Summary: The seals show the suffering of the world which believers must endure, even if it means martyrdom, but they are precursors to hope.
Like other prophecy, Revelation has a layered quality. Some say it is about the Roman Empire beginning with 70 AD. Some say it is about all time since Christ. Others say it is about the last days.
I say, yes it is.
One interpretation does not necessarily negate another. Rather, like much prophecy, there are multiple ways to see it, and all of them are right.
• So, I believe the troubles discussed in this book had great relevance to the Jews and the Christians during the persecutions of Rome in the first and second centuries
• I believe we can see some of the things unfolding in history and in the news papers as indicators that Jesus plan is unfolding
• I believe these things will happen in the future, associated with the Day of the LORD
I don't believe Revelation can be interpreted as a time-table chart to track the exact times and durations of events in the last seven years leading up to the final coming of Jesus. I believe in some way, the schedule suggested by the events applies, but I don't believe any prophecy is so clear as to leave us able to track the future with an accuracy that rivals our ability to track the past. That kind of thinking denies the mystery that is implicit in all prophecy and denies the Spirit of God who also lives in people who disagree with such an approach.
1st Seal: The conqueror
Who is this first rider? It is a very difficult question. On the one hand, white (the horse's color) is invariably associated with righteousness in Revelation, including a white horse that Jesus Himself is later pictured as riding. On the other hand, the other four riders are clearly forces of destruction. Some associate this rider with Jesus, others with an ultimately evil figure. Both can be argued well with references to clearly parallel scriptures. An actual dilemma.
Here are two things Jesus Himself says:
• Many will come in the last days claiming to be Messiah and trying to deceive you
• Before the painful "birth pangs" begin, the gospel must be preached in all nations
In the spirit of the "both / and" method of interpreting Revelation, I will say this rider could represent both. Jesus is clear that in the last days (and in other times as well) deceivers will come, so they will appear to be righteous and allowed in their time to disrupt the church. On the other hand, the earliest interpreters of Revelation saw here a reference to Matthew's gospel:
the white horse is the word of preaching with the Holy Spirit sent into the world. For the Lord says, "This Gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world for a testimony to all nations, and then shall come the end." (Victorinus)
Since the fire fell at Pentecost and the disciples spilled from the upper room speaking the gospel in the languages of the travelers all around them, this word of the Gospel has been conquering. The Good News of Jesus is the seed of the largest religion in the world and the call of every believer to continue. It has not yet reached every corner of the globe, but it has been broadly dispersed. If John wept to see the scroll opened and the seals revealed, then it is our own burden to accompany the rider of the first horse and to bring the gospel to the world.