Sermon: The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse: Revelation 6:1-8

Old Testament Reading: Zechariah 1:7-17; 6:1-8

The Old Testament reading for today is from Zechariah 1:7-17 and 6:1-8.  The prophet Zechariah ministered to the people of God in the 6th century B.C. after they returned to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylonian. Indeed, the return to Jerusalem must have been exhilarating. But after some time the people found themselves living in challenging situations. To put it simply, the heathen nations flourished while Judah struggled. It is not hard to imagine the question on the people’s minds – “where is our God?”, they wondered. “Has he abandoned us?” With that as the background, here now the reading of God’s word.

“On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, ‘I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem’” (Zechariah 1:7–17, ESV).

“Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, ‘What are these, my lord?’ And the angel answered and said to me, ‘These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.’ When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, ‘Go, patrol the earth.’ So they patrolled the earth. Then he cried to me, ‘Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country’” (Zechariah 6:1–8, ESV).

New Testament Reading: Revelation 6:1-8

The sermon text for today is Revelation 6:1-8. Before reading the text I would simply like to point out that the experience of the Christians living in 90 A.D. was not all that different from the situation of the people of Judah living in Jerusalem after returning from exile. In both instances the people of God had experienced a great act deliverance. In both instances the people of God had high hopes. And in both instanced the people of God struggled in this world, being assaulted by troubles from with and without. The question, therefore, was the same. Where is God in the midst of this? Notice that the vision shown to John shares much in common with the vision shown to Zechariah 600 years earlier.

“Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse! 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!’ When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:1-8, ESV).


I would like to propose to you that all humans must find a way to make sense of the world around them. Some go about the business of making sense of the world casually and even unknowingly. Others approach the task with more of a deliberate intensity – we typically call these philosophers and theologians. But every one must do it. Everyone must, to one degree or another, make sense of the world. It would be very difficult for an person to function at all in the world without first making some sense of it.

This task is necessary both for the Christian and the non-Christian. Both must have a worldview. The same questions confront us all. What are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose for our existence? Is this world all that there is? What is right and wrong and how do we know it? Is there a God? If so, what is he like and what is our obligation to him? What of the evil and suffering that we see in the world? How are we to understand that? And if there is a God how are we to understand his relationship to the evil and suffering that we see in the world?

Both the Christian and the non-Christian must wrestle with these questions but we go about finding the answers to them in very different ways.

The non-Christian looks to the stuff of this world as ultimately authoritative in his or her quest for truth. What exactly is given the place of supreme authority will differ from person to person. For some it is human reason – “I believe this or that because it makes rational sense to me!”, they say. For others it is emotion – “I feel like this is true”, they say. Others base their opinions upon experience. Others still upon scientific investigation.

The Christian, while not denying the usefulness of these things, understands the limitations of human reason, human emotion, human experience, and yes, even scientific investigation. It is outside the scope of this sermon to explain why these are inadequate to serve as our final authority for truth. For now I will simply say that they are inadequate because of our creatureliness, and more than that, our fallenness. We are limited creatures – we do not know all. And we are fallen creatures – we must remember that even what we do know is potentially distorted by our sin. We are, by nature and apart from Christ, twisted. And we tend to twist truth wherever it is found.

So the Christian looks, not to the things of this world as our highest authority for truth, but to God. God is truth! And we believe that this God has “at many times and in many ways… spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1–2, ESV). This God who is truth has determined to reveal himself to us. He has revealed himself to us in human history – he walked with Adam and Eve in the garden; he spoke to Abraham; he revealed himself to Moses and to Israel when he delivered them out of Egypt. Above all, he has revealed himself to us by sending the Christ, who is the eternal Word of God come in the flesh. God has reveled himself in human history, and he has appointed and anointed men to write the Scriptures which are an inspired record, interpretation, and application of those great historical events.

What does the Christian have, then, as his authority for truth? We have the word of God – the Holy Scriptures, Old Testament and New. It is to this authority that we submit our lives. We do not seek to establish an authority of our own, but rather to submit to God, to Christ, and to his word in all things.

Friends, the Holy Scriptures provide answers the worldview questions listed above. May I suggest to you that your mental health, and more than that, your maturity and stability in Christ depends, in large part, upon your worldview. The question is this: is your worldview Biblical? In other words, have you adopted God’s view of the world as your own? Have you submitted to God and to his word, or have you decided to remain independent from God to find your own way and to craft your own view of things. Here is the difference between the Christian and non-Christian, then. The Christian hears the word of God and surrenders to it. The non-Christian, upon hearing God’s word, recoils from it, and makes his own path.

Of all the worldview questions that I listed above I would imagine that the last two are the most difficult for the Christian to answer. I find that Christians tend to be relatively united in answering the questions, What are we? Where did we come from? What is the purpose for our existence? Is this world all that there is? What is right and wrong and how do we know it? Is there a God? If so, what is he like and what is our obligation to him? But I find that we are often divided when pressed to answer the question, how are we to understand the evil and suffering that we see in the world? And how are we to understand God’s relationship to the evil and suffering that we see? Indeed, the world is filled with suffering. The evils that we face in the world cannot be denied. The question is, how we are to understand these sufferings especially as they pertain to God. Where is he in relation to the suffering?

