Revelation 6:1-8 The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

As John’s vision continues in chapter 6, the opening of the seals on God’s scroll unleashes great tribulations on the earth. Yet far from being without purpose, they are shown by John’s vision as reflecting the divine will under the lordship of Jesus Christ. While the four horsemen bring woe and death, they do not bring dismay to those who are trusting in Christ.

The visions of God’s throne and of the glorified Lamb in chapters 4 and 5 occupy the very heart of the book of Revelation, depicting God as sovereign over history. In chapter 6, Jesus begins opening the seals of the scroll that He has been found worthy to open. Four riders go forth at His command, showing that Christ reigns not only over the hearts of those who love Him but also over the dangerous forces unleashed in the world. Jesus truly is, as John has said, “the Ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5), and therefore His followers can face tribulation with hope.

Revelation 6 begins with the opening of the seven-sealed scroll, held by the Lamb who was slain (vv.1-2). There has been much disagreement as to who or what this rider on the white horse represents. Some identify him as Jesus, because in Revelation 19 Jesus appears on a white horse, bringing as end to the series of terrible judgments upon the earth. But it is a mistake to identify the rider in Revelation 6 with the rider in Revelation 19. The contexts of the two passages are entirely different, and there are important differences in the way these two riders are described. However, it is significant that there are similarities between these two riders on white horses. Both are crowned and both are bent on conquest. This suggests that the rider of Revelation 6 may be someone who is like Christ in some ways, but is not Christ. I submit that the rider of Revelation 6 is the long-predicted Antichrist, who is spoken of in various places in Scripture, and who is to appear in the last days.

The rider of Revelation 6 is given a bow, but there is no mention of arrows. This suggests that his conquest is a bloodless one. It pictures the conquest of the world by the Antichrist as taking place by the overpowering of the minds and wills of human beings, without the physical destruction of war. It will take place not by force but by deceit, by lying that misleads people and nations without the shedding of blood. Clearly, today we live in an age of runaway deception. But in this passage, the rider on the white horse appears as a sign that the worst deception is yet on the horizon. Paul writes about this in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12.

In verses 3-4, the second seal is opened, revealing a new horse and its rider. This rider is easy to recognize. It is War, but this form of war is not merely war between opposing armies. It’s raw, red slaughter. It’s civil anarchy. It’s the kind of war that takes place when social order breaks down, when mobs of people take to the streets and begin killing with abandon. We have seen faint echoes of such war in our own world today. But these are only a faint foretaste of the massive destruction to come.

In John’s day people had no conception of the weapons of mass destruction that are stored up in the world arsenals – the missiles, nuclear warheads, chemical warheads, and biological weapons that threaten to destroy human civilization. The best words John had to describe the destruction he foresaw was the image of a “large sword,” clearly this “large sword” is a powerful weapon of destruction. If you read Ezekiel 38 and 39, you will find a vivid account of such warfare on a massive scale. There, armies come down out of the north, pour into the Holy Land, and are decimated by what appears to be radiation sickness. As we honestly face the prophecies of Ezekiel and Revelation, we have to admit that it is only in our century, with its efficient, high-tech approach to killing, that the fulfillment of these terrible predictions could even come about.

In verses 5-6, the third seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. The third seal is related to economic upheaval – inflation, recession, panic. There were stories of economic distress in post-World War 1 Germany, where the Deutsche Mark, the German monetary unit, had declined in value so sharply that people would load thousands of bills into a wheelbarrow and haul them to market just to buy one loaf of bread! That is what runaway inflation does: it renders money worthless. Inflation may well be the justification the Antichrist will use to impose rigid controls over buying and selling, as we shall see in Revelation 13.

In verses 7-8, the fourth seal is opened, revealing another horse and rider. Though this horse is called a “pale horse” in the NIV text, the original Greek text uses the word chloros, from which we get the word “chlorine.” The chloros horse is pale green like the color of chlorine. The rider is named Death. Floating along behind Death is a figure identified as Hades (or Hell). Death takes the body and Hades takes the soul.

