In Revelation 4, 24 elders sit on 24 thrones all around God’s throne (Rev 4:4). Their thrones indicate that they share in God’s rule of this world. The purpose of this article is to determine who they are.
THE ELDERS ARE PEOPLE.
For the following reasons, the 24 elders are people; rather than angels:
1) “Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for human beings. Angels are never called elders.
2) They sit on thrones and Revelation promises that THOSE WHO OVERCOME will one day sit on thrones (Rev 3:21; 20:4).
3) They are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4). Revelation promises white robes to the God’s people (Rev 3:4-5; cf. 3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 14).
4) On their heads are victory crowns (stephanos) as opposed to the royal crowns (diadêma) worn by rulers over territory. In Revelation, the stephanos is the reward for the OVERCOMERS (Rev 2:10; 3:11) and symbolizes eternal life (Rev 2:10; cf. 2 Tim 4:8). Nowhere do angels wear crowns of any kind.
5) In the book of Revelation, numbers are symbolic. The number 24 is equal to 12 + 12 and the number 12 is associated with the PEOPLE OF GOD, for example:
– The “twelve stars” of the pure woman (Rev 12:1);
– The “twelve gates” and “twelve foundation stones” of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:12, 14), which is another symbol for the pure woman (Rev 21:9-10; cf. Rev 21:17).
FROM BOTH ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH
It is proposed that the 12+12=24 elders represent the people of God from BOTH the times of the Old and New Testaments because Revelation merges God’s people from the two dispensations into a single entity. We see this in the following:
1) The New Jerusalem—the city of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth—has “the names of the twelve tribes … of Israel” on the “twelve gates” and the “names of the twelve apostles” on its “twelve foundation stones” (Rev 21:12, 14). The New Jerusalem, therefore, symbolizes the totality of Israel; twelve from both the Old and the New Testament.
2) The “seven lampstands,” which is an ornament from the Jewish temple, become a symbol for the church of God (Rev 1:20).
3) The overcomes sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb. This combines the key figures of the Old and New Testaments (Rev 15:3).
4) The woman of Revelation 12, at first, is pregnant; expecting Christ (Rev 12:1-5), Here, she represents Old Testament Israel. After Christ was “caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:5) she continues to exist and to be persecuted by the dragon (Rev 12:6, 14). Now, she represents the church. Therefore, she represents God’s people from both dispensations.
5) Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, becomes the bride of Christ in Revelation (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).
Similarly, Jesus said to His disciples:
“In the new world,
when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne,
you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28).
In other words, the twelve disciples became the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel.
HOW THE ELDERS GOT THERE
At the moment that Jesus died, “many holy people who had died were raised to life. … They went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matt 27:51-53, NIV). They did not afterward remain on earth because we hear nothing more about them. Neither did they die again. Paul wrote that, when Jesus ascended, “He led captive a host of captives” (Eph 4:8). The 24 elders could be those who were raised from the dead at the time of the crucifixion.
It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love God with their whole heart and their fellow human beings like themselves, are, in the control room of the universe, in charge of the affairs of this world.
– END OF SUMMARY –
THE ELDERS ARE PEOPLE.
“Around the throne were twenty-four thrones;
and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments,
and golden crowns on their heads” (Rev 4:4).
In Revelation, there are 24 elders sitting on 24 thrones all around God’s throne. Since thrones symbolize authority, and since God rules all creation, it means that the 24 elders share in God’s rule. Revelation sometimes explains what different things mean (e.g., Rev 5:5; 7:13) but it never explains us WHO the elders are. So, we have to examine the available evidence and make the most appropriate judgment.
There are two major views. Some see of the 24 elders as a special class of angels, much like the four living creatures. The other view is that they are representatives of redeemed humanity.
There are a number of problems with the angel-view:
- Angels are never called elders.
- Neither are they ever depicted as sitting on thrones.
- Nowhere do angels wear crowns of any kind.
But “elder” is a familiar term for the leaders of God’s people and God’s people are promised to sit on thrones and to receive victory crowns, as discussed below. This provides strong evidence that the 24 elders are human beings:
SIT ON THRONES
Revelation tends to embed an outline of the next vision in the climax of the previous vision. As discussed elsewhere, Revelation 3:21 is the climax of the messages to the seven churches and also provides an outline of the next four chapters. It, therefore, helps to explains Revelation 4. It reads:
“To him who overcomes,
I will give the right to sit with me on my throne,
just as I overcame and
sat down with my Father on his throne” (NIV).
In other words, this promises that those who overcome will sit on thrones (cf. Rev 20:4). This implies that the 24 elders, sitting on thrones around God’s throne, are overcomers.
The 24 elders are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4). Revelation consistently relates white robes to the people of God on earth during the Christian era:
- White garments are promised to the overcomers in Sardis (Rev 3:4-5).
- Laodicea is invited to “buy” white garments (Rev 3:18).
- The martyrs of the fifth seal receive white “robes” (Rev 6:11).
- The great multitude is “clothed in white robes” (Rev 7:9) for they “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
Related passage is, during the seven last plagues, every Christian is warned to “keeps his clothes” (Rev 16:15).
The 24 elders wear golden victory crowns (Greek: stephanois) as opposed to the royal crowns (Greek: diadêma) of rulers.
In the ancient world, the stephanos was not an emblem of royal authority but a symbol of victory or a reward for exceptional conduct, for instance, the crown that goes to the winning general. It was often a wreath made of foliage. It is best known today as the crown received by the winner in the Olympic games, which originated in ancient times.
In Revelation, the stephanos is always worn by God’s people:
- The rider on the white horse, who was interpreted as the gospel, has a stephanos (Rev 6:2),
- In the seven letters, it is the reward for the overcomers in Smyrna (Rev 2:10) and Philadelphia (Rev 3:11), and the “crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
- It was also worn by the woman of Revelation 12 (Rev 12:1), who is interpreted as symbolizing God’s people.
