We have been taking a rather detailed look at the description of the throne-room of God set before us in Revelation 4. We are spending our time in the details because Revelation 4 is foundational for the rest of the book of Revelation. In the chapters to come, we shall be confronted with the opening of the seven seals—those seals that represent the unfolding history of redemption; we shall be confronted with the sounding forth of the seven trumpets—those trumpets of judgment, harbingers of the great judgment to come; we shall be confronted with the pouring out of the seven bowls—those bowls in which the wrath of God is complete. In the chapters to come, we shall be confronted with horrific and terrible things—things which would leave us unsettled, were it not for Revelation 4.
Revelation 4 brings us back to the throne. There is a throne in the heavens, and it is not vacant. God sits upon the throne. He is there and He is not silent. The scene of that throne-room is for our comfort, for it brings us back to the supremacy of Christ.
We turn our attention once again, then, to the details of chapter 4, and specifically to verse 4 and the twenty-four elders.
We are told that the twenty-four elders sit on twenty-four thrones around the throne of God. We are told that they are clothed in white robes and have crowns of gold on their heads. But who are they?
Identifying the Elders
Many suggestions have been made in terms of their identification. There are at least six major interpretations. Some have argued that these twenty-four elders are angels. Others have argued that they are angelic heavenly representatives of all the saints. Still others have maintained that they are the Old Testament saints. Others have said that they are the patriarchs and apostles representing the Old Testament and New Testament saints together. And then there are the strange interpretations that see in the twenty-four elders twenty four stars (that’s right, stars!), this interpretation coming from an astrological background. And still others have said that these twenty-four elders are representative of twenty four books in the Old Testament.
None of these interpretations, however, is correct. The twenty-four elders are not angels; they are not angelic heavenly representatives of all the saints; they are not the Old Testament saints; they are not the patriarchs and apostles representing the Old Testament and New Testament saints together; they are certainly not astrological stars; nor are they representatives of twenty four Old Testament books. The twenty four elders are none of these things. Rather, the twenty-four elders are just that: they are elders!
We take our cue from the number itself. The background is found in I Chronicles 24:7–19; 25:6–31; and 26:12–19. In chapter 24, the Levitical priesthood is divided into 24 divisions, according to the schedule of their service: they were officials of the sanctuary and of the house of God. In Chapter 25, the Levitical priests are further divided into 24 divisions, responsible for the worship of the sanctuary, and in particular the music of that worship. In Chapter 26, the Levitical priests are again divided into 24 gatekeepers for the house of God.
It is noteworthy that in each of these passages (Chapter 24, 25, and 26) the priests are spoken of as having the duty to serve in the house of the Lord, to serve in the sanctuary of the Lord. They are responsible for worship in the house of the Lord; they are responsible for the music of worship in the house of the Lord; and they are responsible to stand as the gatekeepers of the house of the Lord. This is the background of the twenty-four elders in the book of Revelation.
Now if we are correct in finding the background of the twenty-four elders in I Chronicles 24, 25, and 26, we would expect to see in Revelation some degree of correspondence between what we find in I Chronicles and what we find in Revelation. And indeed we do!
Consider the role of the twenty four elders in the book of Revelation. They are described for us first in 4:4. The first time we find them active in their role is in 4:10, “the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne saying, ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.’” The next time we find them is in 5:8, “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb…” We find them again in 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, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” We find them again in 5:14, “Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.”
The twenty-four elders appear again in 7:11, “All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.’” We find them again in 11:16, “And the twenty-four elders who sat before God on their thrones fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned…’”
Once more we find the elders in 14:3, “They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth.” Finally, we find them in 19:4, “And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who sat on the throne saying, ‘Amen! Alleluia!’”
Are you getting the picture? In every single one of these instances, without exception, the role of the elders is that of worship! Again and again, we find them falling before God and the Lamb and singing in worship and praise. The role of the twenty-four elders in heaven is that of worship: the worship of the Lamb!
Remember the role of the twenty-four divisions of priests in the book of Chronicles? They were responsible for worship, in particular for the music in worship. They were also to stand as the gatekeepers of the house of God. As it was with the twenty-four divisions of the priests in the book of Chronicles, so it is with the twenty-four elders in the book of Revelation. They are responsible for worship, in particular for the music in worship; they also stand as the gatekeepers of the house of God.
The twenty-four elders, then, are elders—elders in the heavenly sanctuary of God—who are responsible for worship, for the music of worship, and as such they stand as the gatekeepers of the house of God.
The Significance of the Elders
We have identified the twenty-four elders that surround the throne as elders, but what is the significance of those elders around the throne? Why are they there? The answer is that the twenty-four elders of Revelation 4:4 are symbolic of the ruling authority in the church. There is a correspondence between the twenty-four elders above and the office of elder below. This means that the government of the church is patterned after heaven itself. As there are elders in heaven above, so there are elders on earth below.
We are concerned here in Revelation 4:4, then, not only with what is going on in heaven, but with what is happening on earth presently! Again, remember where we are in the book of Revelation. Chapters 4–7 cover the entire time period between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. During that time period
the seals are being opened, and shall continue to be opened until Christ comes again on the clouds of glory. The opening of those seals (along with the sounding of the trumpets in chapters 8–11 and the pouring out of the bowls in chapters 15–16) leaves us with unsettling images: war, injustice, conflict, murder, killing, and death, not to mention the very conflagration of creation itself: the moon turned to blood, stars falling from heaven, an earthquake unlike any before. The opening of those seals leaves us with the question: what of the church? What of the people of God?
