(4) Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.
Here we are first introduced to the 24 elders who will remain in the visions throughout the book. We are given some details about them now, but more later, particularly in 5:8-10. To reach an accurate conclusion as to the identity of the 24 elders we must compile all the evidence and consider the biblical interpretation of the symbols. Here is what we know: 1). There are 24 of them; 2) they are considered elders; 3) they sit on thrones near the throne of God; 4) they have white robes and golden crowns; 5) They each hold a harp; 6) they each hold golden bowls containing the prayers of the saints; 7) the praise and serve God; 8) they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ; 9) They are not (just) Jews, but gentiles from all over; 10) they have been made reigning kings and priests.
Too often commentators are quick to hack the 24 elders in half and make them a symbolic 12 sons of Jacob (or the 12 tribes) and the 12 apostles. The conclusion then is that the 24 elders are a symbolic representation of all of God’s people from the Old covenant to the New. While being able to divide numbers by 2 is impressive, I still wonder what we would get if we didn’t chop up the number 24. Is 24 a significant number by itself in the Bible? It is indeed! Conveniently located in chapter “24” of 1 Chronicles, we find King David making extensive preparations for the temple to be built by Solomon. In the text, we find David dividing the priests “according to their offices in their service” (verse 3). There are “twenty-four” orders of the priests and a head (elder of the house) for each of the 24 orders. “These were the orderings of them in their service to come into the house of the LORD, according to their manner, under Aaron their father, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded him” (verse 19). So then, it is most significant to recognize the 24 orders, each named by the elder of the family, in the service of the house of God in the Old Covenant. This is a strong argument for the symbolism of the 24 elders in Revelation, but there are more details in the visions of Revelation to confirm their identity.
In Revelation chapters four and five, observe the nearness of the 24 elders to the Holiest of Holies and God’s throne (which in the Old Testament was the mercy seat surrounded by the Cherubim). This is certainly a picture of a priestly position. Further, we see their actions in worship, praise, song (there were also 24 orders of singers in 1 Chronicles 25), and with the burning of incense (prayers). And so that there could be no doubt as to their identity, they themselves declare that they are in fact “priests” (5:10). Considering this evidence, we should move further from the old idea that 24 ÷ 2 = 12, because nothing in the text suggests that these 24 represent the sons of Jacob and the apostles.
So we know that they are priests, but that presents more questions? Are they the souls of Old Testament priests, or New Testament priests, or both? Looking back at the evidence, we find quickly that they are not the dead Old Testament priests, for, in 5:9, the 24 elders explain that they are not of the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, but they are from “every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” So this forces the point that these must be New Testament priests. But the priesthood under Christ is specifically known to be a royal priesthood, after Christ who is both king and priest according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:20, see Hebrews 7 and 8 as well). Peter, in 1 Peter 2:9, calls the exiled brethren in Asia “a royal priesthood.” Does this fit the symbolic description of the 24 elders? Absolutely! Recall that the first time we see them, in 4:4, they are sitting on thrones wearing crowns. They are royalty. In 5:10, the elders speak of their “reign on the earth.” This is who a Christian is! A Christian is a son and heir of God, they are royal, they reign with their God, whether in they are in heaven or on earth! Of course, they don’t literally reign on literal thrones on the earth (John 18:36), but that’s not the point, the point is that they belong to God, they have been redeemed, they wear white robes (symbolic of their forgiveness), they reign with Christ over sin and death! Recall that in the introduction to the letter of Revelation, John speaks to the churches in Asia, and including himself, said that Christ “has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (1:6). This is just like what is said of the 24 elders, and that is because those brethren are apart of the symbolic 24 elders. All the redeemed are, whether they have passed from this earth or not. Too often our minds want to go to “the afterlife” when reading visions of God’s throne in Revelation, but we must discipline of minds to understand the truth. Hebrews 10:19-25 proves that we, the living Christians on this earth, are at the throne of God now: “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus….” Ephesians 2:6 also shows our current status: “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Today we sit together with Christ! Today we are priests serving in his house (1 Timothy 3:15). So then, who are the 24 elders? They are Christians who are in the royal service of the King, they were the Christians who were living and breathing on the earth when John saw this vision. In the visions, they are seen by John, as they ought to see themselves, as holy and royal sons of God in the daily service of the king, in his immediate presence.