Pastor Scott Andrews | August 28, 2022
If you google “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” you get over three and a half million hits – with about that many opinions. This is a famous painting from 1887 called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Victor Vasnetsov, trying to picture as accurately as possible how Revelation describes them. But who wants accuracy when the imagination is in play?
For example, the first hit on Google’s search engine took me to a site that uses the four horsemen for a relationship quiz to determine how your spouse may react in times of disagreement – and how those reactions may spell the end of the relationship. The four responses are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Really – I’m not making this up – who knew you could accuse your husband of being the rider on the red horse? I’m going to add that to my premarital counseling session on conflict resolution.
Interestingly, in 1921, a silent film entitled The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was released and became the highest grossing film of the year. You see, it was among the first of many anti-war movies, of course, following WWI. I read the plot – it has nothing to do with the four horsemen until the very end, when one of the characters points to the four horsemen riding away in the sky, and says, “Peace has come—but the Four Horsemen will still ravage humanity—stirring unrest in the world—until all hatred is dead and only love reigns in the heart of mankind.” Is that even possible – apart from the return of Christ? You see, that’s the purpose of Revelation’s four horsemen – God turns humanity over to its own sinful humanity – now watch them destroy themselves.
Now, a movie was just released in April – this year – entitled The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse. You can watch the trailer – it seems to show worldwide cataclysmic events.
To this point in our study of Revelation, there is much agreement – not usually a lot to disagree about. For example, chapter 1 contained the prologue or introduction, plus the first vision – a glorious picture of the resurrected Christ. I suppose the only significant challenge there was, when did the Apostle John write the book? The two primary positions were, during the reign of Nero in the 60s AD, or during the reign of Domitian in the 90s. Your position on that, by the way, likely has to do with whether you hold a preterist or futurist position of the book. If you’re not sure what those mean, go back and listen to my introduction to the book. I came down on the side of the book being written in the 90s – that is after the Fall of Jerusalem. Why is that important? I don’t think the book was dealing with the soon coming fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Chapter 1 was followed by chapters 2 and 3 which contained the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. I suppose the only challenge there was – do these seven churches actual churches which represent all churches through the church age [that is, from the resurrection of Christ until His return], or are they seven successive periods of time through the church age? We opted for the former – they can be true of any church at any time at various stages of their life cycles.
Which brought us to chapters 4 and 5 – the beginning of John’s second vision. He was transported to heaven and given a view of the worship of God on His throne as the Creator, and the worship of Jesus, the Lamb of God, as the Redeemer. Again, wonderful chapters with not much controversy. But, when John was called up to heaven, Jesus told him to come see what will take place after these things. What things? And what he was shown was at least future to when John wrote. The question is, are these things for all the future, from John on till the return of Christ, or some time in the distant future – even future for us today?
Well, today, we arrive at the much-anticipated chapter 6 where there is a fair degree of disagreement – you know, three and a half million opinions. I knew at this point, I would have to make some decisions regarding where I personally fell on the continuum of interpretation. So, as we begin, let me say this: there are lots of faithful, godly, biblical scholars who graciously agree to disagree on their understanding of the book – especially chapters 6-19 or 20. Perhaps we should do the same – that is, graciously agree to disagree.
Now, don’t miss that I said faithful, godly, biblical scholars – these are orthodox, evangelical scholars who are each more or less convinced of their positions. Further, there is nothing heretical or unbiblical about their positions – that is, they can each be biblically substantiated. So, if you hold a different view than others, that’s fine, but do so gently, graciously, lovingly, faithfully.
So, here we go. You’ll remember the outline of the book I gave you some time ago goes like this:
- The Prologue (1:1-8)
- The First Vision, which is Jesus Among the Seven Churches (1:9-3:22)
- The Vision of the Exalted Christ (1:9-20)
- The Letters to the Seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
- The Vision of Heaven (4:1-5:14) – we just finished that. Five months, first five chapters.
- The Seven Seals (6:1-8:1) – here’s what I want you to see – there is a bit of a pattern here.
