Attempts to identify the elders have fallen into two broad categories, one saying that they are men and the other that they are angels. Each category has three variations, the former one saying that the men are either representatives of Israel, representatives of the church, or representatives of both. The latter category sees the angels as representatives either of the OT priestly order or of the faithful of all ages, or as a special class or college of angels.5Whether to understand the elders as human or angelic beings turns on several factors:
Nowhere else in Scripture is the term [elder] used to describe celestial or angelic beings. This term is used of humans in positions of authority either in the synagogue or church.7
Presbuteroi (elders) is never used in Scripture to refer to angels, but always to men. It is used to speak of older men in general, and the rulers of both Israel and the church. There is no indisputable use of presbuteroi outside of Revelation to refer to angels. (Some believe that “elders” in Isaiah 24:23 refers to angels, but it could as well refer to humans.) Further, “elder” would be an inappropriate term to describe angels, who do not age.8The number of the elders, twenty four is seen by some as symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel (written on the gates of the New Jerusalem, Rev. 21:12+) and the twelve apostles of the Lamb (written on the twelve foundations of the city, Rev. 21:14+). Thus, they suggest twelve of the elders represent OT saints and the other twelve NT saints.
That these twenty-four represent the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles is abundantly confirmed in Scripture. When we come to the description of the new Jerusalem, we find twelve messengers at the gates and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel, while the names of the twelve apostles are on the foundations of the city (Rev. 21:12-14+). Our Lord promised the disciples that they should sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Mat. 19:28; Luke 22:30). So it is that believers of all ages are seen here.9Yet the Lord said the apostles would judge the twelve tribes “in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory” (Mat. 19:28). This does not take place until His Second Coming when the Millennial Kingdom is established (Mat. 25:31; Rev. 20:4+). This scene in heaven precedes that time by at least seven years for the Lamb has not yet taken the scroll from the Father to loose the first of its seven seals (Rev. 5+). So it is not clear that OT saints are pictured here. The time at which this vision occurs within the sequence of events shown John implies that the elders are already in heaven prior to the events of The 70th Week of Daniel. We believe that passages such as Daniel 12:1-2+ imply that OT saints are not resurrected until after this time of Jacob’s Trouble—prior to the Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:4+). To be sure, the souls of OT saints are in paradise (heaven at this time), but it seems unlikely that they would have received rewards (i.e., crowns) or rule on thrones prior to the resurrection attending the Millennial Kingdom.10 Others note the parallel with the twenty four divisions which David and Zadok made of the sons of Aaron for their priestly service (1Chr. 24:1-5). Rather than twelve OT saints and twelve NT saints, the number twenty four could merely represent the priestly role of the NT saints:
The figure 24 is probably taken from 1 Chronicles 24, where David divided the Tribe of Levi into 24 courses to represent the whole. Since the Church is a kingdom of priests, these 24 elders represent the Church as a whole. This actually provides [another] clue to the fact that the 24 elders represent the Church and not angels.11The events of the Tribulation period which follows argue against their identification with Israel:
Some believe the elders represent Israel. But while individual Jews have been and will continue to be redeemed throughout history, at the time of this vision the nation as a whole had not yet been redeemed. Their national judgment and salvation (Rom. 11:26) comes during the Tribulation (chaps. 6-19), largely as a result of the evangelistic efforts of the 144,000 (introduced in chap. 7). When the twenty-four elders are first introduced, those events are yet to take place.12Various lines of evidence suggest they represent the redeemed of the present church age.13
The biblical description seems to point to believers of this present church age. They are already in heaven (Rev. 4+-5+) before the opening of the seal judgments (Rev. 6+). They are sitting on thrones before God (Rev. 4:4+). Angels never sit in the presence of God. However, Christ promised church-age believers that they would sit with Him on His throne (Rev. 3:21+). God positionally has made all believers today sit together in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 2:6). The elders are clothed in white robes (Rev. 4:4+). Church-age believers are promised such pure clothing (Rev. 3:5+, 18+; 19:7-8+). The elders have crowns of gold on their heads (Rev. 4:4+). . . . Believers in the churches are promised such crowns (Rev. 2:10+; 3:11+). In the Epistles, believers are also promised crowns for spiritual accomplishments (1Cor. 9:25; 1Th. 2:19; 2Ti. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1Pe. 5:4). Holy angels do not wear crowns, but believers can and will wear them. . . . The elders are set in contrast to angels (Rev. 5:11+). The term presbuteros (elder) is never used of angels in the Bible. The word denotes maturity and growth. Holy angels could not be designated with this term because they were all created at the same time. . . . The more plausible explanation of the twenty-four elders is that they represent the redeemed of this present church age.14
