Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Rapture and the Church in Revelation, Part Three: Who are the Twenty-Four Elders?

This is part three in a series of articles examining pretribulationist arguments concerning the church in the book of Revelation, as put forth by Dr. Robert Gromacki. Click here for part one and here for part two.

The Twenty-four Elders

In describing his vision of the throne room of God, the apostle John tells us that he saw a group of individuals he refers to as “elders”:

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. – Revelation 4:4

The identities of these twenty-four elders have long been a mystery. They are mentioned a number of times in the book of Revelation, are depicted as singing and worshipping God, and at least one of them interacts with John, but they are not described in any detail beyond the passage I cited above. John does not tell us who they are.

Posttribulationists such as myself believe that the twenty-four elders are high-ranking angelic beings. On the other hand, dispensational pretribulationists like Dr. Gromacki believe that they are redeemed humans who represent the raptured church at large. Gromacki comments on this as follows:

The more plausible explanation of the 24 elders is that they represent a group of redeemed people. Who are these people? Since the believers within the Old Testament period will not be resurrected until the return of Jesus Christ to the earth (Dan. 12:1-3, Rev. 20:4-6), the elders more likely represent the redeemed of the church.

Gromacki offers what he believes are a number of evidences in favor of this interpretation. I will examine these evidences in turn; however, the first point I would offer in favor of the posttribulation position that the elders are angelic beings has to do with the chronology issue I covered in part two of this series. If, indeed, the future or “revelation” portion of the book begins in chapter 6 (and not in chapter 4, as Gromacki believes), then the entire issue of the elders is moot with regard to the rapture debate: the elders were present in heaven two thousand years ago and cannot be raptured saints. I believe that the text establishes this conclusion firmly and that pretribulationists will find this an insurmountable problem in their theology, but let’s look at Gromacki’s evidences and see what he has to offer.

The numerical adjective “twenty-four” is significant. King David divided the Levitical priesthood into 24 orders (1 Chron. 24). Each order performed priestly functions at the tabernacle and at the temple for eight days, from Sabbath to Sabbath. In the distribution of the work load, each order would function two weeks per year. In so doing, each order represented the entire priestly tribe and the nation of Israel before God. Thus, the number “twenty-four” came to be representative of a larger, more complete group. Thus, the “twenty-four elders” is a phrase which denotes more than two dozen specific persons; rather, the elders stand in for an entire group of personal beings, either angels or humans.

In reply, I have to say that I’m a bit surprised that Gromacki would make this comparison to David’s division of the Levitical priesthood. Ordinarily, dispensationalists strongly resist applying Old Covenant, Israel-specific terminology to the church, especially where prophecy is concerned. Later in his article Gromacki goes on to point out items that he believes are prominent symbols that distinguish Israel from the church in Revelation, allegedly showing that God’s emphasis is on Israel rather than the church during the Great Tribulation. I can hardly think of anything more symbolic of Israel than the Old Covenant priesthood, so it seems odd to me that Gromacki would liken the division of the priesthood to the elders if the elders represent the church. Indeed, outside of the book of Revelation, the number twenty-four is used only in the Old Testament; it appears nowhere else in the New, and in Revelation it is used only in reference to the elders.

In regard to the number twenty-four being a ‘number of representation’ based on David’s division of the Levitical priesthood, several observations can be made:

A “representative” Group versus a great Multitude

First, why would it be necessary for John to be shown a representation of the church in the form of twenty-four persons if the entire church is in heaven during the events of Revelation 4? Why was John not instead shown masses of redeemed saints surrounding the throne of God, just as he saw masses of angels around the throne in chapter 5?

Then I looked and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands… – Revelation 5:11

In fact, we see just such a depiction in Revelation 7, after the sixth seal is opened:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying,

“Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason, they are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them. They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17

In this passage, John sees a multitude of people so vast in scope that he could not count them, gathered around the throne of God along with all of the angels. This is exactly what we would expect to see (and when we would expect to see it if the posttribulation view is correct. In chapter 6, when Christ opens the sixth seal, John sees the following:

I looked when he broke the sixth seal and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” – Revelation 6:12-17

The opening of the sixth seal brings with it the Old Testament signs of the Day of the Lord:

I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth,
Blood, fire and columns of smoke.
The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood
Before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. – Joel 2:30-31

