Who are the Twenty-Four Elders?

It was inevitable (in a good way): the people of CHBC have asked for a more robust explanation of my view of the twenty-four elders surrounding God’s throne in Revelation 4 & 5. Maybe more precisely, they want to know why I argue (graciously and humbly) that the twenty-four elders are angelic beings and not humans. So, I would like to take a moment and provide a little clarity to my view.

First, I would like to provide a brief overview of the possible options currently available in larger Christendom (thanks to G.K. Beale). The twenty-four elders are:

(1)  Babylonian astral deities. Some have thought that the origin of the twenty-four elders is traceable to Jewish apocalyptic, which itself was indebted ultimately to the Babylonian astrological belief in twenty-four star gods and which relegated these gods to the status of angels.[1]

(2)  Angels. The theophanic background of this vision would favor an angelic identification, since the heavenly beings around the divine throne in these visions are clearly angels (so especially Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7, and Isaiah 6). And we have seen how “stars” are metaphorical for angels in the OT, Jewish apocalyptic, and Revelation 1 itself (see on 1:20). In addition, the elders have a typical angelic mediating function in presenting the saints’ prayers to God (5:8; cf. 8:3; Tob. 12:12, 15; Test. Levi3:5–7; Test. Dan6:2; 1 En.9:3; 40:6; 47:2; 104:1; 3 Bar.11:4; Apoc. Paul 7–10) and in interpreting heavenly visions (Rev. 5:5; 7:13; cf. 10:4, 8; 17:1ff.; 19:9; 22:8; Dan. 9:22; 1 En.19:1; 21:5; 22:6; 71; 4 Ezra; 2 Baruch). Also, they are closely associated with and perform the same functions as the angelic beings in various passages of Revelation (4:9–10; 5:8, 14; 7:11; 19:4).[2]

(3)  Exalted OT saints. On the other hand, in the texts of the Apocalypse just cited the elders are specifically distinguished as a separate group from the angelic cherubim (so 4:9–10; 5:8, 14; 7:11; 19:4). Therefore, the elders can be identified as OT saints or their representatives.[3]

(4)  Angels who corporately represent OT and NT saints. However, in the light of our corporate representative understanding of the “angels” in chs. 1–3 (see on 1:20), it is quite possible that the elders could be angelic representatives of both OT and NT saints, especially since the number twenty-four could be representative and may result from addition of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles.[4]

(5)  Patriarchs and apostles. Some have identified these beings exclusively as heads of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles who together represent the saints of all ages.[5]

(6)  Another perspective also understands the elders to be associated with OT saints but concludes that the number twenty-four is based on a Jewish tradition that there were twenty-four books in the OT and, therefore, twenty-four authors. The talmudic and midrashic texts typically refer to the OT as “the twenty-four holy scriptures.” Although this was not a dominant idea in early Christian tradition, it is attested there (e.g., Clement and Jerome).[6]

Seeing the available options, I hold to “option two” with a dash of “option 4.” Specifically, there are two reasons why I hold that the twenty-four elders are angelic beings.

1.     The twenty-four elders are often referred to in contexts that distinguish them from the people of God.

Revelation 5:6–8 (ESV) — And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 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.

In this text, it appears that the elders are distinct from the saints. The elders are holding the prayers of the saints, not their own prayers.

Revelation 5:9 (ESV) — (The four living creatures and the 24 elders) 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 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Notice: they do not sing in the first person. The twenty-four elders do not sing, “Jesus Christ ransomed us.” The twenty-four elders are not singing the testimony of their own experience. Rather, they are worshipping God as third party observers of the church’s redemption. This pushes us toward the conclusion that these are angelic creatures. Namely, because nowhere in all of Scripture do we ever read of God purchasing angelic beings for Himself. If the twenty-four elders are indeed angelic beings, then it would make sense that they would praise God for what He has done in ransoming humanity, and not angelic beings.

Revelation 7:9–11 (ESV) — After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God …

Notice: the innumerable multitude of humanity from every nation, tribe, people and language are distinct from the four living creatures (angelic beings), and the innumerable multitude of angels gathered around the throne (angelic beings). Therefore, it would follow that the twenty-four elders would also be angelic beings since they are also distinct from the multitude of ransomed humanity.

2.     These 24 elders often perform functions in apocalyptic literature that are unique to angelic creatures.

Let’s return briefly to Revelation 5:6–8 (ESV) — And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 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.

Notice: the twenty-four elders are delivering the prayers of the saints (not their own prayers) to God. In apocalyptic literature this is a distinct function reserved for angelic beings.

Revelation 7:13–14 (ESV) — 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.

In apocalyptic literature, angelic beings are often used to interpret the meaning of visions to an earthly, human seer. And in Revelation 7:13-14, one of these twenty-four elders interprets the meaning of John’s vision. Therefore, it appears that the twenty-four elders are a unique classification of angelic beings. They bear authority in God’s court. They are distinct from the group of angelic beings simply called “angels,” and they are distinct from the group of angelic beings called “the four living creatures.”

An astute observer will ask, “But what about the twenty-four elder’s white robes and golden crowns? Do not elect believers receive white robes (Revelation 6:11; 7:9, 13-14; 22:14)? Do not elect believers receive a crown (Revelation 2:10)?” The answer is, “Yes. Indeed.” However, we must remember that John (the writer of Revelation) previously mentioned angelic beings as being clothed in white (John 20:20). If John were intending to inform us that the twenty-four elders are angelic beings, then his description of them being clothed in white robes would be consistent with his gospel’s description. In addition, the twenty-four elders are sitting on thrones. The golden crowns show forth their royalty in the throne room of God.

Hopefully, this short explanation of my view of the twenty-four elders will be robust enough to provide CHBC with a cursory understanding of why I believe that the twenty-four elders are a group of angelic beings distinct from the four living creatures, distinct from the myriad upon myriad of angels, and distinct from the innumerable multitude of elect ransomed humanity. Now, CHBC, you get the opportunity to affirm and resist. I am looking forward to your affirmations and “resistations” (I know it is not a word … but I cannot resist inventing).


[1] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1999), 323.

 [2] Ibid., 323.

 [3] Ibid., 323.

 [4] Ibid., 325.

 [5] Ibid., 326.

[6] Ibid., 326.

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One Response to “Who are the Twenty-Four Elders?”

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