“The Horsemen of the Lamb” – Revelation 6:1-8

by Roger McCay
16 January 2022
Sermon Passage: Revelation 6:1-8
Link to Audio Version

Reality is like music with many notes. It is linear, but multilayered. Consistent with this, when we read of the seals on the scroll and the realities that are called forth in their breaking, we find a multilayered progression of powerful forces.[1] And we recognize them. Having been woven in the fabric of the world since the fall, these forces are nothing new. Thus today, with national and international news constantly piped to us, in addition to the happenings in our own lives and community, blatant evidence of the continuing phenomena, symbolized by the first four broken seals, in Rev. 6:1-8, is obvious.

Indeed, in our fallen world, if we dwell on the horror these forces entail, it is easy to become overwhelmed, despairing of justice, questioning hope. Further, as Christians, when we see Christian values increasingly marginalized in society, witness and feel the persecution pressures to conform to the world, hear of the brutal persecutions of our brothers and sisters abroad, and mourn over the blatant apostasy and capitulation going on in so many churches … well, it’s a lot to process.

Thus, it is good for our health to zoom-in and focus on specific notes and the controlling melodies of the composition. So, like we studied last week from Heb. 12:1-2, we focus on Jesus, following him by the power of his Spirit, casting off those things that easily entangle us, running the race of life with endurance. We also study and internalize the Lord’s Word, which, through God’s Spirit, helps us process, gives us a lens for understanding, and trains us to find the harmonious threads within the cacophony, guiding and comforting. Ergo, our passage today.

Since it has been a few months since we finished Rev. 5, a quick review is in order to make sure we are on the same sheet for understanding this enigmatic book. I’m going to be brief, as all this has been explained from this pulpit, in detail, over the last year, as we’ve journeyed through the Apocalypse. You can find the audio recordings and manuscripts on my website (rogermccay.org) if you want to catch up with or review what we’ve covered so far, for both the Olivet Discourse (in Matthew) and Revelation. I’ve also provided a handout for you in the bulletin with most of this info, for your reference.

Now, first off, you may remember the five foundations for understanding. 1) A key to interpreting Revelation is the Olivet Discourse; 2) the date of writing was in the mid-60s AD, a few years before Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction, which Jesus had prophesied in the Discourse; 3) the repeated theme of judgment coming upon the apostate Jews and their religion touched on in Rev. 1-3, in harmony with Jesus’ Discourse; 4) the legal-judicial aspect of the covenant of marriage between God and his people (the Old Covenant under the law), which was broken by the Jews, making them liable to the covenant curses; and 5) the covenant promises and blessings for the bride of Christ, the inheritors of the covenant, given by the bridegroom (the New Covenant under the gospel).

Second, we identified the scroll, sealed with seven seals, held in the hand of the Father on the throne, in Rev. 5:1. The scroll signifies a legal document with specific covenantal significance, acting as “a divorce decree”[2] against apostate Judaism (God’s adulterous wife), heralding the execution of the covenant curses (God’s wrath) upon them due to their unfaithfulness. Thus, it definitively announces the end to the Old Covenant under the law, and frees up the inheritors of the Covenant of Grace (the bride of Christ) to experience the fullness of the New Covenant blessings under the gospel.

Third, we considered the positioning of the seals on the scroll, which were, as Jay Adams put it, “spread in a row across the overlapping edge of the scroll.”[3] This fits because, as he explains, “All seven seals had to be broken before the roll could be opened…. They are preparatory to the action which will take place once the book is opened.”[4] Indeed, as we will see, the seals are preliminaries to the judgments contained in the scroll. They are what Jesus called “the beginning of birth pangs” in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:8), coming prior to the destruction he prophesied would come, fulfilled in AD 70.

So, John describes this seven sealed scroll in the hand of God. Who is worthy to open such a thing? Ch. 5 answers (which we looked at in detail back in late September). Verse 5: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Jesus, the Lion who is the Lamb (Jn. 1:29; Rev. 5:6) … Jesus is the only person in all of heaven and earth that is worthy. Why?

Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, fulfilled the Old Covenant under the Law in his perfect obedience. And with his sacrifice on the cross, he atoned for the sins of all who believe in him. His sacrifice was accepted by God, and he was vindicated by the Father in his resurrection and exaltation. In such a way he conquered sin and death, redeeming his people, his bride, setting us free. Thus, Jesus established the New Covenant under the gospel, in his blood.

Because of this, and his infinite value as the Son of God, the Lion and the Lamb—the Messiah King … because of who he is and his righteous work, Jesus is alone worthy to open the seals and unleash the judgments of the scroll. Indeed, his blood set the conditions for opening the scroll.

And so, at the right time, King Jesus took the scroll from the hand of the Father, in order to wrap up old business, to bring the definitive end to the Old Covenant in judgment, and to usher his church into the future, secure in his grace. The time of transition was coming to a close (Heb. 8:13; Rev. 1:5-7), and only he was worthy to see it through.