These are the same signs that Jesus said will follow the Great Tribulation, before he returns to gather his elect:

But immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. And he will send forth his angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other. – Matthew 24:29-31

Immediately after the opening of the sixth seal and the cosmic signs of the Day of the Lord, we see 144,000 Jews sealed before any harm is done to the earth (Revelation 7:1-8). This would make perfect sense if, as the Old Testament says, they will be delivered from the wrath of God and will believe on Christ when they see him coming:

In that day the Lord will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem and…I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping of a firstborn. – Zechariah 12:8-10

Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations [the ones attacking Jerusalem] as when He fights on a day of battle. In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. You will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him. In that day there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle. – Zechariah 14:3-7

The Jews that are sealed are God-fearing but have not yet believed on Christ. For this reason, they require a special seal of protection so that they will be delivered when the wrath of God is poured out. Believers, on the other hand, are already sealed by the Spirit of God (II Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30). They are caught up to meet Christ after the Great Tribulation, before the Day of the Lord. Indeed, one of the elders tells John that they have “come out of the great tribulation.”

Now think back on the letters that Christ dictated to the seven churches (and consider also the book’s concluding remarks where the churches are mentioned once again) and compare them to what John saw and was told about the great multitude.

“They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

“But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments…” – Revelation 3:4-5

“I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed.” – Revelation 3:18

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter by the gates into the city.” – Revelation 22:14

“They are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night in His temple.”

“He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore.” – Revelation 3:12

“And He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them…”

“And I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God…” – Revelation 3:13

“They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore…for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life.”

“To him who overcomes I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” – Revelation 2:7

“To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna.” – Revelation 2:17

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” – Revelation 22:17

The close similarities between the admonitions to the churches in the opening and closing of Revelation, and the description of the great multitude of chapter 7, are not coincidental. As I demonstrated in part one of this study, the emphasis between Revelation chapters 3 and 19 is on the saints rather than the churches because it is the saints—the holy ones, the consecrated ones, the sacred ones—irrespective of their churches, who will overcome the Beast and emerge victorious from the Great Tribulation. The great multitude is just such a group, appearing in John’s account after the opening of the sixth seal and the cosmic signs of the Day of the Lord, which Jesus said would follow the Great Tribulation and precede his own coming, at which point he will gather his elect.

Note also that John tells us that the members of this group had “palm branches…in their hands” and were crying out, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” This imagery harkens back to the Old Testament description of the Feast of Booths, which Leviticus 23 tells us was to be held for a period of seven days following the harvest:

Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days. You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native-born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. – Leviticus 23:40-43

The prophet Zechariah tells us that this feast will be celebrated during the Millennial age:

Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went up against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. – Zechariah 14:16

The description of the Feast of Booths in Leviticus 23 shows us that it was meant to be a celebration of Israel’s deliverance from bondage to the bounty of the Promised Land, which is why it was held after the harvest: as the people prospered, they were to remember the great deliverance that had made their prosperity possible. Likewise, in Revelation 7, we see those of the great multitude, having “come out of the great tribulation,” where they were heavily oppressed by the Beast and his False Prophet, waving palms before the Lord and praising him for his salvation. John is told that they “will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The parallels in the imagery of the great multitude and ancient Israel’s celebration of the Feast of Booths seem clear. It was not only a celebration of deliverance from bondage but also one of entering into blessing. For ancient Israel, that blessing was entrance into the Promised Land; for the saints, it will be entrance into the Kingdom of God.

This is underscored for us in the book of Daniel, from which the book of Revelation draws heavily in terms of its style and symbolism.[1] Consider the following from Daniel chapter 7, in which Daniel recounts a vision he was given of the end of days, one in which he saw four “beasts,” representing four gentile kingdoms, rise up with great power:

I kept looking until thrones were set up, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; His vesture was like white snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool. His throne was ablaze with flames, its wheels were a burning fire. A river of fire was flowing and coming out from before Him; thousands upon thousands were attending Him, and myriads upon myriads were standing before Him; the court sat, and the books were opened…

I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed…

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was distressed within me, and the visions in my mind kept alarming me. I approached one of those who was standing by and began asking him the exact meaning of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: ‘These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth. But the saints of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, for all ages to come.’ – Daniel 7:9-10, 13-18

Daniel goes on to inquire about the fourth beast, the most fearsome one he had seen, which gave rise to “a little horn” that waged war against the saints:

I kept looking, and that horn was waging war with the saints and overpowering them until the Ancient of Days came and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom. – Daniel 7:21-22

Daniel is then given the interpretation of this vision. The fourth beast is a powerful empire that will give rise to ten kings, after which another king will arise (the “little horn”) and make war on the saints of God until he is finally overthrown by divine decree:

He will speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One…and they will be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time. But the court will sit for judgment and his dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One…– Daniel 7:25-27

The one who spoke with Daniel in these passages emphasized that the saints would be oppressed by “the little horn” until such time as God intervenes, delivers them from their oppression, and they inherit the kingdom. All of this is pictured for us in John’s description of the great multitude and in the explanation provided to him by the elder with whom he spoke.

Moreover, I believe Daniel 7 also provides a bit more insight into the elders themselves. When John first sees the elders, they’re seated on thrones around the throne of God (Revelation 4:4). For his part, Daniel tells us that “thrones were set up” in the presence of God (Daniel 7:9) and that a divine court passed judgment in favor of the saints (Daniel 7:22 and 26). Given the close parallels between Daniel and Revelation, the thrones Daniel described seeing around the throne of God almost certainly belong to the elders. Daniel does not mention the elders directly, but he references the heavenly “court,” and John tells us in Revelation 11 that the elders proclaim their agreement with God’s judgment of the earth and his rewarding of the saints:

Then the seventh angel sounded, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshipped God, saying, “We give you thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward your bond-servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.” – Revelation 11:15-18

Notice that the elders are seated on their thrones when the seventh trumpet sounds and the proclamation of the kingdom goes forth. Judgment has been passed in favor of the saints. The parallels to Daniel 7 are unmistakable; they reveal that the elders are not saints and thus cannot represent the church. They comprise the heavenly court that sits along with God the Father in judgment of various matters, or at least in the capacity of witnesses. Nearly every time they are seen in the book of Revelation, they are quoted as affirming the “worthiness” of the Father and the Lamb or the righteousness of some aspect of divine justice.

Similarities to the Levitical Priesthood

Dr. Gromacki makes the argument that we should consider the number of the elders as representing a larger group because of the division of the Levitical priesthood, but I think he may have the order of things backward here. I do not believe that the elders are based on David’s division of the Levites; rather, I suspect that David was led to divide the Levites based on the pattern of the elders (and possibly other members of the heavenly host as well).

The Levites became the priestly class by divine decree during Israel’s time in the wilderness. In Numbers 3, God tells Moses that he has consecrated all of the firstborn sons of Israel to himself, and he has Moses perform a census to determine their number, starting with the tribe of Levi. The number of Levite firstborn comes in at 22,000. When the rest of the firstborn in Israel are numbered, they come in 22,273. God then takes the entire tribe of Levi and sets it aside for the priesthood instead of actually taking each firstborn son from every family in Israel. Then, because there were 273 more firstborn in the rest of the tribes than there were in the tribe of Levi, God commanded that a “ransom” in silver be paid to Aaron and his sons to compensate them for the difference (Numbers 3:39-51).

So, yes, it is indisputable that the tribe of Levi represented Israel to God in the performance of the priestly duties. More to the point, they represented the firstborn of Israel: those who would receive the best of the inheritance in each family and were primarily responsible for leading and teaching the next generation. It was God himself who decided this, however, and he did so long before David came on the scene. Consequently, it was not David’s division of the Levites into twenty-four courses that made them representative of Israel before God, and there is no natural reason to think of the number twenty-four as a significant “number of representation” on that basis. In fact, it would make more sense to think of the number twenty-two in that respect, given the events of Numbers chapter 3, and especially considering how the census numbers worked out between the tribe of Levi and the other tribes (which is why I took the time to relay the details of that story).

Indeed, David’s division of the Levites into their respective courses was not a matter of representation; it was a simple division of labor undertaken as part of a larger reorganization effort. This becomes apparent if you go back to I Chronicles 22, where we see the beginning of the events that led to the division of the Levites. David was old and knew that he would soon die. His son, Solomon, was to succeed him, but as noted in I Chronicles 22:5, Solomon was young and inexperienced, and David was particularly concerned that the building of the temple be handled correctly. For this reason, David began to make “ample preparations before his death.”