There are four forms of death referred to in this seal of judgment. First the sword, which refers here not to war but to murder, the deadly assault of one individual human being upon another. Under this seal of judgment, people will take law and vengeance into their own hands and will kill one another without regard to justice. Second comes famine and widespread starvation. The death that accompanies starvation is one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. Third comes the devastation of plague. A plague is an epidemic, a rapidly spreading disease. In Matthew 24, Jesus predicts that famines, plagues, and earthquakes would come upon the earth in the last days. Fourth, the wild beasts of the earth multiply. Human beings become prey to these predatory creatures.

Verse 8 says that a quarter of the earth is given over to these four kinds of attack and devastation. It is difficult to say whether this means that a quarter of the earth’s physical geography will be devastated, or whether a quarter of the earth’s population will be destroyed. Either way the loss of life would be staggering. Here we have a picture of incomprehensible devastation visited upon the earth as a result of human hatred, barbarity, and sin.

These four seal judgments are references to forces that are already at work in our own society, right now. The only difference between this day and the last days is that these judgments will be carried out to their logical and unprecedented extreme at that time. These four seals confirm God’s method, which He has announced many times in Scripture, of forcing men and women to face the truth about themselves. What is that method? He allows evil – the evil that human beings themselves choose to commit – to operate without restraint till people see for themselves its terrible outcome.

God confronts us with the unpleasant truth about ourselves by giving us what we demand. If men and women choose to believe a lie, then God will send them the “powerful delusion” of the Antichrist. If men and women seek to kill and destroy, then God will give them the anarchy and mob rule they demand. He may even give them over to nuclear destruction. If men and women demand more luxury with which to gratify their lusts, then God will give them the economic upheaval and inflation that is the result of greed and immorality. Ultimately their luxuries and money will be worthless, and even the necessities of life will be beyond their reach. If men and women demand power and control, they will receive the brutal end of unrestrained power: intrigue, murder, disease, and desolation upon the earth. These judgments cannot be halted. They are the inescapable consequences of unrestrained human evil.

Revelation 6:1-8 Study Questions:

What does John see the Lamb begin to do?

When the Lamb opens the first four seals of the scroll, instead of four glorious remedies for the world’s ills, we find the four living creatures summoning four horses and riders, each (so it seems) to make matters worse. How are these horsemen described and what does each seem to represent?

What is the fourth horseman given the authority to do (v. 8)?

What seems to be the ultimate goal of allowing the horsemen to ride into the world inflicting so much damage?

For too long, over the last century at least, mainline Western churches have healed the wounds of the human race lightly, declaring “peace, peace” when there is no peace, except at the superficial level. How might we begin to look below the surface and help each other find deeper healing?

Revelation 5:8-14 Worthy is the Lamb!

Next, the Lamb who is worthy takes up the scroll – and all of heaven breaks forth into song and praise (vv. 7-8). The court of heaven understands the meaning of history and the program of God. The realm of heaven rings with worship, and at the center of that worship is the Lamb who was slain. Each of the twenty-four elders has a harp, and there are bowls of fragrant incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

The harp mentioned in verse 8 symbolizes the music of inanimate creation. Not only will all human and angelic beings in the universe glorify God, but all of creation – the rocks, the trees, the mountains, the hills, and the sea – will give praise and worship to God the Father and His Son, Jesus the Redeemer.

Notice that the elders are depicted as holding the golden bowls of incense. The elders are, in fact, presenting the prayers of the saints to God. There is a profound and exhilarating truth for you and me in this image: we, the redeemed, actually contribute to the work of redemption through our prayers! Of course, we cannot lay the foundation for our redemption. Only Jesus could do that, and He has accomplished that task perfectly.

But we do have a role in applying God’s redemptive power throughout the earth (1 Tim. 2:1-4). When you care about another person and you bring that person before the throne of God in prayer, you become part of the process of applying God’s work of redemption to that human heart. You actually become a partner with the God of the universe in changing and redeeming lives! The fact that you and I can become a part of God’s eternal program for human redemption should ignite, excite, and transform our prayer life.

In the next verses of this passage (vv. 9-10), the apostle John hears a new song. In these verses John hears the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, their voices joined as a heavenly choir, sing this new song. Why is this song called a new song? It is new to the elders and the four living creatures because, they have never sung such a song before for, as angels, they have never been redeemed! They have learned about redemption by watching God’s grace applied to sinning human beings.