The locusts of Revelation 9:7 also wear golden victory crowns. This supports the interpretation that the trumpets generally and the locusts specifically are God’s messengers to the world. For example, the two prophets “have the power … to strike the earth with every plague” (Rev 11:6). Therefore, “these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth” (cf. Rev 11:10).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the stephanos is also associated with God’s people:
- The word stephanos is also used for the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross (Matt 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2 and 5).
- Paul anticipates a stephanos crown on the day when Jesus returns (2 Tim 4:8). Here, as in Revelation 2:10, it seems to represent eternal life.
In conclusion, in Revelation, and also in the New Testament more broadly, the “stephanos” crown is a reward of the overcomer and associated with eternal life. This supports the conclusion that the 24 elders, who also have stephanois on their heads, are overcomes and, therefore, people.
THE NUMBER 24
The number 24 could be drawn from the fact that the Old Testament priests were organized into 24 divisions, each of which served consecutively in the temple for a week at a time (1 Chr 24:1-19). In Revelation 5:8, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding … golden bowls full of incense.” The incense implies that they function as priests. So, associating the elders with the 24 divisions of the Israelite priesthood is certainly possible.
But there is no evidence of that in Revelation itself. It is more likely is that the number 24 arises from a doubling of the number 12. In the book of Revelation, numbers often have a symbolic role:
- The number 4 signifies the whole earth (e.g. Rev 7:1; 10:11).
- The number 7 signifies completeness in time (seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.). For example, the seven Spirits of God signifies that God’s Spirit will ALWAYS be with us.
- The number 12 is associated with the people of God, for example:
- The pure woman has “twelve stars” on her head (Rev 12:1).
- “The New Jerusalem,” which is another symbol for “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9-10), has “twelve gates” (Rev 21:12) and “twelve foundation stones” (Rev 21:14). And the height of its walls is 144 = 12 x 12 cubits (Rev 21:17).
- The number 144000 in 7:4-8 is also derived from the number 12, being equal to 12 x 12 x 1000.
Since 24 = 12 + 12, the root number for the 24 elders is 12, which is the number of God’s people.
ISRAEL AND THE CHURCH
“The names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” are written on the “twelve gates” of the New Jerusalem and the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” are written on its “twelve foundation stones” (Rev 21:12, 14). The New Jerusalem, therefore, symbolizes the totality of Israel; twelve from both the Old and the New Testaments. It is proposed that the number 24, similarly, is equal to 12+12 and that the 24 elders are heavenly representatives of the people of God in both the time of Old Testament Israel and the era of the church.
MERGES THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL
Other instances where Revelation merges the Old and New Testaments, include:
- The “seven lampstands“—an ornament in the Jewish temple—become a symbol for the church of God (Rev 1:20).
- The song of Moses and of the Lamb combines the key figures of the Old and New Testaments (Rev 15:3).
- At first, the woman of Revelation 12 is pregnant; expecting Christ (Rev 12:1-5). Here, she represents Old Testament Israel. After Christ was “caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:5) she continues to exist and to be persecuted by the dragon (Rev 12:6, 14). She, therefore, represents God’s people from both dispensations.
- Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, becomes a symbol for the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. 19:7; 21:27).
- The “seven lampstands“—an ornament in the Jewish temple—become a symbol for the church of God (Rev 1:20).
THIS IS WHAT JESUS SAID.
Jesus said to His disciples: “In the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28, ESV, see also Luke 22:30). In other words, the twelve disciples become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel.
For these reasons, the 24 elders in this vision represent all of redeemed humanity both the times of the Old and New Testaments. They are not the tribal leaders or the apostles in person, but representative figures.
HOW DID THEY GET THERE?
If the 24 elders represent redeemed humanity, at what point did they enter into heavenly places? Evidence in the New Testament suggests that the elders can be associated with events that occurred at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At the moment that Jesus died:
“The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (Matt 27:51-53, NIV).
Their existence was noticed as they wandered through Jerusalem’s streets after His resurrection (Matt 27:53). It is unlikely that these resurrected saints remained on earth afterward because their witness would have been a powerful one and widely noticed. Neither did they die again. Paul gave us a small clue.
“When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives” (Eph 4:8).
At His ascension, Jesus was accompanied by “a host of captives,” possibly those who were raised from the dead at the time of the crucifixion. They might be among the 24 elders around the throne of God.
It is possible, however, that attempting to specifically identify the 24 elders with those raised at Jesus’ crucifixion, is being too precise. These representatives for God’s people could have been designated for their special roles in many other ways.
IN HEAVEN BEFORE CHRIST
There is one final challenge to this identification of the 24 elders. If they include people raised at Christ’s crucifixion and who ascended with Jesus, why are they seen in the heavenly throne room BEFORE Jesus Himself appears there?
This is not as big a problem as it might seem at first. The ascension was on the 40th day after the crucifixion (Acts 1:3). Revelation 5:6 implies that Christ arrived in the heavenly court AFTER the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, which was 50 days after the cross. So, these resurrected saints could have arrived in God’s throne room at least ten days before the great event of Revelation 5.
It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love God with their whole heart and their fellow human beings like themselves, reign with God and take part in the activities of the control room of the universe.
Full certainty about who these twenty-four elders are is not possible. That they are representatives of redeemed humanity before God makes the most sense in the light of the available evidence.
- The 24 elders in God’s throne room are people; not angels.
- The number 12 is associated with God’s people.
- The 24 elders represent God’s people from all dispensations.
- Revelation merges the church into the Jewish symbols of the Old Testament.
- God appoints human beings to reign over the creation under Him.