So picture Jesus, the Lamb of God, holding the scroll, and with a twist of his hand he breaks one of the seven seals. Crack! And then another, Crack! And another and another, Crack! Crack! With the first broken seal, one of the four living creatures around the throne of God (a Seraphim) called out in a voice like thunder, “Come!” And, with each breaking of the next three seals, another then another and another of the Seraphim cried out “Come!”

And their calls were answered. With each call, a horseman presented himself and was tasked with duties that he must carry out. In such a way, the conditions were being set for opening the scroll and the execution of the decree of covenant judgment it contained.

Now, while each horseman is different, each are forces that interact together in a unified mission. As Milton Terry has said, “these seals are to be representing one combined set of events.”[5] Let us consider their significance.

With the first seal broken, the horseman who answered the call to “Come!” came riding on a white horse. And, v. 2, “its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.” The identity of this horseman is, of course, much debated. Consistent with the foundations we’ve examined, two prospects come to the fore as to who or what he signifies. My first thought was that, in line with Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, this might be a reference to the false Christs (Matt. 24:5), with the white horse indicating a parody of the Christ portrayed in Rev. 19. Further study, delving into the description, language, and history of the time in which these riders were unleashed, however, indicated that false Christ’s, in some cases, were more a symptom of the four horsemen’s work, and not the first rider. Even before the horseman were unleashed, numerous false Christ’s had already risen up, some referred to by name in Acts. And during the Jewish war, as the horsemen trampled the Land, false prophets would rise, and people would look for the Christ to save them (perhaps like Simon bar Giora, whose account we find in Josephus).[6] As it was, as Jesus told them, the true Christ would not be found among them. In fact, it was the true Christ, reigning over heaven and earth, that sent the horsemen to trample the Land of Israel, in judgment and vindication.

Thus, the first horseman answered, called “Conquest” or “a conqueror” by some.[7] He is armed for war, with a bow specifically mentioned. And he is given a crown of victory. When summoned, he came out “conquering, and to conquer.” Conquering is the manner in which he came, with a present continuing sense. In other words, conquering is what he has been doing, does, and will do. It is what he is. As such, the Lord assigns him a mission “to conquer” a specific people at a specific place and time. Which makes sense. Why assign a forester or baker to do a conqueror’s work?

Of course, there have been conquerors throughout all the ages of men, but this particular age needed one for the specific task at hand. And considering the historical situation, the conqueror whose identity best fits the puzzle was Vespasian, or, perhaps, the Roman forces he and his son Titus commanded, having been sent by Nero to conquer the Jews. The Jewish rebellion against Rome began in AD 66, just shortly after or around the time that Revelation was written. It caused considerable unrest in the East, not only in Israel, but the surrounding nations, to Rome’s consternation. Even more, the Jewish war was not only against Roman forces and personages; it also involved a nasty civil war within Israel.

Vespasian was a warrior through and through. As Josephus said about him,

“Vespasian was one who had been a soldier from his youth and grown grey in the service; he had already earlier in his career pacified and restored to Roman rule the West when convulsed by the Germans; [and] he had by his military genius added to the Empire Britain.”

He was a conqueror, like his son Titus proclaimed to his troops, “it is usual for my father to conquer; and for myself.”[8] Indeed, for his actions in Britain, under Emperor Claudius, he had been awarded the distinguished triumphalia ornamenta, of which included a victor’s crown.[9] And Nero needed a conqueror to take care of the Jewish problem, so he sent Vespasian. In the Spring of AD 67, Vespasian arrived to take up the war. His armies consisted of calvary and foot soldiers, and the infantry had both swords and bows. From there, Vespasian systematically conquered the Jews, zeroing in on Jerusalem by bringing his forces in from the four corners of North and West, conquering the various villages and strongholds in Galilee, Samaria, etc., with his armies also working in from the South and East (Peraea and Idumaea).[10] Gradually and relentlessly tightening the noose, Vespasian systematically secured the areas around Jerusalem, planning to eventually surround the great city by the armies of Rome, which would ultimately fall in AD 70. Although, by that point Titus was commanding, after Vespasian had been elevated to be Emperor of Rome, in AD 69.

So, with the first seal, the horseman of conquest came to do the Lord’s will,[11] symbolically riding forth on a white horse (which was a symbol of victorious war), wearing a victor’s crown (of which Vespasian had been awarded in life, but which was symbolically bestowed in the vision as a symbol of divinely assured victory), and carried a bow (an instrument of war used by the Romans, and perhaps which, as some have suggested, signified the planned method of his campaign—starting from a distance and working inward). Thus Vespasian, Titus, and the Roman armies received their orders to conquer the Jews.

