivation involved. And yet, as we’ve already noted, it is the Lamb who remains in control of opening the seal.
There have been, are, and will continue to be “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). Wars will define each generation until Christ returns to wage the war that will end all wars. Every war is a partial fulfillment of this seal until the final battle ensues upon the return of Christ.
Johnson Conquest leads to bloodshed in battle. Both serve the will of the Lamb.
“Slay” (4) appears again in the past tense (9). John always uses this term in reference to either the death of Christ or Christians. If verses 4 and 9 are linked to persecution, this favors the idea that the whole passage is related to that theme.
Its use here indicates that those killed during this time will certainly include saints who have suffered to the point of death. They are willing to sacrifice their physical lives to gain eternal life.
THE THIRD SEAL: FAMINE (5-6)
An entire day’s wage could only purchase a day’s portion of food. A man could only make enough money to feed himself on wheat, or a family of three on barley. There was no money left over for other necessities. Each member of the family would be forced to work and share their earnings to merely survive. The prices are inflated 8-16 times. Imagine paying $25 or more for a loaf of Wonder Bread or a box of crackers.
But the prices do not effect the oil and wine. These were also considered basic necessities (Deut. 11:14). The fact that they are spared points to the partial impact of the famine. Famines will continue to occur, but they will never be full or final. Even when our most basic food groups are depleted, God ensures that other forms of sustenance remain available. The scope of the devastation is limited.
In its relation to the previous horses, we can see that famines are often associated with war because the conquering armies would deplete everything in their path. And it’s not hard to imagine how Christians have often been the first to suffer economic persecution from opposition to the Church. That is precisely the idea behind the mark of the beast (13:16-17). Christians who don’t receive the mark of the beast are unable to shop.
We have already seen one early example of this seal’s fulfillment in the letters to the seven churches, especially the persecuted church in Smyrna, who was impoverished because of their faithfulness to Christ (2:9). As Christians refused to participate in the pagan rituals that pervaded the trade guilds, they would have suffered tremendous financial loss. If the saints will spend eternity praising God for taking away their “hunger and thirst” (7:16), it must mean many of them do hunger and thirst in this life.
Christians should expect to go through economic hardship because of their faith. Losing a job or promotion due to your Christianity should not come as a surprise. It’s an injustice we should anticipate increasing as the Day of the Lord draws near.
THE FOURTH SEAL: DEATH (7-8)
Remember it is Jesus who holds the keys of Death and Hades (1:18). The reference to four “disastrous acts of judgment” is almost a direct quote from Ezek 14:21. These serve as a summary of the judgments that all four horsemen bring.
There is also an allusion to Lev. 26:18-28 where four warnings of judgments are given against Israel if they fall into idolatry. Part of the purpose of these types of calamities is to lead people to repentance, to recognize their helplessness.
As was the case with the first three seals, this seal reflects partial judgment. That would make sense if it were a summary. We can expect to see partial fulfillment throughout this church age. No particular event or calamity fully satisfies any of these seals.
God is sovereign over the judgments that fall upon the world. That’s true in each of the Old Testament passages that serve as the background to these judgments. In Revelation, the Lamb opens each of these seals. How can Christ be sovereign over all of these disasters? The answer has to do with his purpose.
Christ sovereignly uses tribulation to both sanctify his people and execute judgment upon his enemies.
Each of these seals reflect types of judgment that we have seen in history. In fact, we have seen all of them repeatedly. These are events that we should expect to take place throughout this age until Christ returns (Mark 13:6-8). Sin deserves the wrath of God, and these four horsemen portray that wrath in vivid detail.
Jonathan Edwards wrote about the significant emotional reactions that his congregation experienced in response to his sermons during the Great Awakening. He reported that more than 300 were converted in half a year. On three successive occasions, he received 100, 80, and 60 people as new members of the church.
Tracy In those in whom awakenings seem to have a saving issue, commonly the first thing that appears after their legal troubles is, a conviction of the justice of God in their condemnation, a sense of their own exceeding sinfulness, and the vileness of all their performances…God might justly cast them into hell at last, because all their labors, prayers and tears cannot make atonement for the least sin, nor merit any blessing at the hand of God…In some cases, their “sense of the excellency of God’s justice” in their condemnation, and their approbation of it, was such that they “almost called it a willingness to be damned.”
If that is truly the case, it is in line with the reaction that warnings of judgment should have upon unbelievers.
Christ will judge those who continue in unrepentant rebellion. But if you repent and place your trust in Jesus, then you can be assured that the Lamb of God has already endured the wrath of God in your place.