The Gang's All Here
"Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" is a rousing little refrain written by Theodora Morse that was first published in 1917, and which borrows its tune from the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. It's a simple, spirited song that is typically sung by a gathering of friends or associates who are enjoying the boisterous camaraderie of the moment:
"Hail, hail, the gang's all here
What the heck do we care
What the heck do we care
Hail, hail, the gang's all here
What the heck do we care now!"
What brought this song to my mind was a topic from the book of Revelation that I've considered writing about for a long time, but it never quite pushed its way to the forefront. Although it is a fascinating subject, it was only recently during the course of my own study that I noticed a couple of things in Scripture that I had never thought about before, and that finally motivated me to sit down and take the plunge.
Even a cursory glance at the apostle John's apocalyptic vision of the end times reveals that it's filled with a lot of surreal and at times frightening symbols, events, characters, and imagery. Throughout the meat of the book your senses are overwhelmed with a seemingly endless barrage of terrifying judgments that strike the earth, and as a result many people just close the book and walk away thinking...
"Yikes! Please tell me this is all just somebody's nightmare!"
In a nutshell, the book of Revelation—whose opening words identify it as "the Revelation of Jesus Christ"—is a blow-by-blow account of how God will pour out His judgment on a world that has rejected Him and persecuted His people Israel, and how He will save a believing remnant of both Jews and Gentiles from out of this period of judgment commonly referred to as the Tribulation, with Jesus returning to earth at its conclusion to utterly defeat His enemies and establish His kingdom on earth for a thousand years.
Of course there's a bit more to it than that, but that will suffice as a thumbnail sketch. Throughout the book many characters and events are depicted, some of which are necessarily symbolic in nature and whose real meanings are often not readily understood without a fair amount of study (and some not even then). One such mysterious group that shows up is known as the 24 elders, and in this article I want to discuss in some depth what the 24 elders represent, and what is just as important, what they don't represent.
And most important of all, why it matters.
At first blush, one might be tempted to pooh-pooh this particular little topic as an arcane detail that only hardcore Scripture wonks would care about, much less argue about. I can assure you, however, that it is much more than that. As we shall see, the correct identification of the 24 elders in the book of Revelation completely settles once and for all one of the most divisive and hotly debated biblical issues in modern times, and that is the doctrine of the Rapture and its timing in relationship to the coming seven-year Tribulation.
The identity of the 24 elders is nothing less than a key that unlocks with stunning, irrefutable clarity the question of whether the Church—the body of Christ—will remain on earth for the duration of the coming seven-year Tribulation, or if the Church will be raptured before it begins.
In other words, it has the potential to settle the rancorous post-trib vs pre-trib debate forever.
Reality check: Actually, the above statement is a polite bit of wishful thinking on my part. In reality, the only thing that will ever settle the post-trib vs pre-trib debate is the Rapture itself. I know from hard experience that those who are convinced of a post-trib Rapture will simply twist, ignore, or steamroll any scriptural evidence that contradicts their view, no matter how biblically sound or compelling it may be.
Setting the stage
We are first introduced to the 24 elders early in the book of Revelation, near the beginning of chapter 4. Before we meet them, however, let's set the stage for their appearance.
In approximately AD 95, an elderly apostle John was a prisoner on Patmos, a tiny island off the coast of Greece that served as a penal colony in those days. While there, he had a vision of Jesus Christ, God's throne in heaven, and the events of the Tribulation. John was instructed to write down what he saw and send it to seven actual churches in Asia Minor, or what is today Turkey.
In chapter 1, John greets the churches to whom the book is addressed, and then describes how the risen Lord appeared to him on Patmos. Jesus tells John to write the things which you have seen (the risen Christ), the things which are (the Church Age, which was in its early stages of development in John's day and is nearing its completion today), and the things which shall be hereafter (the future Tribulation period, which occupies most of the rest of the book).
In chapters 2 and 3, Jesus gives a personalized message to each of seven real-life churches that existed in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The basic structure of each message is similar, with Jesus typically commending them for something, rebuking them for something, and concluding with the statement "He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches" along with some type of promise to those who overcome.
Although these seven messages are addressed to seven churches that existed in John's day, we can look back over the last two thousand years and see that these seven churches, in the order they are mentioned, actually form a summary outline of the history of the entire Church Age, from the first century up until modern times:
• Ephesus (Rev. 2:1–7) The church that had forsaken its first love.
Prominent from: the first to the second centuries.
This was the backslidden church, and at the time there was a group called the Nicolaitans who sought to establish a priestly order to rule over the laity, or common believers—a thing Jesus said he hated (v. 6). This church planted the seeds of what would later blossom into Roman Catholicism.
• Smyrna (Rev. 2:8–11) The church that suffered persecution.
Prominent from: the second to the fourth centuries.
