Rev. 4:4 – “Around that throne were 24 thrones, and on the thrones sat 24 elders dressed in white clothes, with gold crowns on their heads.”
Around the throne in heaven John sees 24 thrones upon which are seated 24 elders wearing white clothes and gold crowns. There has been a great deal of speculation about the identity of the elders. The two major views are that they represent the church raptured prior to this time and rewarded in heaven, or that they are angels given great responsibility. These are not angels because angels are never numbered in scripture – although they are described as “myriads” in Heb. 12:22 – nor are they enthroned or given crowns. And there’s no evidence in scripture that angels receive rewards. In addition, the elders wear human garments that suggest endurance and victory. Therefore, it seems reasonable that they represent the redeemed of God – Old and New Testament saints. Also scripture reminds us that we (Humans) will be judging angels (1 Cor. 6: 2-3)
That they are seated denotes honor, rest and satisfaction. That they are near the throne of God signifies intimacy with the Creator. Their robes represent the righteousness of the saints – the imputed righteousness of Christ as well as their righteous deeds. Their crowns depict authority and victory, and the fact that they so eagerly cast their crowns before the throne of God illustrates their clear understanding that the One seated on the throne has given them their righteousness and granted them their lofty position. These crowns are stephanos, similar to those given to victors in Greek games, not diadema, or crowns of sovereign rulers, suggesting the elders have been judged and rewarded.
The ESV Study Bible summarizes well the identity of the elders: “Their number may reflect the orders of priests serving in the OT temple (cf. 1 Chron. 24:7–19) but more likely they symbolize the unity of God’s people, encompassing OT Israel (led by the heads of the 12 tribes) and the NT church (led by the 12 apostles), like the new Jerusalem’s 12 gates and 12 foundations (Rev. 21:12, 14). Their thrones resemble those of God’s heavenly court in Dan. 7:9–10 (cf. Rev. 20:4).”
It is very unlikely that these 24 elders are representatives of the church as many commentators suggest. 24 is a specific number given by God and to “symbolize” this with a general reference to the church at large is sloppy hermeneutics at best! It seems clear from the words of Jesus who this group is by the plain statement He made, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world,when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones,judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Matthew 19: 28-29 (ESV)
It seems very clear from this text and common sense theology to see that these 24 elders are simply the 12 tribes of the Patriarchs and the 12 apostles. And to spiritualize the text to say that they are referring to church order and government, and how we must listen to the elders of the local church as some reformed commentators suggest, is simply to miss the point of the passage.
If the elders represent Israel and the church, are they actually the patriarchs and the apostles (presumably Paul in the place of Judas Iscariot)? The elders are never named, and they don’t need to be. John is simply seeing a basic image of a redeemed group of 24 human people. Some commentators think that this could not be the apostles because he does not recognize himself. This is ridiculous because he isn’t focusing on the details of who they are individually. He is simply identifying these two groups of redeemed people representing Old and new covenant saints in heaven.
And in heaven the emphasis is on the One seated on the throne, on the Lamb of God, and on the seven-fold Spirit before the throne, not the identity of these elders. Perhaps our focus should be less on the identity of these elders than on what they are telling us: that the One seated on the throne is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because He has created all things, and because of His will they exist and were created.