After these things I saw, and behold a portal was being opened in the sky, and the first sound that I heard [is] as a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show to you what must occur after these things.”
At once, I arose in air [or “came to be in Spirit”]: and behold, a throne was standing in the sky, and upon the throne one sitting,
And the one sitting resembling in appearance a jasper gemstone a sardius stone [like carnelian], and a rainbow from all around the throne resembling in appearance an emerald.
Then, all around the throne, twenty-four stately seats, and upon the chairs of state twenty-four elders sitting, having been clothed in white robes, and upon their heads golden crowns.
And from the throne is coming bright shining lightnings and sounds and thunders—and seven torches, flames burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.Revelation 4:1-5
The Twenty-Four Elders*
How do we understand what the apostle John saw in his vision? We know who the Seven Spirits of God is. But who are these twenty-four elders?
Evidently, the “smaller” Sanhedrin that met in Jerusalem was comprised of twenty-three elders. The correlation is highly suggestive, for twenty-four would represent the Church. Now, the triumphant Church—rather than the Sanhedrin which not only rejected Messiah and plotted to kill Him, but succeeded in nailing the Son of God to a cross—has taken its rightful place beside the throne of the Lord.
Interestingly, in one of his glimpses into heaven, the prophet Ezekiel saw twenty-five men.
And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord; there, at the entrance of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs to the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, prostrating themselves to the sun toward the east.
… The spirit lifted me up and brought me to the east gate of the house of the Lord, which faces east. There, at the entrance of the gateway, were twenty-five men; among them I saw Jaazaniah son of Azzur and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, officials of the people.
He [the Spirit] said to me, “Mortal, these are the men who devise iniquity and who give wicked counsel in this city; they say, ‘The time is not near to build houses; this city is the pot, and we are the meat.’ Therefore prophesy against them; prophesy, O mortal.”Ezekiel 8:11, 11:1-4 (NRSV, brackets mine)
The second passage alerts the reader who these men were: the high priest and the leaders of each of the twenty-four orders of priests. God spoke out against their corruption, and warned of coming judgement.
Possibly, the elders John saw were now the representatives of the whole Church—all believers being priests, according to the apostle Peter—with Christ as the true high priest, according to the writer of Hebrews. The church replaced the degenerate religious system that Ezekiel had become privy to.
According to this perspective, the twenty-four elders do not represent the Church, nor are they a part of the royal priesthood spoken of by Moses and by the apostle Peter. They are not even angelic beings.
Instead, they are there to complete the picture of a heavenly courtroom scene, the judge surrounded by those who have come to adjudicate. One commentator likened them to the chorus in a Greek tragedy, whose sole purpose is to add effect to the drama being played out.
The lightning, thunder, and voices (what I translated as “sounds”) are all sensory images meant to conjure up visions of Mount Sinai, where God first met the people of Israel in their wilderness wandering.
Now all of Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire;
the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.
As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.Exodus 19:18-19 (NRSV)
This is where the Lord established God’s original covenant with the people.
Now, the ending of that covenant would come to pass, and a new covenant would commence. The writer of Hebrews seems to have echoed this idea, suggesting the overthrow of the first covenant, which the preterist would say was made public in the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The new covenant, then, would be ushered in by even more dread-inspiring events.
Mount Sinai Covenant
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) [this entire account can be found in Exodus 19]
Mount Zion Covenant
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking, for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire.Hebrews 12:18-29 (NRSV, brackets mine)
Two minority views hold that the elders are
- The first twenty-four ancestors of Jesus, found in Genesis 5 and 11.
- Angelic counterpart to the twenty four priestly and Levitical orders.
But the majority of Dispensionalists see the elders as believers who have been raptured, and are now seated with Christ. Their white garments are priestly, their crowns are royal.
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV)
One commentator saw in the seven spirits a representation of the seven churches Jesus had written to, now raptured, but most futurists recognize the seven spirits as the one Holy Spirit.
In this view, the twenty-four elders do not represent any specific entity, but rather are “celestial representatives” of all of the Lord’s redeemed. They now sit enthroned with Christ, glorified, continuously worshipping. Their white robes signify purity, and their crowns signify victory and joy rather than any political authority.
Some commentators with this view identify the elders as angelic beings, a part of the host of heaven, representing the church without themselves being among the redeemed (having always been in the presence of God as angels).
Most see the number twenty-four as adding the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles together, representing the redeemed across the entirety of God’s people. Some see the representation of the Hebrew priesthood, arranged by function as in the days of King David. In the next chapter, the elders will perform some priestly duties.
*From Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg