by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
"Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals;
and I heard one of the four living creatures
saying with a voice like thunder, 'Come and see.'
And I looked, and behold, a white horse.
And he who sat on it had a bow;
and a crown was given to him,
and he went out conquering and to conquer."
We live in an age of information and ideas. Granted, most of them are not worth the electrons upon which they zoom through cyberspace, but a handful of them receive enough traction to influence wide audiences. It is conceivable that someone tapping away at his keyboard in Pocatello could, under the right circumstances, affect events or attitudes in Paris or Pyongyang. Like nuclear energy, today's unregulated flow of ideas has the potential for both great benefit and great harm.
One can argue that this has always been the case, which is true. However, modern rapid and mass communication methods make the dissemination of information and ideas almost instantaneous. It no longer takes weeks or months—even years—for a document to travel from one point to another, as it took for, say, Paul's epistles to reach their intended recipients. Now, with a few keystrokes, the church can send out a letter, article, or an entire magazine to anyone in the world with an email address, and it will arrive at its destination in seconds.
Information and ideas are the lifeblood of every human endeavor. Nothing progresses far without communication among the participants in a scientific enterprise, a business venture, a political movement, a military operation, or a religious cause. Usually, the better a group's communications are the more successful its results.
Perhaps this can be seen no better than in religion. Beginning with its most fundamental elements, communication plays a major, vital role. In Christianity, everything its adherents know about it has been revealed—or communicated—to men through the Word (John 1:1-18; Matthew 4:4). The Bible, one could say, is merely God's communication device to wayward man, informing him of the right way to live to attain eternal life. The church takes the message of Scripture and broadcasts it, both to its own members as well as to potential converts, through a variety of methods, all of which entail some form of information- and idea-transfer. Without communication, religion cannot exist.
The white horse and the crowned bowman on its back, embodying the first seal of Revelation 6:1-2, are all about religious communication. Like his fellows, this horseman has nothing benign about him—he goes out "conquering and to conquer." He is the one who commences—some would say ultimately causes—"the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:8) that results in the death of a quarter of earth's population (Revelation 6:8)!
A White Horse and a Bow
The descriptions of the horses and their riders in Revelation 6 are spare, but the intended symbolic meanings become plain enough once we allow the Bible to interpret its own symbols. The paucity of detail may be frustrating to some interpreters of prophecy, yet it is sufficient to get across Christ's intent in sending out these fearsome judgments. For the white horse and its corresponding horseman, the symbols are the color white, the bow, the crown, and its activity, conquering.
Biblically, white is an interesting color. In our day, it is immediately associated with cleanliness and purity, as all advertisers know: Marketing a cleanser that is itself white or comes in predominantly white packaging helps to convince the consumer that the product is effective. However, an ancient Israelite might not see white that way. In Leviticus, white appears as the color of leprosy more than a dozen times (see, for instance, Leviticus 13:3). In Genesis 40:16, white baskets presage the death of Pharaoh's baker, and in Joel 1:7, it is the color of a land stripped bare by an enemy.
Conversely, at other times it represents the more positive associations we are accustomed to. In Ecclesiastes 9:8, Solomon writes, "Let your garments always be white," which most commentators feel refers to the joy, purity, and beauty of a righteous, godly individual. The Shulamite describes her Beloved, a type of Christ, as "white" (Song of Songs 5:10), implying His spotless and holy character. Similarly, Daniel sees "the Ancient of Days" clothed in a garment "white as snow" and with hair "like pure wool" (Daniel 7:9), reminiscent of John's description of the glorified Christ in Revelation 1:13-16.
In the book of Revelation itself, white is predominantly positive in meaning, as most of its appearances describe God, Christ, glorified saints, or associated objects like the Great White Throne. Overall, white suggests purity, righteousness, holiness, glory, victory, and perfection. This preponderance of positive, symbolic meanings for the color white—without considering the mainly negative aspects of the other symbols—has led many interpreters to misidentify this horseman as a positive, even divine, image.
For starters, the white horseman carries a bow, a weapon of war. Strangely, John makes no mention of arrows or a quiver, although we may infer the former, since a bow is nearly worthless without arrows. (Then again, the lack of arrows may suggest war fought, not with blood-letting weapons, but with words or ideas; see Psalm 11:2; 64:2-4; Jeremiah 9:8; Ephesians 6:16.) A bow is a purely offensive weapon, even more so than a sword, and is highly effective from long range (for example, archers killed Uriah the Hittite and kings Ahab of Israel and Josiah of Judah). Thus, the foremost idea behind this biblical symbol is powerful, penetrating, deadly accuracy with an intimation of distance.
