“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
The apostle John has now transitioned to the third part of the divine outline for the book of Revelation. He is recording “the things which will take place after this” (1:19c) concerning future events in Chapters 4 to 22. John was caught up through an open door in heaven to enter God’s throne room (4:1) where he saw God the Father sitting on a throne that signified His future judgments would be rooted in His absolute purity (“jasper”), His righteous anger toward sin (“sardius”), and His faithfulness to His promises (“rainbow… like an emerald”) (4:2-3).
Next John writes, “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). While in heaven, John sees twenty-four elders sitting on thrones around the throne of God. Who are these twenty-four elders? Some teach that these twenty-four elders represent angels, 1 both angels and humans, 2 or both Old and New Testament believers. 3 However, I believe the biblical evidence indicates that these twenty-four elders represent the church for the following reasons:
1. The word “elders” in the New Testament refers to leaders of the local church (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5; Revelation 2:25-27; 3:4-5, 21). Nowhere else in the Bible are angels referred to as “elders.” 4
2. Just as twenty-four Levitical priests in the Old Testament represented the entire priesthood consisting of thousands of priests when serving in the temple (I Chronicles 24), so these twenty-four elders represent the entire church in heaven (Revelation 4:4). 5
3. The fact that these elders are seated on “thrones” and wearing “crowns” (4:4) points to the church because Jesus promised enthronement (Revelation 2:10, 25-27; 3:21; cf. Matthew 19:27-29; 2 Timothy 2:12) and crowns (Revelation 2:10; cf. I Corinthians 9:25; I Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; I Peter 5:4) to faithful believers from the church age. These elders cannot represent angels or Old Testament saints because angels are never referred to as “elders” in the Bible nor are they ever pictured as wearing “crowns,” andOld Testament believers will not be resurrected and rewarded until after the Tribulation is over (cf. Daniel 12:1-3). 6 But church-age believers will receive crowns at the Judgment Seat of Christ in heaven during the Tribulation period on the earth (2 Corinthians 5:10).
4. The white “robes” or garments of the elders (4:4) are identical to the clothing rewarded to faithful church-age believers in Revelation (Revelation 3:5, 18; 19:7-8).
5. Only believers, not angels, can sing Revelation 5:9 where the best Greek manuscripts have the word “us” in Revelation 5:9: “… for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Angels were not redeemed by Christ’s blood. Jesus died for humans, not angels (Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
6. The elders are clearly distinguished from the angels in Revelation 5:11: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands.”
The fact that these twenty-four elders are already sitting on “thrones,” wearing “white robes” and “crowns” indicates they have already appeared before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive their rewards (4:4; cf. I Corinthians 3:8-15; 9:24-27; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:10, 25-27; 3:4-5, 21) which means the vision John describes in heaven takes place after the Rapture of the Church.
This is supported further by the absence of the word “church” (ekklēsia) and any references to church-age believers in Chapters 4-18, which describe the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth during the Tribulation. Twenty times the word church occurs in the book of Revelation (cf. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:1, 7-8, 11-12, 17-18, 23, 29; 3:1, 6-7, 13-14, 22; 22:16). Nineteen times the word “church” occurs in Revelation 1-3 describing the Church Age. But in Revelation 4-18, where John describes the events of the Tribulation, the word “church” occurs zero times. The word “church” doesn’t occur again until the last chapter of Revelation (22:16).
“If the church will experience any or all of the Tribulation, then one would expect that Revelation 4–18—the most detailed description of the Tribulation—would include an account of the church’s role during that time period. But remarkably, Revelation 4–18 is silent about the church on earth.” 7
Those who believe the church will go through the Tribulation period on earth (Posttribulationists), argue that there is no mention of the word “church” in heaven during the Tribulation period (Revelation 4-19). The response to this is that the church throughout Revelation 4-19 is represented by the “twenty-four elders” in heaven (Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:5-6, 8, 11, 14; 7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4).
“The elders appear twelve times in these chapters. And in each instance, they are in heaven worshiping Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb. From their first mention in Revelation 4:4, the twenty-four elders are pictured in heaven, judged, rewarded, and enthroned. This interpretation fits well with the belief that the church will be raptured prior to the Tribulation. Revelation 4–19 consistently pictures the church in heaven, representing it by the twenty-four elders enthroned and crowned, dressed in white, and worshiping the Lamb (Revelation 4:4, 10; 5:5-6, 8, 11, 14).” 8
Posttribulationists also say that the word “saints” occurs several times in Revelation 4-18 and refers to the church on earth (Revelation 13:7, 10; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24). But this understanding fails to recognize that there are three distinct groups of “saints” in the Bible: Old Testament saints (Psalm 16:3, et al.), Church-Age saints (I Corinthians 1:1, et al.), and Tribulation saints (Revelation 13:7 et al.). The “saints” on the earthmentioned in Revelation 4-18 refers to people who were saved after the Rapture of the Church.
