Who are the 24 Elders in Revelation 4?

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

william-blake-revelation-4

The Twenty-Four Elders by William Blake

There are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

12 thoughts on “Who are the 24 Elders in Revelation 4?

  1. Of course the topic of what an angel is in scripture is worth exploring as well. The term angel just means “messenger” – so this term can apply both to spiritual beings who are messengers, but also potentially human messengers. When John the apostle is writing “to the angel” in various churches, it’s a very curious thing indeed – that a human would write a letter to an “angel.”

    Like

    • Good point, in fact, the twenty-four elders are not really called angels (the are elders), nor is it implied they are some sort of spiritual being.

      I take the “angel” for each church in chapters 2-3 as the leader of the local church, FWIW.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the “angel” of the church is representative or figurative in some sense of the “spirit” of that church – sort of like how the lampstand of the church is figurative of the “influence” of that church – maybe. 🙂
        But to say it is the “leader of the local church” is a bit anachronistic perhaps – there is no evidence anywhere in the New Testament that any church of that time period had a “head leader” “head pastor” or solitary “leader.” They were all led “the brethren” (who Paul wrote to in each epistle to each church) and occasionally “the elders”.

        Like

  2. I would have to agree with Dr. Long with the interpretation that the elders are angelic beings rather than humans. Heather G. makes a good point when talking about how angels are meant to be messengers of God and so I would like to point out that the Elders, while angelic in nature, should not actually be classified as angels. It would seem more ideal to think of them similarly as the Cherubim in Ezekiel, an angelic being that fulfills a role in Heaven but is not meant to relay messages. What role the Elders have is vague, from my reading of the passage, but it could be that they are there to praise and honor Jesus and exist to give examples of Jesus’ glory. However, as Dr. Long pointed out in his blog post, titled “Revelation and Empire”, the term of throne refers to a seat of political or governmental authority. This can be intriguing as these elders could be in charge of various aspects of Heaven and have received this authority because either God or Jesus delegated that authority to them. Either way it is a very cool passage with lots of vivid imagery about what Jesus and Heaven look like.

    Like

  3. I always dislike looking at the proof behind sides to an argument and deciding which is more convincing. Especially when it comes to the Bible. I have no reason not to agree with you because i have not been educated or educated myself on the subject. At a moment’s glance, the fact that they are wearing robes of white and golden crowns would definitely remind the reader of 3:4 which happened moments before. There is clearly a lot more going on here though. I wouldn’t know where to go with the ‘argument’ after that because i have no formal teaching on this book except maybe a session or two. How big are the thrones? Does that matter? I am interested to hear more.

    Like

  4. I have always understood the 24 elders to be representative of the 24 elders of, 12 representative of the Tribes of Israel, minus Levi, and the Twelve Apostles, minus Judas, plus Matthias. It is rather hard to buy into the idea that the 24 elders are angelic beings, as “maybe” references to elders being angels are not the best quality peg on which to hang one’s theological hat. While the elders are not explicitly stated to be human, or representative of humans, they are not explicitly stated as angels either, so this seems like a fragile argument from silence. I think that the word elder should be looked at in its broader context into the New Testament, especially since in John’s age this word referenced a very clearly defined office of authority within the church, and within the larger context of the Jewish tradition,the elders appointed to each tribe by Moses.

    Like

  5. Interesting take on it. I would say that out of all the options you have posted about I would find them being humans to be the most likely option, Not sure why, but the 24 head priest one sticks out to me the most. It does not seem implied that they are some sort of heavenly being, which would mean either human or some sort of symbolism. The idea of having head priests as a council of elders just makes sense to me. I will have to do some more research to clarify how I really feel about this.

    Like

  6. I was wrestling with these options in my studies a couple of years ago. One commentator (may have been Patterson, NAC?) argued along the lines of the twelve tribes plus the twelve apostles, in his reasoning OT Israel plus the NT church = the people of God through all the ages. At first glance this might seem compelling but there are challenges to this view. Where would the apostle Paul fit into this arrangement? He was certainly instrumental in the establishment of the church. The commentator suggested that the other apostles jumped the gun in selecting Matthias to take the place of Judas, and that the position rightfully belonged to Paul. But there is no Scripture to support such a claim. Another problem with that view is the promise of Jesus in Matthew 19:28 where the apostles are told they will sit on thrones over the twelve tribes of Israel. So it would seem the 12 apostles are representatives of Israel, not the Church. It is an interesting discussion, and I’m still wrestling. Thanks for giving a nice summary of the views

    Like

  7. The chapter’s reference to possible divine beings as “elders” reminds Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. One like the son of Man was see within them in the furnace. While they appear to be human, they are not at all material as we know material. The third view discussed in the article says that 24 refers to the Tribes and the Disciples as the Elders. A dispensationalist would instantly disagree with this, due to their belief that the church and Israel are separate entities all together. While it is interesting to observe who these Elders may be, as long as we realize that these “Elders” are of high rankings and the fact that they are casting down their crowns to worship Christ as King says something huge. While the view that the “elders” written of in Revelation 4-5 are actually the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible is intriguing, I do not personally think it is smart to claim the Gospel of Thomas (non-scriptural) as evidence for something that is scriptural. As Christians, let us follow the example of these beings (whatever they may be) and cast down our accomplishments, pride and glory at the feet who deserves every ounce of praise that could ever be given.

    Like

  8. Even though there are no other times where angels are called elders other than Isaiah 24:33 I would have to agree with Dr. Long that the elders are angelic beings. Here is my reasoning behind it. If these were in fact saints of the old and new testament John would have some sort of idea who they were. Who other than Peter and other members of Christ’s followers would have been the saints? If I were pulled to heaven and saw some of my friends I would have most definitely mentioned it in the book of Revelation. The only reason I would not is if God told me not to. The more important point than who these 24 are is the fact of what they are doing. They were in worship to God. An example of how we should live.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.