By Mondo Gonzales (Co-host at Prophecy Watchers)
This topic is one that can often be overlooked, but is very important for a variety of reasons. First, this group of twenty-four (24) seemingly comes out of nowhere in comparison with other throne room scenes found in the Bible. Second, if we can understand the identity of this group, it should provide some information which would influence our grasp of the timing of the rapture. Third, personally, for the Christian, the uniqueness of this group has the potential to provide tremendous encouragement and comfort. While we must remember that the text does not give an explicit identity for these 24 elders, the book of Revelation gives many descriptions of this select group. Therefore, if we examine the various ways in which John writes concerning this group, the answer will become evident.
The Options for the Identity of the 24 Elders
This special group of 24 elders appears in a handful of places in the book of Revelation (4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4). As you can imagine, there are a variety of interpretations as to their identity. Here are some of the possibilities as given by G.K. Beale in his NIGTC book on Revelation: (1) stars (from an astrological background), (2) angels, (3) OT saints, (4) angelic, heavenly representatives of all saints, (5) patriarchs and apostles representing the OT and NT saints together, and (6) representatives of the prophetic revelation of the twenty-four books of the Old Testament. One perspective that Beale left out was that the 24 elders represent the dispensational view of the church which is defined as believers specifically labeled throughout the NT as those “in Christ.” This would include those that became believers from Acts 2 up until the rapture. The resurrection and the rapture of the church (those “in Christ”) is noted quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:18-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. I do not necessarily recommend Beale’s commentary as he chooses not to hold to a consistent futurist approach, but it gives a good snapshot at what the typical viewpoints are. Let’s examine the various descriptions found primarily in the book of Revelation.
1) Jesus gives an outline of the book of Revelation. “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things” (1:19). Bible teachers note that this outline is very organized and involves the three relative particles (“which”) that provide a clear outline. It is divided into a past (chapter 1), a present (chapters 2-3), and a future (“after these things”- chapters 4-22). There is no reason to be confused as the phrase “after these things” (meta tauta in Greek) appears quite clearly in 4:1. This reveals that what occurs in chapters 4-5 is a future period after the “church age” as found in chapters 2-3. Therefore, we see in chapters 4-5, a throne room scene with four different “groups” mentioned. The first mention is of God seated on the throne followed immediately by the introduction of the mysterious 24 elders and then finally the four living creatures. In chapter 5, the Lion/Lamb is introduced. No doubt, the 24 elders are given a place of prominence in 4:2-4 as being mentioned before the four living creatures. As the first mention of the throne room scene, to have the 24 elders mentioned prior to the well-known living creatures from the OT is no accident. We see them being mentioned before the four living creatures also in 7:11 and 19:4. There are other instances where the four living creatures are mentioned prior to the 24 elders (5:6, 8, 11, 14; 14:3), but the first mention context should not be ignored in chapter 4.
2) When we compare the throne room scenes in the OT, we notice that apart from Exodus 24, the existence of a specific group labeled as elders is absent (Exodus 24:9-18; 1 Kings 22:19-22; Jeremiah 23:16-22; Isaiah 6:1-3; Ezekiel 1, 10; Daniel 7:9-10). Even so, the Exodus 24 throne room scene was not in heaven and included 70 elders of Israel. So there certainly are distinctions. The question for us here is where did this NEW group of 24 elders come from in Revelation? For example, we see the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1 and 10. We observe an unidentified number of Seraphim (comparable to “living creature”) standing before the throne in Isaiah 6:1-3. In the Daniel 7:9-10 scene, it is the Ancient of Days seated on his throne. There are other thrones and myriads of other angelic beings, but it gives no specific names or designation of any other group “seated” on those thrones. Again, there is no observance either of any specific group of 24 elders in that scene. Now if we fast forward to the throne room scene of the book of Revelation, we see God Himself on His throne mentioned first. Following, are the 24 elders and then the living creatures and countless angels (Rev 5:11). This introduction of a new 24-member group as compared to other throne room scenes as found in the OT or Second Temple period writings has not gone unnoticed. If you can, I recommend the article, “Revelation 4-5 in the Light of Jewish Apocalyptic Analogies” by Larry Hurtado. It can be found in the Journal of the Study of the New Testament 25 (1985). He does an excellent job showing that what we find in Revelation 4-5 cannot simply be a continuation of Jewish writings. This is clearly something new and Christian. As we read Revelation 2-3 and the various promises made to the churches by Jesus Christ, it does not strain credulity to see that John was describing this new group as being the church.
