In Revelation 4 we read of twenty-four elders, clothed in white robes and possessing crowns. These mysterious elders have caused much confusion concerning their identity. Dispensationalists see John being told “Come up here!” (Rev. 4:1) by a voice like a trumpet as a symbol for the church being called up to heaven at the rapture. These elders are in white robes, which they link with the saints’ white robes (see Rev. 3:5; 6:10-11; 7:9, 14). The elders, John says, bowed down before God and cast their crowns before Him (Rev. 4:10). Many take this action to symbolize how Christians, after receiving crowns as the reward for their good deeds, will give them back to God since their good works were His anyways. This interpretation of this particular symbol has even infiltrated various worship songs. For example, in “We Fall Down” by Chris Tomlin, “We fall down, we lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus.” Again, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” by Reginald Heber says, “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden grounds around the glassy sea.”
However, I do not think this sentiment should affect believers. It is not we Christians who will be throwing our crowns before God. I hope to show from this text itself, as well as from other biblical themes, that the twenty-four elders cannot possibly be a symbol for the raptured church.
The 24 Elders Speak of the Church in the Third Person
Perhaps for many the confusion concerning the identity of the elders springs from the KJV’s translation of Revelation 5:9-10. There the elders sing a new song of Christ’s worthiness because of His redemption. The KJV has the elders saying, “You have made us to be a kingdom of priests…” (Rev. 5:10, emphasis mine). If the KJV is translated from the most reliable manuscripts, then here we would have a fine example of the 24 elders identified as Christians. However, other Bible translations, utilizing more reliable manuscripts, have “them” in the place of “us,” thus making the church and the 24 elders two separate entities. It is also important to note that the four living creatures are also singing this new song (Rev. 5:8). Therefore, we would have to conclude that the four living creatures are also saints, which clearly is not true (see Ezek. 1).1
The 24 Elders Are Mentioned Alongside More Clear “Symbols” for the Church
There are places in Revelation where various groups of worshipers are mentioned in one big heavenly scene. In a couple of these, the 24 elders are mentioned but there is also a group present which is more likely the church. For example, in Revelation 7 there are the 144,000 sealed Jews (Rev. 7:4-8), a countless multitude from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9-10), and all the angels, the 24 elders and the four living creatures (Rev. 7:11). This same countless multitude of people clothed in white robes is later labeled “the ones who come out of the great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14). Why not say that this is the raptured church?! Sounds like a much better candidate.2 Whereas we are merely told that the 24 elders wear white robes, this group is specifically said to have robes “made…white in the blood of the of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). The chapter then lists several activities and privileges of this group, which clearly belong to the church (Rev. 7:15-17).3
Scenes Where One of the 24 Elders Speaks to John
There are places in Revelation where one of the elders talks to the apostle John. When John is weeping because he thinks nobody is worthy to open the scroll, one of the elders tells him to stop weeping because Jesus has overcome (Rev. 5:3-5). Also, in chapter 7 John goes back and forth with one of the elders. One of the elders asks John who the multitude is, John responds that he does not know, and the elder gives a description of them. What would these accounts mean if the elders were the entire body of believers? Is it 1/24 of the church talking to him all at once?
Crowns Are Not Given to the Church Until the Final Judgment
The presence of crowns in the elders symbol has lead many to identify them as the church. They survey other passages of Scripture that mention crowns and see that Christians will receive crowns as reward for their faithfulness and fruitfulness. A closer look at the terminology of those texts, however, will lead us to conclude that the crowns/rewards are given at the final judgment.4
First, there is the overarching theme of the final judgment where ‘God will give to every man according to His deeds’. This permeates the Scriptures through and through. At this event, it will be both the righteous and the wicked judged together.5 Surely this is the time to which Paul referred when he said that “in the future,” and “on that day,” he and others will receive the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8). In another place he says that on “the day” every man whose works are not burnt up will receive a reward (1 Cor. 3:10-14). Alongside this are terms describing Christ’s Second Coming (i.e. coming, revelation, appearing, return), thus putting the event at the end of all time.6 For example, the two passages mentioned above (2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Cor. 3:10-14) link the day of judgment with Christ’s appearing (2 Tim. 4:8) and His coming (1 Cor. 4:5).7 When we mesh this with other Scriptures using those same terms, we see that it is at the end of time. For example, Matthew 24:30 uses both terms to describe His return to judge the world immediately following the great tribulation. Paul also uses both of these terms together to describe the time that Jesus will destroy the man of lawlessness (2 Thes. 2:8).
Having surveyed the evidence, we must conclude that the 24 Elders are not the raptured church–or even the church at all. Who exactly are they then? Being that they are only mentioned in one book of the Bible, a detailed systematic-theological study concerning them is not possible. We know that they are heavenly—perhaps angelic—beings who worship God. Why the number 24? Perhaps as angels and therefore ministers to God’s people (Heb. 1:14), each represents one of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (both of these with their number have significance in Revelation [see 7:4-8; 21:12, 14]). What does casting their crowns signify? As mentioned above, it is not giving God the reward for what He did through us. Rather, we should see crowns as symbols for authority, honor, sovereignty, etc. This is how we see it in our own culture, i.e. a king wears a crown. Thus, when the elders cast their crowns before God, they are ascribing to God all that belongs to a king. In fact, from their song in the very next verse we see that this is exactly what they are doing. “[The twenty-four elders] cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power…'” (Rev. 4:10-11).
1For another example where the 24 elders speak of Christians in the third person, see Rev. 7:13-17.
2 Please note that I am not saying they are the raptured church. These do not come out of the tribulation by rapture, but by martyrdom/death.
3 Another case of this is in Revelation 19:1-8, where the 24 elders are worshiping God with the four living creatures and a great multitude in heaven.
4 Of course, I see Christ’s return for the church as the final judgment anyways. That aside, this portion proves that the terminology is that of what they would call “the Second Coming” and not at the rapture. For example, in neither of their classical “rapture” passages do we find mention of crowns (1 Thes. 4; 1 Cor 15).
5 And so the Bible does not teach that the “final judgment” for believers will be 1,007 years before the “final judgment” of the wicked.
6 This is why I only see one return and not two. All of these terms, when all the passages are studied and synthesized, are synonymous for one event. Therefore, I do not see room in Scripture two returns, one being before the tribulation, and another after it. Neither do I see reason to separate two distinct comings by a period of 1000 years.
7 In 1 Thes. 2:19 and 1 Pet. 5:4, we see crowns being given at His coming and His appearing respectively.