Is he the direct cause of it? Does he do the evil? Our Christianly impulse is to say, certainly not! We think of passages such as James 1:13 which says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13, ESV). Also 1 John 1:5, which says,“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5, ESV). By no means would we ever suggest that the Holy One is the author of sin.

Then should we say that he has nothing to do with suffering at all? Indeed, many who call themselves Christians today would take this view. “God has nothing to do with the sufferings experienced in this world”, they say.  That view seems attractive at first. It seems to protect God’s reputation. But the view cannot stand for it contradicts the clear teaching of scripture as well as our basic understanding of the nature of God.

Listen to what Isaiah 45:5-7 says:

“I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:5–7, ESV).

Indeed the scriptures are clear from beginning to end that God is King over all. He is Lord Most High. Nothing stands outside of his sovereign control.  Here again the word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah:

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isaiah 46:8–10, ESV).

Indeed, our God is the one true God, the creator of heaven and earth, and he has decreed all things that have and shall come to pass.

Remember the scroll that John saw in God’s right hand as he was seated on the throne. What is it? What does it symbolize? It symbolizes the decree of God who is the King. Christ alone was found worthy to break the seals, and when he does what is reveled to us except that which God has decreed.

When I decree something, it might happen. When God decrees something, it happens.

Our confession beautifully summarizes the Bible’s teaching on the decree of God in chapter three, saying that “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass…”

When did God decree? From all eternity, that is, before creation. And who counseled God to decree what he decreed? No one! He decreed “in himself” and “by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will”. His decree was freely made and it is unchangeable. And what does is it pertain to? Only the good that comes about in the world? No, but “all things, whatsoever comes to pass”. This is an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches on this subject.

The confession is careful to make qualifications though – qualifications which are also derived from Holy Scripture. Chapter three paragraph one continues, saying, “yet …is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.”

The language of our confession is most helpful here. It brings out what the scriptures have to say on this subject. Though it is true that God has decreed all things, we must maintain that he is, at the same time, not the “author of sin” nor does he have “fellowship with any therein”. Nor does he “violate the will of his creatures”, but rather works in such a way that he brings about his purposes through the free choices of his creatures. He brings about his purposes, not always in a direct way, but often through second causes.

The language of permission is helpful here. God carries out his decrees, sometimes directly, but often through permission. He permits evil and even uses it to bring about his ultimate purposes and the supreme good.

Listen to the way that our confession summarizes the Bible’s teaching on this subject in chapter five paragraph four: “The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that his determinate counsel extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, which also he most wisely and powerfully boundeth, and otherwise ordereth and governeth, in a manifold dispensation to his most holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”

God has decreed all things that will come to pass. This must include even the “first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men”, but the sinfulness proceeds “only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.”

What then must we say about sin and God’s relationship to it? One, he is not the author of it nor does he take part in it. Two, he is certainly sovereign over it having decreed all things and providentially bringing all things to pass. Three, God does so through second causes, through means, and by way of permission. He has permitted sin and suffering. But notice the language of our confession. Chapter five paragraph four says that It is not by a “bear permission”. In other words, the permission is not meaningless or purposeless. Instead, God has permitted what he has for a reason.

If I had to choose only one text of scripture to illustrate these principles it would have to be Acts 2:22-25. There we have an account of Peter’s preaching after Pentecost, and he confronts those who crucified Christ in this way:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:22–24, ESV).

Was there ever an act more sinful that the crucifixion of Christ? Was there ever suffering greater than his suffering? And yet even this happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”. But who committed the sin of crucifying the Christ. Did God sin? No, the creature sinned by willingly hanging the Christ to that tree. God decreed it, then, and permitted it. But was it a bear permission – a meaningless and purposeless permission? No, through the crucifixion of Christ God brought about much good indeed.

I do not claim to understand all of this. And I do not claim to have the ability to articulate the mechanics of it. Indeed, the issue is infinitely complex and beyond our ability to comprehend. It is mysterious to us. But the scriptures do reveal to us what we must and must not say. Though the particulars remain mysterious, we know where the boundaries are. God is not the author of sin, but neither is it outside his sovereign control. Sin, even the first fall and the sin of the crucifixion of Christ is to be understood as an outworking of the decree of God.

Your wondering what all of this has to do with the four horsemen of the apocalypse, aren’t you?

I would argue that what John saw upon the opening of the first four seals of Revelation 6 is a depiction of the principles that I just articulated to you especially as pertains to the tribulations experienced by God’s people in the world that come as a result of military conquest and political persecution.

In other words, what John saw when the first four seals were opened answers the question, how am I to understand the suffering that I see in this world that comes, even upon God’s people, by way of warring nations and persecuting powers?

Put yourself in Syria, friends. Imagine that you are a Christian there. Imagine being persecuted for your faith. Think of the devastation all around. Imagine your children thin and hungry. What would be the question on your mind? Would you not wonder where God is in the midst of it?