A sidelight of the bow's imagery is the frequency of its use as a symbol of God's judgment. Job complains, "His archers surround me. He pierces my heart and does not pity; He pours out my gall on the ground. He breaks me with wound upon wound" (Job 16:13-14). In his dirge over the fall of Judah, Jeremiah writes:
Standing like an enemy, He has bent His bow. . . . On the tent of the daughter of Zion, He has poured out His fury like fire. . . . He has bent His bow and set me up as a target for the arrow. He has caused the arrows of His quiver to pierce my loins. (Lamentations 2:4; 3:12-13)
Interestingly, Jeremiah also uses the bow in his prophecy of God's judgment on Babylon:
For behold, I will raise and cause to come up against Babylon an assembly of great nations from the north country, and they shall array themselves against her; from there she shall be captured. Their arrows shall be like those of an expert warrior; none shall return in vain. . . . Put yourselves in array against Babylon all around, all you who bend the bow; shoot at her, spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the Lord. . . . Call together the archers against Babylon. All you who bend the bow, encamp against it all around; let none of them escape. Repay her according to her work; according to all she has done, do to her; for she has been proud against the Lord, against the Holy One of Israel. (Jeremiah 50:9, 14, 29; see 51:3)
The white horseman's bow, then, represents an effective instrument of God's judgment on the world for rebellion against Him. Unlike the sword that Christ wields (Revelation 19:15), the bow's long range hints at God being somewhat removed in His judgment, yet it is just as devastating in its effectiveness at meting out justice. In addition, whereas the sword symbolizes the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12)—His truth—the bow suggests a counterfeit "truth" or a false gospel. As II Thessalonians 2:11-12 says, "God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness."
A Crown and Conquering
The rider of the white horse is given a crown to wear, after which he goes "out conquering and to conquer." These two symbols are related both in their proximity in the verse and in their meanings. First, the word order suggests that being endowed with a crown allows or authorizes the horseman to go to war. Who gives him this crown? Notice Romans 13:1: "For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God." An angel tells Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:17, "The Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men." God is sovereign over all earthly authority, and it is from Him that this horseman receives his crown and purpose.
Second, crowns generally represent some state of honor or blessing for the wearer. We normally associate crowns with royalty, which in Classical Greek is represented by the word diadema, which has come down to us as "diadem." The word in Revelation 6:2, however, is stéfanos, a circlet, wreath, or garland, oftentimes made of leaves and twigs but sometimes of precious metals. It was awarded as a prize of victory or triumph, as a symbol of honor or authority, as a badge of civic worth or military valor, or as a sign of nuptial joy or festal gladness. Due to the verse's heavy martial emphasis, it is likely that the horseman's crown signifies triumph, authority, or military valor.
Third, this horseman goes "out conquering and to conquer," a fairly literal rendering of the Greek. To us, this phraseology sounds strange, but it is merely expressing two different tenses of the same verb (nikao, "conquer," "subdue," "overcome," "prevail," "get the victory"): the present participle and the aorist subjunctive. In other words, John is telling us that the horseman begins and continues to conquer, and he will certainly conquer or will ultimately conquer (see A.T. Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament on this verse). The implication is that his entire purpose is to conquer, to dominate, to subjugate the peoples of the earth.
Overall, the white horse and its rider are vivid representations of a powerful, aggressive, victorious force running unrestrained over mankind. Like a knight in armor or a soldier in full dress uniform, the first horseman appears to the eye as glorious and noble, but its intent is to kill, destroy, and subdue its enemies. Its white façade is deceptive, concealing a deadly, unholy purpose.
These interpretations of the symbols may seem highly speculative and arbitrary until we unlock their mystery with the key supplied by Jesus Christ Himself in the Olivet Prophecy. In a series of four verses, He decodes the meanings of the Four Horsemen. Of the white horseman, He says: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, I am the Christ, and will deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5; see Mark 13:5-6; Luke 21:8). The white horse and its rider represent religious deception.
First, notice to whom He is speaking, His disciples. They had come to Him, asking Him to tell them the sign of His coming and of the end of the age (verse 3), and He proceeded to do just that. His remarks are pointedly toward His disciples, that is, He presents these signs from their perspective. In the first seal, He is concerned that they, specifically, not allow themselves to be deceived because the effort to deceive the elect would be potent.
Second, the number of deceivers would be multitudinous: "many will come." This should be seen in contrast to the frequent description of His own disciples as "few," a "little flock," "a remnant," "not many," etc. The true disciples of Christ could be overwhelmed by the seemingly inexhaustible supply of false teachers, liars, and spiritual cheats that would be thrown against them.
Third, these frauds and double agents would come in His name, that is, appearing to bear His authority. In particular, the name of "Christ" would be exploited as cover for their nefarious trickery, and by this ruse, great numbers of people would be deluded. The phrase, "saying, I am the Christ," should not be understood, as the New King James Version has punctuated it, to mean that many would come claiming to be the Messiah. No, they would come claiming that Jesus is the Messiah—a truth—and thereby gain people's trust. From that point forward, deception through doctrinal change, both major and minor, provides the means of deception. As the anonymous maxim puts it, "The nearer a lie to truth the more deceitful it is."
