Who are the 24 elders? The popular Christian interpretation says that the 24 elders represent the raptured Church. But is that figurative reading backed up by literal Scripture? Why not just take the passage as it is plainly written? There really can be 24 elders in Heaven if you understand where they came from in an overlooked passage in connection with the day of Jesus' death. In the process you will learn something about the three planned mass resurrections of the righteous.
I received this emailed question about the 24 elders recently:
Hello, I am a disciple of Christ who has been studying prophecy for about the last ten years. I was taught all my life that there was a pre-tribulation rapture.
However after years of study I now have a problem with this doctrine, it does not seem to fit the end time scenario. I have one question that I have never heard addressed that is puzzling me. If there is no pre-trib rapture then who is the multicultural group of persons in Revelation 5:9-10 [the 24 elders]. This group in their song of praise says that they have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and are present in heaven before the seals are opened.
Your brother in Christ,
Who the 24 elders are is a question a lot of people have wondered, including me. I think I finally came to the most reasonable scriptural answer to the question a few years ago, only after rejecting the popular notion that 24 is not a literal number.
This question exists whether you believe in a pretrib rapture or not. John is seeing the 24 elders and four creatures in Heaven in his time. There's nothing indicating that it is a future scene. It's simply the throne room in Heaven. Later we do get a scene of the same throne room in the future (Rev 15), but this time with many souls standing on it singing the song of Moses and the song of the lamb. That would indeed take place only after the rapture, or gathering of the firstfruits to Heaven. It happens after the 7th trumpet (Rev 11:15) and the seven bowl angels are seen parading out to deliver their deadly payload (Rev 15:1-6).
So how did the 24 elders get there back in the first century sometime after Jesus death when John received the apocalyptic vision?
First, let's make sure we know what we're talking about. Who are these elders: men or angels?
24 Elders Men, Not 24 "Elder Angels"
Let's look at the key passage:
Revelation 4:4 — And round about the throne were four and twenty thrones: and upon the thrones I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
Here's why I feel these cannot be angels but must be men as it seems (although glorified men).
- It says they are elders — I cannot find the word ever applied to angels. This makes sense since angels don't age and probably are all the same age anyway, created together in the beginning.
- They sit on thrones and wear crowns — Again, you never will find an angel wearing a crown or destined to rule as the thrones imply. On the other hand, we are told throughout the Bible that the righteous shall inherit and rule the earth (Rev 2:26-27; 3:21; 5:10; 20:4; Mt 19:28; 1Co 6:2-3; 2Tim 2:12), including the twelve apostles sitting on twelve thrones ruling each of the twelve tribes (Luke 22:30).
- White Raiment — If they are righteous glorified men in Heaven, this is what they ought to be wearing according to Revelation 19:8 as the clothing of the Bride of Christ at the Marriage Supper will be, in addition to many parables of Jesus.
- Crowns — Angels never wear crowns in Scripture, nor are they promised them. Believers are promised crowns (Rev 2:10; 1Co 9:25; 2Ti 4:8; Jas 1:12; 1Pt 5:4).
Is the Number 24 Literal or Symbolic?
We've established that the elders are men. But are they really 24 men or is 24 representative somehow of all of the righteous who had died up to this point and taken up to heaven? Is it plain and literal or symbolic and figurative?
The problem with that idea is that Scripture teaches people do not go to heaven immediately when they die. They must wait until later to "rise," that is, be resurrected. Even the righteous prophet Daniel was told he would sleep in the grave until the end of the age when he would rise to receive his reward:
Daniel 12:13 As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.
When are these times of "rising?" Scripture teaches three resurrections to eternal life (not counting one to a second physical life mentioned only in Revelation 20:5=Eze 37:1-14):
1 Corinthians 15:22-24 — 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Messiah shall all be made alive. 23 But every man in his own order: Messiah the firstfruits; afterward they that are Messiah's at his coming. 24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
Notice that there is the obvious resurrection/rapture of the righteous at Messiah's coming that all of us today hope to be part of. After that is another at "the end" when all the rest after the Millennium get their chance at eternal life, also called the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15). However, what we often gloss over is the the fact that at Messiah's resurrection there were also "firstfruits" plural being resurrected, according to Paul.
Where is this obscure event?
Who are "the firstfruits?"
These firstfruits were pictured and predicted in the Torah/Law by the feast of the firstfruits rehearsal done each year on the Sunday morning after Passover by a wave sheaf of barley being waved to God by the high priest:
Leviticus 23:10-11 — 10 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest. 11 He is to wave the sheaf before the LORD so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath.
