The 24 Elders of Revelation- Larry Elliott

The 24 Elders of Revelation
Written by: Pastor Larry Elliott

Numerical references are an interesting thing in the Bible: creation’s 7 days, 7 angels, 7 spirits of God, 7 seals, trumpets & bowls, Daniel’s 70 weeks, Egypt’s 10 plagues, Israel’s 40 years of wandering, Jesus 40 days in the wilderness, Jonah’s 3 days in the belly of the great fish, Israel’s 400 years of Egyptian captivity, 400 years of prophetic silence, Daniel’s 1260 days = 42 months, to name a few. We are mostly left with no interpretation of the significance of these numbers – the text simply states the number and moves on.

Twelve seems to be a number of some significance: 12 months of the lunar calendar, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles, 12 gates of the New Jerusalem, 12 thousand sealed from each tribe, 12 thousand stadia of the New Jerusalem…

We are, this week, introduced to the concept of 24 elders in chapter four of The Revelation. Being quite astute, I noticed that 24 is a multiple of 12 but the number is again simply stated and not explained. Which leaves us with a number 🙄 of questions! What is the significance of this number? Who are these elders? What is their role in the heavenly order and the end times narrative?  

We are familiar with the term elder from its NT usage defining leaders in the church or in the nation of Israel.

The Greek noun presbyteros, is usually defined as “older”, and in a specifically Jewish or Christian sense “elder”. The word occurs 12 times in Revelation referring to these 24 elders in the heavenly throne room. They are always identified as “the twenty-four elders” and always in conjunction with the “four living creatures” worshipping God and the Lamb. They all have thrones, wear crowns, and give any glory or accolades they have received to God and the Lamb. In chapter 5 the description is expanded to include their use of harps and golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints.” (5:8)

While there are multiple views on how we are to identify the elders of Revelation it seems two (2) interpretations are most plausible. They are either men representative of the human race or they are angels who govern over certain aspects of the universe.

Since no clear connections with other traditions, Jewish or non-Jewish, can be established the following hypotheses to explain the 24 elders in heaven are proposed. The defense of these elders being men is found primarily in translation decisions of Rev. 5:9. From different manuscripts translators have read alternatively “ransomed people…” (ESV), “didst purchase with thy blood men…” (ASV), “hast redeemed us…” (KJV)

If us is to be accepted these may well be people who have already been redeemed and sing a new song of worship for God’s goodness to all mankind. Also commending this interpretation is the fact that these elders hold the golden bowls of incense which are the prayers of the saints – logical if these are elders of the church. Some have suggested that the 12 Patriarchs and the 12 Apostles comprise this group of elders.

Conversely, if the translation of men or people is preferred, we might lean to identifying  these elders as angels in God’s presence having watched all that He has done for mankind throughout history and worshipping Him for such an amazing grace extended to His creation.

In any case, neither argument is without its difficulties and we are left with the certainty that we cannot speak dogmatically of either position. All that, to determine we do not know! 😖

J. Reiling summarizes as follows: “The elders may represent or reflect earthly institutions, such as the elders of the people of Israel (cf. Isa 24:23, quoted above; Exod 24:11), or the 24 priestly orders (2 Chr 24:1–19; cf. in the Mishnah ‘the elders of the priesthood’, Yoma 1, 5), or the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles (mentioned together in Rev 21:12–14) representing together the people of God of the OT and the NT, or the presbyters of the Christian church. This last interpretation would also explain why the 24 elders carry the incense which represents the prayers of the saints (5:8). But nowhere in Rev are elders or presbyters referred to as church officers.” Reiling, J. (1999). Elders.

By way of conclusion we must simply state that the highest privileges of the heavens are the worship of God and the Lamb during these final times of judgement and the ultimate renewing of God’s creation. Perhaps we should all take some harp lessons!
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