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In Revelation 4-5, John pictures a scene of worship around God's throne in heaven. Around the throne are twenty-four other thrones on which are seated twenty-four elders (πρεσβυτέρους). I've always assumed that the elders were humans, but recently I was reading an interpretation wherein the angels pattern worship in heaven with a song in chapter 4, and then in chapter 5 the Lamb redeems a people from every nation to worship in the same manner, but with a new song. For this interpretation to even possibly work, however, the elders must be angels.

Verse 5:5 seems to support this idea. In books like Daniel, Zechariah, and in the rest of Revelation, the people guiding the authors through their visions are typically angels. However, the elders are also dressed in white, which is typical of the saints in Revelation. Furthermore the number 24 suggests to me 2*12 matching the tribes and apostles; though, they could be angels over them perhaps.

What type of creature are the twenty-four elders?

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I'm not prepared to give a full answer (time restrictions), but don't discount the possibility that the 24 elders represent a group (i.e. not a group of exactly 24 people), just as the 7 Spirits of Revelation 1:4-5 are not necessarily signifying that there are 7 Holy Spirits in the Trinity. In other words, Revelation is a series of symbolic visions. (A) John literally saw the visions, and (B) God had a divine purpose behind the visions. That is not to say the visions were literal. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 19 '12 at 4:15
    
Yes, thanks Jas. Despite the title, it's not my intention to limit interpretations to a binary set. –  Soldarnal Jul 19 '12 at 12:36
    
also consider that the visions are not necessarily linear in their portrayal of events –  warren Jul 31 '12 at 15:13

5 Answers 5

For anyone open to the Catholic interpretation...

The Church has definitively taught from very ancient times that the 24 elders represent the 12 tribes of Israel of the Old Testament, and the 12 Apostles of the New Testament. This doctrine is actually so close to the heart of the Church that it is incorporated into the Mass.

Many non-Catholic as well as Catholic scholars have noticed that the whole structure of Revelation is a big Passover liturgy where Christ, the Priest King, the firstborn Son and the Lamb looking as though it's been slain conducts and celebrates the heavenly liturgy. And the earthly liturgy is meant to be a reflection in that, a participation in that, and the early Church took it for granted.

In Chapter 4, verse 8 of Revelation we read:

8 Each of the four figures had six wings, with eyes everywhere looking outwards and inwards; day and night they cried unceasingly, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who ever was, and is, and is still to come. 9 And as often as these figures gave glory and honour and blessing to him who sat on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fell down in worship before him who sat on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, and threw down their crowns before the throne, crying out,3 11 Thou, our Lord God, claimest as thy due glory and honour and power; by thee all things were created; nothing ever was, nothing was ever created, but in obedience to thy will.

Notice that it says:

…[A]s often as these figures gave glory and honour… the twenty-four elders fell down in worship

This scene is acted out practically verbatim during the Catholic Mass. Each Mass, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist the following transpires:

Priest: The Lord be with you.
All: And also with you.

Priest: Lift up your hearts.
All: We lift them up to the Lord.

Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.
All: It is right to give him thanks and praise.

Holy, Holy (Sanctus):

All: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

Immediately after this prayer is prayed, all who are gathered around the Eucharist on the altar kneels down in reverence, just as the 24 elders do in St. John’s vision. This eternally symbolic adoration is again echoed in chapter 5 of St. John’s vision:

…[T]he four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints.

As stated above, Catholic theology understands the number of the elders (24) to be both the 12 tribes of Israel, as well as the 12 Apostles. The 12 tribes are symbolic of all of God’s children in the Old Testament, or before Christ. It obviously follows that the 12 Apostles represent all of God’s elect until the end of the world. This is a perfect example of how St. John uses numeric signs and symbols throughout his Apocalypse.

The footnote entry for Revelation 4:8 in the New American Version (Catholic bible) is as follows:

[4:1–11] The seer now describes a vision of the heavenly court in worship of God enthroned. He reverently avoids naming or describing God but pictures twenty-four elders in priestly and regal attire (Rev 4:4) and God’s throne and its surroundings made of precious gems and other symbols that traditionally express the majesty of God (Rev 4:5–6). Universal creation is represented by the four living creatures (Rev 4:6–7). Along with the twenty-four elders, they praise God unceasingly in humble adoration (Rev 4:8–11).

Twenty-four elders: these represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles; cf. Rev 21:12–14.

In his General Audience of Jan. 12, 2005, Blessed John Paul the Great preaches a sermon entitled By the Blood of the Lamb. He begins his edifying exposition of this perennial Catholic doctrine by commenting on how the 24 elders represent the worship of God’s chosen people:

  1. The hymn that has just resounded ideally comes down from heaven. In fact, the Book of Revelation that presents it links the first part (cf. 11: 17-18) to the "twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God" (11: 16), and in the second strophe (cf. 12: 10-12) to "a loud voice in heaven" (12: 10). We are thus involved in a grandiose portrayal of the divine court where God and the Lamb, that is, Christ, surrounded by the "Council of the Crown", judge human history in good and in evil but also reveal history's ultimate end of salvation and glory. The role of the Canticles that spangle the Book of Revelation is to illustrate the topic of the divine lordship that controls the often bewildering flow of human events.

