Monday, 26 October 2020
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. Revelation 4:4
John just described the throne where the Lord sits in heaven, now he continues with, “Around the throne were twenty-four thrones.” The idea of a throne is that of rule and authority, just as in the previous verses. There is an order in heaven where God has placed thrones representing the actions of a court as one might find in an earthly rule, such as the “seven princes of Persia and Media” of Esther 1:14, or other such references in Scripture. Jesus speaks of this type of thing in Matthew 19 –
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” Matthew 19:28
Whether these twenty-four thrones are actual or symbolic can be argued, but either way, they represent an established authority of some type – actual or typological. From there, John next says, “and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting.” The concept of the thrones was stated first to show the type of category that is filled by the elders. From there, the elders are then mentioned to reveal that they fill that category.
The word “elder” is presbuteros. It signifies a mature man, seasoned in judgment. Again, whether these are literal or symbolic of a type of authority that is set in the heavenly realm can be argued. Either way, a state of such authority does exist. With this in mind, Albert Barnes provides a most extensive thought on the matter. Despite being rather long, it is precise and well laid out. Therefore, it is cited here –
Very various opinions have been entertained in respect to those who thus appeared sitting around the throne, and to the question why the number twenty-four is mentioned. Instead of examining those opinions at length, it will be better to present, in a summary manner, what seems to be probable in regard to the intended reference. The following points, then, would appear to embrace all that can be known on this subject:
(1) These elders have a regal character, or are of a kingly order. This is apparent:
(a) because they are represented as sitting on “thrones,” and
(b) because they have on their heads “crowns of gold.”
(2) they are emblematic. They are designed to symbolize or represent some class of persons. This is clear:
(a) because it cannot be supposed that so small a number would compose the whole of those who are in fact around the throne of God, and,
(b) because there are other symbols there designed to represent something pertaining to the homage rendered to God, as the four living creatures and the angels, and this supposition is necessary in order to complete the symmetry and harmony of the representation.
(3) they are human beings, and are designed to have some relation to the race of man, and somehow to connect the human race with the worship of heaven. The four living creatures have another design; the angels Revelation 5:1-14 have another; but these are manifestly of our race – persons from this world before the throne.
(4) they are designed in some way to be symbolic of the church as redeemed. Thus, they say Revelation 5:9, “Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood.”
(5) they are designed to represent the whole church in every land and every age of the world. Thus, they say Revelation 5:9, “Thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” This shows, further, that the whole representation is emblematic; for otherwise in so small a number – twenty-four – there could not be a representation out of every nation.
(6) they represent the church triumphant – the church victorious. Thus, they have crowns on their heads; they have harps in their hands Revelation 5:8; they say that they are “kings and priests,” and that they will “reign on the earth,” Revelation 5:10.
(7) the design, therefore, is to represent the church triumphant – redeemed – saved – as rendering praise and honor to God; as uniting with the hosts of heaven in adoring him for his perfections and for the wonders of his grace; As representatives of the church, they are admitted near to him; they encircle his throne; they appear victorious over every foe; and they come, in unison with the living creatures, and the angels, and the whole universe Revelation 5:13, to ascribe power and dominion to God.
(8) as to the reason why the number “twenty-four” is mentioned, perhaps nothing certain can be determined. Ezekiel, in his vision Ezekiel 8:16; Ezekiel 11:1, saw twenty-five men between the porch and the altar, with their backs toward the temple, and their faces toward the earth – supposed to be representations of the twenty-four “courses” into which the body of priests was divided 1 Peter 2:9), and to have alluded to the fact that the priesthood under the Jewish economy was divided into twenty-four courses, each with a presiding officer, and who was a representative of that portion of the priesthood over which he presided. If so, then the ideas which enter into the representation are these:
(a) That the whole church may be represented as a priesthood, or a community of priests – an idea which frequently occurs in the New Testament.
(b) That the church, as such a community of priests, is employed in the praise and worship of God – an idea, also, which finds abundant countenance in the New Testament.