- The First Six Seals (6:1-17)
- An Interlude (7:1-17)
- The Seventh Seal (8:1) – which seems to contain the seven trumpets.
- The Seven Trumpets (8:2-11:19)
- The First Six Trumpets (8:2-9:21)
- An Interlude (10:1-11:14)
- The Seventh Trumpet (11:15-19) – which seems to contain the seven bowls.
- The Seven Signs (12:1-14:20) – which is another interlude.
- The Seven Bowls (15:1-16:21) – So chapters 6-16 contain those 21 judgments. Now, very interestingly, 15:1, when we get to the seven bowls, says, “Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had the seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished.” The first thing we note is that these judgments are the wrath of God. But, that verse also seems to indicate that the seven bowls or plagues are the last of the judgments of God found in the seven seals, trumpets and bowls. We’ll come back to that.
- The Triumph of God (17:1-20:15) – which includes the destruction of Babylon, the return of Christ, the final defeat of Satan, and the great white throne judgment.
- The New Heaven and New Earth (21:1-22:5)
- The Epilogue (22:6-21)
So again, the major question of these chapters that we begin today – that is, chapters 6-16 or perhaps 6-19 – is this: when do these things take place? Lots of discussion and disagreement. Are they past – preterist, were they fulfilled in 70 AD; are they taking place throughout the church age – historical or idealist; or are they going to happen in the future – the futurist view? But even within those positions, there are significant variations. You likely have a position, especially if you’ve been raised in church, even if you don’t know it, or can’t clearly articulate it. Think about it right now – these things in the book of Revelation – have they happened, are they happening, or will they happen later? See, you have a position.
If you’ve been listening closely, you know that I hold a largely futurist position – that is, most if not all of chapters 6-19 happen at some point in the future, right before the return of Christ. I say that so you’ll know the position from which I’ll be teaching these chapters. Now, within the futurist position, again, there are variations – I’ll narrow them down to the following three:
- Some see the events in chapters 6-19 as all taking place in the final seven years before the return of Christ. This final seven years is called the tribulation period. Where does that come from? I’m not going to go into great detail, but let’s read Daniel 9. Daniel has been praying for his people and Jerusalem. Gabriel comes with this message:
24 “Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place.
25 “So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem [which happened under Artaxerxes in 458 BC] until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.
26 “Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined.
27 “And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate.”
It’s all a bit confusing. We find seventy weeks of years are determined upon Israel. After 69 of those weeks, or 483 years, the Messiah is cut off – that is, crucified. But there is one week unaccounted for – the 70th week of Daniel. It is said by some that final 7 years before the return of Christ is that 70th week. There are lots of good reasons to believe that – I’ll let you research it for now and decide.
Which brings us to that final seven years – what happens there? Again, many suggest that chapters 6-19 cover those years. To include the judgments of God seen in the seven seals, trumpets and bowls.
- Now, you should know that many reputable scholars see those judgments, especially the first four seals, the four horsemen, as happening through the church age – from the time of Christ until the tribulation, at which time we will enter the Great Tribulation, and the final three seals and the seven trumpets and seven bowls will be poured out. They point out that the seals being broken are not actually the content of the scroll – they’re preparatory – the beginning of birth pains, some say. Still others see all these judgments happening throughout time – it’s call progressive parallelism – when these things happen over and over getting bigger and bigger until the finale when Jesus comes. Since I see Revelation 6-19 as future, I don’t hold that these judgments happen throughout the church age.
- Finally, some hold that the seven judgments – seals, trumpets and bowls – happen successively – that there are seven seals followed by seven trumpets followed by seven bowls. In fact, the seven trumpets are in the seventh seal, and the seven bowls are in the seventh trumpet. Others, however, hold to what is called recapitulation. That simply means that what happens in the seven seals ends with the coming of Christ, then the seven trumpets tell the same story ending with the coming of Christ, and the seven bowls tell the same story from a different perspective, again ending with the coming of Christ.
This idea of recapitulation does make some sense. When we looked at chapter 4:5, we read, “Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder.” We noted that language portends judgment. Now, we will see almost the exact same phrasing appear three more times in this book – at the end of each of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls. Look at them:
At the beginning of chapter 8, the Lamb broke the seventh seal. And in 8:5 we read, “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.”