For centuries these angels have observed the human race – willful, rebellious, defiant, sinning men and women like you and me, selfishly seeking our own way while rejecting the patient, forgiving love of God. They also have watched God calling to us, pleading with us, sacrificing His only Son for us, forgiving and redeeming us from our sin. Now, as the end of human history approaches, they join together to sing a song they have never known before, a song they learned from the saints – the song of the redeemed. That’s why heaven bursts forth in praise and worship: the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus!

As John watches, the entire universe is caught up in the wonder of God’s sacrificial love for mankind. He hears a great, swelling chorus – the voice of millions upon millions of angels! The apostle Paul refers to this same scene in his letter to the Philippians. After encouraging his readers to imitate the humility of Christ – who willingly took the form of a servant, humbled Himself, and died for our sakes – Paul writes, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11).

Note that the divisions Paul mentions – heaven, earth, and under the earth – are the same divisions John sees in his vision. And in each of those realms, throughout the entire extent of the universe, there is the sound of praise and worship offered to Jesus the Redeemer. The allusion of those “under the earth” refers to those who have already died, including those who die in unbelief and are in hell. So even hell must join with heaven and earth in acknowledging the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Clearly there will be some in eternity who gladly confess the lordship of Christ because they have appropriated the sacrifice of Jesus for their own eternal lives. But others will be forced to reluctantly confess His lordship. Those who scoff at the Scriptures, who ridicule biblical morality, who mock or persecute godly people will one day be made to see they are wrong and their lives have been wasted. When the illusions and delusions upon which they based their lives have all been stripped away, they will have no choice but to join the rest of creation in openly confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

John sees all this in a vision. It has not yet happened, but it will. When the seven-sealed scroll in finally opened, all of creation will join in acknowledging God and His Son, Jesus. That is the goal toward which all of history is quickly rushing. Every historic event that occurs, end every day that passes, is linked to the moment John witnesses in Revelation 5. All the momentous events that stream across our TV screens and social media headlines do not take place in a vacuum. They take place in a grand and cosmic context. They are being woven into an eternal plan. You and I are woven into that plan as well. We have choices to make. We cannot escape the eternal consequences of those choices.

Someday every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. There will be no exceptions. You will confess His lordship, and so will I. The question is: When that moment comes, will our hearts be filled with joy and gladness – or with regret? It is not a choice for the future, but a choice we must make today.

Revelation 5:8-14 Study Questions:

What happens when the Lamb takes the scroll (vv. 8-14)?

Why are the elders holding harps and bowls of incense in the presence of the Lamb?

How does this scene invite us to participate in what is happening in the very throne room of God and the Lamb?

How many creatures does John hear join in the third song of worship (v. 13)?

Why is it significant that in these songs the Lamb shares the worship which belongs, and uniquely and only belongs, to the one Creator God?

In what ways might the expressions of worship found in these songs inform and inspire us as we too join in the worship of the Lamb?

Revelation 5:1-7 The Lion and the Lamb

In the previous chapter, John the apostle was caught up into heaven, where he saw the throne of God and the court of heaven. Now, in Revelation 5, the scene is still heaven, but the theme changes. From a theme of worship of God the Creator, we shift to the theme of worship of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

The first questions verses 1-4 suggests are, “What does the scroll represent? Why is it sealed? As we shall see in Revelation 6, the opening of the seals and the unrolling of the scroll will reveal a series of momentous events which will shake the earth to its foundations. In fact, the events described in this scroll will continue to unfurl throughout chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10. What does the scroll signify? We are given a clue in Revelation 10:7, where John is told, “The Mystery of God will be accomplished.” The scroll, then, is a “mystery” book. It answers all the great unanswerable questions people have been asking for generations.

Perhaps the most persistent and vexing of these questions is “Why can’t humankind solve its own problems?” Everyone wants Utopia, but no one knows how to achieve it. Everyone wants an end to war, crime, evil, and prejudice, but no one knows how to end the misery to our humanity. We continue to make rapid technological and scientific progress that the amount of combined knowledge amassed within the libraries, archives, and data bases of the human race literally doubles every dozen years! One would think humanity, having made such amazing strides, would be on the verge of physical, intellectual, and moral perfection. Why, after all our progress and increased knowledge, can we not solve our most basic human problems? The scroll of The Mystery of God holds the answer.