This was the church that suffered intense persecution by the Romans (think lions, the Colosseum, and so on), and is one of only two churches that received no rebuke from the Lord.
• Pergamos (Rev. 2:12–17) The church that was married to the world.
Prominent from: the fourth to the seventh centuries.
This church was responsible for incorporating all manner of pagan rituals, symbols, and celebrations into Christianity (including the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, the final day of a drunken orgy known as Saturnalia). This was done ostensibly to promote the popularity and influence of what was developing into the Roman Catholic Church.
• Thyatira (Rev. 2:18–29) The church that commits spiritual whoredom.
Prominent from: the seventh to the sixteenth centuries, but still exists.
Long story short: the Roman Catholic Church.
• Sardis (Rev. 3:1–6) The church that is fast asleep in its formality.
Prominent from: the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, but still exists.
This group rebelled against the spiritual whoredom of the Roman Catholic Church, and partly due to the increasing availability of Bibles, was responsible for recovering basic Christian doctrines such as salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. This was the Protestant Reformation, which successfully freed the Church from the pagan tyranny of Rome.
Sadly, the Reformation still got it wrong about things such as the Church's relationship to Israel, and they fumbled the ball on the Second Coming and other fundamentals of end-time prophecy. Also, the impetus behind the Reformation was as much political as it was spiritual, and numerous doctrinal controversies fractured it into a kaleidoscope of denominations. As a result, the Church under the Reformation dozed off into dead rituals and stiff, empty formality—and it slumbers still.
• Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7–13) The church that loves and endures patiently.
Prominent from: the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, but still exists.
"Philadelphia" means "brotherly love," and it's love that defines this Evangelical church that was responsible for the great missionary outreaches of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This is the only other church beside Smyrna that received no rebuke from the Lord; however, unlike Smyrna, this church is still present on earth in the form of born-again believers who seek to live lives that radiate God's love and who have a passion for reaching the lost with the life-changing message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
• Laodicea (Rev. 3:14–22) The church that is wealthy and complacent.
Prominent from: the twentieth century to the present day.
It's today's "Your Best Life Now" church. This is the only one of the seven churches that received no praise whatsoever from the Lord. Wealthy and complacent: an apt description of the bulk of the Church today, especially in America. It is filled with people who "have need of nothing" (v. 17) and who are content to sit back in their big, fancy churches and have their ears tickled with soothing, motivational pep talks instead of the anointed preaching of God's Word. They are lukewarm, and Jesus said He would spit them out of His mouth if they remained so (v. 16).
So as you can see, these seven messages to these seven churches in Turkey expand into something that goes far beyond John's day, and prophetically encapsulate the entire "future history" of the Church. In other words, as we reach the end of chapter 3, in a sense we arrive at the end of the Church Age.
And that brings us to the pivotal chapter 4.
Meet the gang
1After these things I looked and saw a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, was one saying, "Come up here, and I will show you the things which must happen after this." 2Immediately I was in the Spirit. Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne 3that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at. 4Around the throne were twenty-four thrones. On the thrones were twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads.
(Revelation 4:1–4 / emphasis added)
After these things. What things? The things which are—the Church Age that was just prophetically outlined in chapters 2 and 3. Now the scene suddenly shifts from earth to heaven, and I agree wholeheartedly with the legions of competent Bible teachers who are convinced that verse 1 depicts the Rapture, although I won't take the time here to argue the point in detail.
John is transported in the Spirit to the throne room of God, and around the throne he sees 24 thrones, and sitting on those thrones he sees 24 characters, all dressed in white clothing and wearing gold crowns.
Say hello to the 24 elders.
Now that they've been properly introduced, let's cut to the chase.
In this article, I want to carefully lay out for you why the 24 elders cannot represent anyone but the raptured Church, in heaven, with their rewards, and preparing to watch Jesus initiate the judgments of the Tribulation in chapter 6. Now, before I go any further, please understand what that implies:
If the 24 elders represent the raptured Church, we're all pre-tribbers.
The debate's over. Every other position concerning the timing of the Rapture isn't just called into question, it's crushed out of existence. If God's Word means anything at all, there's simply no way around it.
Since identifying the 24 elders as the raptured Church effectively puts a stone-cold stranglehold on the doctrine of the pre-tribulation Rapture, all those who hold to other views of the timing of the Rapture must scramble to find ways to make the 24 elders something else. They have to—they have no choice. In many cases they have begun with the assumption that the pre-trib Rapture simply must be wrong, and then seek to find ways to defend their positions by coming up with alternative explanations for what Scripture plainly teaches.
What I want to do is go over several key points that will make it abundantly clear that the 24 elders must be the raptured Church, and why they cannot be any of the other things that some people try to make them out to be.
What's in a number?