3) If we compare Revelation 4-5 with the theology of Paul concerning the church, we can make a connection. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-22 that the church is made of up of Jews and Gentiles who are put into one new body of believers (especially 2:15). This is not a continuation of OT theocratic Israel limited to the land of Israel (cf. John 4:21-26), but a new unified group of people made up of all nations, tribes, peoples (Rev 5:9). Secondly, this group of unified people, who are called the church, was not revealed in the OT but was revealed as a mystery in its full theological significance to Paul the apostle (Eph 3:1-10). Therefore, it would be no surprise that because the church was not born until after Jesus ascended, as a group they would not be evident in any OT throne room scene. When John writes his vision of what he saw “after these things” (a.k.a. the church age, “things which are”), this new 24-member group of Elders makes great sense to be the recently raptured church.
4) Some Bible teachers see the 24 elders as angels, but upon closer examination, this cannot be the case. It is fascinating to see the consistency of the Bible. In the OT, there were no chairs either in the tabernacle or the temple. The reason why is that the priests were to serve continually. This is a major theological point in the book of Hebrews as, after Jesus performed His high priestly duties, He sat down at the right hand of God (Heb 1:3; 10:11-12). In the book of Revelation, we do not read of any angels sitting. In fact, we see angels standing (7:9, 11) and even one as mighty and majestic as Gabriel declares himself to be standing in the presence of God (Luke 1:19). Additionally, the angels are specifically labeled as distinct from the 24 elders (5:11; especially 7:11). We also observe the tribulation saints (“great multitude”), who are martyred in the great tribulation, as standing before the throne and the lamb (Rev 7:9). Another group of martyred individuals who had victory over the beast were standing near the throne (Rev 15:2). What is amazing is that there is only one group (other than God and the Lamb) who are specifically labeled as sitting. The 24 elders are shown to be sitting on thrones. “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads” (Rev 4:4). This was promised to the church by Jesus in Revelation 3:21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” This is a very unique privilege as the original seven churches could read chapters 2-3 and then see that the promise of Jesus was fulfilled in Revelation 4:4. It would give them encouragement and hope that they could be part of the group who also were promised to be kept from the hour of trial that was coming upon the whole earth (Rev 3:10). Further, their position is extremely intimate and full of honor to be located so close to the throne. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a clear parallel to any angelic being described explicitly as being seated on a throne. After the tribulation is over, there is a resurrection of the OT saints as well as the believers who died during the tribulation. This resurrection is described in Revelation 20:4-6 and they also get to sit on thrones during the millennium on earth. However, it is important to note that for them, there is no reference of them sitting on thrones in heaven near God’s throne. This particular promise was only made to the church (Rev 3:21) and fulfilled by the church (Rev 4:4). So, we have the 24 elders not only sitting down but on thrones which demonstrates rulership alongside the Lord Jesus (Rev 2:26-27; 2 Tim 2:12; Rom 8:17; 1 Cor 6:2-3).
