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. Revelation 4:4 ESV
The appearance of the 24 Elders in the Heavenly Temple is a bit of a mystery. I don’t believe it’s a critical puzzle piece, but it’s an interesting one to ponder. I have reasons to question the traditional pretribulation teachings on this and I hope to present why below.
Do the 24 Elders Represent the Raptured Church?
The traditional pretribulation view identifies the elders as human representatives of the raptured Church, perhaps including the apostles. Other views consider they may be the 12 sons of Israel and the 12 apostles. John MacArthur, in his book Because the Time is Near, suggests that the reasons behind this include:
- their description as “elders” (angels do not age)
- they are wearing white garments (typically representing righteousness, although angels also wear white garments – Rev 3:5, 3:18, 19:8)
- they are wearing crowns of reward (perhaps suggesting they have gone through the Bema Judgment of Christ – Rev 2:10, 2 Tim 4:8, James 1:12).
Difficulties With the 24 Elders Representing the Church
Before we get any further, I actually believe this view cannot be true. I don’t think it negates the pretribulation rapture in any way, but I just don’t believe the 24 Elders can represent the Church.
The Elders appear in the throne room of God before the Lamb appears. There is no way that the raptured Church would appear in heaven before the Lamb. As David Lowe asks in his book Earthquake Resurrection, “Where is Jesus? Is He playing some heavenly game of hide and seek?”
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. Revelation 5:1-6 ESV
Before Jesus died, no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll. When Jesus died, He paid the price to ransom humanity and all of creation back to Himself. We know that Jesus is the firstborn of the resurrected, therefore no humans could have been resurrected from the dead and glorified before Him. Since we know that the rapture of the church is yet future, these elders can’t be a part of it.
It seems that the vision John has in Revelation chapters 4-5 is a separate vision from prior and subsequent visions. Revelation 4-5 goes BACK in time from John’s day, and shows him the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God from a heavenly vantage point.
Who is Singing – Them or Us?
I don’t want to get into a KJV-only discussion here (see Gotquestions – KJV only), but I side with the majority of other Bible translations in Revelation 5, 20, and 22 due to an examination of the interlinear Greek:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they [adousin, Strong’s 103 – referring to the four living creatures and 24 elders grouping] sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people [ek, Strong’s 1537 – “out of (men)”] for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them [autous, Strong’s 846 – 356 occurrences, all translated “them”] a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they [basileusousin, Strong’s 936 – 4 occurrences] – shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:8-10 ESV
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they [esontai, Strong’s 1510, 36 occurrences, “will be”] will reign [basileusousin, Strong’s 936 – 4 occurrences “they will reign”] with him for a thousand years. Revelation 20:6 ESV
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign [basileusousin, Strong’s 936 – 4 occurrences “they will reign”] in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Romans 5:17 ESV
And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign [basileusousin, Strong’s 936 – 4 occurrences “they will reign”] forever and ever. Revelation 22:5 ESV
I believe the KJV translators introduced their bias here, and I can’t agree with them in their interpretation. The reason for this is that you will note that the four living creatures (the cherubim) are speaking WITH and are grouped WITH the 24 elders. We know that Jesus did not ransom the cherubim (or any other angels, for that matter), nor will the 4 living creatures be a kingdom and priests to our God. The cherubim will not reign on the earth. Thus, the grouping of cherubim + elders cannot be “us”.
The 24 Elders are seated on thrones in HEAVEN, around God’s throne. The 12 disciples and the church will help Jesus rule in His EARTHLY kingdom, for 1000 years. The location of the thrones and rules are different between the 24 Elders and the Apostles/Church.
The non-KJV translations are correct in this instance in stating “them” and “they” (not “us” and “we”).
I also want to point you to Revelation chapter 7, where John asks one of the elders who the “great multitude” is, clothed in white robes:
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
I believe this group is the newly resurrected/raptured body of Christ seen in heaven, coming away from great tribulation unfurling in their wake. The elder does not see himself as part of this group and uses the words “them” and “they” in this passage as well.
There are two possibilities as to the type of being the elders are, and I believe both are equally conceivable. The first, is an angelic order. This is well described by David Lowe in his book “Earthquake Resurrection”. The second, is that the 24 elders are humans who represent the age of conscience (pre-Law, pre-Grace), during the first approximately 2000 years of humanity. This is detailed by Douglas Berner in his book “When God Intervenes”. Let’s examine both of these possibilities further.
