This article was submitted by Stephanos
The identity of the 24 elders in the book of Revelation has been a subject of discussion for a long time. Several theories have been raised. Since nowhere in the Bible is a clear definition of this group of persons given, it’s quite likely this discussion will continue. This essay should therefore be considered as a contribution to the discussion and in no way pretends to end it.
The 24 elders are mentioned 12 times in the Bible, all within the book of Revelation. The expression in Greek is οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι (Transliteration: hoi eikosi tessaras presbyteroi). You will find this expression or its inflections in Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:5, 6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4.
The theory brought forward by JW.org is that the 24 elders are 144.000 “anointed ones of the Christian congregation, resurrected and occupying the heavenly position Jehovah promised them” (re p.77). Three reasons for this explanation are given:
- The 24 elders wear crowns (Re 4:4). Anointed ones are indeed promised to receive a crown (1Co 9:25);
- The 24 elders sit on thrones (Re 4:4), which could align with Jesus’ promise to the Laodicean congregation ‘to sit on his throne’ (Re 3:21);
- The number 24 is considered to be a reference to 1 Chronicles 24:1-19, where is speaks of king David organizing the priests in 24 divisions. The anointed ones will indeed serve as priests in heaven (1Pe 2:9).
All of these reasons point in the direction that these 24 persons will be both kings and priests, contributing to the idea that the 24 elders are anointed ones with a heavenly hope, since these ones will be become king-priests (Re 20:6).
Is this line of reasoning sufficient to draw a valid conclusion as to the identity of the 24 elders? It would appear that there are several arguments that undermine the foundation of this interpretation.
Argument 1 – A Beautiful Song
Please read Revelation 5:9, 10. In these verses you will find a song that the 4 living creatures and the 24 elders sing for the Lamb, who is clearly Jesus Christ. This is what they sing:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Re 5:9, 10 ESV[i])
Notice the use of pronouns: “and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” The text of this song is about the anointed ones and the privileges they will receive. The question is: If the 24 elders represent anointed ones, why refer to themselves in the third person—”they” and “them”? Wouldn’t the first person—”we” and “us”—be more appropriate? After all, the 24 elders do refer to themselves in the first person in this same verse (10) when they say “our God”. So apparently they are not singing about themselves.
Argument 2 – Consistent Counting
Please take a look at Revelation 5. The setting in this chapter is clear: John sees 1 God = 1 person, 1 Lamb = 1 person and 4 living creatures = 4 persons. Is it reasonable to think that these 24 elders are then a symbolic class representing a congregation or is it more likely that they are just 24 persons? If they weren’t a symbolic class of anointed persons, but a literal 24 anointed ones that represent the group of persons with a heavenly hope, would that make sense? The Bible doesn’t indicate that some anointed persons would be more privileged than others. One could argue that the apostles might be placed in a special position with Jesus, but no reference can be found that 24 persons are honored with a special position in front of God. Would this lead us to conclude that the 24 elders are 24 persons that do not represent the anointed as a class?
Argument 3 – Daniel 7
There is a particular Bible book that contributes to the understanding of the book of Revelation: the book of Daniel. Just think of the similarities between these two books. To mention only two: angels bringing messages, and frightening animals rising up from the sea. Thus, it is worthwhile to compare Revelation chapters 4 and 5 with Daniel chapter 7.
The main character in both books is Jehovah God. In Revelation 4:2 he is described as “the one seated on the throne”, while in Daniel 7:9 he is “the Ancient of Days”, taking a seat on his throne. Additionally, it is noteworthy that his clothing is as white as snow. Other heavenly beings like angels are sometimes described as wearing white clothes. (John 20:12) So this colour isn’t exclusively used for former humans in a heavenly position (Revelation 7:9).
Jehovah God is not alone in this heavenly setting. In Revelation 5:6 we see Jesus Christ standing before God’s throne, depicted as Lamb that has been slain. In Daniel 7:13 Jesus is described as “one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him”. Both descriptions of Jesus in heaven refer to his role as a human, specifically as a ransom sacrifice for mankind.
The Father and Son are not the only ones mentioned. In Revelation 5:11 we read about “many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”. Similarly, in Daniel 7:10 we find: “a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.” What an impressing scene this is!
Anointed ones with the prospect of being priest-kings with Jesus in his kingdom are also mentioned in both Revelation 5 and Daniel 7, but in both cases they aren’t seen in heaven! In Revelation 5 they are mentioned in a song (verses 9-10). In Daniel 7:21, these are the holy ones on earth with whom the symbolic horn wages war. Da 7:26 speaks of a future time when the horn is vanquished and 27 speaks of all authority being handed to these holy ones.
Other persons are also present in the heavenly visions of Daniel and John. As we already saw in Revelation 4:4, there are 24 elders depicted sitting on thrones. Now please look at Daniel 7:9 which says: “As I looked, thrones were placed”. Who were sitting on these thrones? The next verse says, “the court sat in judgment”.
This court is also mentioned in verse 26 of the same chapter. Is this court comprised only of Jehovah God, or are others involved? Please notice that Jehovah God is seated among the thrones in verse 9—the king always sits first—then the court is seated in verse 10. Since Jesus is described separately as “the one like a son of man”, he does not comprise this court, but is outside it. Likewise, the court does not comprise “the holy ones” in Daniel 7 or the people made into a kingdom of priests in Revelation 5 (see argument 1).
