The 24 Elders: Who They Are How They Got To Heaven

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,

Ryan

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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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 coming24 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.

The End In 2026? It's Now Possible

Since learning in 2001 that Yeshua must return in a Sabbath year, I've had to rule out three Sabbath year cycle windows for the final 7 years (2003-2009, 2010-2016, 2017-2023). With the next window (2024-2030) less than 7 years away, I'm ready to share why I believe, based on the real end time sign of Mt 24:14, that this can be the one. If it is, the "birth pains" (WW3 + Wormwood, Lk 21:10-11) would hit near its middle in 2026 with Yeshua returning in 2030. Find out what's changed to convince me about 2026 and what you can do about it...

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 harvest11 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 arose53 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 =).

Objections

"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.

Conclusion

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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Tim McHyde

Tim is the author of this site (since 1999) and the book Know the Future that explains Revelation literally at last--including the key event of Wormwood (Rev 6-8). To read more from Tim and not miss a single new article, sign up for his free newsletter above.

24 comments
Yahtzaphan - April 9, 2017

But they appear before any human are you telling me that only 24 graves were open? That’s illogical thinking cause we got Adam Seth Enoch Noah Methuselah Abraham Shem Issac Israel the 12 tribes Moses Arron Joshua, that’s 24 wouldn’t some kings and prophets and priest be missing?

Reply
David - April 16, 2017

I believe that the 12 + 12 are the 12 elders of Israel & the 12 apostles

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    Tim McHyde - April 16, 2017

    David, interesting, except all of the 12 apostles (like John!) were still alive at the last resurrection that could have got them into heaven by the 90AD writing of Revelation when they are seen in Heaven by John. When you die you don’t walk around heaven unless a resurrection has happened, as happened when Jesus died in 30AD, the graves were opened and many (24?) saints came to life (Mt 27:52).

    Reply
April Lopez - April 25, 2017

I agree with you, these were the first fruits who were raised with Christ, ….. they didn’t have to be prominent people from the Bible either as the commentor above suggests, just random righteous believers who were chosen at random perhaps.

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Tamida - May 5, 2017

Hi Tim,

I have a question about the last scripture you posted: Matthew 27:50-53-50 Y’shua, 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.

You mention that they did not wake up, but it states that ‘many bodies of the saints which slept arose, came out of the grave and went into the holy city and appeared to many’. What does that mean exactly if they were not awakened from the dead and walking around to be seen? 🙂

Reply
    Tim McHyde - May 5, 2017

    Tamida, the opening of the graves served to mark them as first fruits. Just as the firstfruit grain was marked first before being harvested and waved. The saints may have risen when Jesus rose, there is some verse saying this. But I got this from Michael Rood and don’t know the verse exactly. It’s tied to the firstfruits ritual the Jews kept. I wish I had more documentation for you.

    Reply
Sybil - November 18, 2017

What about Lazarous and the fact that Jesus took them out of the place where they were separated from the ones in hell? The spirit leaves the body to be with Jesus and the body is risen when Jesus returns for his church.

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    Tim McHyde - November 18, 2017

    Sybil, Lazarus and the Rich Man was a parable based on prevailing Egyptian notions of the afterlife, much like our common American/Christian “Peter at the Pearly Gates of Heaven” trope is used in many stories to teach, usually, just one salient point, without any attempt to be eschatologically accurate. As for our spirit going to heaven where Jesus is when we die: True, we do ascend and are found there (Rev 6:9), but as the revelation of prophecy tells us plainly, we are not conscious even if we were a blessed martyr (Rev 6:9), but are “resting a little while longer” (Rev 6:10-11) until the rapture and first resurrection come (Rev 15:2-3 = Rev 20:5). There is no point to the resurrection, a foundational teaching of the NT, if we just go to flit around with Jesus immediately upon death.

    Reply
Brian Coumbes - November 18, 2017

Tim; In Revelation 5:5 “And one the elders (member of the celestial counsel) saith unto me,Weep not:behold , the Lion of tribe of Judah,the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book,and to loose the seven seals thereof.”

Here you are saying that one of the first fruits is instructing John? These 24 are the supreme counsel. Saying they are the first fruit offering does not make it so. And referring to Leviticus does not identify them with scripture. These 24 are the Divine Counsel of Yehovah. Read Rev. 5:5-14, 7:13-17

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    Menard - November 19, 2017

    Exactly Brian. That’s why i believe 12 of those elders are the 12 tribes of Israel.

    Reply
Ben Gillis - November 18, 2017

Spot-on.

As for significance of the number 24. What we do know is 12 is a ‘starter number’ per government.

– twelve tribes of Israel
– twelve disciples

Since every matter must be judged by 2 or 3 witnesses, my guess is 12 are pre-Church and 12 are Church age.

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Brian Piltin - November 18, 2017

Revelation 20:5 states “… This is the first resurrection.” Referring the the resurrection of the saints upon Christ’s return. Your interpretation of it would mean that we shouldn’t take the term “first” in this case literally. Do you think that’s a reasonable way of interpreting it? Maybe you had addressed this but I missed something your article.

Reply
    Tim McHyde - November 18, 2017

    Brian, great comment/question, now addressed in the article for completeness.

    Reply
Larry Tucker - November 18, 2017

John 3:13 which was written much later says: 13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. So what is your explanation of this?

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gamma - November 18, 2017

The fact that these now living people went into the city and appeared to many would indicate that they were some who were recognized and who had recently died and been buried. None of the important figures of the past would be recognized by anyone even if they saw them alive.

So what eventually happened to these “many bodies”? Only two possibilities. They went back into their graves and died again, or they were given spiritual bodies and became partakers of the reward of the saved, only in an earlier timeframe, predating the first resurrection.

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    Tim McHyde - November 18, 2017

    Gamma, Matthew does not say that those raised at Jesus’ death who went into the city were recently dead nor recognized. But if you have 24 of these folks coming up together in the graveyard at Jesus’ death, it would be obvious something else special happened at Jesus death, as a witness. Along with the earthquake, the veil splitting and a few other things the Talmud records.

    Reply
Sharon - November 19, 2017

Requesting Tim’s comment (with Thanks) on this: Our church’s Bible study facilitator claimed that the ’24 Elders’ before God’s throne represent the 24 ‘true Church’ denominations of the earth, over the course of history on earth. Is this in any way a possibility given what you understand Scripture to be saying? I found it to be an interesting idea, but am wondering how Scripturally sound it is? Thanks for your book, and always appreciated ongoing emails 😉

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    Tim McHyde - November 19, 2017

    Sharon, I think that interpretation misses that there is only one church/body of Christ in the Bible: we the believers as a whole. “Church denominations” are an invention of man that came later and by definition are false since they are all religions that add to the word of God. The true worship of God is religion-free and tradition-free and based simply on doing what the word/will of God says (Lk 8:21): love God in faith by loving your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:36-40). This sums up God’s will for man and when you put religious commands of denominations into the mix, I’ve only seen believers forget what’s important according to Jesus.

    Reply
Candie Daneliuk - November 19, 2017

Yes Tim I believe you are correct, They were resurrected and had to be given their translated bodies to be ascending to heaven shortly after Christ. They needed to be in place to fulfill scripture as it was shown to John. Remember when Yeshua was first resurrected Mary did not recognize Him, because now He was perfected. So also those 24 would not be recognized in their new bodies. Yeshua said we would be as He was. They also at this point were given total knowledge so yes they could give input and answers to John.

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Mobolaji Abijo - December 14, 2017

What happened to Enoch and Elijah that the not see death and went up to heaven

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