Among the well-known commentators who regard these elders as representative of the Church are Alford, Barnes, Benson, Binney, Carpenter, Clarke, Clemance, Book, Crafer, Crosby, Dusterdieck, Fausset, Girdlestone, Godet, Gray, Henry, [Hengstenberg], Holden, Kiyper, Milligan, Plummer, Roberson, Scott, Sheppard, Simcox, Slight, Smith, Swete, Weidner.15If these represent saints of the church age,16 then we have another piece of evidence in favor of a pretribulational rapture: “Here then is yet another proof that the Church shall not pass through the Tribulation, for we find these singers in Heaven before the beginning of the judgments.”17
As John beholds certain subjects of redemption, robed, and crowned, and enthroned, as priests and kings in heaven, we here have (let it be noted) positive demonstration, that, at the time to which this vision relates, a resurrection and a translation have already taken place. . . .They occupy these thrones, while yet the closed book, which brings forth the seals and trumpets, lies untouched in the hand of Him that sits upon the throne. They see it there, and they vote the Lamb worthy to open it. They behold Him taking it up, and fall down and worship as He holds it. They are in their places when heaven receives the accession of the multitude which come “out of the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:11-14+). They have their own distinct positions when the still later company of the hundred and forty-four thousand gather round the Lamb on Mount Sion. And they are spectators of the judgment of great Babylon, and sing Alleluia in glory as they see her fall (Rev. 19:4+).18Elders will also rule with Christ from Jerusalem in the Millennial Kingdom (Isa. 24:23).clothed in white robes
1 “Nowhere in Scripture do angels sit on thrones, nor are they pictured ruling or reigning. Their role is to serve as ‘ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation’ (Heb. 1:14; cf. Mat. 18:10).”—John MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), Rev. 4:4.
2 Daniel 11:3+ probably denotes the first half of the 7-year period. The remaining 3.5 years are the time of the beast’s dominion.
3 Albrecht Durer (1471 - 1528). Image courtesy of the Connecticut College Wetmore Print Collection.
4 Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), Rev. 4:4.
5 Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 344.
6 In support of identifying the elders with angels, [Ibid., 345] notes the Septuagint rendering of ‘elders’ in Isa. 24:23 refers to a heavenly assembly. But the context of the passage is the Messianic Kingdom in which resurrected humans are known to function in leadership roles.
7 Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, rev ed. (Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 2003), 167.
8 MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Rev. 4:5.
9 Donald Grey Barnhouse, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 91.
10 “The entire scriptural doctrine concerning the state of the dead, forbids the idea that disembodied souls are already crowned and enthroned, although at rest in the bosom of God. . . . The coronation time, is the resurrection time; and no one can be crowned until he is either resurrected if dead, or translated if living.”—J. A. Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 104. The OT saints are not in Christ in the sense of having been baptized into His body (1Cor. 12:13) and are not part of the Church which was formed on the Day of Pentecost. “Even though Israel is redeemed by the blood of Christ, Israel never experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit which placed them ‘in Christ,’ so this phrase can only describe those saints of the present age who are thus related to Christ.”—J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 407. Therefore the OT saints are not raised at the Rapture of the church when the dead in Christ arise (1Th. 4:16), but at a later time—prior to the Millennial Kingdom in which Israel will play a key role (Mat. 19:28). “Resurrection is viewed as a terminating event and Israel’s resurrection could not come until her program were terminated.”—Ibid., 410.
11 Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, 167.
12 MacArthur, Revelation 1-11 : The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Rev. 4:5.
13 For the view that they are heavenly beings, see [E. W. Bullinger, Commentary On Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1984, 1935), 217-220] and [Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 344-348]. For an extended discussion of the identity of the elders, see [Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 207-208, 253-258].
14 Robert G. Gromacki, “Twenty Four Elders of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1996), 377-378.
15 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness Of The Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959), 469.
16 “Identification of the twenty-four elders should not be dogmatically held, but such evidence as there is seems to point to the conclusion that they may represent the church as the Body of Christ.”—John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1966), 107.
17 Barnhouse, Revelation, 91.
18 Seiss, The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation, 104.
19 Fruchtenbaum sees their wearing crowns as an indication that the events of these two chapters follow the bema seat judgment of believers’ works. “The fact that these 24 elders are wearing these stephanos crowns also shows that the events described in chapters four and five occur after the Judgment Seat of Messiah but before the Marriage of the Lamb.”—Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah, 167.
20 Barnhouse, Revelation, 92.
21 Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ, 106.