In Revelation 4, we are brought back to the role of the elders—the elders who must rule according to the Word of God—the elders who must preserve the true worship of God—the elders who must stand as the gatekeepers—the elders who must stand as the watchmen on the walls of Zion—the elders who must guard the flock!
At the outset of Revelation 4, before the opening of the seals, before the blasting of the trumpets of judgment, before the pouring out of the bowls of God’s wrath, we have set before us the office of the elder, that office that has been given to us by God Himself to preserve the true worship of God in the midst of a world that is increasingly turning against Him!
In light of all this, the office of elder is a non-negotiable. Satan and his minions seek to destroy the church. He seeks to destroy it with subtlety and deception. He wants to make the church like the world. Where has he won the greatest victory in the church? His greatest victory is in the area of worship. Consider how successful he has been: when the worship of the church becomes man-centered rather than God-centered, Satan has won a victory! When we no longer come to glorify God in worship, but to see what we can “get out of it,” Satan has won a victory! When the music of the church is patterned after the entertainment of Hollywood rather than the songs of Zion, Satan has won a victory! When “thus saith the Lord,” is replaced with “let me tell you a story,” Satan has won a victory! When the preaching of the Word is replaced with drama and dance, Satan has won a victory!
To be sure, all of these things are done with the best of intentions. These things are done to bring the people in! The premise is this: make the church inviting and the people will come. Water down the distinctives, and the people will come! Sugar-coat the gospel, and the people will come! Make the church like the world, and you will win the world!
In his subtlety and deceit, Satan has caused the church to forget the cross, and in forgetting the cross, to forget the glory of God! How easy it is for the church to forget the throne in heaven! How easy it is for the church to lose her anchor in heaven! And once she forgets the throne, once she loses her anchor, her worship reflects this world rather than the world to come, and then her man-centered, feel-good, Hollywood-driven, story-studded, entertainment-driven, watered-down, sugar-coated worship becomes a stench in the nostrils of God! Let us not forget that the God whom we worship is holy! Let us not forget that He invites worship on His terms, never on ours!
Do you understand now why we find the elders here at the outset of Revelation 4? The elders are responsible for the God-centered, Christ-glorifying worship of the church. The elders are responsible for keeping the eyes of the congregation upon the cross and the holiness of God. The elders are responsible for keeping the eyes of the congregation upon the throne and the One who sits on that throne. The elders are responsible for keeping the worship of the congregation centered upon the things of heaven.
To paraphrase one author: If the elders allow the church to become like the world, she will be of little use in the world. If your goal is to recast the church into the image of this generation, you will thereby make the church feeble in the next generation. The role of the elders is to make sure that the church is the church—that she is what she is called to be—for that is what the world needs most!
The world needs a church that boldly proclaims that God is on the throne! The world needs a church that proclaims without compromise that God is holy and we are not! The world needs a church that loves the Lord Jesus Christ and is not ashamed of the cross! The world needs a church that worships God as God calls us to worship! The world needs a church that does not give her more of what can be found in the world; the world needs a church that is centered upon the things of heaven!
Implications for Elders
The biblical elder, like the twenty-four elders, is centered upon the throne. He is oriented to the throne and specifically to the One who sits upon the throne.
The biblical elder guards the holiness of God, particularly in terms of worship. He does not presume to invent new ways of worship. He does not presume to bind the conscience of God’s people by submitting them to worship that is not expressly commanded in God’s Word. He remembers Nadab and Abihu, who sought to offer to the Lord unauthorized fire—who sought to worship the Lord as they saw fit—and were struck down on the spot. The biblical elder remembers that God is holy, and seeks to guard the holiness of God in worship. He is oriented to the throne and specifically to the One who sits upon the throne.
The biblical elder has as his focus, the Lamb who sits on the throne. Therefore, he may never have as his goal the promotion of his personal agenda. The issue is Christ! The flock must be directed to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who became a Lamb for us to take away our sins. The biblical elder is oriented to the throne, and to the Lamb who sits upon the throne.
The biblical elder understands that his authority is given to him from Christ, the head of the church. He understands then, that he may not “lord it over the people.” He understands that his authority is not that of dominion, but that of service. He serves the flock, and in so doing, he serves God. The biblical elder stands as a watchman on the walls. He refuses to back down in the face of the wolves. He will even take the attack of the wolves upon himself that he might spare the flock: better the defamation of his name than the injury of the flock.
Implications for the Congregation
The congregation is called to submit to the authority of the elders, not because of the man who holds the office, but because of the office itself.
Even as the elders must remember Nadab and Abihu, so the congregation must remember Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who rebelled against those called to office in the Old Testament, and the wrath of God came down upon them, and the earth swallowed them alive. The congregation must remember—and follow—David’s respect for the Lord’s anointed. On two occasions he had opportunity to kill King Saul, but he refused to do so, saying “dare I touch the Lord’s anointed?!” When a man came running to David to tell him he had killed King Saul, David had the man slain on the spot! Would you dare be so presumptuous as to attack the office of the elder? Should you attack the authority of the elder, you are attacking the authority of Christ! Such an attack results in judgment.
What, then, is the role of the members of the congregation concerning the elders? “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17). It cannot be put any better than that.
The government of the church is not something that we have made up for the promotion of man and his agenda. The government of the church through the eldership is ordained of God Himself. The pattern for the elders of the church of Jesus Christ is found in heaven itself. The pattern is found in the twenty-four elders who surround the throne, never ceasing in their worship of God and the Lamb.
This is the pattern, the God-ordained pattern, for the government of the church. May God grant us congregations that understand, and honor, the office of the elder. May God grant us elders who rule well, and serve well, that the congregation may be built up unto the fullness of the stature of Christ.
May God grant us to see in the office of the elders the supremacy of Christ.
Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He also is the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.