One question commonly grips readers of Revelation: what exactly is the identity of the strange cast of characters surrounding God’s throne in chapter 4? Who are the twenty-four “elders” and the four “living creatures,” and what does their presence add to the meaning of John’s Apocalypse?
Like everything in Revelation, interpreters have debated their identity for centuries. Some think that the elders are angelic beings, while others have suggested they represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel plus the twelve apostles. Another view popular today among dispensational interpreters is that the elders represent the raptured church in heaven during the tribulation. There is a bit more consensus that the living creatures are some kind of angelic beings, but what they are supposed to represent is even more mysterious.
The history of interpretation on these entities is pretty fascinating and spans a lot more information than I can cover here; you can check out the technical commentaries on Revelation to learn more. Here I’m just going to lay out my own view on what these symbols refer to and explain what I think they can teach us.
The Twenty-Four Elders
John sees twenty-four “elders” (4:4) seated on thrones around God’s throne. They wear white robes and have gold crowns which they lay at God’s feet as they worship him. At several points in the book, one of these elders will speak with John about the visions he sees, explaining their meaning. The designation of “elder” suggests both their ancientness as well as, in John’s culture, a high status of wisdom, authority, and respect.
I mentioned that it’s popular for dispensational preachers to say that the elders represent the raptured church in heaven. For support, they will point out the fact that white robes and gold crowns are among the rewards promised to faithful believers in Revelation 2-3. They’ll also come at Revelation with the idea of a pretribulation rapture already assumed, and point to the presence of these elders in heaven as a subtle line of support for the pre-trib rapture view.
But I see numerous problems with this interpretation. In the first place, the concept of a pretribulation rapture is something the book of Revelation nowhere supports, and it has to be imported into the text rather than arising naturally from it. (For more on the timing of the rapture, see my earlier post on Rev 3:10). Second, and more importantly, the elders are explicitly differentiated from human believers — whether in heaven or on earth — throughout the book (see Rev 7:13-14; 14:1-3).
Also, at several points the elders function as interpreters of the visions John sees, which is a role commonly fulfilled by angelic beings in Jewish prophecy (Rev 5:5; 7:13-14; cf. Zech 1-6; Dan 7-8; 1 Enoch 21:5-6; 22:3; 4 Ezra 4). This points us strongly in the direction of seeing them as some kind of angelic order. This is also the most natural assumption given the fact that John simply sees them as part of heaven’s retinue, without explicitly defining them as saints or exalted people. Jewish apocalypses often included different orders of angels in their visions of heaven.
Interestingly, in the most recent scholarly commentary by a dispensationalist, Buist Fanning comes to this same conclusion after an honest assessment of the evidence. As he helpfully summarizes:
“The fact that these are called ‘elders’ seems to be rooted in the term’s use for leaders among the people in the Old Testament and later Judaism, a group of officials who shared various social and tribal responsibilities as a ruling council (e.g., Exod 17:5; 18:12; Num 11:30; 2 Sam 5:3). This favors the view that these elders are a council of heavenly beings who surround God’s throne (as seen, e.g., in 1 Kgs 22:19; Job 1:6; Ps 89:7; Dan 7:9-10; possibly Isa 24:23).” — Revelation, ZECNT (Zondervan, 2020), 200-201.
The image of a heavenly council of celestial beings shows up often throughout the Old Testament, as Dr. Fanning points out (you can check out the passages he’s listed above). Additionally, in the New Testament Paul speaks of heavenly beings he calls “thrones and dominions” and “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10; 6:12; Col 1:16). Psalm 82 is a key text for this concept, as it mentions God taking “his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (ESV).
In other words, though God is the one true Creator God, he is also sometimes pictured in Scripture as having an administrative team of angelic beings among whom he holds court.
John’s cultural context may also support this interpretation, as the Roman emperor likewise ruled over vassal kings who would lay their crowns before him or before his statue as a sign of their subordination (Craig Koester, Revelation, AYB [Yale, 2014], 362, 365). The elders in Revelation would thus serve as a pointed reminder that the real power lies not in Rome, but in heaven; God is the true Emperor over the world.