David didn’t stop with preparations for the temple, however. He went on to divide the Levites according to their various roles of service, from caring for the sanctuary, to keeping the temple treasures, to serving as musicians, officers, gatekeepers, and judges. He also reorganized the army into twelve divisions of 24,000 each and set up overseers for the king’s fields and storehouses. David then called a general meeting of the leaders of Israel and charged Solomon before them (see I Chronicles 28-29), thus making it clear to the entire nation that Solomon was his, as well as the Lord’s, chosen successor.

The Heavenly Pattern

When David turned the kingdom over to Solomon, he attributed the changes he was implementing to God’s own direction:

Then David gave to his son Solomon the plan of the porch of the temple, its buildings, its storehouses, its upper rooms, its inner rooms and the room for the mercy seat; and the plan of all that he had in mind, for the courts of the Lord, and for all the surrounding rooms, for the storehouses of the house of God and for the storehouses of the dedicated things; also for the divisions of the priests and the Levites and for all the work of the service of the house of the Lord… “All this,” said David, “the Lord made me understand in writing by His hand upon me, all the details of this pattern.” – I Chronicles 28:13, 19

Moses, too, was given a pattern to follow for the Tabernacle and its furnishings:

Let them [the sons of Israel] construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it…See that you make them after the pattern for them, which was shown to you on the mountain… – Exodus 25:9, 40

Now this was the workmanship of the lampstand, hammered work of gold; from its base to its flowers it was hammered work; according to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand. – Numbers 8:4

The author of Hebrews tells us that the tabernacle and temple furnishings were based on objects in heaven:

Now if He [Christ] were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” – Hebrews 8:4-5

Lastly, the apostle John speaks of a temple that exists in heaven:

And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. – Revelation 11:19

After these things I looked, and the temple of the tabernacle of testimony in heaven was opened… – Revelation 15:5

What do these things have to do with the twenty-four elders of Revelation? The point is this: Given that the Old Covenant tabernacle and temple were built according to designs conveyed to Moses and David by God, and appear to have been based on objects that already existed in heaven, it is probable that the Levites and aspects of the Old Covenant ceremonies and offerings (although not the sin offerings) were also based on a pre-existent, heavenly pattern: namely, angelic beings and their various functions in the worship and service of God.

We see a hint of priestly duties within the angelic host several times in Revelation:

When He [Christ] had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. – Revelation 5:8

Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand. – Revelation 8:3-4

Of Angels and Men

The Bible tells us very little about the angelic host, but from the little we are told it is obvious that there are divisions amongst them; they are not equal to one another in duties, position, or power.

In Daniel 10:12-13, the angel Gabriel tells Daniel that he was sent from God with a message for Daniel but was unable to reach him for twenty-one days due to the interference of a fallen angel, one whom he calls “the prince of Persia.” Gabriel reveals that he was only able to reach Daniel “when Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me.” The Hebrew word translated “chief” here is ri’shown, which Strong’s defines as meaning “first in place, time or rank.” “Princes” is translated from the Hebrew word sar, which Strong’s defines as meaning “a head person (of any rank or class): —captain (that had rule), chief (captain), general, governor, keeper, lord, (-task) master, prince (-ipal), ruler, steward.” Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon states that sar refers to a “leader, commander, especially of soldiers.” The term is even used to refer to the temple priests in Isaiah 43:28 (think back again here to the priestly functions the elders appear to be carrying out in Revelation). In Jude 1:9, Michael is referred to as an “archangel.” This term is translated from the Greek word archaggelos, a compound of archo, which means “to be first…to be a chief, leader, ruler,” and aggelos, which literally means “a messenger, envoy, one who is sent,” and is usually translated “angel.”

Thus Michael is one of the chief leaders, or commanders, of the angels. This is significant in that it proves that various levels of rank and organization exist within the heavenly host, just as they apparently do amongst the fallen angels, given what we read in Daniel 10 and also in Ephesians 6:12, where Paul says that believers are struggling against “principalities, powers, and rulers of darkness…in the heavenly places.”

It is my contention that the twenty-four elders are archangels, the chief rulers of the angelic host. This is probably why they are depicted as sitting on thrones and wearing crowns. Dr. Gromacki, on the other hand, sees the crowns of the elders as an indication that they are saints:

The elders had crowns (stephanos) on their heads. These are crowns gained by achievement and victory…believers in this church age are promised crowns for specific achievements…Holy angels do not wear crowns, but believers can and will wear them.

