The Identity of the Twenty-Four Elders (Enthronement 4)

The number twelve in the Bible is often used as a symbol of God’s people. The most natural reading of the twenty-four elders, therefore, is that they represent God’s people on earth in their totality from both Old and New Testament times. There are a number of biblical evidences that support this assertion. For starters, in Matthew 19:28 Jesus tells His disciples that they would one day sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This verse ties together the number twelve (half of twenty-four), thrones, the apostles, and the twelve tribes.

In Rev. 21:12 the names of the twelves tribes are written on the gates of the New Jerusalem, while the twelve foundations have the names of the twelve apostles written on them (Rev. 21:14). This shows that the association between the number twelve, the tribes and the apostles can all be combined together in the book of Revelation. The number twenty-four in Revelation 4 and 5 adds twelve to twelve, as occurs also in Revelation 21.

In Revelation 7:4-8, furthermore, the people of God are described in terms of twelve times twelve times a thousand (144,000). The multiple of twelve is mentioned also in the height of the walls of the New Jerusalem, they are 144 cubits high (21:17). Combining all of this evidence confirms that the best explanation of the twenty-four elders is that they represent the people of God in both Old and New Testaments.

The most popular rival to the interpretation that sees the twenty-four elders as a symbol of the totality of God’s people is that they refer instead to a group of angelic beings along the lines of the four living creatures and the ten thousand times ten thousands of 5:11. The fact that they are in heaven and associated with other groups of angels stands in favor of such a view. But there are serious problems with such a conclusion. The twenty-four elders wear victory crowns (Greek: stephanos), are seated on thrones and are called elders. In all of the ancient world elsewhere angels are never depicted as wearing crowns, they are never seated on thrones and they are never called elders. If that were John’s intention here, it would be unique in the ancient world, which would require him to spell out his intention. It is not the way these symbols would naturally be read back then.

I conclude, therefore, that the twenty-four elders are not a group of angelic beings, but represent redeemed humanity taking up its role as “kings and priests” in the heavenly throne room. Since this scene occurs in the context of Jesus ascension to heaven, they elders may refer to the select group of “saints” that were raised from the dead at the time of the crucifixion and ascended with Jesus to heaven. But Jesus delays His entrance into the throne room to allow the elders to be seen there first and to be part of the entourage which welcomes the Lamb back to the throne.

The Biblical Concept of Worship (Enthronement 3)

In Rev. 4:11, the ground of worship is “because” God created all things. In Rev. 5:9 worship happens “because” (NIV) the Lamb was slain. In Rev. 11:17 the reason worship happens is “because” (NIV) God has begun to reign. While often translated “for” in English, all three verses use the Greek word hoti, which means the reason or the basis upon which an action is taken. God is worshiped “because” of what He has done. God is the focus of worship, and worship throughout the Bible is talking about, singing about, repeating the acts that God has done (Deut. 26:1-11; Psa 66:3-6; 78:5-15; 111:4). Worship even includes acting out the events of the cross through baptism (Rom. 6:3-4) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:26). Worship in the Bible is not about us, our feelings, or our duties. Worship is a recital of what God has done.

A corollary of this theme is the impact of worship on the worshipper. While worship itself is God-focused, it also has a powerful impact on us. The core principle here is that “we become like the God we worship.” Worship is focused on God, yet it changes us more than it changes Him. If our picture of God is arbitrary, severe, judgmental, and cruel, we become more and more like that. If our picture of God is kind, gracious, loving and forgiving, we become more and more like that. So worship is rather critical to the formation of human character. But since true worship is God-focused, the key to character formation is the kind of God we believe we are worshipping. So a right understanding of Scripture and the God portrayed there is vital in shaping the kind of person I am becoming.

On the other hand, “me-centered worship”, which focuses on my needs and what I am supposed to do, is virtually guaranteed to shape us in a twisted fashion. Behavioral scientists have noticed that extrinsic religion, which is performed under a sense of obligation or to please another, tends to be a negative for mental health. In contrast, intrinsic religion, which is performed joyfully out of inner conviction, has many benefits for mental health. So is worship good for us or bad for us? It depends on what kind we practice. One of the key factors in young people choosing to stay in the church is whether or not family worship was fun and interesting. If worship is something we choose to do because we want to, it is also good for us. If it is something we do because we feel we have to, it has a negative impact on health.

