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.
—Revelation 6:1–2; emphasis added
The sixth chapter of Revelation begins the process of opening the seven seals of the scroll first shown to John in Revelation 5:1. It’s important to note that the Horsemen of Revelation 6 only ride when God allows it. They are not given free rein to plunder the earth at will.
Of course, this means that the rider on the white horse is not Jesus. This rider is a deliberate, but rather poor, imitation of the Messiah.
First, let’s examine his weapon: The first rider of Revelation 6 carries a bow—in Greek, a toxon, which is the root of our English word “toxic.” The toxon is not the weapon Jesus wields in Revelation 19: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”1
The second clue is the crown. This rider’s crown is a stephanos, a “crown of victory” given to winners in public games in the Greek world.2 It can also signify political power, which certainly fits this rider and his mission “to conquer.”
A stephanos differs from the diadema—the source of our English word “diadem.” Christ, the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19, wears “many diadems,”3 distinguishing Him from the rider called forth at the opening of the first seal.
This leads us to a major question: If, as we believe, the rider on the white horse in Revelation 6:1 is a literal entity and not just a symbol, then who is he?
Texts found at Tell Mardikh in northern Syria, the ancient city of Ebla, tell us of a god called Resheph, a plague-god and gatekeeper of the netherworld. Resheph was equated to the underworld god of Akkad and Babylon, Nergal. We think this entity is a good fit for the first rider.
Resheph makes a number of appearances in the Bible. The Hebrew prophets knew this character very well. Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3 summarizes God’s battles on behalf of Israel, and the prophet refers to a pair of rebellious “sons of God.”
God came from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
Before him went pestilence,
and plague followed at his heels. (Habakkuk 3:3, 5; emphasis added)
“Pestilence” (Deber) and “plague” (Resheph) were pagan deities in the days of the prophets. In the passage above, Habakkuk describes Deber and Resheph as subservient to Yahweh.
Resheph was one of the most popular gods in the ancient Near East for about three thousand years. He was a warrior, a divine archer, who spread plague with his arrows. This is a description that fits well with the first rider of Revelation 6, whose bow is a toxon—a bow with poisoned arrows.
The root word behind Resheph’s name appears to mean “flaming,” “burning,” or even “lightning”—possibly a metaphorical reference to the fever that accompanies plague. An intriguing reference to Resheph comes from the Psalms, where God’s punishment of the Egyptians for their treatment of Israel is described.
He gave over their cattle to the hail and their flocks to thunderbolts.
He let loose on them his burning anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels.
He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague. (Psalm 78:48–50)
“Plague” in verse 50 is actually the pestilence-god Deber, not Resheph. But here’s the interesting part: The “thunderbolts” in verse 48 are connected to Resheph rather than to the storm-god, Baal. Even more interesting, the verse literally reads, “He gave over their cattle to the hail and their flocks to the reshephim”—that is, “to the Reshephs.”
Consider this: Since the root word behind the type of angelic beings called seraphim, and saraph also means “burning” (thus making the seraphim “burning ones”), is it possible that the reshephim are another class of angel? It’s speculative but not impossible. An inscription from the Phoenician city of Sidon in the fifth century BC names one of the city’s quarters “Land of the Reshephs.”4
The takeaway from Psalm 78 is that the judgments against Egypt were carried out by “a company of destroying angels,” which included Deber, Barad (“hail”), and Resheph (or “the reshephs”). It would seem, then, that those destroying angels accompanied God when He led Moses and Israel to Canaan—and, in our view, these entities have been allowed to roam the earth in the years since.
Here’s why we’ve taking this detour into the history of Resheph: Not only was this god equated with Nergal of the Babylonian pantheon, he was also known as the divine archer and plague-god of the Greeks and Romans—Apollo.5
While you may not be familiar with Resheph/Nergal, you’ve certainly heard of Apollo. He was the Greek god par excellence: god of music, oracles, and poetry; the ideal athlete; the beardless youth; the god who hitched the team of heavenly horses to the solar chariot that carried the sun-god Helios across the sky each day. In ancient Greece and Rome, where he was one of only a few deities called by their Hellenic names, Apollo was a god to be feared.
Apollo’s role as a god of oracles sets him apart from his older incarnations, Resheph and Nergal. As the center of the world’s political power shifted westward from Mesopotamia towards Greece and Rome, Apollo became the primary source of divine revelation.
Interestingly, Apollo’s oracles fell silent when the worship of Jesus Christ spread across the Mediterranean world. The Pythia at Delphi went quiet after the second century AD,6 and in the third century, the other major oracles at Didyma and Clarus in western Asia Minor ceased to prophesy as well.
One of the last known messages from Apollo came through the oracle at Clarus in the late second or early third century. This is preserved on a wall at Oenoanda, an ancient Greek city in what is now southwestern Turkey. If the writing is genuine, it is truly remarkable, considering what the god seems to admit about the One True God:
Self-produced, untaught, without a mother, unshaken,
A name not even to be comprised in word, dwelling in fire,
This is God; and we His messengers [or “angels”]
are a slight portion of God.7
Lactantius noted that this could not refer to the king of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter, who had both a mother and a name. Only Yahweh, the God of the Bible, could make such a claim—and the oracle, speaking for Apollo, had been compelled to admit it. Not long after this, Apollo fell silent.