The answer that Revelation 6 gives is that he is on the throne. He is permitting and even using the sin and suffering to advance his purposes, bringing judgment upon his enemies and also refinement to him people.

Notice that John is still looking in upon the throne of God as described in chapters 4 and 5.

He see’s the the Lamb standing there before the throne and he brings to open the seals, one at a time. And when the seals are opened things begin to happen.

The first thing that happens when each of the first four seals are opened is that “one of the four living creatures [says] with a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’”. Remember that these four living creatures, strange in appearance, are angels who have to do with God’s activity to all four corners of the earth.

And when the creatures say “come” a horse appears with a rider, or riders, on it. John says, “And I looked, and behold, a white horse!” And then “out came another horse, bright red.”  And then,  “I looked, and behold, a black horse!” And the, “I looked, and behold, a pale horse!”

The description of these horses should, without a doubt, remind us of the visions that Zechariah saw as described in Zechariah chapters 1 and 6.

John describes each of these horses has a rider, or riders, on them. Th rider on the white horse “had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. “ The rider on the bright red horse “was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.” The rider on the black horse “had a pair of scales in his hand.” And John “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 riders on the pale horse were named “Death and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.”

Who or what do these horses and their riders represent?

It is interesting to note what do the dispensational pre-millennialists say? Warren Wiersbe claims that the rider of the white horse is Antichrist. Here is his explanation:

“Daniel states that there is a ‘prince that shall come,’ who will make a covenant with Israel to protect her from her enemies (Dan. 9:26–27). In other words, the future world dictator begins his career as a peacemaker! He will go from victory to victory and finally control the whole world.”

I disagree with Wiersbe, but I want you to see what he does here? First, he misinterprets Daniel 9 and expects his reader to assume that his view of that text is the correct one. In fact, it is better to see the reference in Daniel 9 to a “‘prince that shall come’ who will make a covenant” as referring to Christ. Ironically, Wiersbe says it refers to antichrist. After misinterpreting Daniel 9 he then imagines that the opening of the first seal describes something that will happen in our future. Where the text of Revelation teaches this, I still do not know. After making this to be only about the future he then forces his faulty interpretation of Daniel 9 upon the text of Revelation 6 and voila! you have the opening of the first seal now supporting the dispensational, pre-tribulational, pre-millennial scheme.

But clearly it is not Daniel 9 but Zechariah 1 and 6 that is behind this text. And what did the visions of Zechariah 1 and 6 communicate to their original audience? Were not the people of God who had returned from exile in Babylon struggling? Were they not facing persecution and poverty? The nations around them were at peace and were prospering, but they, God’s people, were pitifully poor and weak – they were persecuted and pressed down by their enemies. When Zechariah saw the vision of the colored horses and their riders who’s job it was to patrol the earth, what was the message? Was it not this – that God is Lord over all the earth – that he has the power to put down nations and to raise them up? Was not God saying the people of Israel, I am God and will accomplish all my purposes? Was not that the message communicated through Zechariah to the people of God in that day? Should we not assume, then, the same basic message is being communicated here in Revelation 6? Is not the church now being comforted by the fact that God is Lord Most High, that he sovereign over the nations of the earth. Though nation rise up against nation, and though political powers persecute, God’s purposes will prevail, for he has decreed and things, and is bring them to pass even today.

I hesitate to give an exact answer to the question, who do these horsemen represent? I’ve already quoted Wiersbe who presents the idea that the first horsemen represents the anti-Christ. He is certainly not the only one who hold to that view. Others say the first horsemen is Christ himself. Some say the riders are demonic and evil, others say they are good. To be quite honest, I don’t think that the horses and riders are meant to symbolize any one particular creature or person, but rather the idea that God is active in this world bringing about his purposes of judgment and redemption continuously. He is sovereign over all and brings about his purposes both directly and indirectly, through means, and by permitting both angels and men to do what they will do freely.

Clearly war and the effects of war are depicted here. The rider on the first horse conquers with sword. The rider on the second horse seems to depict civil war. The rider on the third horse depicts famine. A days worth of bread costs a days wage. The riders on the forth horse depict death and the grave, which is the result of the three listed before.

We have in the first four seals, therefore, a picture of what Christ said these last days would be like. He taught his disciples, saying,

“See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:4–14, ESV).

What Christ says directly in Matthew 24 is depicted in Revelation 6. The heavily scene also communicates this: in the midst of all, God is enthroned. These wars and famines happen because God has decreed it and has permitted it for reasons we cannot fully comprehend. Also, in his mercy he has limited the tribulation. Only a fourth of the earth is subjected to the tribulation in this period; and bread, oil and wine can still be had.


Friends, these first four seals not only depict how things will be in the future, perhaps even with greater intensity, but how they are now and how they have been. It is here from this heavenly vision  that the Christian who suffers is to draw encouragement. We are encouraged, not by the ridiculous notion that God has nothing to do with the suffering we see in the world, but that he is involved. Indeed he is working all things together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28, ESV).


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