How does Gromacki know that angels do not wear crowns? As previously stated, the Bible tells us very little about the angelic host. We do know for certain that they have rulers among them, however, and rulers often wear crowns. Gromacki points out that the crowns of the elders are (in the Greek) specifically stephanos crowns, crowns given for victory and achievement; but although we know relatively little about the activities of angels, it’s clear from the scriptures we’ve seen that angels engage in warfare. Is it really so unbelievable that they might be honored for their achievements in war or in other aspects of service to God? The Bible is clear that angels can be punished; why can they not also be rewarded?[2]

Gromakci also has a problem with the elders being angels because they are sitting in the presence of God:

They are “sitting” on thrones. They are not standing, flying, or hovering. Have angels ever sat in the presence of God? No scripture verse says that they ever done so.

No scripture says that they haven’t done so, either. If they are rulers, and especially if they are engaged as a heavenly court (per Daniel 7), it would make sense for them to be sitting. Scripture often depicts judges as seated when hearing a matter or issuing a verdict.

Gromacki continues:

Jesus promised every believer in the church age: “To him who overcomes, I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also over came and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21 NKJv). God positionally has made every believer to “sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). The “sitting” feature of the elders better suits men than angels.

A careful reading of Revelation 3:21 reveals an exegetical error in Gromacki’s argument. Jesus does promise believers that they will share his throne, but his throne is not the Father’s throne. It is crucial that this be understood. The Father rules in heaven, and Christ shares his throne now because he has not yet received his own. And what throne is it that he will receive?

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring for a son, and shall call his name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:31-33

I will surely tell the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, “You are my Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me and I will surely give the nations as your inheritance
And the very ends of the earth as your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like a potter’s vessel.” – Psalm 2:7-9

Jesus is the heir to David’s throne, which he will assume in the city of Jerusalem during the Millennial Kingdom, and will rule over the entire world. Thus Christ’s throne, in which believers are promised a share, is an earthly throne. Jesus underscores this for us in Revelation 2:25-27:

He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father.

Believers will not begin to reign with Christ until he receives his throne, at the beginning of the Millennium. Until then, he sits on the Father’s throne in expectation of receiving the promised kingdom.

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” – Psalm 110:1

Therefore repent and turn so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. – Acts 3:19-21

…but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. – Hebrews 10:12-13

It is true that believers “are seated in the heavens” with Christ now after a fashion, but this is only in the sense that his current exaltation at the Father’s side guarantees that the promises to us will also be fulfilled. We “sit” with him because we are considered to be “in him,” and are thus heirs along with him (see Galatians 3:29).

Gromacki also sees a clue to the identity of the elders in how they are dressed:

The elders were “clothed in white robes” (himatiois leukois). These words were previously used of believers within the churches (3:5, 18).

Believers are indeed promised white garments, but the Bible also describes angels as wearing white:

An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. – Matthew 28:2-3

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. – John 20:11-12

White is a symbol of holiness and purity in the scriptures, and is not applied exclusively to the saints. In addition to angels who were seen clothed in white, Jesus is described as appearing in white during his transfiguration (Matthew 17:2, Mark 9:3, Luke 9:29), and Daniel describes God the Father (the Ancient of Days) as wearing a “vesture like white snow” in Daniel 7:9.

What’s in a Name?

On another front, Dr. Gromacki believes that the term “elder” strongly hints that saints are in view rather than angels:

The term “elder” (presbuteros) is never used of angels in the Bible. The word itself denotes maturity and growth. It is contrasted with “younger” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). How could angels be designated as elders when all of the holy angels were created at the same time. In other words, they are of the same age. In contrast, the elders of a local church were to be men of spiritual experience…

I’m curious how it is that Gromacki knows that all of the angels were created at the same time and are of the same age, since the Bible never tells us this nor even implies it. Jesus told us that angels do not marry, and so we know that they must not reproduce as humans do, but this does not mean that they were all created at the same time. It is entirely possible that the angels were created in ranks, with the chief angels being created prior to rest.

There is a possible parallel here in the creation of mankind. The Bible describes man as the “head” of the woman because he was created first (I Timothy 2:12-13). Genesis 2 tells us that God created Adam, put him in the Garden of Eden, gave him instructions on the care of the Garden, and brought the animals to him to see what he would call them, all before the creation of Eve. At least one likely reason for this is so that Adam would have time to learn enough to become a leader, teacher, and provider for Eve. How long this went on, we don’t know, but it seems clear from scripture that a fair amount of time must have passed.

