As the Lamb opened the second seal, one of the four living creatures called to the second horse. This horse is red, a color that is normally associated with war. The word for red here is actually the word associated with fire (πυρρός), hence the NIV’s “fiery red.” This is the same word which will describe the dragon on Revelation 12:3. Revelation 6:3 uses a divine passive: the rider was given a large sword.”
Although it seems clear this rider represents war, it is less clear what kind of war is intended. If the first rider is the antichrist, the natural result of an emperor bent on conquest is constant war. In fact, Jesus predicted there would be “wars and rumors of wars” as part of the birth pangs leading up to his second coming. For most interpreters, the red house represents “international and civil strife” (Charles, 164).
In the context of the first century, this is a reversal of Pax Romana. While the Peace of Rome was not a universal peace, it did mean that the Romans maintained peace and prosperity throughout the Empire. That the rider as a great sword may allude to Rome since in the Roman Empire, only the Emperor was allowed to ride with a sword (Aune, 2:396; Dio Cassius, 42.27.2).
When peace is taken from the earth, people will slay one another. The verb (σφάζω) is associated with violence and murder; it is a vivid word meaning “to slaughter, either animals or persons; in contexts referring to persons, the implication is of violence and mercilessness” (LN 20.72). In Revelation 5:6 the same verb is used to describe the Lamb standing “as though it had been slain.” Greg Beale says “is used by John without exception to refer to the death of Christ or his followers” (The Book of Revelation, 379). Beale does notice Revelation 13:3, one of the heads “seemed to have a mortal wound” (ESV), using the perfect passive participle of σφάζω. But since this is a parody of the death of Jesus, he considered it in the same category.
A problem for the view the red horse represents persecution of the followers of Jesus is the reference to people slaying one another. If the slaughter is persecution of the Lamb’s followers, then it is hard to see how they would attack one another.
In the Animal Apocalypse the writer says one of the fallen angels using a sword against the other animals and they attack one another:
1 Enoch 88.1-2 I then saw one of those four who had come out earlier seizing that first star, binding his hands and feet, and throwing him into an abyss—this abyss was narrow and deep, empty and dark. 2 Also one of them drew a sword and gave it to those elephants, camels, and donkeys; then they began to attack one another, and on account of them the whole earth was quaking.
Notice the animals attack one another. Later, the writer says “a great sword was given to the sheep” who then used it against all the other beasts of the field in order to kill them (1 Enoch 90.19).
This rider on a red horse therefore builds on the metaphor the first rider. Prior to the time when God intervenes in history to rescue his people, there will be continual civil strife, “wars and rumors of wars.” What is important here is the appearance of peace in the Roman Empire in the first century is an illusion. John is predicting the breakdown of peace as human empires strive against one another.