Is Rev. 4 a General Description or a One-Time Event? (Enthronement 2)

Three pieces of evidence indicate that the vision of Revelation chapter 4 does not portray a one-time event, but a general description of heavenly worship. 1) The throne in verse 2 is not set up, it “was standing” (NASB) continually in heaven (Greek: keitai, imperfect tense). In Daniel 7 the throne is “set up” (Greek aorist) in preparation for a special event. But the imperfect tense of Revelation 4:2 means continuous action in the past. The throne waaaaaaaaas there. At some point before the time of the vision the throne was already there and continued to be there. This suggests that what follows is not a one-time event, but a description of an on-going, repetitive scene.

2) The singing in verse 8 is not a single episode, it goes on “day and night.” The parallel to this is in the “day and night” accusations that Satan throws at the “brothers.” Just as Satan does not accuse God’s people at a single event in heaven (his accusations are extremely and annoyingly continuous), so the worship and praise in heavenly places occurs “day and night.” This is not a single event of worship in heaven, the vision is describing the ongoing worship that constantly continues there.

3) The singing of the four living creatures is continuously repetitive (Rev. 4:9– “whenever” in NIV, RSV). “Whenever the four living creatures give” (Greek: Hotan dôsousin ta zôa) praise to the One sitting on the throne, the twenty-four elders bow in worship. The English well expresses the continuous nature of the Greek. “Whenever” the four living creatures sing, the twenty-four elders respond. This is the language of continuous, ongoing worship. The scene of Revelation four is a general description of the worship that occurs in heaven, it is not describing a specific scene at a specific point in time. This sets the stage for Revelation five, where a moment of crisis occurs in heaven.

The Heavenly Vision of Revelation 4 and 5 (Enthronement 1)

The vision of Revelation 4-5 neatly divides into two parts. First, there is a general description of heavenly worship directed to the one sitting on the throne, God the Father (Rev. 4:1-11). Second, there is a moment of crisis in the heavenly throne room that is resolved by the appearance of the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev 5:1-14).

At the beginning of chapter four John is invited up to heaven for the first time (4:1). Chapter four is a general description of the continual worship of heaven, in which God the Father is worshiped on account of creation (Rev. 4:11). But chapter five is a one-time crisis event in heaven. A problem is presented that seems so large that even God cannot solve it (Rev. 5:1-4). But the matter is resolved by the appearance of the Lamb, the God-man Jesus Christ (see theme 5 below). He is worshiped because He was slain and this fact resolves the crisis in the universe (Rev. 5:5-14).

The vision of Revelation 4 and 5 introduces the following themes:

1. Is Revelation 4 a General Description of Heavenly Worship or a One-Time Event? The details of the text answer this question in a future blog.
2. The Biblical Concept of Worship. Worship is not about us, our feelings, or our duties. Worship is a recital of what God has done.
3. The Identity of the Twenty-Four Elders. The elders are not an angelic group, they represent the totality of God’s people.
4. The Meaning of the Sealed Scroll. The sealed scroll represents God’s plan of salvation.
5. The Worthiness of the Lamb. The Lamb is uniquely worthy to open the scroll because of His combination of humanity and divinity.
6. The Progression of the Five Hymns (Rev. 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12, 13) Underlines the Divinity of the Lamb.
7. The Cosmic Conflict Is the Unspoken Backdrop to this Heavenly Scene.

Laodicea and the Adventist Church (Churches 8)

How should Seventh-day Adventists apply the message of Revelation 3:18-21 to themselves? What is there in the text that could be applied to all Christians in every age? Gold can express the value we have in God’s eyes. There are three key symbols in the passage that form the core of the counsel that Jesus gives to Laodicea. 1) Gold can express the value we have in God’s eyes. Although Jesus Christ is the creator of the entire universe (John 1:3), He would have died just for one human being. That places an infinite value on each one of us. 2) White raiment would most naturally seem to represent the righteousness of Christ that is available to all who trust in Him. 3) Eye salve represents the spiritual discernment that helps us clearly see our need for Christ.

The core issue of Laodicea seems to be a lack of authenticity. What Laodicea claims about herself and what she actually is are two completely different things (Rev. 3:17). Hence Jesus’ diagnosis that Laodicea is repulsively lukewarm. Her claim to have the riches of Christ heads her in the right direction, but in reality the claim is proved to be false. The spiritual life that she claims isn’t real. In place of her failure to see the truth about herself, Laodicea is invited to use the recommended eye salve. In place of her satisfaction with a righteousness of her own making, she is invited to put on the righteousness of Christ. In place of her self-esteem based on the worthless riches she claims, Jesus offers a self-worth grounded in the value that he sees in her.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church from the beginning has struggled over its identity. On the one hand, there is the perception of its vast importance as the end-time people of God with a unique mission to fulfill. This can easily lead fallible humans to spiritual pride and inauthenticity. To a people who are called to present Jesus’ last message of mercy to the world, Jesus gives the warning that she herself can lose her way (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). She needs to see her condition and danger clearly, and take hold of the gospel for herself, before she can be effective in delivering the final gospel message to the world. In the words of a perceptive analogy, God’s evangelists are simply beggars telling all the other beggars where they can find bread. They cannot give what they do not have.