One other point of contact exists between Apollo and the rider on the white horse: The Greeks and Romans credited the god with inventing the stephanos—the crown of victory given to the rider on the white horse in Revelation 6:2.
According to Greek myth, Apollo, the divine archer, had mocked the god Eros (better known as Cupid) for taking up the bow. In revenge, Cupid let fly a couple of arrows—one of gold for Apollo, and one of lead for the river-nymph, Daphne. The golden arrow ignited the god’s passion for the nymph. (Eros is the origin of the modern word “erotic,” so “love” is probably not the correct word to describe Apollo’s feelings.) The lead arrow had the opposite effect on Daphne, and she fled from Apollo’s amorous advances, finally crying out to her father, the river-god Ladon, for rescue. He responded by transforming her into a laurel tree.
Seeing that the object of his desire had turned into a tree, the still-smitten Apollo declared that Daphne’s leaves would always adorn his hair; furthermore, he would use his skill as a healer to keep her forever young. This is why, the story goes, the laurel is evergreen, and her leaves crowned the heads of winners at the Pythian Games.8
This link between the stephanos and Apollo would have been common knowledge among Mediterranean people of the first century AD. A laurel wreath was the crown given to victorious military commanders at their triumphs.
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The most important question concerning the entity and whether he fits the description of the rider on the white horse is this: How was Apollo viewed in the Roman world of the first century AD? As it happens, Apollo’s status as a second-tier god in Rome changed just before the birth of Jesus when Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar, rose to power after the great man’s death.
Octavian credited Apollo with his decisive victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, which was fought under a shrine to Apollo.9 The win cemented Octavian’s control over Rome and its territories, making him master of the world from Britain to the Holy Land. Octavian, soon to be proclaimed Caesar Augustus (“Revered Caesar”) by the Roman Senate, built a temple to honor Apollo connected to his own home on the Palatine Hill, centermost of the seven hills of Rome.10
Some forty years after the death of Augustus, Nero became emperor upon the death of Emperor Claudius, who was probably poisoned by Nero’s mother Agrippina. It seems Nero believed he was the equal of Apollo as a performer on the cithara, a type of lyre. About five years into his reign, the poet Lucan declared the emperor the “New Apollo” during a performance at the Neronian Games in AD 60.11
The emperor’s story didn’t end with his death eight years later. Nero was more popular among the people than with the ruling class, probably because of the heavy tax burden he imposed on the wealthy. But, as Nero learned, the rich have the means to fight back, and so they did. In AD 68, a rebellion led by Galba, the powerful governor of a vast territory that included most of modern Spain, ended with the emperor’s death.
However, the ascension of a new emperor didn’t convince every Roman that Nero was well and truly dead. The legend of Nero Redivivus (“Nero Reborn”) was widely believed towards the end of the first century AD—precisely when John wrote the Book of Revelation. According to the legend, Nero fled east to Rome’s old enemy Parthia, an empire that included most of modern Iran and Iraq. There, it was believed, the emperor would raise an army and return to take his revenge on Rome.
It’s a fair bet that when John’s readers in the early second century noted the description of the Beast in Revelation 13:3, many saw Nero as one of the seven heads—the one that “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.”
The takeaway for us is not whether Nero was the Antichrist (although he definitely wasn’t). What’s relevant is that the emperor was closely identified with Apollo, and that Apollo was the symbol of Rome’s might, through the use of his laurel-leaf stephanos to reward victorious military commanders.
However, we do connect Apollo to the rider on the white horse. To be clear: The first rider of Revelation 6 is not the Antichrist. That’s the Beast who emerges from the sea in Revelation 13, the creature with seven heads, ten horns, and ten diadems—the crowns of royalty. The white horse rider in Revelation 6 has only one crown, and it’s a stephanos.
Faith in Jesus Christ gradually replaced the cults of the pagan gods in the Mediterranean world. Meanwhile, the culture of Greece and Rome became the basis of Western civilization. This was how the first rider earned his crown of victory when he went forth “conquering, and to conquer.” Apollo’s victory was not military; it was in the corruption of nations who trace their cultural, philosophical, and political heritage to Rome and Greece—unaware that the epitome of unblemished youth in those cultures, the patron god of music and prophecy, was also a terrifying plague-god with a strong connection to the underworld.
As the inheritors of Greco-Roman art, literature, philosophy, and political systems, is not the Western world, led by the United States of America, the New Roman Empire?
 Revelation 19:15.
 Strong’s G4735. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g4735, retrieved 5/4/20.
 Revelation 19:12.
 Paolo Xella. “Resheph,” in K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd extensively rev. ed.). (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), p. 702.
 Xella, op. cit., p. 702.
 R. Van den Broek. “Apollo,” in K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd extensively rev. ed. (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), p. 76.
 Divine Institutes 1.7.1.
 Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.7.8. https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias10A.html, retrieved 5/18/20.
 Isaac Roberts and Patrick Brewer. “Apollo: Foreigner in Rome,” MQ Ancient History: City of Rome Blog(https://ancient-history-blog.mq.edu.au/cityOfRome/ApolloBlog), retrieved 5/12/20.
 Philip V. Hill. “The Temples and Statues of Apollo in Rome.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, Seventh Series, Vol. 2 (1962), p. 130.
 Edward Champlin. “Nero, Apollo, and the Poets,” Phoenix, Vol. 57, No. 3/4 (Autumn–Winter, 2003), p. 282.