What does the term, “elders” (Greek: presbyteroi), mean? In the gospels this terminology refers to the older men of Jewish society. In a number of verses, these elders are mentioned accompaning the chief priests (e.g. Matthew 16:21; 21:23; 26:47). Thus, they are not priests themselves. What was their task? Since the days of Moses, the arrangement of elders functioned as a local court (e.g. Deuteronomy 25:7). So at least in the mind of the reader who was familiar with the Jewish judicial system, the word “court” was interchangeable with “elders”. Please notice that Jesus, in both Revelation 5 and Daniel 7, enters the scene after the court is seated!
The parallel between Daniel 7 and Revelation 5 is striking and leads to the conclusion that the 24 elders in the book of Revelation are the same ones described in Daniel 7. In both visions, they refer to a heavenly group, a court of elders, that is sitting on thrones around God himself.
Argument 4 – Close to Whom?
Each time these 24 elders are mentioned, they are seen in proximity to the throne on which Jehovah God sits. In each instance, except in Revelation 11, they are also accompanied by the 4 living creatures. These 4 living creatures are identified as cherubs, a special order of angels (Ezekiel 1:19; 10:19). The 24 elders aren’t described as standing in a very close position to Christ such as the 144.000 persons who are “with him” (Re 14:1). The same verse also makes clear that the 24 elders can’t sing the same song as the 144.000 persons, so they can’t be the same persons. Please notice that the 24 elders are continually in the proximity to God himself to serve him.
But what about the arguments that are mentioned at the beginning of this article and lead many to the conclusion that the 24 elders are the anointed ones? Please consider the next counter-arguments.
Argument 5: Thrones Symbolizing Authority
What about the thrones the 24 elders are seated on? Colossians 1:16 states: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” This text indicates that in heaven there are hierarchies by which authority is dispensed. This is a concept which is supported by other Bible accounts. For example, Daniel 10:13 refers to the angel Michael as “one of the chief princes (Hebrew: sar). From this it’s safe to conclude that in heaven there is an order of princes, a hierarchy of authority. Since these angels are described as princes, it is appropriate that they would sit on thrones.
Argument 6: Crowns Belonging to Victors
The Greek word translated “crown” is στέφανος (transliteration: stephanos). This word is very meaningful. This type of crown is not necessarily a royal crown, since the Greek word denoting that status is is διαδήμα (diadema). HELPS Word-studies defines stephanos as: “properly, a wreath (garland), awarded to a victor in the ancient athletic games (like the Greek Olympics); the crown of victory (versus diadema, “a royal crown”).
The angelic princes like Michael mentioned at argument 5 are powerful persons who have to use their strength to battle with demonic forces. You find impressing accounts of such wars in Daniel 10:13, 20, 21 and Revelation 12:7-9. It is comforting to read that the loyal princes emerge from such wars as victors. They deserve to wear a crown that belongs to victors, don’t you agree?
Argument 7: The Number 24
The number 24 could represent a literal number of elders, or it could be representative. It could relate to the account in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19, or not. Let’s assume that this number is related to some degree to 1 Chronicles 24. Does this prove that the 24 elders must be annointed persons serving as priests?
Please note that 1 Chronicles 24:5 describes their tasks in this way: “sacred officers and officers of God” or “princes of the sanctuary, and princes of God”. Again the Hebrew word “sar” is used. The emphasis is put on the service in the temple for God. The question becomes: Is the earthly arrangement a model of the heavenly arrangement or is it the other way round? The writer of Hebrews notes that the temple with its priests and sacrifices was a shadow of a reality in heaven (Heb 8:4, 5). We must realize that the earthly arrangement can’t be found one-to-one in heaven. For example consider that all the anointed persons as priests eventually enter the Most Holy, i.e. heaven (Heb 6:19). In the days of the temple in Israel only the High Priest was allowed to enter this area once in a year! (Heb 9:3, 7). In the “real arrangement” Jesus is not only the High Priest but also the sacrifice (Heb 9:11, 12, 28). No need to explain further that in the “shadow arrangement” this was not the case (Le 16:6).
It’s remarkable that Hebrews gives a beautiful explanation of the true meaning of the temple arrangement, yet makes no a reference to the 24 priestly divisions.
Incidentally, the Bible relates one occasion in which an angel does something that reminds us of a high priest’s task. In Isaiah 6:6 we read about a special angel, one of the seraphim, that took a burning coal from the altar. Something like this was also a task of the High Priest (Le 16:12, 13). Here we have an angel acting as a priest. This angel clearly is not one of the anointed ones.
So a single numerical reference to a priestly order is by no means conclusive evidence of a correlation between the accounts in Chronicles and Revelation. If the 24 elders do refer to 1 Chronicles 24, we might ask ourselves: if Jehovah wanted us to inform us about an angelic order that serves him in his heavenly court, how could he make it comprehensible to us? Could it be possible that he would use images in the same earthly arrangement that he already uses to explain heavenly things?
What conclusion do you draw after considering this evidence? Do the 24 elders represent the anointed ones? Or are they angels who hold a special position close to their God? Many Scriptural arguments indicate the latter. Does it matter one could ask? At least this study brought a very interesting parallel to our attention, namely between Daniel 7 and Revelation 4 and 5. Maybe we can learn more from this equation. Let’s keep that for another article.
[i] Unless otherwise stated, all Bible references are to the English Standard Version (ESV)