The appearing of this scroll raised an immediate problem, however. John “saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seal?’” (v. 2). He realizes that there must be one with the worthiness and right stand before God, receive the scroll, and open its seal. Unless this could happen, the content of God’s book would not be revealed and the will of God for history would not be performed. John lamented because “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (v. 3). The realization shattered him: “and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (v. 4). Undoubtedly, part of the reason for John’s weeping arose from his awareness of his own unworthiness and that of the entire human race.

In verse 5, John learns to his amazement that the problem has already been solved! The twenty-four angels of the heavenly council around God’s throne know the answer, and one of them discloses the answer to John. “The Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David” are significant Jewish titles. They refer to prophecies from the Old Testament which predicts that there would come one from the tribe of Judah and from the family of David who rule over the earth and put and end to all the earth’s pain and sorrows. These two titles refer to the King of the Jews – the same title which Pilate had posted over the cross of Jesus. It is the King of the Jews, the Redeemer Himself, who has gone through death and suffering in order to conquer death and suffering, who is destined to bring about God’s kingdom on earth.

And now we come to one of the most decisive moments in all Scripture. What John has heard is the announcement of the Lion. However, in verse 6, John turns and sees a Lamb! The body of the Lamb is wounded, as if it had been put to death. John is to hold what he has heard in his head while gazing at what he now sees; and he is to hold what he is seeing in his head as he reflects on what he has heard. The two seem radically different. The Lion is the symbol both of ultimate power and of supreme royalty, while the lamb symbolizes both gentle vulnerability and, through its sacrifice, the ultimate weakness of death. But the two are now to be fused together, completely and forever.

From this moment on, John, and we as his careful readers, are to understand that the victory won by the Lion is accomplished through the sacrifice of the Lamb, and in no other way. Therefore, when John saw that the Lamb “went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (v. 7), he was witnessing the exaltation of Christ to the seat of authority in heaven with the Father, after His atoning death and victorious resurrection from the grave. No wonder that John should “weep no more” (v. 5), since the enthroned Lamb will open the scroll of God’s will. Moreover, John saw that despite his own failure and failure of our entire race in sin, the Lion of Judah will rule with power to save those joined to Him through faith.

In observing Jesus conquering not with the Lion’s teeth but with the Lamb’s dying wounds, Christians gain important insights into how we are said to conquer with Him through faith. In each of the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2-3, Jesus exhorted the readers that salvation would come only “to the one who conquers.” It is from the vantage point of chapter 5 that we can more fully understand what it means to conquer through faith in Christ.

Since Jesus conquered by dying for sin, the first step in our spiritual victory must always be to receive His saving work through faith alone. Before we do anything with or for Christ, we must be saved by His conquering work (1 John 1:8-9, 2:1-2). Having first been saved, only then are we to conquer in the example of Christ, ministering and serving not only as lions but also as lambs. The combination that we see in Jesus is possible in us only through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit; it is in fact a sign of true spirituality for Christians to wield the Lion’s spiritual power in the gentleness and meekness of the Lamb. We are to be lions in spiritual strength and faithfulness and lambs in our manner of dealing with sinners and sin. To conquer as followers of Christ is to suffer for the gospel, placing the eternal well-being of others – even enemies – ahead of our own earthly good.

John rejoiced to see Jesus as the Lion who conquered as Lamb. Through faith in Him, Christians conquer in many ways. We repent of sin, we uphold biblical truth, and we witness and lead others to salvation. The power of the Lion upholds us through many trials. But we are most like Jesus when we conquer through the mercy and sacrificial love by which He took up the cross as the Lamb, forgiving those who sin against us and reaching out with grace for those who are lost. Surely it was especially for those who follow in the meek submission of the Lamb who was slain that Jesus promised: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).

Revelation 5:1-7 Study Questions:

What does John see in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne and how does he describe it (v. 1)?

We rightly guess that the scroll contains God’s secret plan to undo and overthrow the world-destroying projects that have already gained so much ground, and to plant and nurture instead the world-rescuing project which will get creation itself back on track in the right direction. What would it take for someone to be “worthy” to read such a proclamation?

Why does John burst into tears and weep bitterly (v. 4)?

How does John’s reaction resonate with us as we look around at our world?

In verses 5-6 we come to one of the most decisive moments in all Scripture. What John has heard is the announcement of the Lion. What he then sees is the Lamb. What are the differences between these two animals? What does each one symbolize?