And then followed the seven angels who blew the seven trumpets. We get to chapter 11 and the seventh angel sounded the seventh trumpet, and we read in 11:19, “And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of the covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm.”
And then the third time, in chapter 16. In verse 17, the seventh angel poured out his bowl, and a loud voice came from heaven which said, “It is done.” Verse 18 reads, “And there were flashes of lightning and sound and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake…”
So, it is suggested, that the end of each set of seven is the end of time as we know it and we arrive at the second coming of Christ and the eschaton. The problem is, if the seven seals, trumpets and bowls are all telling the same story from a different perspective, it seems there would be more similarities – and yet they do seem quite a bit different – that is, they don’t line up very well.
So, to be clear, I think Revelation 6-19 is future, beginning with the breaking or opening of the seven seals. Whether they are sequential – seven seals followed by seven trumpets followed by seven bowls – or recapitulated – I’ll let you decide. I lean lightly toward them being one right after the other.
One more note before we look at the first four seals found in Revelation 6 this morning. Many rightly note the similarities between Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and what we read in these chapters. I won’t take the time to read it, but read Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 to see the similarities. Which brings us, finally, to our text and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Read Revelation 6:1-8 with me.
Again, many see these four seals happening throughout the church age, leading to the fifth and sixth seals. It makes sense, especially as you compare this to the Olivet Discourse. My challenge with that is 8, “Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.” That hasn’t happened yet – and perhaps it will, right before Daniel’s 70th week. You see, we’ve just had a global pandemic, which resulted in six and a half million deaths. Do the math, and you will find that is less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s population. Here, we’re talking about one fourth – that’s almost to billion deaths.
We’re simply going to look at the four horsemen for our final few minutes. Let me summarize them for you. Most today agree that these represent the forces of evil and the chaos and mayhem and death they bring. These four simply represent what happens when God gives humanity over to its depravity. So, the four riders are:
- The White Horse and Rider – represent war and conquest
- The Red Horse and Rider – represent peace abolished and civil war following
- The Black Horse and Rider – represent famine
- The Ashen Horse and Rider – represent death
Look at each of them with me, starting with the white horse and rider. Now, when I say there are differences of opinion, none is more varied and confusing than the interpretations of this horse and rider. Some see this as Christ Himself. Why? Because when Jesus shows up in Revelation 19, He is riding a white horse. And white refers to purity and righteousness in this book. So, they suggest, that Jesus is conquering by the gospel.
Still others go to the opposite extreme and suggest this is the antichrist, since he is always trying to copy Jesus. But here he simply brings conquest and chaos. As I said earlier, these four horsemen are evil forces which bring disaster to the earth. The first one goes out conquering and to conquer – perhaps referring to the fact that there will be wars and rumors of war.
But there are some very important things to notice. I’ve been saying over and over, God is sovereign and initiates and orchestrates all that happens. While He is not evil, He is in control of evil. Notice first, it is Jesus, the crucified and risen Lamb, who breaks each seal to begin the sequence of events – culminating in judgment. Second, it is one of the living creatures who commands the horse and rider to come – a loud command of authority. And notice third – and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering. That term, was given, is a divine passive – he, as well as the other horsemen, are given by God the authority to do what they do.
We see this rider on a white horse had a bow and was given a crown. The word crown is stephanos, which speaks of the victor’s crown. The one Jesus wears in chapter 19 are many diadems, which speaks of royalty. Further, Jesus has sword, not a bow. So, many suggest this figure would remind the readers of the Parthians, a warlike tribe to the east of the Roman Empire. They were the only ones who defeated the formidable Roman army more than once. They were greatly feared – their weapons of warfare? Riding horseback with bow and arrow. The picture would remind the readers, this rider would successfully conquer, bringing fear throughout the empire.