Every number used in the Bible means something—God doesn't pull numbers out of a hat. So, the first question is, why 24? Why not 12 or 18 or 40 or some other number? What's special about the number 24? Besides the 24 elders in the book of Revelation, the only other significant usages of the number 24 are seen in 1 Chronicles 24 and 25.
In 1 Chronicles 24, King David divided all the Levitical priests into 24 divisions called "courses." Obviously there was a multitude of people involved in the Levitical priesthood, but these 24 courses represented the entire, completed group. Each course pulled a one-week shift at the temple twice a year, and all 24 courses were required to be on duty for the three major feasts that required every man in Israel to present himself at the temple: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles. Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount area, would be absolutely packed with people during those three feasts, so it was all hands on deck.
Then in 1 Chronicles 25, King David did something similar with the musicians who led praise and worship. He divided them into 24 divisions, too. Again, there were many musicians of every type, but these 24 divisions represented the entire, completed group.
So if we pay attention to what the Bible tells us about the significance of this number, it is clear that the 24 elders—whoever or whatever they may be—represent a completed group.
There are people who admit the 24 elders are in fact saints in heaven, but then point to references to other saints suffering great persecution on earth during the Tribulation and being martyred and showing up in heaven in chapters 6 and 7. They believe these saints must also be part of the Church, and use this to bolster their argument against the pre-tribulation Rapture.
But notice one thing. The elders are mentioned in Revelation 4 and 5 (before the Tribulation), they are mentioned in Revelation 7, 11, and 14 (during the Tribulation), and finally they are mentioned in Revelation 19 (after the Tribulation). And surprise, surprise: there are still 24.
If the saints who are martyred for their faith during the Tribulation are also part of the Church, then the Church is not yet complete in Revelation 4. So, why don't the number of elders increase as time goes on? Why aren't there more elders in heaven after multitudes of saints are martyred? It would make sense for their number to increase by the end of the Tribulation, but it doesn't.
Why? Simple. The 24 elders are the completed Church in heaven before the Tribulation begins (Rev. 6), and they are still the completed Church in heaven after the Tribulation ends (Rev. 19). And the reason is simple enough: those saints who are martyred during the Tribulation are not part of the Church.
So, the 24 elders represent a completed group in heaven before the Tribulation begins.
Clothes make the man
In Revelation 4:4, the elders are described and it says they are clothed in white garments. In the Bible, white clothing always represents righteousness.
(Note: Angels are also clothed in white, but we will deal with them later.)
There are several places in Scripture where we are told that we will be clothed in white garments that represent Christ's righteousness that is imputed to us through faith, and we only have to back up a few verses to find one such reference:
5He who overcomes will be arrayed in white garments, and I will in no way blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
(Revelation 3:5 / emphasis added)
This promise is made in Jesus' message to the church at Sardis in Revelation 3, and it applies to every single person who is part of the body of Christ.
Notice also in Revelation 4:4 that the elders are wearing gold crowns. It is worth noting that there are two Greek words in the New Testament that are translated as "crown":
• stephanos—a victor's crown of reward for faithful endurance.
• diadema—a crown of royalty.
Each of the 24 elders is wearing a stephanos, and that means they have been rewarded for something. Now, who in Scripture is promised to be rewarded with crowns?
You guessed it—the Church:
12Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him.
(James 1:12 / emphasis added)
8From now on, there is stored up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day; and not to me only, but also to all those who have loved his appearing.
(2 Timothy 4:8 / emphasis added)
25Every man who strives in the games exercises self-control in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible.
(1 Corinthians 9:25 / emphasis added)
And so on. Also, in Revelation 2:10, the church in Smyrna is promised a crown of life. In Revelation 3:11, the church in Philadelphia is urged to hold on what they have so no one takes their crown. And just to be clear—every single one of the above crowns I have referred to is a stephanos.
So, the 24 elders represent a completed group in heaven before the Tribulation begins, they are dressed in white garments representing Christ's imputed righteousness, and they have been rewarded with crowns, all just as promised to the Church.
Please be seated
It is also significant that the 24 elders are sitting on thrones. That can mean only one thing: they are prepared to exercise some level of authority. Now, who do you suppose might have been promised such a thing?
Yep—the Church. Repeatedly throughout the New Testament, the Church is promised that they will rule and reign with Christ:
1Dare any of you, having a matter against his neighbor, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2Don't you know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3Don't you know that we will judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?
(1 Corinthians 6:1–3 / emphasis added)
12If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us.
(2 Timothy 2:12 / emphasis added)
21He who overcomes, I will give to him to sit down with me on my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father on his throne.
(Revelation 3:21 / emphasis added)
And so on. Note that the apostles were also promised that they will rule and reign with Christ during the Millennial Kingdom, but they will exercise authority over Israel (Matt. 19:28). The Church will exercise authority over the Gentile nations (the "world" in 1 Cor. 6:2 above).
