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.