Second, when Jesus broke the second seal, we again hear the second living creature say come. And a red horse went out and him who sat on it. It was granted – a divine passive – to take peace, even the Pax Romana, from the earth. As a result, men would slay one another. Further, a great sword – a weapon of warfare – was given to him. Notice there is a progression that happens through these four horsemen. First, there is conquest and war without, which leads to civil war within, which would naturally lead to famine, then ultimately death.
Bringing us to the third horse and rider – verses 5 and 6. When Jesus broke the third seal, the third living creature said come. John looked and behold, a statement of wonder, a black horse with a rider who had a pair of scales. That’s a bit different, until we read the rest of the description. You see, a balance scale was an instrument of commerce, to measure out, for example, food or grain purchased.
And John then hears something like a voice from the center of the four living creatures – stop right there. The center of the four living creatures was the throne – and the One who sat on it was God. Again, we see God orchestrating the events. This time, as is often the case, the result of war is famine. Marauding armies would come in and scorch the land – plundering what they wanted, certainly to feed themselves. We see that happening in Ukraine right now with marauding Russian army making its way through the land. And so, I might add, ministries like International Partnership and Samaritan’s Purse are providing much-needed food and medical care for those in need. That’s what the church does.
The voice from the throne said, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not damage the oil and the wine.” A quart of wheat was considered a ration for one man for a day – and a denarius was one day’s pay. In other words, this is exorbitant – ten to twelve times normal pricing – famine pricing. You could buy three quarts of barley for the same amount – but it was much less nutritious.
The last phrase is interesting with, surprise, surprise, lots of opinions on interpretation. Suffice it to say that at this point, oil and wine, which were considered necessary for survival, would not be adversely affected – meaning, the famine at this point would not be as bad as it could get. But it’s coming. For now, it is severe, leading to…
The fourth horse and the rider – an ashen horse. The word speaks of a yellowish-green – and since it was ridden by death, it was thought to be the color of a corpse. It was followed by Hades, the place of the dead. In other words, war, civil war or turning on one another, and famine would lead to death. We see the progression. And authority was given to this rider over one-fourth of the world’s population – to kill them with sword and famine and pestilence/plague – the results of the first three riders – which would leave them as carrion for wild beasts. The point is, regardless of where you place the opening of these seals – the result is ultimately death. We will find the authority to kill will increase through the course of the book. From one-fourth to one-third to all of humanity. God’s wrath is being poured out.
I close with this. Grant Osborne, in his excellent commentary on the book of Revelation, suggests the following major themes in the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments – I will refer back to these regularly through much of the rest of Revelation:
- First, these are all judgments from God poured out on unbelieving earth-dwellers. The principle is that of lex talionis – the law of retribution. You see, God is just in giving rebellious humanity what they deserve.
- Second, these judgments are, in part, God’s response to His people’s prayers for justice and even vengeance.
- Third, the sovereignty of God is expressed throughout these judgments. Remember the divine passives – God grants the authority of this destruction.
- Fourth, God does not command evil to do His will – He simply allows evil to operate. Evil turns in on itself. (Romans 1 – God gives them over three times to their sinful appetites.)
- Fifth, most sadly, the response of the earth-dwellers proves their total depravity – their lust for conquest leads to civil war and then death.
- Sixth, at the same time, the outpouring of God’s judgment has redemptive purposes, allowing people one final opportunity to repent. In that sense, these judgments are acts of mercy.
- Finally, there is a progressive dismantling of the created order, preparing for its final destruction, and the consummation of the new order, the new heaven and the new earth, when God makes all things new.
That’s ultimately what we see happening in Revelation. I want you to understand – regardless of where you place these seals or the four horsemen of the apocalypse – throughout the church age or the beginning the tribulation – I want you to notice that God is in control – of even the forces of evil. There is a sense in which war and civil war and famine and death are all instruments of His divine judgment. Through the centuries, yes, but certainly leading to the end, God brings His judgment on rebellious humanity. You see, in that sense, the silent movie got it right – the four horsemen will ravage humanity until they repent, and love, in the person of Christ, reigns. Over and over, we will see in this book the call of the gospel and the opportunity to repent. As C.S. Lewis suggested, evil is God’s megaphone by which He is calling people to repent.