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, Throne of GodThere 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.

22 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.”

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    • 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.

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      • 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”.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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

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  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.

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  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.

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  9. This is an interesting blog 😊 I do hold to Paul’s view of dispensations. “Time past”, “But Now”, and “Ages to come”.
    As this is the case the Pauline epistles seem to detail a heavenly calling for those in the Grace age.1 Cor.6:2,3, Eph.1:3, 2:6, 3:10, 6:12,
    1 Cor. 15:48, 49. So there is one group that is for God’s purpose IN heaven. 2 Cor.5:1. Just a thought.

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  10. I feel like reading this post really drives home just how divisive attempting to interpret John’s vision can be. Here is an example of one passage that has four different interpretations that are best supported (or at least they are logically reasoned out). I recall reading the theory that the twenty-four elders are to represent the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles; and I suppose I like the imagery that this theory evokes. It promotes a unity between the people that worship God, showing the evolution from one single nation that worships him; and now peoples throughout the entire world are beginning to worship him! It provides a sort of bridge between the Old and New Testaments, which seems only fitting from a literary perspective, as Revelation is the last book of the Bible.

    I do also think that the presentation of the twenty-four Elders mimicking the twenty-four Lictors is also a well-rounded theory. After all, this definitely would have been something that John’s audience in the churches of Asia Minor would be incredibly familiar with, given the climate of Roman persecution. If Revelation is to be read within its historical context, then this theory is also well grounded.

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  11. I found this very interesting. I had never heard of any idea of the 24 Elders being anything but the 12 tribes and the 12 disciples. With the first view that you mentioned, of the 24 Elders being angels, I am not very sure about that. Although this is a possibility, it does not make as much sense to me–at least it does not seem very convincing; it appears to be more of a random view.
    In your second view of the 24 Elders representing the Church–really, an angel of each church–it seems a little more believable that the 24 Elders could be angels. One could see the correlation; one could also see how there is a disconnect. Why 24? The 24 Elders being the priests of David’s temple, as you mentioned, does not make very much sense to me. The next one–the 24 Levites–would make more sense, since the Levites were the priests. It only makes sense that they would be up in heaven worshiping around the throne.

    I did appreciate what you had to say at the end of the article about what you personally believe. That also makes a lot of sense to me. I’m not sure that it was God’s original intent for us to read into this as far as some people do.
    The last example you give in this article makes the most sense to me. The 24 Elders being the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples. To me, this seems the most logical example because of the collision of Old and New Testament beings; showing that just as Abraham’s faith was counted to Him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3), so too others may have been; and just as the disciples believed in the Lord Jesus and were saved, so are we. I have never really thought too far into this. I’m not completely sure if it matters because one day we will be in heaven worshiping Him in the fullness of our ability and His glory.

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  12. I think this image of the 24 elders is similar to the image of the four living creatures, and in some ways might even be harder to interpret who they are supposed to be. As seen in this post, there are plenty of possibilities to be considered on who these elders are, and I think most of them seem reasonable enough to be possible. I don’t have much background on this topic, but my initial inclination after reading the scripture and this post is that they are not angels. I think the term “elders” leads me to believe that they are some other type of being, whether that be human or heavenly. It can be so hard for us to understand these images in John’s vision because they are from a realm that we do not know about and have never experienced. What we do know is that they are part of the group of beings that are worshipping God in this specific chapter of Revelation. Throughout the book, we see different instances in which God is worshipped by different groups and beings, not just the humans on earth. These 24 elders are seen here in Revelation 4 with the four living creatures worshipping God in a passage that’s highly referenced today when talking about Biblical worship.

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  13. To start off, before I read this post, my opinion on who the twenty-four elders was your third opinion, that they represent the Old and New Testament prophets, with the twenty-four thrones being a representative from each of the tribes of Israel, and the twelve apostles. Blackwell supports this opinion when he states that they are, “the twelve patriarchs plus the twelve apostles” (Blackwell 55). However, I do not think Judas is one of the twenty-four elders, instead, I believe there is also a representative from the tribe of Levi. Since the Levites did not receive their own land inheritance, they are often not referenced. However, the Levities are the thirteenth tribe of Israel, so to speak, and I do not think Judas, the apostle whom Satan entered inside of (Luke 22:3), would make it into the elders before the throne of God to worship God for eternity.