Are the Elders Human?
Let’s look at the word Elders – presbyterous. This word is used in the New Testament to describe older men, yes, but it is also an office in the temple (“rulers and elders and scribes”), and later in the church (“appointed elders”). So the elders could be human, but they also could be angels serving in an official temple role. We know that the earthly Temple was a parallel to the heavenly Temple.
What about their white robes? Yes, the saved elect will receive white robes of righteousness. Must the white robes be robes of righteousness? “Peribeblemenous”, or to be clothed, is used in this instance to describe the elders. This word is also used in Revelation 7 to describe the Lamb, who is clothed in white robes. The garments, or “himatiois”, describe what the elders wear, what the overcomers will wear (Rev 3:5), as well as fine garments of the wealthy in Luke 7:25. Angels are always seen clothed in white in heaven. While the redeemed will wear white robes, we are not the only ones who wear white robes. Thus, the robes do not definitively identify the elders.
The crowns the elders are wearing are “stephanous”, which is specifically used only for the elders in Revelation (when doing a search in Strong’s concordance). It is used to describe the crowns they wear as well as the crowns they cast before the Lamb. Closely related crowns are the “stephanoi” – which is worn by the demon locust horde in Revelation 9; the “stephanon” – which is the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion, the golden crown worn by Jesus when he comes to reap the world in Revelation 14, as well as the crowns of glory and life given to believers (overcomers) as rewards in heaven; “stephanos” – which is a crown of rejoicing or righteousness, the crown worn by the first rider when Seal 1 is opened, and the crown of stars worn in the sun/moon/star sign in Revelation 12. As we can see, related “crowns” are worn by demons, Jesus, anti-Christ type political figures, constellations, and humans. It is safe to say that the specific crown worn by the 24 elders is unique to them, since the specific word “stephanous” is only used to describe their crowns. The crowns are not definitively associated with the Bema seat crowns, and do not identify the elders specifically as human or angelic.
In his book Earthquake Resurrection, David Lowe presents a fascinating discussion on the transfer of the Levitical Priesthood to the Order of Melchizedek. In 1 Chronicles 24, King David establishes 24 divisions of the priesthood under Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar – these were to be officials of the holy place, designated by God. These 24 men were to carry out priestly duties in support of the high priest in the new temple that would be built by David’s son Solomon. The Levitical priesthood was a shadow, or “type”, of what was to come and of what is in heaven. Hebrews 7:11 ESV – “So if perfection had in fact been possible through the Levitical priesthood – for on that basis the people received the law – what further need would there have been for another priest to arise, said to be in the order of Melchizedek and not in Aaron’s order?” And Hebrews 8:6 – “but now Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises”. And Hebrews 5:9-10 ESV “And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, and he was designated by God as high priest in the order of Melchizedek”.
Q = So, when did this transfer of priesthood occur?
A = At Jesus’ baptism.
John the Baptist was from the priestly line of Aaron and Levi through both his parents. In Leviticus, the transfer of priesthood from father to son occurred with a washing of water and an anointing with oil on the son’s head. At Jesus’ baptism, he was submerged in water by a Levitical priest (John did not serve in the corrupt temple priesthood, but in the wilderness as a voice crying – prepare the way of the Lord). His Father was present, and the Holy Spirit anointed him. At the point of this transfer, 24 elders (an order of angels, separate from the 4 cherubim and other ministering angels) would now be appointed ministers in the heavenly temple to serve the Melchizedek high priest – Jesus Christ. Their absence from OT visions of the heavenly Temple was because the transfer of the priesthood had not yet occurred. One challenge to this view is that Douglas Berner points out that the Levitical priesthood rotated through these 24 positions, whereas the 24 Elders seem permanently appointed to their position.
Lowe correctly identifies the main issue with the 24 elders being human – when they praise God, they are always grouped alongside the cherubim, separate from the humans (or at least, from the multitudes of them). Revelation 5:8-10 “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” The 24 elders and the cherubim together praise Jesus for ransoming people and making them a kingdom and priests who will reign on the earth with Him. The 24 elders will not reign with Jesus, but are stationed around God’s heavenly throne along with the four living creatures.
In When God Intervenes, Douglas Berner presents another fascinating option. He discusses that the 24 elders are seated on thrones surrounding God. The apostles and the overcomers will sit with Jesus on His throne in the Messianic Kingdom, not in the heavenly temple. The thrones the 24 elders sit on suggest judgment (Dan 7:9-10). They appear throughout the book of Revelation and comment how God’s actions are just and true. As judges, the elders are witnesses against mankind and the fallen angels. They say “Amen” to the judgments of God as they are unleashed.
For John to call the “elders”, the elders must have seniority over John – they are not his contemporaries or peers. He does not recognize them, so he can’t be one of them. They are a type of first-born or ancestor – not Israel, nor the Church, but preceding both of these.
In Matthew 27:51-53, alongside the resurrection of Jesus, there was a resurrection of “many saints” into resurrection bodies:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
We aren’t given details of how many or the identities of these OT saints (too bad, as the number 24 here would have been a wonderful clue!), and they only appear in Matthew’s account. It also does not tell us when these saints were taken into heaven (was it hours? days?). There is an aura of mystery surrounding the identity of these “many saints”!
The Bible is clear that after after our resurrection we will face the judgment seat of Christ and it is reasonable to assume that these “many saints” did as well. The timing of their judgment for rewards could have happened in the interim between the resurrection of Jesus and His ascension, when Jesus spent 40 days appearing (and disappearing) from the earth to further counsel His disciples. This would explain how the elders could be seen in heaven with their rewards (crowns, thrones, and robes of righteousness) before the Lamb appears to take the scroll (at the ascension, where Jesus has remained ever since).
Jesus makes many appearances on earth in this 40 day period, but nothing states He didn’t spend much of His time in heaven. Is the identification of the “many saints” that were resurrected alongside Jesus as firstfruits these 24 elders? There was a lengthy history of mankind before God established Israel as a nation, and representatives from this group do not appear elsewhere in the book of Revelation.
In support of this view, there are 24 Patriarchs listed in the line of the promised seed between Adam and the 12 tribes of Israel: Adam, Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Arphaxad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and then either Judah and Pharez or Japheth and Ham. (Berner gives rationale for the choices in his book). These 24 elders would then be God’s human record of the history of mankind before the written word of the Bible – they can attest to God’s dealings with mankind from the very beginning of creation, and the righteousness of His judgements.
The order would be something like this:
- Jesus’ Death
- Jesus’ Resurrection + Resurrection of “Many Saints”
- Jesus takes “Many Saints” to Heaven and Gives Them Their Rewards – these become the 24 Elders (?)
- Jesus Appears to Apostles and Many, Over 40 Day Time Period
- Jesus’ Ascension Day 40 – Appears in Heaven as the Slain Lamb at the Right Hand of the Father, Takes the 7-Sealed Scroll
- Jesus Remains at Right Hand of God, Holding The Scroll Until the Fullness of the Gentiles Comes In (Church Age – Romans 11:25)
Note that immediately upon His resurrection, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to touch Him yet – Jesus said unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. John 20:17. Eight days later, Jesus allows Thomas, and perhaps others, to touch Him – Then said He to Thomas, “Reach hither thy finger and behold My hands, and reach hither thy hand and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing.” John 20:27. This suggests that Jesus has been up in heaven at least once in that time frame – perhaps to take the many saints to heaven and give them their rewards.
I believe that the 24 elders cannot represent the raptured church, because they appear in heaven BEFORE Jesus appears as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The 24 elders are grouped in with the 4 living creatures (the cherubim), and contrasted with “them” – those who are saved by the blood of the Lamb from all tribes, languages, peoples, and nations. I strongly believe that this large grouping of “them” appears in heaven in Revelation chapter 7, which I also strongly believe is a pretribulation timing.
The identity of the 24 elders might be an angelic order that serves in the heavenly temple, after the order of Melchizedek. Alternately, the identity of the 24 elders might be a human order representing the patriarchs of humanity before the call of Abraham. These might be the mysterious “many saints” who were resurrected along with Jesus and appeared to many in Jerusalem.
Of the two views, I believe the case for the patriarchs is very strong.
Are you CERTAIN of your Salvation, beyond a shadow of a doubt? Do you KNOW that no matter when the rapture occurs, you will be counted worthy to escape? If not, please read What Must I do to Be Saved.
The Bible is infallible. I am not. I am merely challenging traditional models and testing them against Scripture. I believe that traditional pretribulation teachings provide a solid backbone upon which to lay the musculature of details, some of which I think might need to be adjusted slightly. I encourage you to consider my thoughts as you also examine the scriptures to see if these things are so!