The other four horsemen followed suit. The second horseman is identified as War. He rides a fiery red horse signifying his purpose, v. 4, being “permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.” [12] This seal seems a particular reference to the civil wars that tore Israel apart during the Jewish War. Not only was the pax Romana disturbed, but there was no peace in Israel from the war’s outbreak, in AD 66, until the nation’s utter destruction, finalized when the fortress of Masada fell, in AD 73. Indeed, the civil war was characterized as more brutal and terrible upon the Jewish people than the Romans’ concurrent war upon them. Josephus records it all in detail, if you want those details. And due to the civil war, Vespasian actually delayed moving in and taking Jerusalem, because, as he said, “the Jews are vexed to pieces every day by their civil wars and dissensions, and are under greater misfortunes than, if they were once taken, could be inflicted on them by us.”[13] He reasoned delaying was a method to save Roman lives and obtain a greater victory.

Thus, with conquest and war, the Lord’s promised retribution, for Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness, was unleashed (Deut. 31:20-21; Josh. 23:15-16, etc., etc.). And Jesus’ prophecy of “wars and rumors of wars” in Matt. 24:6 was fulfilled, characterizing the times of tribulation before his coming in judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70. Even more, not only the Jews experienced civil war during this time. Rome had its own civil war, after Nero killed himself in AD 68, which caused great strife throughout the empire.

With the breaking of the third seal, the third horseman came riding a black horse, signifying the famine and economic distress that comes upon a land overcome by warfare, mentioned by Jesus in Matt. 24:7. John describes the third rider’s coming, in vv. 5-6: “And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!’”

The scales symbolize the wheat and barley, (basic food items) being measured out for purchase. And the voice in the midst of the four living creatures (the Lord’s voice), lays out the Lord’s terms and constraints. The price of food would go up exorbitantly, due to scarcity, with a day’s wage (a denarius) barely buying enough food for a family to survive, with almost nothing left over for anything else. One scholar points out, “The cost of wheat here is five to twelve times its normal price,”[14] and another suggests “eight to sixteen times the average.”[15] Whatever the case, inflation would be crippling, and the civil war would bring the woes of famine across the land. Tacitus records the Jews burning “stocks of corn,” and Josephus gives numerous accounts of the people of Israel suffering and dying throughout the war by starvation and famine.[16] But not all would starve. The Lord put constraints in place, indicated by his explicit command, in v. 6, that the staples of oil for baking bread and wine for drinking would remain available. Accordingly, along the lines of the Lord’s command, Titus allegedly ordered that the vineyards and olive groves be spared during the siege.[17] Overall, some would starve and some survive. But no-one would have it easy, as the third horseman galloped the land.

Which leads to the fourth horseman, Death, with Hades following right behind (vv. 6-8). Death road in on a horse that is popularly called “pale,” but the actual color given in the Greek is a pale green (χλωρός), the color of bloated corpses, signifying his task. The Lord gave Death and Hades “authority over a fourth of the [Land], to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”[18] Once again, the Lord was establishing the mission and limits for a horseman. Death was not allowed to wipe out everybody. But the vast number of those to be killed were symbolically qualified as a fourth of the Land. Indeed, this fourth horseman summed up the fatal work of all four. Conquest, civil-war, and famine bring death. Then following Death comes Hades, the place of the underworld, swallowing up those whom death destroys.

The time of the four horsemen riding rampant throughout the Land of Israel, would be integral to, as Jesus prophesied for that time, “the beginning of birth pangs” (Matt. 24:8; Matt. 24:29), which would be the great tribulation leading up to Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction, and ultimately to the removal of Israel as a nation. And the symbols and the judgments were nothing new, being grounded in the OT teachings of the Lord’s sovereign governing of the world and his promised covenant curses, if Israel was unfaithful. The image of agents of the Lord being horseman with the colored horses is like that found in Zech. 1:8–10 and 6:1–8. And more specifically, from the beginning of the nation, at Sinai, God clearly spelled out the covenant curses that he promised to bring down upon Israel when they were unfaithful (Lev. 26:13-33; Deut. 30:17-18; 31:20; Josh. 23:15). And his prophets continually reiterated these promises of judgment over and over throughout their history, if they did not change their ways.

Indeed, the Lord had brought his judgment like this upon them before. First with the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s destruction by Assyria, in the 8th century B.C. But more to the point at hand was the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Babylon, in 586 B.C., including the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, involving untold dead and exile. That judgment, carried out by Babylon on the orders of Nebuchadnezzar, likewise included all of the forces the four horseman symbolize—conquest, war, famine, and death. Along those lines, our OT reading of Ezek. 14:12-23 is particularly poignant, with v. 21 practically being quoted by John in Rev. 6:8: “For thus says the Lord God: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! And Ezekiel’s prophecy against Jerusalem, as to its destruction, was specifically due to the unfaithfulness of Israel, who stubbornly and persistently violated the covenant, thus bringing down the covenant curses upon themself (Ezek. 14:12).