If not earlier, this first seal must have been opened very soon after the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. Once the last of the original apostles was dead, the false "Christian" church began its swift and steady rise to dominance, eventually collaborating with Emperor Constantine (reigned AD 306-337) to become a major influence in the Roman Empire. This church, with its pompous ecclesiastical politics and Christianized pagan practices, looked nothing like the church the New Testament describes. The relatively tiny true church, often persecuted for its "primitive" beliefs and demeaned for its "Jewish" practices, was forced to flee to the relative safety of frontier lands and wilderness areas where its members could practice their biblical beliefs more freely.
It was not until the age of the Protestant Reformation, when the power of the Catholic Church began to wane, that Sabbath-keepers could once again express their beliefs openly. Even so, Protestantism—its various denominations merely rebellious daughters of the Universal Church—has not been entirely sympathetic to the law-keeping elect. Even today, a spirit of antagonism and condescension exists within Protestant circles for anyone who really believes and practices the doctrines of Jesus and the first-century church.
Religious deception, false gospels, and unchristian philosophies have continued unabated to our own day. Mainstream Christian churches continue to teach an antinomian gospel about the person of Jesus rather than proclaiming the true gospel of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). They still lead their members to worship an unbiblical triune God, constructed out of a hodge-podge of Jewish mysticism, Gnostic Christian belief, and Greek philosophy a few centuries after the apostle John completed the New Testament canon with the book of Revelation. They continue to refuse to keep the biblical weekly Sabbath made for man (Mark 2:27), as well as the annual holy days that reveal God's plan for mankind. The churches also teach the pernicious doctrines of the immortality of the soul and eternal security, leading adherents to believe they already have eternal life and their place in "heaven" is guaranteed.
Another modern false gospel—endorsed by many, especially those who embrace New Age beliefs—is the "tolerant" idea that there are many roads to salvation. This notion posits that all religions are equal, and each is effective in bringing a person to eternal life. In other words, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians will receive the same salvation and afterlife despite their markedly different beliefs and practices. This also means that there is no reason for a person to convert to another religion, so each faith should accept and acknowledge the others in a spirit of goodwill and ecumenism. Of course, this flies in the face of Acts 4:10-12, in which Peter asserts that only by the name of Jesus Christ is salvation possible.
In addition, as God maneuvers events in preparation for His Son's second coming, a great deal of prophetic speculation—which many call outright heresy—is appearing in the major media. No more successful example can be found than the twelve-volume Left Behind series by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Millions of copies sold in the U.S. and abroad have made these men wealthy and famous. They have also garnered their share of critics who see end-time prophecy somewhat differently.
For instance, the books' major premise is the authors' belief in an unscriptural "rapture" of believers to heaven before the Great Tribulation begins. How many people will profess belief in Christ because of their reading of these books, expecting to be spared the hardships of the Tribulation, yet will be forced to endure the time of greatest trouble ever to occur on the earth (Matthew 24:21-22)? At the very least, these books provide false hopes of physical deliverance from destruction. The Bible, on the other hand, tells Christians to be prepared for Christ's return through watchfulness, overcoming sin, growing in character, prayer, and enduring to the end (Matthew 24:13; Luke 21:36; I Thessalonians 5:4-8; I Peter 3:10-18).
Over the past year, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has been a media darling, ranking in the top three for 57 straight weeks on the Publishers' Weekly fiction list. Its many unorthodoxies appear not to matter to its millions of readers, many of them Christian:
[It] is a thriller whose characters malign traditional Christianity as fraudulent. But both liberal and conservative writers say it's rife with errors.
Among inaccuracies they list: The characters' claims that belief in Jesus' divinity appeared in the fourth century rather than the first century; that the four New Testament Gospels became authoritative in the fourth century rather than the second century; and that the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic writings (deemed heretical by the church) contain the earliest Christian records—though one Gnostic text does have some scholarly promoters.
"Da Vinci" [sic] also supposes that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a royal Judeo-French bloodline that still exists—and that sinister Christians suppressed information about this. ("Furor Over Popular Religion Novels," CBSNews.com, April 15, 2004)
These are just a few examples of the white horseman's work. He is still riding throughout the world, spreading counterfeit "truths," conquering through the communication of lies. He has used His bow mightily to shoot false ideas and plausible but erroneous beliefs into the minds of men cut off from God and opposed to His way of life (Romans 8:7). He has used his whiteness as a façade to trick the world into thinking he has come in peace and righteousness, when the truth is just the opposite.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:15-16, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits." It is not difficult for us to observe the fruits of false teaching masquerading as the truth in today's world. Next time, we will see that the red horseman's mission is at least in part a product of his white counterpart's work.