    Furthermore, this post has caused me to think about the twenty-four elders in a different light. I had never thought that the twenty-four elders were angels before. As you stated above, angels are never referred to as ‘elders’ within scripture. I also like the idea of the twenty-four elders representing the books of the Old Testament, but find this theory to be a stretch and not as credible as the theory I stated above.

    Bibliography:
    Blackwell, Ben C. and Goodrich, John K. Reading Revelation in Context: John’s Apocalypse and Second Temple Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan. 2019.

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  14. The typical suggestion here is that the 24-elders that surround the throne in Revelation 4 are representative of the Old and New Testament prophets, excluding Judas. However, my argument is simply: Why can’t we have both the prophets and the universal Church? The fact is, although the majority of the Bible does not include the church, the majority of history does, and thus it is quite reasonable that the 24-elders, or at least a portion of them, represent the church. But, until reading this article, I never even entertained the idea that they might be angels. In the essay above it states that angels, however, are not typically called elders. In Revelation 4:4, it also states that the elders also had thrones, and nowhere else in Scripture are angels given thrones to rule from. In fact, Paul states in I Corinthians 6:3 that humans, once they are fully redeemed, will actually rule over angels. So, it seems that the idea that the 24-elders may be angels is a bit contradictory, since humans will one day rule over them. Wouldn’t it be more feasible to consider that humans, representing the prophets and the Church, are the ones on the thrones in heaven? Nevertheless, the main point to keep in mind is the worship of God. No matter who these individuals are, they are stationed in heaven there to bring glory to God–not the other way around.

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    • My initial thought when reading this post was, why does it matter who the 24 elders are? Does it make any theological difference if it is a reference to the angels or humans? Building off of your post Paul, can the 24 elders be made up of more than one demographic? To me it seems like a plausible possibility to have the Old and New Testament prophets and priests and saints present at the throne with heavenly beings because it shows the diversity and unity that is constant within the body of Christ. I appreciated how you brought into play the relationship between the universal historical church and the scriptures. I can definitely see how the New Testament has more to say about local churches and the building of the kingdom of God; I think the Old Testament was still crafting this idea of communities whose purpose was to worship God and follow his laws, which seems similar to the modern function of churches. Reflecting on your argument based on 1 Corinthians 6:3 concerning the superiority of humans and angels, I would say that an angel’s main purpose occurs in the heavenly realm, whereas humans focus on their actions here on Earth. It would seem that it would be logical that spiritual beings are in authoritative positions in the spiritual realm, similar to humans holding authority on earth (sorry if I did a poor job communicating my train of thought).

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  15. I do not like having to decide which information is the correct one. It is always difficult for anyone to be in a position where it is up to them to believe whether something is correct or incorrect. Personally, I find it very interesting that over the years, many professionals have said that the 24 elders are human beings while other professionals believe that the 24 elders are humans. It is hard for me to decide and this is because I am not an expert. However, I think that the 24 elders are angelic beings. Revelation 4:4 states, “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”. For some reason, knowing that the elders are clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads gives me the idea that they are angelic beings. Angels are always described as clean and beautiful beings. However, since each of the elders is in a throne, does this mean that they have power in heaven?

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  16. The passage in Revelation 4 regarding the 24 elders is one that has always sparked my interest. There is a wide range of views regarding exactly who the 24 elders are. The main argument that must be debated before any further discussion can take place is, as P. Long writes about, the angelic being vs. human debate.
    Personally, regarding this debate, I take the side of Charles C. Ryrie that these elders are 24 of the highest officials of the church age and the age of the Law. The opinion of some that the 24 elders are divided between 12 individuals from the nation of Israel and the 12 apostles causes several issues. One of these is that the appointing of Matthias after Judas’ suicide brings the number back to 12, but Paul apostle at the same position (Gal. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1, 9:1-2), leaving the number at 13. Nonetheless, there is a reason to see this view as a possibility.
    By having the 24 elders be understood as humans who are the “most qualified”, regardless of which Dispensation they are from, passages like Hebrews 11 help give insight as to the relationship individuals had with God that are largely not discussed in Scripture. Because what John saw was a vision, it is no doubt in my mind that some of those elders were individuals who came after his death and could possibly even be some who are alive today. Through the lens of Hebrews 11, a vision is cast that reveals that the relationship we see someone has with God could be only a glimpse of the depth of what the relationship truly is.

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