  2. In this regard, the first passage of our Canticle is significant. It is set on the lips of the 24 elders who seem to symbolize God's Chosen People in their two historical phases, the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles of the Church. Now, the almighty and eternal Lord God "has taken [his] great power and begun to reign" (11: 17). His entry into history does not only aim to curb the violent reactions of rebels (cf. Ps 2: 1, 5), but above all to exalt and reward the just. These are defined with a series of words used to describe the spiritual features of Christians. They are "servants" who comply faithfully with the divine law; they are "prophets", endowed with the revealed word that interprets and judges history; they are "saints", consecrated to God, who revere his name, that is, they are ready to adore him and to do his will. Among them there are "small and great", an expression dear to the author of the Book of Revelation (cf. 13: 16; 19: 5, 18; 20: 12) which he uses to designate the People of God in its unity and variety.

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My research has shown me that the 24 or 4 and 20 Elders are what they say. They are Elders. Elders on earth are the Eldest of tribes and the keepers of wisdom of said tribes.

Looking at the bigger picture the Elders in Rev, Are the Ancient ones. They have existed before humanity was created, They are Elders of universal civilizations. The guardians of Gods universe of earth and humanity. The universal Elders assist the Christ implementing the salvation of all Humanity.

Thought i would share.

Peace

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Can you share your sources? –  Gone Quiet Oct 27 '13 at 0:33

The link to the Administration of the Temple in Jerusalem is supported by the fact that there were 24 priestly divisions to serve in the Temple as scheduled by the Law. (Whether the 24 is better than the 12 or perhaps weaker, so that the number has to be doubled, the earlier 12 of sons of Israel and tribes and 12 of apostles and 12 of tribes again (in Revelation) may be indicating.)

The casting of crowns gives further support to the repeated announcement that something new regarding kingship and might is to come.

As well brought out and put far better than I can, the visions in Revelation were symbolic (in a sense like parables) and not to be understood as literal views of things in heaven or on earth. In the end the 24 elders may represent neither humans nor angels but an established concept (and even established by God just as the Torah was given through angels) that was about to be overturned and replaced by what was to come. In the same way Moses had spoken of a teacher that was to come after him, and to him they should then all listen.

In connection with the Temple and Priesthood the Law had ruled, but with the Messiah Sacrificed there was to be expected at least some kind of a change. If not, why announce a Messiah and a sacrifice that would be infinitely more than bulls and rams?

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The 24 elders are the angels who administered the Old Covenant. They remove their crowns as warriors who have completed their vows (just as Nazirites offered up their hair). Observing the Covenantal/liturgical structure of the book (which recapitulates a common Old Testament process), the Lamb who is worthy is the "firstfruits" Lamb, who ascends and opens the New Covenant scroll. So, this is a vision of the ascension of Christ.

His first mission is to install a new government to replace the retiring angels, a human government (which explains the use of the term "angel" for church pastors in chapters 2 and 3). Opening the seals brings the release of the 4 Gospels (as horsemen), the cry of the Old Covenant saints for vengeance (which would include Abel, whose blood would soon be avenged, as Christ promised) and the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost as the seventh seal.

The saints (Jews and Gentiles) are "sealed" as little scrolls, little books or epistles, and seals are to be broken. They, as the "body" of the sacrifice, would pass through great tribulation, be martyred, and then ascend as a new government to call down the curses upon Jerusalem (Egypt/Sodom/Babylon), sitting on thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel and give the Covenant Succession to the New Israel, the Church of Christ.

What is interesting is that the old angelic government carries out its final twenty-four tasks (trumpets, bowls, etc.) and each angel seems to vacate the heavenly tent. Once the final task is completed, the Holy Place is empty, prepared for the new government of glorified humans in heaven.

"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." Jn 14:3

The reason we often haven't a clue what's going on here is because we are ignorant of the common "processes and procedures" of the Old Testament. This exact pattern is very common in the OT Scriptures. Think of Solomon dealing with David's enemies and installing a new government, for instance.

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I think it is quite common for expositors to consider these 24 elders as all the saints who are a royal priesthood reigning in heaven, including us. The symbolic representation of 12 tribes of Israel and 12 Apostles representing the entire church from Adam to the end of the world is very easy to ascribe to. Besides the winged creatures are often thought as angels so all the more reason to consider the 24 elders (a name given to church members) as symbolic of humans, not angels. The only objection I am aware of is when Revelation is put on a time scale as though the church is not before the throne until a later vision but I do not think this lends itself to a strong argument. There is no time scale in Revelation rather various visions repeat elements in previous visions, so there should be no surprise to see the redeemed with Christ right at the opening view. In fact if the church was not there seated before the throne, something would be terribly wrong with that picture.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (NIV Ephesians 2:6)

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Amen, and thank God for your excellent answer. I was ecstatic to hear someone other than myself pointing out the fallacy in considering Revelation a chronological account. (A hermeneutical pet peeve of mine.) –  Jas 3.1 Jul 19 '12 at 16:51
    
According to Revelation 5:8-10, notice the praise to the LAMB is not personalized. It does not say "us" but "them" and "they" (verse 10) (ESV). How can these elders represent the church unless the text is spiritualized? This is my opinion. I do not know who the elders are. –  Jesus Saves Oct 27 '13 at 6:44

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