“The church doesn’t appear again until chapter 19, where she is pictured as a bride returning to earth with her glorious Bridegroom. This returning from heaven to earth with Christ indicates that the Bride has already been in heaven for some time since she has ‘prepared herself’ (Revelation 19:7). Revelation 22:16 refers to the church again for the final time, specifically using the word ekklesia. The presence and absence of the term ekklesia in the book of Revelation is convincing evidence that the church will not be present on earth during the Tribulation and the outpouring of God’s wrath.” 9
The best explanation for all these details in Revelation is that the church has already been removed by the Lord Jesus Christ prior to the Tribulation to deliver her from “the wrath to come” (I Thessalonians 1:10). The apostle Paul wrote of believers in Thessalonica who “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (I Thessalonians 1:10). Paul promises that believers in Jesus will be delivered from the coming Tribulation wrath. How? He explains that believers are caught up off the earth to meet Jesus in the air (I Thessalonians 4:15-18; 5:9-10) and unbelievers are left behind for judgment (I Thessalonians 5:3).
Knowing that we will be delivered from the coming Tribulation wrath via the Rapture of the church provides strong motivation to live for the Lord now. The certainty of our escape from the coming wrath should motivate us to live godly lives – “6 Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night.” (I Thessalonians 5:6-7). “The Lord is coming unexpectedly, don’t be caught living like non-Christians,” Paul is saying. As Christians, we are to stay spiritually awake, living in anticipation of Christ’s return for us at any moment – and not worried about being caught in the Day of the Lord.
How do we stay spiritually awake and alert to the Lord’s coming? “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation” (I Thessalonians 5:8). The “breastplate” protects vital organs (heart, lungs). This breastplate is composed of faith and love – faith that Christ is coming back any time and love for one another will protect us from spiritual heart damage. “Helmets” protect our head. This “helmet” is made of hope which guards us from attacks on our thinking. This hope focuses on being delivered from the coming wrath. Wear this helmet constantly and you will be ready for His return.
What relevance does this teaching have for the church? “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.” (I Thessalonians 5:11). Christians are to encourage one another with this message of comfort and hope. The extent to which Christians misunderstand or are misinformed about the Rapture, will be the extent to which they are robbed of these blessings the Lord intended for them.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You for Your great and precious promises, which include Your promise to deliver every believer in Jesus from the coming Tribulation wrath on earth through the sudden removal of Your Church. Your coming for us at any moment motivates us to live godly lives until we go to be with You so we can receive eternal rewards consisting of dazzling white robes and the authority to reign with You. We live for that day when we will be caught up to be with You forever. Until then, please empower us to multiply Your followers through the preaching of the gospel and the training of believers in discipleship so we may hear You say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” In Your matchless name we pray, Lord Jesus. Amen.
1. Tom Constable, Notes on Revelation, 2017 Edition, pg. 69 cites Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1—7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), pg. 348; E. W. Bullinger, The Apocalypse or “The Day of the Lord” (London: Eyre and Spottiswodde, n.d.), pg. 219; John Peter Lange, ed. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, 12 vols., (Reprint ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), Vol. 12: James-Revelation, by J. P. Lange, J. J. Van Oosterzee, G. T. C. Fronmuller, and Karl Braune. Enlarged and edited by E. R. Craven. Translated by J. Isidor Mombert and Evelina Moore), pg. 152; James Moffat, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” In The Expositor’s Greek Testament Vol. 5 (4th ed., Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. 5 vols. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1900-12), pg. 378; George Raymond Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation New Century Bible Commentary series (Revised ed. London: Morgan & Scott, 1974; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1983), pg. 114.
2. Constable, pg. 69.
4. Ibid., pg. 70.
5. Mark Hitchcock, The End: A Complete Overview of Bible Prophecy and the End of Days (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2012 Kindle Edition), pg. 148; John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1989), pg. 102.
6. Hitchcock, pg. 148.
7. Ibid., pg. 146.
8. Ibid., pg. 147.
9. Ibid., pg. 146.