The opening of the first seal is a chance to test the method described in the previous series of posts. I suggested that reading Revelation is like reading a political cartoon from another culture and time (see also this post on the seals in general). There are several key images in the description of the first horse and rider: they are white, the rider has a crown and a bow, and he is “bent on conquest.” How would a reader in the first century have understood the image of a white rider? Of the four horsemen, the identity of this rider is the most frequently debated. (In fact, there is not really any discussion of the meaning of the sword, famine and pestilence!) If we read the metaphors in the context of a first century Jewish Christianity, we may be able to read the imagery as John intended them in the first place.
The color of the rider is important, but it could support any of the following views. White is often associated with victory. Roman emperors, for example, dressed in white when they celebrated a victory (Charles, Revelation, 1:1620). But white is often associated with holiness, for example when the Lord returns in chapter 19 he is wearing a white robe, the martyrs under the altar of God are wearing white robes (chapter 5).
First, it is possible that the rider is the Roman Empire / emperor, or more generally, the triumphant warfare in the Roman period. This view is less popular than it once was, although a consistent preterist like Ken Gentry sees the white horse as the Roman empire as victorious over Jerusalem (Four Views on the Book of Revelation, 53).
A second possibility is that the rider is Christ and the image is the conquest of the gospel in the present age. Those who read Revelation as from an idealist perspective understand this as preaching of the gospel which continues throughout the present age. They note that in 19:11-16 Christ is the rider of a white horse at the time of his second coming, also wearing a crown. The white rider is the progress of the gospel going out to the nations throughout the present age. This is parallel to the Olivet Discourse. Matthew 24:14 implies the gospel will be heard throughout the world prior to the return of the Messiah.
But there is some trouble with this view, primarily in explaining the meaning of the crown and bow. Matthew 24:14 only says that the gospel will be preached to the end of the age, not that it will be victorious. It is a testimony to the nations, but not specified as being successful. The crown is a victor’s crown promised to the one who overcomes in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. In 4:4 the elders surrounding the throne are dressed in white and wear στέφανος (stefoanos), but the locust from the abyss have them as well. The “son of man” in 14:14 has a στέφανος (stefoanos) as does the woman in 12:1. The use of νικάω in this context may not necessarily be “positive,” since the same word is used in 11:7 and 13:7 with reference to demonic forces.
A third possibility is that the rider on the white horse is a parody of Christ in 19:10-16. The rider is a “false messiah” or “anti-Christ.” The rider is the Anti-Christ, going out “bent on conquest” from the beginning of the tribulation. Several contrasts with the white rider in chapter 19 can be noted, for example, in 19:10-16 the name of the rider is “Faithful and True,” here the rider is given the power to judge and make war. The crowns are different, the weapons are different.
There is a different word used for crown in chapter 6 than in chapter 19. In 6:2 the rider has a bow rather than a sword and he is wearing a στέφανος (stefoanos); in 19:12 he has a sword (coming out of his mouth, describing the power of his word) and a διάδημα (diadema). In addition, the crown “as given” to him, an example of a “Divine passive.” In addition, it was the Lamb who opened the seals in the first place, it seems unlikely that he would also be the rider. A bow is more naturally a symbol of an enemy, connected to the enemies of God rather than the presentation of the gospel. Ezekiel 39:3, for example, associates the bow with one of the ultimate enemies of God lead by Gog.
The first horseman as an anti-messiah parody fits well with the Olivet discourse since military conquests are associated with the nearness of the end, as are the presence of false-Christs. The word in Matthew, however, is pseudeo-christ not anti-christ. Yet John himself saw the work of anti-christs even in his own time (1 John 2:18).
If the second through the sixth seal parallel the Olivet discourse, then perhaps it is best to see the first seal as a parallel as well. This leaves two options, the victory of the gospel and the progression of the Anti-Christ. Since the context of the second through fourth seal is not the verse about the gospel, but rather the appearance of false messiahs, it is best to conclude the white horse is a parody of the Messiah.
This conclusion would have been understood by a Jewish Christian readership which knew of the idea of a great persecution at the end of the age, and perhaps even the typology of Antichious Epiphanes from Daniel. In addition, a Christian congregation may very well have known the teaching of Jesus about false-messiahs. What is more, it is certain that a person living in the Roman empire would have understood the image as referring to Rome as the empire which is “bent on conquest.”
But there is nothing in this metaphor which invites the reader to identify the white rider with any political or religious figure in history, ancient or recent. John is painting a picture in the mind of the reader of a conquering ruler who will make war against the people of God in the future with imagery drawn from the first-century Roman empire.