Tag Archives: theol

The Controversy Over the 24 Elders

It is interesting to me that the identity of the 24 elders has suddenly become controversial within the SDA Church. It is a concept that is introduced in Revelation but is not defined in Revelation. Given that reality, I don’t think we ought to make this topic a subject of dispute or orthodoxy. But since it is being discussed this week, let me address the problem briefly. I have published two articles in a General Conference book that address the issue of Ellen White’s use of Revelation and I will share more detail at a later time. You can reference these articles in Frank B. Holbrook, editor, Symposium on Revelation—Book II, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, Volume 6, Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD: 1992, pages 163-172 and 363-373. These articles were specifically included because the Committee realized that many Adventists tend to ignore the text of Revelation as long as they have a “convincing” statement from Ellen White on what it means. But Adventists are to take their primary authority from the Bible and the Bible only. This was re-affirmed in the changes voted to the Fundamental Beliefs in 2015.

The argument that the 24 elders are angels seems grounded primarily in four statements of Ellen White, two in private letters (Letter 65, 1898 and Letter 79, 1900), one in Great Controversy, page 613 and one in Signs of the Times, January 4, 1883. Letter 65, 1898 makes that point clearly (the “angel” that spoke to John in Rev 5:5 “is an elder”), the other three sources rather less so. GC 613 and the ST reference speak of angels laying off their crowns, which could be understood as an allusion to Revelation 4:10, where the elders “cast their crowns before the throne” (KJV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, ESV). But the wording of Ellen White is too imprecise to imply these statements are attempts to interpret Revelation 4 and 5. The references certainly echo the language of Revelation, but fall short of a quote or certain allusion. Ellen White was filled with the language of the King James Bible and it spills out everywhere without necessarily implying her intent to interpret the text where that language is originally used. So the two published statements are unclear for the purpose of definitively defining who the 24 elders are.
Letter 79, 1900 has holy angels joining the redeemed in the song of Revelation 5:9-10. That is evident also from the text of Revelation. The four living creatures and the elders (Rev 5:8) sing the song of Revelation 5:9-10. But if the four living creatures are angels, who are the “redeemed” that sing this song if not the 24 elders themselves? So this particular statement could actually be read to support the idea that the elders are “redeemed” humanity, as stated in this week’s lesson.

That leaves Letter 65, 1898 as the primary evidence for insisting passionately that it is apostasy for an Adventist to believe that the 24 elders are redeemed humanity. In this letter Ellen White seems to clearly say that at least one of the elders, the one speaking to John in Revelation 5:5, is an angel. This statement as written goes beyond the biblical text, which does not define elders in this way. So there are several possibilities. 1) Ellen White saw in vision that the elders in John’s vision were actually angels. 2) Ellen White had no definitive revelation on the subject but shared what was common understanding of Revelation 5 in her time. 3) The letter may have been written at a time when she was not at her best (illness, lack of sleep) and thus did not represent her clearest thinking. That might explain why you don’t find this kind of statement in her published works.

To use a private letter to defend ignoring exegesis of the biblical text flies in the face of two emphases of Ellen White herself. First, her own understanding on any subject should be based on her published works, which were carefully edited and generalized for public use (5T 696, see also 1 SM 66, TM 33). Second, her writings should not be used in place of the Bible or to undermine what the Bible itself says (5T 663-668). So a controverted point like this should not be settled on the basis of a single statement in a private letter, particularly when the best biblical evidence points in another direction. The number 24 recalls the priests in the temple (1 Chr 24:3-19) and the New Jerusalem (12 apostles and 12 tribes). Matthew 19:28-30 describes the 12 apostles as tribal heads of Israel. But even more significant, nowhere else in the Bible are angels called elders, sit on thrones, or wear victory crowns. If the elders of Revelation are angels, John would need to say so, since they are described in ways that never apply to angels elsewhere in Scripture. So the weight of biblical evidence falls on the likelihood that the 24 elders of Revelation represent redeemed humanity.

I do not wish to contribute to controversy on this matter. I respect those who disagree and grant that they have a good point. I am only seeking to demonstrate that attempts to argue a “true Adventist position” once and for all on this matter go beyond the available evidence. The consensus of Adventist scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s, as published in the above-mentioned book, was that the elders of Revelation represented redeemed humanity. That doesn’t guarantee the correctness of the opinion, but it should not be ignored either. And the editors of Sabbath School lesson are not in apostasy for having taken that position. In eternity we will know for sure. Let us be charitable to one another on the way there.