Considering the context of his time of writing, and the symbols John utilized in his Apocalypse, what was about to happen should have been rather obvious to someone grounded in the Scriptures and the gospel. It was happening once again. The Jews’ covenant unfaithfulness and apostasy had brought it upon themselves, in their cavorting with the Romans, murdering the son of God (their Messiah), rejecting Jesus as the Christ, persecuting the Christians (the true people of God, true Israel), and so on. So it came to pass, true to his word, the Lord Jesus, when the time was right, broke the first four seals, readying and deploying his agents of judgment and vindication—the horsemen of the Lamb. The Lord is faithful to his covenant promises, both blessings and curses, and it was time for the curses to be unleashed.

Now, briefly, how can we apply this today? Well, amidst the chaos of the world, the horsemen’s deployment, as we read of them, can be an encouragement and a warning. In their given tasks, the horsemen were grounded in the historical, covenant actions of Jesus (the Lion who is the Lamb), tasks which they carried out on his order at a specific time and place and for a specific reason. Even more, the forces that the horsemen symbolize fit perfectly into his sovereign plan, according to his promises, prophecy, and consistent ways. The Lord was in charge of the horseman, giving them their tasks and their limits. Jesus promised judgment and vindication. It happened, and they were a big part of its implementation. Likewise, Jesus promised to return at the end of history in judgment, and his return is imminent. Do we dare waste any time? Do we dare fool around with sin? Do we dare to put off what we are called to today? Do we dare not trust in him?

So, when we see the phenomena of the horsemen at work in the world today, we should be reminded of the Lord’s sovereign reign, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and his covenant faithfulness to his people. Jesus is sovereign over all, even the troubles that beset us, in our fallen world. Chaos does not reign. Our loving Lord reigns, and he is actively involved. Further, seeing these forces in the world should be a reminder to us that the Lord means business. He is absolutely serious and resolved when it comes to his people, and his working for and among us. He is also absolutely serious when it comes to sin and justice. So, my friends, let us trust in Jesus, our hope, our joy, our Savior and Lord, no matter what may come. Because the Lord is sovereignly faithful to his covenant promises, we must trust his sanction of the apocalyptic horsemen.


[1] Cf. Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 63.

[2] Cf. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Navigating the Book of Revelation: Special Studies on Important Issues, 2nd ed. (Fountain Inn, SC: GoodBirth Ministries, 2010), 45ff. Also, Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 50.

[3] Jay Adams, The Time is at Hand (Woodruff, SC: Timeless Texts, 2000), 62.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Milton S. Terry, The Apocalypse of John, ed. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. and Jay Rogers (Chesnee, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2021; originally pub. 1898), 90.

[6] Cf. Josephus, War of the Jews 4.9.3ff. for the account of Simon bar Giora, who seems a quite literal example of this phenomenon; also 6.5.2 for false prophets promising deliverance during the siege of Jerusalem. Also, an interesting write-up on this phenomena can be found at https://titusflaviusjosephus.blogspot.com/2014/08/concerning-false-prophet.html and also at https://readingacts.com/2017/04/20/roots-of-the-rebellion-false-messiahs/.

[7] The NIV, for example, calls him “a conqueror.”

[8] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 3:10:2

[9] Cf. Seutonius, The Twelve Caesars, trans./ed. Robert Graves (RosettaBooks: Kindle Edition, 2014), 279.

[10] Josephus, Wars, 4. Also, cf. Kenneth L. Gentry, “The White Horse Rides Again,” on Postmillennialworldview.com, pub. 6 Jan. 2014, https://postmillennialworldview.com/2014/01/06/the-white-horse-rides-again-2/, for more on Vespasian/the Roman Army as the identification of the rider of the first seal.

[11] Josephus (a Jewish historian, Levite, and former general who fought against Rome) even recognized the hand of “Providence” in his selection – Wars, 3.1.3.

[12] Here in 6:4 and in 6:8 the translation of γῆς as “land” is, perhaps, better than “earth,” referring to the land of Israel (Cf. LXX, Deut. 30:18; 31:20; Josh. 23:15). Although, the empire also had its own civil war, which would include the larger encompassing translation “earth.” As it is, the specific reference here seems to be the war in Israel. Cf. Kenneth L. Gentry, “A Brief Study on ‘The Land’ in Revelation,” in Terry, The Apocalypse of John, 291-295.

[13] Josephus, Wars, 4.6.2.

[14] J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, vol. 38, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 98.

[15] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 381.

[16] Tacitus, Histories, 5:12; Josephus, Wars, 4-5.

[17] Ford, 107.

[18] Once again, “Land” is probably the better translation than “earth,” due to context.