And just to top it off, there's this:
4But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
(Ephesians 2:4–7 / emphasis added)
Paul comes right out and says that Christ will raise us up and make us sit with Him in the heavenly places. How do you allegorize this away? How do you make this mean something different? If this is not being fulfilled right here in Revelation 4, then by all means—please indulge me and show me where it is fulfilled.
I'll be waiting.
So, the 24 elders represent a completed group in heaven before the Tribulation begins, they are dressed in white garments representing Christ's imputed righteousness, they have been rewarded with crowns, and they are seated on thrones in a position of authority, all just as promised to the Church.
Us vs them
Part of me almost hates to get into this, but it's important and I really have to do it. It has to do with the controversial issue of Bible translations, at least as far as it concerns the following two verses of Scripture:
9And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us [many modern translations: them] to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; 10And hast made us [many modern translations: them] unto our God kings and priests: and we [many modern translations: they] shall reign on the earth.
(Revelation 5:9–10 KJV / emphasis & comments added)
I quoted the venerable King James Version here to illustrate a point (although the World English Bible I usually quote also reads us and we).
It is our friends the 24 elders who are speaking here, and notice they sing a new song—a song about how they have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus out of every people group and how they have been made kings and priests to reign on earth. They are watching Jesus as He prepares to open the seals on the scroll and unleash the opening judgments of the Tribulation...oh wait, or are they singing about someone else?
It depends on which translation you read. As you can see, the King James Version has the elders basically saying "You have redeemed us by your blood and made us kings and priests," as if those redeemed individuals were the 24 elders themselves.
On the other hand, many modern translations have the elders saying "You have redeemed them by your blood and made them kings and priests," as if those redeemed individuals were not the elders themselves, but rather some other saints still on earth. So, is it us or them?
• If it's us, the 24 elders are unquestionably the Church, and the pre-trib Rapture is even more of a lock, if that's possible.
• If it's them, you can argue that the 24 elders are not the Church, and the post-trib Rapture almost starts to make sense, sort of. Almost.
Big difference. Bigger controversy.
The reason I said part of me almost hates to get into this is because it's a long, complex story and many sources are rather biased. But here's the Reader's Digest version of what I've come up with.
There are two families of Greek manuscripts that translations of the New Testament are based on, and the primary family contains about 95 percent of all the existing manuscript fragments. It is often referred to as the Majority Text, and it is very similar to the Textus Receptus, or the collection of manuscripts most of which date to around the twelfth century that were used by the translators of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. In the years following its publication, additional manuscripts became available, some of which dated back to the fifth century, and revisions were made to the King James Version to incorporate a number of comparatively minor changes.
Don't say I didn't warn you: If you ever have the misfortune of meeting a KJV-Only snob who is convinced that the 1611 King James Version of the Bible stands alone as the only inspired version of the Bible ever produced (to the exclusion of the original Hebrew and Greek texts) and that every other translation of the Bible in existence is the product of a satanic conspiracy to corrupt God's Word (and such people exist, I'm sad to say), do not, I repeat, do not argue with them. Just smile and change the subject. Trust me—that's all you can do.
The Textus Receptus and the Majority Text exhibit a level of agreement and consistency that is absolutely light years beyond any other ancient manuscripts in existence, with the great majority of differences coming in the form such minutiae as variant spellings, etc. This is why the King James Version has long been the premier English translation of the Bible—a distinction it richly deserves. But please understand: It's the original texts in Hebrew and Greek that are inspired, not translations—however good they may be. In fact, the translators of the 1611 KJV clearly emphasize this in their introduction.
Incidentally, the Majority Text includes 23 manuscripts that happen to contain Revelation 5:9–10.
Every single one of those 23 manuscripts reads us.
The other five percent of the manuscripts and manuscript fragments make up what is called the Minority Text, and it contains two primary manuscripts written in Coptic: Codex Vaticanus (allegedly found in the Vatican Library in 1481, but closely guarded by the Roman Catholic Church until the nineteenth century) and Codex Sinaiticus (allegedly found in 1844 in the trash at a Catholic monastery in the Sinai Peninsula). These two manuscripts are often collectively referred to as the Alexandrian Codices, since the Coptic language links them with Alexandria, Egypt.
After being translated back into Greek, these two manuscripts garnered significant publicity in the nineteenth century because they were believed to date back as early as the late third to the early fourth centuries, which meant they predated any of the manuscripts in the Majority Text. Naturally, "earlier" is assumed to mean "better" in the world of ancient texts, so the Alexandrian Codices were hailed as being more authoritative than anything in the Majority Text. As a result, many translations of the Bible from the late nineteenth century on rely heavily on these more "authoritative" Alexandrian Codices.