5) Another descriptor mentioned is the number 24. In the 404 verses in the book of Revelation, scholars have noted that there are over 500 allusions or direct references to the OT (see a list of these in appendix XI in Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s The Footsteps of the Messiah, page 793). That being the case, the number 24 is a relatively unique number that occurs in 1 Chronicles 24-25. In chapter 24 of 1 Chronicles, David and Zadok divided the priesthood into 24 different orders (see Luke 1:5, 8, 9 as an example). In chapter 25, David divided the worship leaders into 24 different groups. What this reveals to us is a pattern that the number 24 is representative of the whole group. When the 24 chief priests of the 24 different orders stood before David, they represented the entire priesthood. The same would be true for the worship leaders. In our case, the 24 elders sitting on thrones would represent the entire church seated on thrones in fulfillment of Jesus’s promise in Revelation 3:21. Additionally, they are seated in heaven and exempt from the period of the tribulation beginning in 6:1 as Jesus promised in Revelation 3:10. Interestingly, the book of Revelation is directly written to the seven churches even though it has a blessing for anyone who keeps its words. Even those during the tribulation period who read it can learn and be blessed from it. John writes to the churches, “To the one who loves us and has set us free from our sins at the cost of his own blood and has appointed us as a kingdom, as priests serving his God and Father– to him be the glory and the power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:5-6 NET). The concept of the number 24 was connected in 1 Chronicles to priesthood and worship. This fits well with the roles we see of the 24 elders in the book of Revelation. They have been invited to have front row seats and indirect participation on Jesus’s throne (Rev 3:21) as well as offering up incense which is the prayers of the saints (Rev 5:9). The offering of incense is clearly reminiscent of the priestly duties as found in Leviticus. Jesus has invited the 24 elders to sit in His immediate presence as He opens the seals and fulfills His kingly role as redeeming the earth back to righteousness. Further, numerous times they are highlighted as participating and initiating worship in the presence of the throne and the angelic host. The connection between priesthood (1:5-6) and worship (Rev 5:9; 4:11) and the number 24 in 1 Chronicles 24 and 25 should not be missed.
6) Another description which helps bring understanding to the identity of the 24 elders has to do with the description of the Lamb’s spatial position. I understand that John was seeing a vision, but words are often used to send a theological message. In this case, John introduces Jesus (one like the Son of Man) as standing in the midst (mesos) of the seven lampstands (Rev 1:13). The Greek preposition mesos appears 7 times in the whole book. We are not left guessing as to the symbolic meaning of the seven lampstands, because Jesus gives us the interpretation in Rev 1:20, “… and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” In Revelation 2:1, Jesus reveals Himself to the Ephesian church as the “One who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands.” This is the second reference that Jesus is in the midst of the churches. When we get to chapter 5:6, the vision reveals that the Lamb was in the midst of the throne and the 24 elders. Within the book itself, John directs us to understand the connections between Jesus being in the midst of the churches and the 24 elders. This connective interpretation is compelling.
7) The 24 elders are described in Rev 4:4 as having crowns of gold. These are stephanos crowns which are often used in the context of overcoming and gaining victory over adversity; similar to an athlete (1 Cor 9:25). The other type of crown is a diadem crown typically used as a reference to those who are royalty. Jesus wears this crown in Revelation 19:12 whereas the dragon and beast have this crown as they seek to imitate the inherent royalty of Jesus (12:3; 13:1). Revisiting the description of 24 elders having “crowns of gold,” the only other person in the book described with a crown of gold is the son of man figure in Revelation 14:14 who most Bible teachers interpret as Jesus. This crown of gold in this passage is also a victor (stephanos) crown. We should not be confused with Revelation 9:7 where the demon horde which arises out of the bottomless are described having on their heads what appears to be “as crowns like gold.” John adds specific words to denote comparison and not equivalence. The 24 elders having crowns of gold like their Lord in Rev 4:4 shows the intimacy of their connection as being co-heirs with Jesus (Rom 8:17-21). The NT teaches that there are five different crowns which are symbolic descriptions of the rewards for faithful service (1 Cor 9:25; 1 Thess 2:19; James 1:12; Rev 2:10; 1 Peter 5:4; 2 Tim 4:8). Both Revelation 2:10 and 3:11 speaks of crowns which are involved in Jesus’s promise to the church for being overcomers. When we arrive in Revelation 4:4, it is not surprising that these 24 elders would have crowns showing that they have already received their rewards. We know that after the rapture, the church will stand before the son of Man at the bema seat judgment to receive their rewards for their Christian service from Christ Himself (2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10; 1 Cor 3:1-15; Luke 21:36). Angelic beings do not have crowns. In closing this section, it is revealed that the 24 elders cast their crowns at the foot of the throne of God recognizing that their crowns and place of privilege is purely through the grace of God. This is reminiscent of Jesus’s words, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Clearly, the 24 elders have a proper and humble attitude recognizing that even their crowns are an act of God’s grace.