Although Jesus disciplines his church as needed (Rev. 3:19), He never forces anyone to follow Him. He gently invites us to “open the door” receive Him (3:20). That “door” has a latch only on the inside. But while the decision is ours to make, there is a powerful incentive to make that choice. Jesus holds out the promise to end all promises to Laodicea. If we identify with His death and resurrection (Rev. 3:21; 5:5-6), we will participate in His throne. As expressed by the gold tried in the fire, God sees infinite value in every human being, whether or not they have responded to Him. In a sense, he has chosen all to be saved (Eph. 1:3-14). But there is no compulsion in the gospel. God will never force anyone to love and trust Him. The invitation to receive Him, however, remains open. But if Laodicea is the final church of earth’s history, the door will not remain open forever. “Today, if you will hear His voice. . .” Psalm 95:7-8.

We can all take courage in the awareness that many ancient Christians remained faithful to God in the midst of godless cities. We today have been given the means to do the same.

The Women of Revelation (Churches 7)

There are four women portrayed in the visions of the book of Revelation. Two of them are positive figures and two of them are negative. The first of the four women is Jezebel, the leader of the church of Thyatira who is in opposition to the faithful ones there (Rev. 2:20-23). It is not clear from the text whether “Jezebel” is a symbol that refers to a specific leader of the local church (who could be either male or female), or represents the larger faction of the church as a whole.

The second woman of Revelation is the godly woman of Revelation 12 (Rev. 12:1-2, 5-6, 14-17). She seems to represent Israel as a whole, both Old Testament Israel and Judah (theocratic nation-states) and New Testament Israel (the church). The third woman of Revelation is prostitute Babylon (Rev. 17:1-7, 16). She is the counterpart of Jezebel, representing end-time opposition to God and His people. The Christian origin of Babylon is represented in the dress of prostitute Babylon, she is dressed like the High Priest of the Old Testament sanctuary system (Rev 17:4). The fourth woman of Revelation is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8). She represents the faithful people of God at the close of earth’s history.

All four women in the visions of Revelation are ultimately associated with the church, either positively or negatively. If the first part of the message to Thyatira represents the medieval church, then the two images are very closely related. Opposition to Christ often wears a Christian face, and is prophesied to do so again in the period leading up to the Second Coming of Jesus (Rev 19:11-1). Similarly, the woman of Revelation 12 represents the faithful people of God throughout history. The bride of the Lamb (Rev. 19), on the other hand, represents the faithful people of God at the very end of history. So it stands to reason that Babylon (Rev. 17-18) represents opposition to God from within the church as a whole at the end of time. “Woman” in Revelation represents both the best and the worst of human interaction with God.

Laodicea and the Final Era of Earth’s History (Churches 6)

Seventh-day Adventists have often seen the message to Laodicea as applying particularly to the church at the end of time. This connection was based largely on two things. 1) The belief that the seven churches represent stages of the Christian church from the time of John to the Second Coming of Jesus. 2) Laodicea is the seventh and last of the churches, thus must represent what the church would be like in the time just before the Second Coming of Jesus. But since there is no overwhelming evidence that the primary purpose of the seven churches is as a prophecy of Christian history, it would be helpful to discover some exegetical indications that the church of Laodicea is truly the last church of the Christian era.

I was excited, therefore, to discover the striking parallel between Revelation 3:18 and Revelation 16:15. These are the only two texts in the Bible that contain four major and unusual words in combination. Both verses have the Greek words for “seeing” (Greek: blepô), “clothing” (Greek: himation), “shame” (Greek: aischunê, aschêmosunê) and “nakedness” (Greek: gumnotês, gumnos). This parallel is quite striking in the original language. There is an intention link between the core of the Laodicean message and the primary message in the midst of the Battle of Armageddon.

In the midst of the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:14-16) there is a call to end-time watchfulness that echos the language of several New Testament texts that emphasize the importance of readiness for the Second Coming of Jesus (Matt 24:42; Luke 12;37-40; 1 Thess 5:2). But Revelation 16:15 also echos the language of Laodicea (cf. 3:18). In the midst of the final battle of earth’s history, there is a call to get ready for the Second Coming of Jesus in the language of the message to Laodicea. This is striking evidence that Laodicea represents the final church of earth’s history.