Incidentally, the Minority Text includes one manuscript that happens to contain Revelation 5:9–10, and that's Codex Sinaiticus.
That one single manuscript reads them.
For those of you who are keeping score at home, that's 23 to 1 in favor of us over them. Oh, but it gets better. As more study and research was done on the Alexandrian Codices, both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus were found to have been extensively and clumsily edited ("butchered" would be more accurate), with literally thousands of changes and omissions that appear only in those two manuscripts. They even differ from each other in so many places that it's hard to believe they are grouped in the same family of texts.
Now, not to get all conspiratorial on you or anything, but it is believed by many that both of the Alexandrian Codices were the work of a group called the Gnostics, who believed in neither the divinity of Jesus Christ nor the inspiration of the Bible. There is strong evidence that they heavily edited the Greek New Testament to their liking, particularly by removing a substantial number of verses that specifically deal with the fact that Jesus is the Son of God.
Not only that, but Codex Vaticanus suddenly cuts off at Hebrews 9:14, thus omitting Hebrews 9:15–28 and chapters 10–13, which is very convenient for the Roman Catholic Church since this material is damaging to Catholic theology. Also missing are the books of James; 1 & 2 Peter; 1, 2, & 3 John; Jude; and Revelation.
The Roman Catholic Church successfully kept the Bible out of the hands of common people for a thousand years, but an invention by a German man named Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century changed all that: the printing press. By the late fifteenth century, Bibles had become much more readily available, and the fact that people like Martin Luther and others were actually reading them gave birth to the Protestant Reformation, a direct attack against the spiritual whore that the Roman Catholic Church had become (and pardon me while I savor the irony of the fact that Gutenberg was Catholic).
The Protestant Reformers stood on the principle of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) in their attack against corrupt Roman Catholic theology and pagan practices in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the best Rome could do in response was to undermine the inerrancy of the Bible. And voilà—a horribly butchered Codex Vaticanus discovered in 1481 in the Vatican Library (of all places) fit the bill perfectly. This way, the Catholic Church could maintain the party line that their rituals and traditions trumped whatever anyone claimed the Bible meant, and thus began the modern effort to undermine the inerrancy of Scripture and the divinity of Christ, both of which have suited the liberal intellectual tastes of secular humanism just fine since the nineteenth century.
But over the last 150 years (especially the last 50), thousands of additional Greek manuscript fragments have been found, not to mention numerous textual references in other works which predate the Alexandrian Codices by as much as 200 years—references that quote verbatim passages that appear in the Majority Text, but are absent from the Alexandrian Codices! So, barring the possibility that various early Church fathers were psychic, this serves as proof positive that the Majority Text is in fact the more authoritative.
Now, if you are reading a modern translation of the Bible that reads them in Revelation 5:9–10 (such as the NIV, ESV, ASV, NASB, etc.) you don't necessarily have to take it out in the back yard and burn it. Just check it against the KJV. Besides, what a lot of modern translations do is include many of the verses that were deleted from the Alexandrian Codices, but then confuse the issue with misleading footnotes that indicate that the verses in question "do not appear in the most reliable early manuscripts" (i.e., the Alexandrian Codices). This serves to create the impression that maybe some overly zealous fifth-century disciples spuriously added those verses to advance some nefarious agenda (like trying to promote the wacky idea that Jesus is the Son of God or something). And the end result in the minds of millions of people who read that translation?
"Hmm...maybe the Bible isn't quite as 'inspired' as I thought..."
The verdict is clear. The Majority Text has been thunderingly validated and amply demonstrated to be an extremely accurate and faithful representation of God's Word, while the highly touted Alexandrian Codices have been exposed as the blasphemous, fraudulent hatchet jobs that they really are. Of course, this is not just about the use of us or them in Revelation 5:9–10.
Satan's goal in all of this is to undermine the sufficiency, inspiration, and inerrancy of God's Word, and sadly the damage has already been done in academic circles and seminaries the world over. Many theological institutions have long ago abandoned their stand on the inerrancy of Scripture (in practice if not in creed), and have turned out thousands of graduates who pastor thousands of churches across America and around the world who do not hold to the inerrancy of the Bible. In many leading theological institutions today, those who believe the Bible is God's inerrant Word are dismissed as "literalists" with a snicker. Unfortunately for them, however, God will hold them accountable for how they treated His Word. And when He does, nobody will be snickering.
Whew...I said all that to make sure you understand in no uncertain terms that in Revelation 5:9–10, the 24 elders are talking about themselves as being redeemed by the blood of Jesus and being made kings and priests and ruling on earth—not some other saints still on earth or anywhere else.
Bottom line: It's us us us. It's always been us. It was never them.
