The Four Horsemen: The Red Horse

The Father is holy. Jesus Christ is worthy. The world is the way it is because God is winning glory for Himself. Jesus continues breaking the seals on the legal document He has received from the Father. As He breaks the second seal, the second angelic witness presents his testimony to the just judge for our benefit.

Revelation 6:1-8

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 he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.

When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.”

And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.

When He broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand.

And I heard something like a voice in the center of the four living creatures saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.”

When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.”

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.

The four horsemen

John employs symbolism from Zecheriah 1:7-10 and 6:1-10 to describe what people today refer to as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In Zecheriah’s image, the four horsemen were the four angelic spirits before God’s throne who went out to patrol the earth and report their findings to the Angel of the Lord—Jesus Christ. As Jesus breaks the seals on the book, Zechariah’s angelic patrols are reporting the earth’s condition like they did in Zechariah’s prophecy so that Christ may judge justly—rather, so we may know that He judges justly. If we read about the first four seals regarding Zecheriah’s imagery, we can’t read it as some future event or judgment. Christ, because of His substitutionary atonement, has all authority and is worthy to judge. Therefore, the cherubim (there are four cherubim whose testimony appears like four horsemen) perpetually patrol the earth and report their findings to Christ. Symbolically, before Christ reads the book, while He is still breaking its seals, He hears their report. Remember this isn’t a chronological puzzle; it’s a theological picture.

As we read the testimony of the cherubim, testimony that they have been giving since Old Testament times (Cf. 4:6-8; Ezekiel 4:1-24:27). We remember that a natural, proper, and contextual reading of Revelation reveals these symbols to be testimony, not God’s explicit judgment. Yes, that means most interpretations you hear of the symbols that accompany the breaking of the six seals is provably false

The red horse

When He broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature saying, “Come.”

Again, John describes a correlation, not necessarily causation. As Christ breaks the second seal and anticipation builds because the reader wants to know the book’s contents, the second cherub says, “come.” Unlike the first cherub, his voice of is not thunderous—at least John does not describe it as such. Unlike the first cherub’s testimony, then, John’s imagery is not calling our attention to the Law. We are about to read something about the world John sees around himself. The image, here, continues to resemble a Greek courtroom. The second living creature calls his testimony, and the image comes forth. The witness’s testimony is the image of the red horse and its rider.

And another, a red horse, went out; and to him who sat on it, it was granted to take peace from the earth, and that men would slay one another; and a great sword was given to him.

John doesn’t give us as much information about the rider on the red horse. We certainly cannot identify him as easily as we did Jesus Christ on the white horse in verse 2. John is employing the image from Zechariah 1:8, which describes a rider on a red horse; This rider is part of God’s patrol on the earth, which reports to the Lord concerning the current condition of the earth before the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the second Temple. I don’t have any trouble with those interpretations that identify this rider as also representing Jesus. Jesus is perspicuously the one at work in every aspect of revealing the Father; Jesus is the eternal word and His Revelation of Himself is a picture instead of a puzzle—the Sistine Chapel of the New Testament.

As Jesus continues to break the seals on the book, building anticipation for the book’s contents, the second cherub calls a second witness to the stand. As Christ builds His church (v. 1-2), the earth is plagued by war. War has been the state of affairs on this earth for as far back as we can trace history. Jesus mentioned war as an end-times state of affairs in Matthew 24:7. In Matthew 24:34, Jesus taught war would certainly be the state of affairs on the earth within that generation. John’s Revelation should not be read such that it contradicts Jesus’s teaching. In Matthew 24:8, Jesus taught that wars were the beginning of birth pangs. Human war would, and has, worsened throughout redemptive history and as Christ builds His church.

Notice, also, that God’s authority is symbolically delegated to a rider. God is sovereign over human conflict. He is the one, according to John’s symbol, who instigates human conflict and works it together for His good purpose. God is not sitting idly by as people fight one another. He is not merely observing the condition of a world spinning out of control. God is sovereignly working all things together. We are still responsible for causing conflict when we do, but we understand that our wills are bound and what we mean for evil, God means for good (Cf. Genesis 50:20). Human war and conflict are not God’s wrath being poured out on the earth. Conflict is the current condition of the world and it has been getting worse since Jesus’s prediction in Matthew 24:8. Through human conflict, God is renewing His world and building His true church (v. 1-2). When we think honestly about conflict wherever we experience it, it does sanctify us and sift the wheat from the weeds. Conflict exposes us for who we really are and either draws us to repentance or drives us from Christ.

To the people of God in persecution, then, take courage. God is not surprised by the conflicts you see and experience. He is working and watching. Conflict in this world is working for your good, that you may be saved and sanctified according to God’s will.

I made many mistakes early in my ministry, still do. I hope those mistakes are less and less as I mature in Christ. Early on, I knew about God’s grace but had no idea how to grace. I had doctrine without love because I didn’t know with a knowledge of my heart, only mind. That’s the thing about sound doctrine—it bears fruit. I didn’t have to really show grace until there was conflict. God taught me His word through my pastors (Billy Elkins II and Jamie Powell), then He worked together the circumstances of my life to cause me to be a doer of His word and not a hearer only (Cf. James 1:22). Timothy experienced the same kind of conflict I did. I find great comfort in the pastoral epistles. Timothy served as an elder of the church in Ephesus. By the time John wrote Revelation, the believers in Ephesus staunchly defended sound doctrine, but knew not how to live sound doctrine (Cf. 2:1-7). They were like a bunch of cage-stage calvinists ready to fight about what they believed to be wrong. Timothy was frustrated with the church body and plunged into ministerial depression because of the divisions, conflicts, brewing in the church 20-30 years before John’s Revelation. In the midst of conflict, Paul encouraged Timothy to be strong in grace, remind the church not to fight about words because fighting about words ruins those who listen, simply by faithful to teach the Word, avoid irreverent and empty speech, instruct his opponents with gentleness and patience, and perhaps God will grant them repentance and lead them to a knowledge of the truth so they might escape the trap of the devil (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:1, 14-16, 24-26). God was working together conflict for the good of His people through the patient teaching of His own word. Paul was not unfamiliar with conflict. He endured many persecution from within and outside the church. His suffering was a thorn in his flesh that God refused to remove in order to keep him from elevating himself; God’s grace was revealed as entirely sufficient through Paul’s tribulation, conflict (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Paul and Peter also had a conflict between themselves because Peter, the chief apostle and elder of the church, was being a hypocrite—forgetting the Gospel and ignoring certain types of people because their behavior was unacceptable to others (Cf. Galatians 2:11-21). No one is exempt from conflict or war. It is a current condition of the world. The best of us will probably not handle it better than Peter or Paul. We submit to God’s saving and sanctifying work through conflict. We are encouraged by it because conflict is no accident—it serves a purpose for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

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