Revelation 6:1 – A Rider on a White Horse

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.

14 thoughts on “Revelation 6:1 – A Rider on a White Horse

  1. Revelation 6:1 has the Lamb opening the first of the seven seals and then a rider with a white horse appears. I like to conclude that the rider is not Christ seeing that He is described as the Lamb in the beginning of the verse before. Of course, with God all things are possible and he could be the one that rides out to conquest, but what makes the most sense is to connect this rider with the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ marks the beginning of the tribulation and some of the events of the end-times and it would connect with verse 2 well as the first seal is opened and he rides out to “conquer” what is in the world and what needs to begin. The only other thing that doesn’t make sense to me is who the “Anti-Christ” originated from (?) and how he receives the crown and bow? Is it God that sends him, or is it God that allows Satan to send him?

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    • I would have to think that God allows as opposed to sending him. I look at that like what happened with Job in the OT. Also I like to think God allows bad things and he is not the ultimate sender of things….but maybe thats nieve…

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  2. I think it is hard to know exactly what John is talking about here. It makes sense to read in any of the views that are commonly held, but at the same time, how can we really know? If there is nothing that specifically denotes who this person was, but at the same time eludes to it being someone specific then who are we to determine who that person is?

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    • I guess that was my point, how you “know” is that you read it as a political cartoon, engage the culture of the first century and hear the symbols in that world.

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  3. This is a hard struggle for us in the 21st century. Yes it is good to ponder how it applied to those who the book was originally inteended but we must become overly caught up in this pondering. We still have to apply the Bible to us today. Today is what is important to us, more so than the past or the unwritten and forever changeing future. Honestly i wonder what the point is in trying to figure this out to an exact any ways. In what way is this bring forth a relational clarity or depth with my walk with God. It is in my opinion that there are large chunks of the Bible where God says stuff just to confuse the junk out of us.

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    • “where God says stuff just to confuse the junk out of us.” I am not so sure that the Bible is that impenetrable or that God is messing with our minds. Seems that is a fairly defeatist view, whether we are dealing with difficult texts like Revelation or more “clear” texts like the Gospels.

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  4. In Revalation 6:8b it says that “They were given the power over a fourth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.” This seems to be referring to all four horsemen. If so then that would discount the possibility of Christ as the white horsemen in this chapter. Where the four go out to destroy the earth Christ, in chapter 19, goes out to judge the kings of the earth and to rule. I think there is definitely parallels to be seen between the white horsemen of chapter 6 and the one of chapter 19. But i do not think that the parallels end with just the first of the four horsemen. The horsemen of Ch. 19 judges with justice, the rider of the black horse in Ch. 6 was given scales, often seen as the symbol for justice. Hell follows the pale horsemen. I wonder if maybe John was trying to emphasize the superiority of the white rider in 19 over all the riders of 6.

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  5. I do not believe that the rider is Christ. The Lamb (Christ) is opening the seals where the rider on the white horse appears. Previously in Revelation, Christ is pictured as the slain Lamb. Although I cannot say with absolute certainty, I lean more toward the rider being the Anti-Christ. I believe that God allows the Anti-Christ to come and reign on earth to fulfill prophesy.

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  6. I don’t think I have ever really paid that close of attention to the difference in the riders throughout Revelation to think about whether they were both alluding to Christ or not. But after reading through what P. Long had to say, I think it makes more sense to me now and even better sense to try and understand the first horse as the anti-Christ, but at the same time, I have to agree with Curtis. My whole life I had grown up with the mindset that the rider is Christ, no matter how it was explained. It does never name the riders so therefore I have always believed that the rider was meant to be Christ. But P. Long makes a lot of interesting points alluding to the rider and someone else and most agreeable the anti-Christ.

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  7. I am not sure who the riders are that are mentioned throughout Revelation. I never realized how many riders there are and that one potentially could be the anti-christ. I think it is hard to really grasp who the riders are depending on the way that John describes them. But, I do agree with Adam, I do not believe that the rider who is presented after the first seal is opened is not Christ. Same reason as Adam pointed out, because it says in the verse before, “I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow…” (Revelation 6:1-2), it states that the Lamb was the one who broke the seal, so, how could the rider be Christ?

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  8. Like it was said in previous posts, Revelation is the most complex and debated book in the Bible to understand. The identity of the first rider has always been debated and really it depends on what the person believes. I was always taught and believed that the first rider who comes was a vision of the anti-Christ because he is bent on conquest over the earth. I don’t believe Jesus would be bent on conquest when he returns. Jesus would be focus on saving the people who believe, not conquering all of the earth. In Greek mythology, Ares, the God of War, was always bent on conquering his enemies and let the anger of war get into his head. He would soon try to conquer Mount Olympus by getting rid of Zeus, his father, but it eventually lead to his destruction. Ares never wanted to save people from harm. His only focus was conquering what he saw before him. I believe the same concept can be used on the first rider. He is a vision of the anti-Christ because he wants not to save the world, but to conquer it for his own.

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  9. It is hard to fully know what John is talking about when he mentions a rider on a white horse, because we do not know the full context behind the writing of the book of Revelations. There will be many interpretations, but we will never know the accurate answer. But I do not believe that it is Jesus who is riding on the horse. I think that because the lamb who is Christ is opening the seals at the times when the rider on the white horse appears.

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  10. When reading this passage as a child I always imagined that this rider on the horse as Jesus. Horses were my favorite animal at the time and I felt that Jesus deserved to be on a horse as opposed to a donkey (Mark 11, John 12). Now being older, and wiser, I find it hard to believe that Jesus is the man on the horse. Jesus while on earth was a man of peace who turned the other cheek. It is hard to imagine Jesus being bent on conquest. Jesus is fully God and fully man, so Jesus is everything God is. God is a just God who will judge man (Psalm 9:7-8). Weather or not Jesus will be sent to judge man on a white horse I do not know. However, this is an interesting concept to think about.

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  11. Whether or not Jesus is the rider on the white horse, I still think it is a cool concept. The color white may make a reader believe that it is, in fact, Jesus. I could see the rider being Jesus because he gets a crown and he is a conqueror. Jesus is kind and caring, but is still justice serving. If this rider is going out bent on a conquest, then I do not see why it couldn’t be Jesus going to seek justice. Revelation is difficult to understand, but sometimes it is fun to try and decode it.

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