So, the 24 elders represent a completed group in heaven before the Tribulation begins, they are dressed in white garments representing Christ's imputed righteousness, they have been rewarded with crowns, they are seated on thrones in a position of authority, they identify themselves as being redeemed by the blood of Jesus out of the nations of the world, they have been made kings and priests, and they will rule and reign with Christ, all just as promised to the Church.
Been there, done that
Later in John's vision, bunches of folks suddenly start showing up in heaven:
9After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, 12saying, "Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
One of the 24 elders asks John if he knows where they came from, and John replies, "You know." Then the elder proceeds to tell him:
13One of the elders answered, saying to me, "These who are arrayed in white robes, who are they, and from where did they come?" 14I told him, "My lord, you know." He said to me, "These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb's blood."
The elder explains to John that these people were saved by the blood of Jesus, and here's the point:
The answer has to do with redemption. One of the elders answers his own question because he is among the group of people in heaven who has personally experienced that redemption.
In other words, each of the 24 elders knows from personal experience what it's like to be a sinner who has repented of sin, asked God to forgive them, and believed in faith that Jesus' death and resurrection paid the penalty for their sin. They get it. They understand what it is to be redeemed—to have Christ's righteousness imputed to them by grace through faith (that fact alone rules out angels, by the way).
They've been there. They've done that.
So, the 24 elders represent a completed group in heaven before the Tribulation begins, they are dressed in white garments representing Christ's imputed righteousness, they have been rewarded with crowns, they are seated on thrones in a position of authority, they identify themselves as being redeemed by the blood of Jesus out of the nations of the world, they have been made kings and priests, they will rule and reign with Christ, and they have personal, experiential knowledge of redemption, all of which describes the Church perfectly.
And in my humble opinion, that's pretty much quod erat demonstrandum. But there's more.
None of the above
People who insist the Church will go through the Tribulation are forced to make the 24 elders something else—anything but the Church. Let's run down some of the commonly offered explanations and see why they come up short.
1. The 24 elders represent Israel.
There are two basic problems with this view:
(a) At the time frame indicated in Revelation 4–5 ("after these things" of the Church Age and just prior to the beginning of the Tribulation), the redemption of Israel is not complete, and it won't be complete until the end of the Tribulation. Remember: the number 24 represents a completed group. Israel is just about to be plunged into the time of Jacob's trouble that will purge Israel as a nation, and out of that will come a believing remnant that will be saved by the time Christ returns at the Second Coming.
(b) In Revelation 5:9–10, the 24 elders are singing the song of the redeemed, and state that they (as a group) have been redeemed "out of every tribe, language, people, and nation" (v. 9). This cannot refer to Israel. Period. Israel is never referred to this way in the Bible—only the Gentile nations are. This description fits the Church perfectly.
2. The 24 elders include individual Jewish patriarchs.
One problem with this view (besides no. 1) is the fact that in each of the three full-blown visions of God's throne given in the Old Testament—one by Isaiah (Isa. 6) and two by Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1–3:15; 10:1–11:12), the prophet describes the scene around God's throne, and even mentions the four living creatures mentioned in Revelation 4:6–8. But guess what? Even though men such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have been available to take their seats, the 24 elders are never mentioned—they are conspicuous in their absence. Why? Because they're not there until the Church is raptured! I'll keep saying it until I'm blue in the face: every word in Scripture is there for a reason and not there for a reason.
3. The 24 elders are the 12 Jewish patriarchs and the 12 disciples.
Maybe, but I have doubts for the reasons already stated in nos. 1 and 2. Besides, it doesn't say 12 and 12. It says 24, and there is never any hint of any division among them of any kind. It would have been easy enough for the Holy Spirit to have clearly stated it that way if that's what He meant. You have to read such an idea into the text, and there is no obvious reason to do so (except, of course, sheer desperation to find ways to "disprove" the pre-trib Rapture).
Now, as far as the 12 disciples go, the following verse leads many to believe that the 12 disciples will be included among the 24 elders:
28Jesus said to them, "Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And they may well be. After all, the disciples are certainly part of the Church. But notice that Jesus says they will judge the 12 tribes of Israel when He sits on His throne, which clearly places this in the Millennial Kingdom. But are they already on their thrones as individuals among the 24 elders in Revelation 4–5? I don't know, but I do know one thing: we'll find out soon enough.
But whether the 24 elders include the actual apostles or not, either way we still have the complete Church in heaven before the Tribulation starts.
4. The 24 elders represent Tribulation saints.
No, for basically the same reason as no. 1 (a): the Tribulation saints won't be a complete redeemed group until the end of the Tribulation, at the Second Coming. The Tribulation saints presumably aren't even saints yet when we first meet the 24 elders in Revelation 4. They come to faith in Christ during (and some possibly prior to) the Tribulation, which hasn't even started yet.