And we find that just as Jesus was raised on that day, so were several firstfruits saints:
Matthew 27:50-53 —50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. 51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, 53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Notice that although the graves were opened at the moment that the earthquake of Jesus's death happened. The inhabitants did not wake up from their "sleep" (the same "rest" that Daniel still is in) and emerge until after Jesus' resurrection. As it happens, in Jewish tradition, the wave sheaf was first marked on Passover before it was cut and waved on firstfruits. Therefore, if all those who had their graves marked were then resurrected with Jesus on the same day, then it would perfectly fulfill the Torah "mikra"/rehearsals as they were performed.
Why 24? Not Because "12 Tribes and 12 Apostles"
I added this section to explain the reason for the number of 24 after I saw several speculate on it in the comments. The common Christian thought is that "24 elders because there are 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles." But this misses that the reason for the 12 apostles itself is because of the 12 tribes that the 12 apostles will rule over (Mt 19:28). By this logic you could argue there need to be 36 elders not 24, because we have the 12 tribes, 12 apostles, and 12 gates of the New Jerusalem (which of course comes from the 12 tribes). No wait, it's 48... Let's not forget the 12 precious stones for the foundation of New Jerusalem (Rev 21:19-20). No doubt you can see how arbitrary it all is.
Let's reset. Is there a 24 earlier in the Bible that the 24 elders can be based on without subjectively inventing combinations of Biblical twelves to roll your own 24? Yes, there is.
In the Old Testament, David arranged the priesthood into 24 courses that covered temple worship services throughout the year. He chose to use 24 heads from the two priestly families descended from Eleazar and Ithamar, the only two sons of Aaron who had children. They were assigned by lot to 24 priestly courses (1Chr 24:1-19). Likewise, there were 24 divisions for the singers at the temple (1Chr 25).
So you see, the number 24 comes from a precedent for organized human worship of Yehovah God. To have 24 elder men found in the throne room worshiping God makes sense given this precedent.
Also, we know it has nothing to do with 12 apostles because they were not all dead and in heaven at the time of writing of Revelation. John the Apostle was still alive when he saw the 24 elders =).
"What about 'No man has ascended to heaven except the Son of Man' - John 3:13? John was written after Matthew description of the graves opening..."
I don't know why it matters when John or Matthew were written. John 3:13 is a direct quote from Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus around 28-30 AD before his death and resurrection with "the firstfruits" (1Co 15:23). I'll grant that it's oddly worded in the past tense "ascended" making it unclear what Jesus is referring to since he seemed at that point to only have descended from Heaven and not yet ascended. But we don't know everything about his life or what he originally said in Hebrew. So I have learned not to get led into false conclusions based on grammatical arguments from the Greek NT translation.
Moreover, there are other statements by Jesus that have odd, perhaps "prophetic," tenses like this. For example, "I saw Satan fall from Heaven" (Luke 10:18). The fall of Satan from Heaven seems to be described at the start of the Great Tribulation in Revelation 9, so what did Jesus see? A past event or a prophetic vision of the future? Another example is where he tells the first century disciples that they will "not finish going throughout the cities of Israel before the Son of Man returns" (Mt 10:23). They all died 1900 years ago, long before his return was even near or possible (given the prerequisites), so it seems like a silly statement to tell them unless it was prophetic about their end time successors, the 144,000.
This shows us not to be careful when we feel like Jesus' use of tense seems to contradict other more plain, weightier statements, like Matthew's description of a resurrection at Jesus' death. We know Jesus is the first to ascend to heaven but not the only one who ever will. That seems to be his point in what he said. He's not calling dibs on ascension to heaven for himself for all time nor any point past when he spoke to Nicodemus. He did not rule out others ascending after him after he did, even if it's moments that the firstfruits follow him
Revelation 20:5 states "... This is the first resurrection" referring the the resurrection of the saints upon Christ's return.
Yes, it does say that, "the first." The fact remains that Matthew records another resurrection of "many saints" before that. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? I think the saints resurrection in Matthew was a special, limited resurrection that was never open to the general righteous/dead in Christ. For this reason it does not count. It is not a general-audience, mass resurrection that anyone else can qualify for. It's a special one off, just like the resurrection of Lazarus or the resurrection of the man whose corpse touched the bones of Elisha and came to life.
This "first" counting being applied to the resurrection at Jesus' return actually supports the concept that the resurrection at Jesus' death in Matthew was limited to a small number such as those who became the 24 elders.
The overlooked resurrection of a few saints provides for us a reasonable answer to who the 24 elders in Heaven are and where they came from. They are the glorified saints who were raised in the "first of the firstfruits" resurrection of the Messiah. It also explains what Paul was talking about when he described a resurrection of people with Christ.
It's the best answer I have seen to the 24 elders taking everything literally and tying in obscure passages.
To continue learning on all the resurrections in God's plan and their importance, see my article on the Three Resurrections.
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