During my study of the book of Revelation, I decided to dig deeper into the identity of the 24 elders that are first introduced to John in Revelation 4:4. I will be presenting my thoughts on who I believe the elders represent based on scripture mainly in the book of Revelation.
Timing of events
Before getting into the identity of the elders, I first want to talk about how I feel the events in Revelation occurs using chapter 5 as an example, specifically the timing in which Jesus appears in heaven to take the sealed scroll.
At the time John arrived in heaven after talking to the glorified Jesus from Revelation 1-3, there is no one with the ability to open the sealed book which should be noted, “And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon.” (Revelation 5:3-4). I personally believe that the book of Revelation isn’t linear and part of the reason I hold onto that belief is the next couple of verses in which the person that IS worthy to unseal this book appears,
“And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat upon the throne… And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation…” (Revelation 5:5-7, 9)
I think that any Christian that’s familiar with the imagery used with Jesus (Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Lamb that was slain) won’t be surprised to realize that this is Jesus appearing here in heaven taking the sealed book. The timing that I said we need to pay attention to earlier has to do with Jesus appearing in heaven, taking the sealed book, and beginning to unseal this book in relation to where and WHEN Jesus and John were beforehand when Jesus was addressing the letters to the 7 churches. In Revelation 1:10, John says that he was “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” – the Lord’s Day being a reference to the tribulation – so he’s letting us know that he’s seeing into the future with these events. In Revelation 5 we see that the person that’s worthy to take the sealed book isn’t in heaven at this moment. In fact, he’s not on earth either or even under the earth, “And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon” (Revelation 5:3).
This language and specification of locations to me is interesting. We can assume that this man they’re referencing before revealing him later is Jesus, the lamb that WAS slain, “And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain… And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood” (Revelation 5:6, 9). When Jesus appears in heaven at this moment John as well as the 4 beasts and 24 elders regard Jesus as the lamb that was slain, immediately as he appears in heaven. This leads me to believe that before he appeared, he hadn’t yet been slain so he couldn’t have been resurrected and ascended to heaven yet. This would make sense as Jesus is the one appointed to unseal this book but he cant do it as he is if he’s still on earth ministering. He physically couldn’t do it because he wasn’t in heaven and he also hadn’t yet completed his mission and returned to his divine state after his resurrection. I also believe that the location references was part of this, especially the “under the earth” portion which is most likely a reference Jesus was in hell before his resurrection as written in Acts 2:22-28. He definitely couldn’t open it at that time either. However, after he ascends and arrives in heaven at the right hand of the father, in all his glory and majesty, he can continue his role in heaven. So John at this point could have been seeing into the past, a past time in which Jesus was yet to be resurrected and ascend to heaven. I believe that if John wasn’t seeing past events then there would be slight disconnect with the nature of events.
“And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain…” (Revelation 5:6)
Specifically, we know that Jesus at the time of addressing the letters to the 7 churches was in his resurrected, glorified form, meaning that he already ascended to heaven and must have taken the scroll. Following this logic, how could it be declared right after those letters are written and John goes up to heaven that there was no one on or under earth or in heaven who could open the sealed book even though Jesus was already “there” to open it and he is the lamb that was slain? Could the passage simply mean that he wasn’t physically in heaven at the time to open it even though he was resurrected? But if that’s the case then where else could he be if not on or under the earth or in heaven? Once we realize that the events may not be in a linear fashion as written, the passage makes more sense timing wise. On to the 24 elders!
The “male-child” of Revelation 12
Before the 7th seal is opened 12,000 people from the 12 tribes of Israel are sealed on their foreheads (Revelation 8:3-8). The identity of these 144,00 brings up an interesting discussion but not one I want to get into now. After this, John suddenly sees a great multitude of people appearing in heaven, “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands…” (Revelation 7:9). At first I thought the multitude could be a picture of the raptured Church due to the timing of the elders being in heaven before Christ appears but what stumped me was the identity of the 24 elders seated around the throne. These elders are wearing white robes representing salvation through Christ seen in Revelation 3:5 and Revelation 3:18 and crowns representing rewards they get which Jesus frequently references throughout the letters to the 7 Churches in Revelation 2:10 and Revelation 3:11 – one of them being the crown of life. The elders are also seating on thrones. To note in the KJV it says in Revelation 4:4 that the 24 elders are in “seats” not specifically stating thrones, “…and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting…”. In the Greek however, the word used for “seat” is “thronos” which is used to exemplify a position of power often used when talking about God sitting on his throne in other new testament passages using the same word. From this it’s safe to say the imagery of the elders on thrones is alluding to the position of power they’re in which is another reward the church is promised if they overcome; the Church will be given power to rule over nations with a rod of iron, “And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father. And I will give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26-28). This idea of a rod of iron being inherited from Christ is also exemplified in Revelation 12 concerning the “great sign in heaven” which to summarize, depicts the rapture story of the church as well as Satan’s persecution of Israel (or attempt there of) ,
“And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” (Revelation 12:4-6)
From these passages, we clearly see that the description of the elders mirrors exactly what Jesus tells the church to expect if we overcome; to receive white clothes, a crown, and a rod of iron to rule over the nations along with Christ. Revelation 20:4 also called my attention due to the fact that it emphasizes those on the throne and those that were beheaded rule and reign with Christ 1,000 years which is part of the first resurrection. As I said earlier I don’t think Revelation is written in a linear fashion and I will touch on this once more again at the end of the article. This verse to me seems to first be a recap of John seeing the elders for the first time in Revelation 4:4, the 5th seal being opened in Revelation 6:9-11 revealing the souls under the alter which I believe are saints killed throughout history before the tribulation (the key being they ask how long they need to wait to be avenged), and the great multitude appearing in Revelation 7:9 which will be killed for their new found faith in Christ and rejecting the mark of the beast. Revelation 20:4 reads like this,
“And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.”