5. The 24 elders are angels.
This is one of the most prevalent views among people who deny the pre-trib Rapture, but Scripture refutes this view just as handily as any of the others.
(a) Throughout Scripture, unlike the 24 elders, angels are never...
• Seated in God's presence, much less seated on thrones as rulers.
• Promised or depicted wearing crowns, much less a victor's crown.
• Referred to as elders. Only humans are.
(b) One fairly obvious reason that it makes no sense to conclude the 24 elders are angels is the following passage of Scripture:
11All the angels were standing around the throne, the elders, and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before his throne, and worshiped God, 12saying, "Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
(Revelation 7:11–12 / emphasis added)
All the angels are standing (not sitting!) around the throne, and are mentioned separately from the 24 elders. Not some of the angels. Not all the angels except for an elite group. All the angels, and I wish someone could explain to me what compels people to fly to the moon and back with imaginative ways to make this verse mean something other than what it plainly says.
Oh wait, I think the post-trib mantra may offer a clue:
"OK, all together now:
Amen. Now, let's open our Bibles to Matthew 24..."
6. We have no idea who the 24 elders are...they're just not the Church!
Seriously. That's essentially what some die-hards end up arguing, because they are boxed in and simply have no other logical place to go. They throw their hands in the air and claim we can't determine who the elders are...oh, but we know they're not the Church. Somehow.
Any other possibilities would more than likely be refuted by one of the above points, so that covers it reasonably well. So, if the 24 elders are not the raptured Church, then what are they?
None of the above.
First a Priest, then a King
There are two things I noticed recently about the scene depicted around the throne of God in Revelation 4–5 that had never occurred to me before, and it strongly supports the conclusion that the 24 elders are in fact the raptured Church. The first has to do with what Jesus is doing—and what He's not doing.
But first, let's establish one basic fact:
Q. What is the basic function of a priest?
A. To serve as an intermediary between God and man.
That would be a holy God in heaven and natural men on earth, to be precise.
Jesus no longer needs to
perform priestly duties for
us after chapter 3 because
we are no longer natural
men on earth—we are
perfected men in heaven.
Christ is both a King and a Priest. After He ascended to heaven, He took His seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 16:19), and that's where He has been ever since. Why? To serve as our High Priest. Although He has already offered the sacrifice for our sin (Heb. 10:12), ever since the Ascension He has been interceding for us before the throne of God (Heb. 7:25) and He will continue to do so as long as one single member of His Church is still down here on this sin-infested earth, saddled with a sin nature.
Before I go any further, I need to clarify one thing. I am stating that Jesus took His seat at the right hand of the Father after He ascended in order to intercede for us as our High Priest, and will continue to do so as long as any part of the Church is still on earth with a sin nature and still sinning. But wait a second...what about the stoning of Stephen?
55But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56and said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
(Acts 7:55–56 / emphasis added)
When the Jews stoned Stephen in Acts 7, he had a vision and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Well, what's going on? So is Jesus standing or sitting?
Note that Stephen said he saw Jesus standing—he didn't say He was standing. Is this just semantics? Does this make any difference? Yes!
Consider the book of Revelation. Throughout John's vision, written around AD 95, John said he saw this and heard that—but it was a vision of the future. For example, John said in Revelation 6 that he saw Jesus opening the seals on the scroll. Well, did Jesus actually open any seals in AD 95?
Obviously not, but He will in the future.
On the other hand, read carefully what Paul wrote:
1If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God.
(Colossians 3:1 / emphasis added)
Is this a vision of the future? No. Did Paul say he saw Jesus sitting at the right hand of God? No. He said He was sitting at the right hand of God. And that's where He is today, and where He will remain until the Tribulation is ready to begin.
So, in Revelation 5, Jesus is no longer seated at the right hand of the Father, performing His priestly duties. Well, what is He doing?
5One of the elders said to me, "Don't weep. Behold, the Lion who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome; he who opens the book and its seven seals."
6I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. 7Then he came, and he took it out of the right hand of him who sat on the throne.
(Revelation 5:5–7 / emphasis added)
Now He is standing, and He comes to the throne, takes the scroll from the Father, and starts opening the seals that release the judgments of the Tribulation. Jesus is preparing to assume His reign as King, and officially does so in Revelation 11:15–17 after the last seal has been opened and the seventh trumpet is sounded, which triggers the climactic salvo of bowl judgments.
First a Priest, then a King.
Jesus is our High Priest forever (Heb. 6:20), but that doesn't necessarily mean He has to continue carrying out His current priestly duties on our behalf forever. That's necessary only as long any members of the Church are still natural men on earth. But in Revelation 5, He's clearly left off with His priestly duties, and He's preparing to rule the earth as King. But if He's done with His priestly duties, that means not one single member of the Church can still be on earth. Jesus no longer needs to perform priestly duties for us after chapter 3 because we are no longer natural men on earth—we are perfected men in heaven.
