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.

6 thoughts on “The Identity of the Twenty-Four Elders (Enthronement 4)

  1. Kevin H

    Although I have never taken a class with you, I really enjoyed the conversations we use to have at Andrews and I really appreciate your posts here. I hope that you don’t mind if I give another suggestion. This is not original to me, but was taught at Atlantic Union College when I was there in the late 1970s early 1980s.

    Revelation 4 has the throne of God, with elements of the trinity (as we get into chapter 5). Then we have the 24 elders and finally the four living creatures. The four living creatures are the creatures for the four sides of the war camp of Israel, their camping locations along the trip of the exodus. What was suggested at AUC is that the four living creatures represent God’s people as we are on our exodus through this world going to the promised land.

    So then who are the 24 elders? They are the ones communicating from the throne of God to the four living creatures. They are the ones that tell us who is able to open the scroll (of history, since the sin problem should have ended all life and thus prevent any history, but the lamb was able to open up history). The 24 elders are the testimony of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, or the word of God.

    An additional piece of information that I learned from Methodist archaeologist, Dr. Jim Fleming, is that if it is the same John in Revelation as the book of John, he had seen 24 elders once before. The Sanhedrin needed 23 elders and the high priest to make a quorum, or 24 elders. Often in dealing with possible messiahs the Sanhedrin would meet with ONLY 23 Sadducees and the high priest and NO Pharisees. They would hold a kangaroo court with witnesses who would contradict each other on purpose then either take the poor guy out to stone them to death or if the possible Messiah was too popular they would turn them over to Rome so that they were hung on a tree. Jews believed that only someone cursed by God, God’s enemy would be allowed to hang on a tree so this would ruin their reputation.

    If both John’s are the same one, he saw 24 elders giving a false testimony about Christ. Now he sees the 24 elders who give the true testimony of Christ. Again indicating the testimony of the tribes and apostles.

  2. Robert Whiteman

    The Levites were considered as the first fruits, and were sustained in part by the redemption of all the first fruits of the other 12 tribes(along with the tithe). Among the Priests 24 divisions(1 Chron 24) were set up. As in the type, so is the reality(anti-type). That these 24 elders are “first fruits” of the True Israel from earth is clear, for by their own admission they are “redeemed” from the earth(Rev 5:9,10 KJV). The only Biblical evidence suggests many came with Jesus after His resurrection when ascending, perhaps including those whom we know were translated and resurrected prior to Jesus’ resurrection. Notice they are from “every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;”. Reasonable to believe they speak for all who will be redeemed as well, which they are but the first fruits of.

    Concerning the 4 living creatures, I have yet to find a clear and peaceful solution. Kevin’s suggestion gives more food for thought.

    p.s. just discovered this blog and will look further into it with great interest.

  3. Robert Whiteman

    On the road since the 18th, so a little late in my reply.

    I had to go and look into why I had that understanding, and I believe it comes from Numbers 3, where God claimed Levi in the place of all the firstborn in Israel. So not first fruits as I had mentioned. I believe it was just my confusion between the two terms. First born, not first fruits, yet the idea is similar.


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