This biblical notion of God having a heavenly council may seem unusual to us. Why would God want or need a team of underlings to help carry out his bidding? He’s God!
Well, it’s true enough that God doesn’t need a council to help him govern the universe. But I think this fact in itself highlights a couple of key theological truths we shouldn’t miss. One is that it reminds us of God’s relational nature. He didn’t just delight in a solitary existence, privately enjoying his own blessedness forever. He wanted to share his life and love with other beings, whom he created to enjoy relationship with him. Second, the concept of a heavenly council highlights something interesting about the way God treats power. He is a sharing God. He doesn’t hoard power; he gives it away — a fact we see in his creation of humanity to be his vice-regents over creation (Genesis 1:26-28) and even more fully revealed in how Jesus exercised power (see Mark 10:43-45; Philippians 2:5-11).
As far as the number of the elders, why there are specifically twenty-four of them, we can only speculate. It could be based on the Old Testament precedent of twenty-four orders of priests (1 Chron 24), pointing to a priestly role for this council. After all, they do participate in worship throughout the book, and also at one point present the prayers of the saints to God (Rev 4:10-11; 5:8; 19:4; so Grant Osborne, Revelation, BECNT [Baker: 2002], 229-230).
Or it could be that this number is indeed rooted in the number of the twelve patriarchs plus the twelve apostles, not because the elders are the people of God in heaven, but rather because they serve on their behalf as representatives. For comparison, we could note Daniel 10:21; 12:1, where the angel Michael is called a “prince” over the nation of Israel.
The Four Living Creatures
The four living creatures covered in eyes are a bit more of a puzzle. The early church fathers typically approached them allegorically, as representing the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). However, they all disagreed on which creature represented which Gospel, and this interpretation is much too fanciful to be correct. As with the elders, the Old Testament is the best place to look for background on John’s vision.
The creatures combine traits of different angelic entities throughout the Old Testament — particularly the six-winged seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the many-eyed cherubim of Ezekiel 1. The latter passage is very important background, as Ezekiel likewise describes four “living beings” with multiple faces — the key differences being the number of wings and the fact that where Ezekiel’s cherubim all have four faces, the creatures in John’s vision each have a different face.
The cherubim in Ezekiel bore some similarities to winged sphinxes and other mythical hybrid creatures that were often carved on thrones or temples in the ancient Near Eastern world. Such entities functioned symbolically as guardians of the divine throne and glory (compare also Genesis 3:24, where they guard access to the garden of Eden after Adam & Eve’s sin). The seraphim of Isaiah 6, on the other hand, seem to have served primarily as worshipers and proclaimers of God’s holiness. The name “seraph” literally means “burning one” and also referred to serpents; they are depicted in archaeological evidence and extrabiblical traditions as winged serpents or dragons.
Though their appearance is closer to Ezekiel’s cherubim, the living creatures of John’s vision combine the functions of both the cherubim and the seraphim as they surround God’s throne and also lead the heavenly hosts in their worship of God (Rev 4:8).
That there are four of these creatures suggests some idea of completeness — “four” may have been associated with the ancient concept of the four “corners” of the world or the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire). That the creatures are “covered in eyes” suggests their vigilance and knowledge of everything going on — nothing gets past them as they guard God’s throne from all angles. Some commentators suggest they may serve as watchers over, or even representatives of, God’s natural creation, though it’s best not to speculate too far beyond what we have in the text.
What we can be sure of is that these are a very high-ranking team of angelic entities, and they lead heaven in worship of God for his holiness and his everlasting faithfulness:
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” (Rev 4:8)
No matter how much we may be tempted to place our hopes or allegiances with earthly rulers, Revelation’s cast of supernatural characters invites us to give our worship and loyalty to the only one who truly deserves them — the Holy One of Israel, who alone created all things for his glory, but who also delights in sharing the blessings of his rule with all who will put their trust in him.
See you down the path.