John in Revelation 20 may have been summarizing what Revelation 4, 6, and 7 said but is summarizing the events and bringing it to this specific location in the Bible to serve a different purpose most likely to redirect us, the reader, to start focusing on the millennium. In Revelation 20:3 an angel just threw Satan into the bottomless pit where he’ll be detained for 1,000 years and after this is when John summarizes the events but this time includes “…and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years”. Another idea that comes to mind is that John could have simply seen these 3 groups of believers in Christ from different points in history now come together as one finally at this specific time. We’ll look into this idea more once we examine the multitude.
The Great Multitude
Although I see many connections with what Christ promises those who overcome and what the 24 elders are identified with, the main point that led me to begin believing that the elders may be a picture of the newly raptured church rather than the multitude that “suddenly” appears however, is because one of the elders states something very important to John that I surprisingly glanced over without thinking, “And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). This verse changed my thinking around. After doing some research I discovered that the Greek in the statement “these are they which came out of great tribulation” needed to be examined. I looked at the Greek word for “to come” or translated here as “came out” which is “erchomai” in Greek. The root word is defined on Blue Letter Bible as “Middle voice of a primary verb (used only in the present and imperfect tenses…)”. In Greek the imperfect tense denotes a continuing situation in the past rather than a single event. Likewise, the present form denotes something currently taking place. From this we see that the Greek tells a different story than the English translation offers. If we reword what the elder told John keeping in mind what we know the Greek word for “to come” means, it would translate to “These are they which (have been and) are continually coming out of great tribulation…”.
The multitude aren’t just a large group of people that appeared in heaven once which I believed earlier but they are appearing in heaven continually most likely due to the fact that they are being killed for their faith as discussed earlier in relation to Revelation 20:4. The rapture is a quick event that occurs at once not over a period of time as we can see in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 in which Paul tells us in the twinkling of an eye the dead will be raised and we’ll be changed. Due to this fact, when I leaned on the English translation alone, I thought the multitude were raptured once. Earlier, I quickly introduced a 2nd idea I believe would explain Revelation 20:4 and linked it to the multitude. In light of how I believe the multitude could be appearing in heaven (over a span of time), all believers in Christ could possibly be shown together here which we wouldn’t have seen earlier in Revelation, again due to the timing; the souls under the alter and the 24 elders show a pre-trib rapture but the multitude are coming out of great tribulation. Between the time of the multitude appearing and Revelation 20:4, we don’t know how much time passes but we can assume that by now everyone on earth who had faith in Christ and didn’t worship the beast or its image aren’t on earth any longer because they make up one of the 3 groups of believers in heaven.
Now something I want to leave you with is this question concerning the timing of events: If we believe the book of Revelation isn’t written in a linear fashion and from Revelation 5:1-3 we see that at a certain point Jesus, the one worthy to open the seals, isn’t able to yet and isn’t even present in heaven yet to open it, but the elder that tells John that Jesus later appears in heaven is the one worthy to open it…how is it that the elders have preceded Christ to heaven if we say they’re the newly raptured church? How does that timing work? A possible idea I have for this is that at the time John was taken to heaven in the spirit and he sees the elders and the 4 beasts in Revelation 4, this is the “base” timeline he’s currently experiencing, meaning in Revelation 5:1-3 he may be seeing a vision of the “past” in which Jesus was yet to ascend to the throne.
I say this because Revelation 5:1 begins with “And I saw…”. This may be him seeing in real time or seeing a vision of a different time from the one he’s currently experiencing. I think this idea is supported due to the fact that an angel in verse 2 is the one asking who can open the scroll not one of the elders. I think this is key because in verse 5, an elder was the one to approach John concerning the matter and not the angel maybe because he wasn’t in that specific time period of the angel but of the elder? This detail may actually not be significant and it just happened that the angel had that specific “role” to play in the passage while the elder served another purpose; just an idea nonetheless as I was trying to uncover the identity of the 24 elders. We need to also keep in mind that technically speaking, our definition of time here on earth is vastly different than heaven.
If you enjoyed this study, you can find similar studies on the book of Revelation here including the 7 Churches of Revelation, the 4 living creatures, 4 Horseman, etc.