The Message to Thyatira Is Different (Churches 5)

As mentioned earlier, the churches of Revelation as a whole exhibit spiritual decline. That is also clearly manifested within the messages to Ephesus, Pergamum and Sardis. Ephesus has left its first love (Rev 2:4). Pergamum is in the process of compromise away from the faithfulness of Smyrna. Sardis is a church that still has a great name, but the reality is now far from its reputation (Rev 3:1-4).

The message to Thyatira goes against the grain of the other messages in several ways. First of all, it is twice as long as the other six messages, a full twelve verses in contrast to the four to nine verses of the other messages (average length is six and a half verses). This doubling of length is fitting to Thyatira’s role at the center of the chiasm.

Second, it is the only church whose faithful members merit the title of “remnant” (the “rest” [Greek: loipois] in Thyatira– Rev 2:24, KJV). The remnant of Thyatira are the faithful ones who are not following after “Jezebel.” This faithful remnant is encouraged to hold fast until Jesus comes.

Third, Thyatira is the only church that as a whole is described as improving spiritually. Jesus says that their “latter works exceed the first” (Rev 2:19, ESV). This encouragement is offered before any mention of a faithful remnant (2:24). While all the other churches are either in decline or holding steady, Thyatira was already improving when Jesus came to deliver His message to the church. Placed at the center of the chiasm of the seven churches, this positive message means that all the churches are capable of the changes Jesus calls them to. While Satan accuses in order to discourage and distract, Jesus and the Holy Spirit rebukes in order to encourage and to heal.

Christianity’s Greatest Advance and Its Contemporary Consequences (Churches 4)

Seventh-day Adventists and many others in the course of Christian history have applied the message to Philadelphia to the great revival of Protestantism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This great revival motivated the church to carry the gospel to the whole world. It resulted in the greatest expansion of Christianity throughout the world since the time of Pentecost.

But there was a dark side to this expansion which has become evident today. Missionary endeavors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries too often rode on the back of the West’s colonial expansion in the economic and political realms. The wealth and educational advantages that came along with co-operation with the colonial powers created a major temporal advantage for Christian mission. Resisting Christian evangelism under those circumstances was like trying to swim against the tide.

As a result, many non-Christian peoples today see Christianity as a self-serving tool of Western imperialism rather than a humble, self-effacing movement that seeks to improve the lives of others. This attitude is increasingly found even in the more “Christian” parts of the world. Christianity as a whole is on the defensive today. In this context manipulation or political involvement of any kind on the part of the church plays into the negative stereotypes that have arisen. The gospel message can no longer rely on political, economic or social support for its success. It has been thrown back to Jesus’ original plan of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Encouragement in Trouble (Churches 3)

When you look at the seven churches as a whole, two things stand out. First, from beginning to end they seem to be in a state of decline. Second, the rebukes from Jesus become more and more serious. The churches at Ephesus and Smyrna are faithful churches, the only blot on their record is that Ephesus has a deficiency of love. But as you go through the churches things seem to decline from Pergamum through Sardis until you get to Laodicea, where Jesus cannot think of anything good to say about the church. While the message to Philadelphia is a positive one, the church is much weaker than Smyrna.

A similar pattern can be observed in the rebukes offered by Jesus to the churches. In the message to Ephesus, there is a threat that Jesus will take a closer look at them. This is the very beginning stages of a discipline process. Laodicea, on the other hand, is in such serious condition it makes Jesus feel like vomiting. This is a serious picture.

But these observations combine with an observation that is the most encouraging part of the messages to the seven churches. There is a steady expansion in the weight of promises that Jesus makes to the churches. The first church gets one promise: The tree of life. The second church gets two: The crown of life and deliverance from the second death. The third church gets three promises: the hidden manna, the white stone, and a new name. The fourth church gets four promises, the fifth church gets five, and the sixth church gets six. Each of the first six churches gets more promises than the church before, and the seventh church, Laodicea, gets the promise to end all promises, the overcomers there will sit with Jesus on His throne.

So here is an amazing pattern. As the condition of the churches declines, and as the rebukes of Jesus become more and more severe, the promises of Jesus likewise abound more and more. The worse things get, the greater the grace and power that God exerts. The spiritual implications of these observations are self-evident. The deeper the problems a person may have in life, the more powerful is the grace of Jesus Christ. This message speaks as powerfully for us today as it did in ancient times.