8) In Jesus’s letter to the seven churches, He speaks positively about the promise of those in the church who overcome as receiving “white garments” (Rev 3:4, 5, 18). The 24 elders are said to be clothed in “white garments” which clearly is using the same language as Jesus’s promise to the churches (Rev 4:4). There are other groups in Revelation that are given “white robes,” but this a different designation (Rev 6:11; 7:9, 13) and Greek words.
9) Another very obvious description is the fact that they are called elders. We know from the OT that the elders were human leaders/chiefs beginning in Exodus up through the gospels. Additionally, this term was used as an official designation in the church (Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17, 19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1). Nowhere in the Bible are angels referred to as elders. Some Bible teachers see Isaiah 24:23 as a reference to angelic elders, but the context leans towards them being human elders. This passage is consistent with Jesus’s desire to reveal His personal glory to His church (John 17:24; 14:1-3; 1 Thess 4:17) and to share it with them (Rom 8:17; Rev 3:21; cf. Luke 22:29-30).
10) There are some who like to argue that the 24 elders disassociate themselves with other believers based on Revelation 11:16-18. It reads, “And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying, "We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. 18 The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” However, this is primarily because they assume these are angels. If we see the 24 elders as being the pre-tribulational raptured church being given a privileged position near the throne before the tribulation begins in Revelation 6:1, then their words in 11:16-18 make great sense. They are watching the tribulation saints get martyred and the saints overcome during this 7-year period (Rev 6:9-11; 7:9-14; 13:7). There are elect/saints/servants in the program of God other than the church which began in Acts 2 and ended at the pre-tribulational rapture. There are the elect tribulation saints as well as the elect of Israel who survive the 7-year tribulation period.
11) The final description is to note in general the various speeches of the elders. They speak and worship God for His creative acts (4:11), their intimate knowledge of the fact of the Lion of Judah being worthy (5:5), the lamb being slain which redeemed people from every tribe to be a kingdom of priests who will reign (5:8-10, 12), detailed knowledge of those coming out of the tribulation and being made white by the blood of the lamb (7:14). Their knowledge, intimate proximity to the throne and Lamb, participation in worship and informing John in the vision is indicative of their status as friends of Jesus (John 15:15). Some Bible teachers try to argue that Revelation 5:8-10 shows a disassociation between the 24 elders and those that are redeemed because the elders speak of the redeemed in the third person. This is not decisive. John is very familiar with the OT and brings up the new song of Moses in Revelation 15:1-4. This should remind us of the original song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-19. In this song by Moses and the Israelites, they sing of the redemption of Israel in the third person (especially 15:16-19). Therefore, it would not be unprecedented for the 24 elders to sing of their own redemption in the third person (5:8-10).
The evidence is significant pointing to the verdict that the 24 elders are representative of the pre-tribulational raptured church. Additionally, it signals that the church will enjoy a heavenly throne room scene after the rapture, but prior to the opening of the seals by the Lamb who alone is worthy. We will get to experience our Lord and Savior begin to judge the earth and reclaim that which He rightfully purchased at the cross. You and I will be privileged to see the Lord in His full glory and to participate intimately in His glory being revealed throughout all the prophecies found in Revelation. Paul’s words to the Ephesian church take on a new grandeur of fulfillment as the 24 elders actually take their seats on thrones in the very heavens of God Himself.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-6).