A similar scenario may have taken place with the angels. It is possible that the elders were created first and taught what they needed to know so that they could more effectively assume leadership once the rest of the angelic host were created. Thus, the archangels may indeed be older than the rest of the angels. We cannot know this for certain, but, again, we know very little about angels to start with, and next to nothing about their history.

Lost in Translation?

Translation issues have also arisen in the debate surrounding the identity of the elders. In Revelation 5:8-10, the elders sing “a new song” in praise to Christ, and the perspective of the song changes depending on what text you’re reading from.

Bible translations based on the Textus Receptus (such as the King James, New King James, and Young’s Literal Translation) read as if the elders are singing the song in the first person, referencing themselves. Here is the passage as it appears in the King James Version:

And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of the saints. And 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 to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.”

Versions based on the Alexandrian and Majority Greek Texts, however, such as the New International Version and New American Standard Bible, render this passage in the third person. Here it is as it appears in the NASB:

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. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign upon the earth.

Gromacki comments on this as follows:

With the use of the third-person pronouns, the elders seem to be praising God for the salvation of another group. Those who believe that the elders are angels are quick to point out that interpretation. However, can people speak about themselves in the third-person rather than in the first person? The song of Moses and of the children of Israel, expressed after their deliverance from Egyptian bondage and their passage through the Red Sea, contains these words: “You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation” (Exod. 15:13 NKJV). The Israelites are definitely singing about themselves, and yet they sing in the third person. Thus, if the third-person text translation (in Rev. 5:8-10) is accepted as the preferred, original text translation, that fact alone does not preclude the possibility that the elders are singing about their own salvation.

Gromacki’s point is valid enough as far as it goes; but aside from the issue of pronoun usage, the text provides us with a strong indicator that the elders cannot be singing about themselves. Note that both translations I quoted above tell us that the four living creatures as well as the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb and sang the new song. While we might reasonably debate the identity of the elders, I think we can all safely agree that the four living creatures are not human and thus could not possibly be singing about their salvation. The fact that the creatures as well as the elders sing the same song is a powerful indicator that the elders are not human beings and the third-person rendering is likely what the apostle John originally wrote.

The Elders contrasted with the Angels

Gromacki follows his observation on the translation issue by arguing that the next song sung in heaven in Revelation chapter 5 indicates that there is a distinction between the elders and the angels:

Angels are set in contrast to the elders: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures and the elders” (Rev. 5:11 NKJV). They sang praise to Christ without any reference to their redemption or to the salvation of others: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12 NKJv). If the elders are angels, then the song would appear to be redundant. The second song and the contrast between the elders and the angels suggest that the elders are human.

The first observation I would offer here is that the angels are not only contrasted with the elders, they are also contrasted with the four beasts, yet both the angels and the beasts are heavenly beings; so this does not necessarily prove anything with regard to the elders.

Secondly, if the elders are indeed angelic chiefs or archangels, and particularly if they are seated as judges in a kind of celestial court when John encounters them, it would make sense for a distinction to be drawn between them and the more numerous rank-and-file “messengers” over whom they preside. We often see such distinctions drawn in human institutions, where high-ranking persons are referenced by rank or title in order to differentiate them from those of lower standing. For instance, most people will not refer to an admiral or a general by the generic term “soldier,” whereas they have no problem doing so with regard to lower-ranking military personnel.

The Elders are High-Ranking Angelic Beings

The pretribulationist case for the twenty-four elders representing the raptured church is based primarily on unsubstantiated assumptions and faulty exegesis. As I hope I’ve demonstrated here, a much stronger exegetical case can be made that the elders are, in fact, high-ranking angelic beings who lead the heavenly host and sit as a type of court in matters of divine judgment.

To be continued...

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the NASB.

[1] See especially Revelation 13, 17, and 19 for parallels with the visions of Daniel 7 and 9-12.
[2] Isaiah 24:21 states that God will “punish the host of heaven on high.” Satan is said to have been “cast as profane from the Mountain of God,” in Ezekiel 28:16. 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6 tell us that various angels are held in confinement, awaiting the day of judgment. Jesus tells us that Gehenna (the Lake of Fire) was prepared “for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).