(Rev. 4:4) Who are the 24 elders mentioned here?

Who are these 24 elders? Humans or angels? There are two predominant views regarding the 24 elders:

VIEW #1: The 24 elders are HUMANS

In favor of this view, a number of exegetical arguments can be made:

First, human believers are promised white robes in the book of Revelation. Throughout the book of Revelation, believers are pictured as wearing white robes—not angels (Rev. 3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9, 13; 19:14).

Second, human believers are promised crowns—not angels. Humans are promised crowns in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:10, we read, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This same word for crown (Greek stephanos) is used in Revelation 4:4 of the golden crowns on the elders’ heads. Believers are promised crowns throughout the rest of the Bible (Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; Jas. 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4). Angels are never promised crowns. Regarding this word stephanos, Walvoord writes, “There are two kinds of crowns in the book of Revelation, involving two different Greek words. One is the crown of a ruler or a sovereign (Gr., diadem), which is a crown of governmental authority. The other is the crown of a victor (Gr., Stephanos), such as was awarded in the Greek games when a person won a race or some contest. This crown was usually made of leaves. The word here is the crown of a victor rather than that of a sovereign.”[1]

Third, the apostles were told that they would reign on thrones. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus said, “When the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Angels are never promised thrones.

Fourth, this number could be symbolic of all believers throughout history. In the OT, the priests were represented by 24 orders of priests (1 Chron. 24:1-4, 7-19). Walvoord writes, “When these priests met together, even though there were only twenty-four, they represented the whole priesthood and at the same time the whole of the nation of Israel.”[2] Thus these 24 elders could represent all believers, who are the priests of God (Rev. 5:10; c.f. 1 Pet. 2:9). Since Revelation 21:12-14 places the twelve tribes of Israel alongside the twelve apostles, John could be combining all the believers from the old covenant and the new. Or perhaps, John has 24 literal elders in view. This could be the special reward of OT and NT believers, who were particularly faithful—especially in light of the promises to rule and reign with Christ spread throughout the seven churches. For example, Jesus promised, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).

VIEW #2: The 24 elders are ANGELS

In favor of this view, a number of exegetical arguments can be made:

First, angels are typically seen dressing in white. We see this in various places in the gospels and Acts (Jn. 20:12; Mt. 28:3; Acts 1:10; Mk. 16:5).

However, we feel that we should let look to imagery within the book of Revelation first, before we look to imagery in the rest of the NT or even OT. Since the imagery of white robes is used of believers throughout Revelation (Rev. 3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9, 13; 19:14), we feel that this argument carries more weight.

Second, angels are typically placed in the throne room of God in the OT. In the OT, we see that angels are at the foot of the throne of God. We see this in Psalm 89:7 (“A God greatly feared in the council of the holy ones”), Isaiah 24:23 (“The Lord of hosts will reign… His glory will be before His elders”), and 1 Kings 22:19 (“I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him”).

And yet, angels are never pictured as being seated on thrones, while humans are (Mt. 19:28). Moreover, angels are explicitly named in the throne room (5:11), so this argument carries little weight.

Third, it is odd that the elders of the church would be mediators for the prayers of the saints. In Revelation 5:8, we read, “The twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). Roman Catholic interpreters believe that this sanctions the doctrine of praying to dead saints. Of course, we do not agree with this view (see our earlier article “Praying to Dead Saints”). Later in Revelation 8:3, we see an angel performing this function (“Another angel came… so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne”). So, this would be an argument in favor of an angelic reading, rather than a human reading.

On the other hand, angelic mediators aren’t any more biblical than human mediators! In fact, the Bible explicitly denounces the “worship of angels” (Col. 2:18). Thus, this is a difficulty for both positions.

Fourth, it is odd that the 24 elders would be seen in distinction from the other believers in heaven. Revelation 19 explains that “a great multitude” praises God for his judgment (v.1). However, the 24 elders are seen as separate from this group—alongside the four creatures (v.4). Moreover, Revelation 7:9 places “a great multitude” of believers distinct from “the elders” in verse 11.

However, angels are seen in distinction from the 24 elders as well (cf. Rev. 5:11), so this argument goes both ways.

Fifth, apocalyptic literature usually has an angel communicating the revelation to a person. In Revelation 5:5, one of the elders explains to John what is happening. In the apocalyptic genre, angels are the ones who communicate visions—never fellow humans (e.g. Daniel).

We feel that this is a good argument. However, the book of Revelation isn’t always consistent with the apocalyptic genre. Craig Blomberg notes, “Revelation differs from most apocalyptic literature of the ancient world by not being (a) pseudonymous; (b) retrospectively historical (representing prophecy ex eventu, i.e. after the event); or (c) morally dualistic and unrelentingly pessimistic in worldview.”[3] While we feel that we should consider the genre of literature in interpreting any book, this shouldn’t be the primary argument in interpreting any book of the Bible.

For these reasons, we slightly favor the first view, or human interpretation, over the angelic view.



[1] Walvoord, John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. JFW Publishing Trust. Chicago, IL. 1966. 106.

[2] Walvoord, John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. JFW Publishing Trust. Chicago, IL. 1966. 106.

[3] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 513.