Air Harpazo: As for those who insist Revelation 4:1 isn't the Rapture, who cares? The Church is on earth at the end of chapter 3, and the whole gang is in heaven in chapter 4. Get 'em there any way you like.
The most logical and most scripturally consistent explanation I know for this is the simple fact that the Church is raptured at some point after the end of Revelation 3 and before Jesus takes the scroll in Revelation 5:7, and presumably before the first mention of the 24 elders in Revelation 4:4.
All dressed up and nowhere to go
The second thing I noticed has to do with a related detail mentioned in Revelation 5:8, a detail that tells us something about what the 24 elders are doing prior to and apparently during much of the Tribulation:
8Now when he had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
(Revelation 5:8 / emphasis added)
The 24 elders are holding harps (which symbolize praise and worship) and golden bowls of incense (which are the prayers of the saints). Conveying the prayers of natural men on earth to a holy God in heaven is a priestly function.
OK, let's think this through. Jesus performs a priestly function for us while we are on earth, and later He will be King during the Millennial Kingdom. Born-again believers are also called kings and priests (1 Pet. 2:9). Just as Jesus performs priestly duties for us as long as any of His Church are natural men still on earth and then will rule as King, it follows that we will perform some priestly duties for natural men on earth at some point, and then rule over natural men as well.
So here's the $64,000 question:
When does the Church perform its priestly and kingly duties, and for whom?
The post-trib view: The post-trib Rapture has all living believers on earth until the end of the Tribulation, at which point we all get raptured at the Second Coming, get our glorified bodies, do a U-turn, and come right back to perform our kingly duties with Christ during the Millennial Kingdom. In this scenario, all believers are given their glorified bodies and enter the kingdom, and all natural-bodied unbelievers are sent away to eternal punishment.
Oops, wait a second. In that case, there are never any natural-bodied believers on earth for the Church to perform any priestly duties for. Not only that, but who are we supposed to rule over? Ourselves?
We're priests with no one to intercede for;
we're kings with no one to rule.
All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Or maybe those who see the Church going through the Tribulation think Jesus was just blowing smoke when He said all that stuff about us being kings and priests.
The pre-trib view: If the Church is in fact represented by the 24 elders in heaven in Revelation 4, then it's us with the golden bowls of incense, conveying the prayers of the saints to God, performing our priestly duties. What saints? Tribulation saints—natural men on earth who have come to faith in Christ after the Rapture and who are suffering through the worst seven years in the history of mankind.
After the Tribulation, the Jewish remnant and surviving natural-bodied Gentile believers will enter into the Millennial Kingdom. The 12 disciples will rule Israel (Matt. 19:28), and the Church will rule the Gentile nations (1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 2:26; 3:21), and thus we will perform our kingly duties. Just like Jesus:
First priests, then kings.
Bottom line: pre-trib rules, post-trib drools.
The gang's all here
The point is that the 24 elders must be the Church: on earth in chapters 2–3, in heaven in chapter 4, with the judgments starting in chapter 6. And no matter how you shuffle the seals, trumpets, and bowls, the judgments don't start until Jesus opens the first seal, and He doesn't open the first seal until He takes the scroll from the Father, and He doesn't take the scroll from the Father until the 24 elders are in heaven, and that's us, the Church—redeemed, resurrected, raptured, rewarded, and ready to rock and rule.
Cha-ching. If that's not a slam dunk for the pre-tribulation Rapture, then somebody please tell me what is.
I know this article has been a bit of a slog, and for that I apologize. But I think it's important to have a biblically consistent understanding of end-time events, even things that at first glance may seem rather enigmatic or allegorical (read "hopelessly confusing"). Just remember that God didn't give us His Word to confuse us, but to communicate with us, although we may not fully understand certain things until it's time for us to understand them.
As the prophetic scenario rapidly congeals into the shape outlined in the Bible, we have reason to rejoice because we know that the time is drawing near when we will be with the Lord. And when that glorious day comes, there will be some guy in the back belting out that line "Hail, hail, the gang's all here!"
That'll be me.
Greg Lauer / May 2015
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1. Deriv. of "Sunset Over Grass Field" © AOosthuizen at Can Stock Photo
2. "People Finding Faith" © storm at Fotolia.com
3. "Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos" by Jacopo Vignali [PD]
4. "The Four and Twenty Elders" by Henry John Stock [PD]
5. "1611 Authorized Version" from Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 [PD]
6. "Reproduction of Gutenberg's Printing Press" by G. H. Williams [PD]
7. "Statue of Angel" © Veronika Galkina at Fotolia.com
(All PD works are via Wikimedia Commons.)
All Scripture is taken from the World English Bible, unless annotated as KJV (King James Version) or AKJV (American King James Version).