(c) That, in a series of visions having a designed reference to the church, it was natural to introduce some symbol or emblem representing the church, and representing the fact that this is its office and employment. And,
(d) that this would be well expressed by an allusion derived from the ancient dispensation – the division of the priesthood into classes, over each one of which there presided an individual who might be considered as the representative of his class.
It is to be observed, indeed, that in one respect they are represented as” kings,” but still this does not forbid the supposition that there might have been intermingled also another idea, that they were also “priests.” Thus, the two ideas are blended by these same elders in Revelation 5:10; “And hath made us unto our God kings and priests.” Thus understood, the vision is designed to denote the fact that the representatives of the church, ultimately to be triumphant, are properly engaged in ascribing praise to God. The word “elders” here seems to be used in the sense of aged and venerable men, rather than as denoting office. They were such as by their age were qualified to preside over the different divisions of the priesthood.
In his commentary, Barnes somewhat dismisses the number twenty-four. However, EW Bullinger rightly defines it as “the number associated with the heavenly government and worship, of which the earthly form in Israel was only a copy. We are told that both Moses and David ordered all things connected with the Tabernacle and Temple worship by direct revelation from God, and as a copy of things in the heavens, Hebrews 8:5; 1 Chronicles 28:12, 19. And the sevenfold phrase (in Exo 40) ‘as the LORD commanded Moses’ witnesses to the Divine ordering of all. It was so with the twenty-four courses of priests in the earthly Temple; these were formed on the ‘pattern of things in the heavens.’ In Revelation 4, we read of the twenty-four heavenly elders, who are the twelve Patriarchs from the Old Testament and the twelve Apostles from the New.’”
Whether these are actually the Patriarchs and Apostles, or symbolic of them can, again, be debated. However, they are certainly representative of what issued from them – meaning the tribes of Israel, and the body of believers we today call the “church.” Of these men, John says they are “clothed in white robes.”
This idea of white robes will be defined later in Revelation 19:8 to indicate “the righteous acts of the saints” (NKJV), or the “righteousness of the saints” (Webster’s). What seems more appropriate is the latter. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ. These elders are purified through Christ and are sanctified for the role they have been appointed. The idea of white garments has already been presented in Revelation 3:4.
Finally, John finishes the verse with the words, “and they had crowns of gold on their heads.” This is a reference to the position of ruling authority that accompanied the idea of sitting on thrones. However, this could extend to priestly duties as well. The high priest of Israel had a plate of pure gold on his turban which identified his priestly office. Thus, the crowns may signify both kingly and priestly authority.
Again, these beings that are described may only be symbolic, and they could simply be reflective of the single office of Christ. He is the Human who represents all redeemed humanity before God – both Israel of old and the church. This would appear to be wrong based on, for example, verse 4:10 where “the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne.” But as long as the scene is given as only typology, it would be no different than that of the slain Lamb and the four living creatures of verse 5:6. In that verse, the four living creatures (yet to be mentioned) and the twenty-four elders are noted in one verse. As will be seen, the four living creatures will, in fact, represent aspects of Christ.
Life application: Jesus is the focal point of all of Scripture. It is important to not take something that is apocalyptic in nature and then dogmatically state that it is describing something that can only be inferred. In the case of the twenty-four elders, they may represent actual humans in the number given. They may represent a body of authority that is reflected in the descriptions given. They may represent all believers from both Israel and the church. Or, they may represent the authority of Christ over the redeemed of both the Mosaic and New Covenants. As such, these may not be literal thrones in heaven with literal people on them.
The book of Revelation is carefully describing a heavenly scene in a manner that we can comprehend, and which is to then reveal spiritual truths. In the end, all righteousness (white garments) comes from Christ alone. Likewise, all authority – both kingly and priestly – is derived from Christ alone. With this in mind, we can be secure in our theology even if lesser points are debated over.
Lord Jesus, all rule in heaven and on earth belongs to You. To You every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. Your word states that it is so. Help us to be willing to stand up for these truths and to proclaim that there is one path to salvation and only one way to be right before God. May we never waffle in this matter. Without You, there is no hope. But through You, there is eternal peace and security. Thank You for what You offer to the people of the world! Amen.