When you view a drama or read a book, do you find yourself identifying with one of the characters? I do. Dramas are designed to draw you in and make you feel, act and think like one of the key characters.
The book of Revelation is a drama. Which character or group do you identify with the most? Of course, every word of Scripture is written for our instruction, and we can find a bit of ourselves in many places in the book. But if you had to choose, which character or group would you identify with the most?
Let's go through the possibilities. We could choose John, the author of the book, who observes the drama unfold. But when the actual time comes, John himself will not play the part of an observer outside the drama. He'll move inside the drama and become an active participant. To which group will he belong?
We could identify with one of the seven churches. But these churches appear only in the first part of the book. Who can we identify with throughout?
Other groups are mentioned in one place or another. But a good drama draws you in early and keeps you involved to the finish.
This may be personal preference, but I'll tell you who I identify with. The twenty-four elders. This is the very first group mentioned after God on the throne. In them we find fulfilled several of the promises made to the churches in the first chapters. They appear at key times throughout the book. They are last mentioned just before the wife and the wedding feast. They provide a thread that ties the whole book together.
More about their role later, but first, what about their identity? Are they men or angels?
The King James Version reads as if the elders are men, because the elders' song in Revelation 5:910 says "redeemed us," "made us," and "we shall reign." But other translations read "redeemed them," "made them," and "they shall reign." Some Greek texts use the first person pronoun while others use the third person pronoun. I didn't mention this in the book because we should not rely on a disputed Greek reading to prove a point. Besides, first or third person doesn't necessarily prove anything, because it's possible to sing a song about yourself using the third person (Exodus 15:13,16,17).
If "they" is correct, the context reveals a logical reason for it. Apparently, the four beasts participate in the redemption song, along with the elders. But if the beasts are angelic creatures, they are not redeemed. Therefore, to my mind, "they" excludes the four beasts from the redeemed rather than excluding the elders from the redeemed.
By the way, variant Greek readings actually prove the reliability of the New Testament to me. The study of variant readings reveal four early families of Greek texts, each family developing in a separate geographical area, and each identified by its unique set of variants. When the four local texts converged in the time of Constantine (fourth century), we find amazing agreement, each corroborating the others in a manner that no single line could, demonstrating the preservation of the text in each area from the first century onward. The small differences don't essentially change the meaning, and no major doctrine is affected.
In this case, the context provides plenty of clear clues as to the identity of the elders, and whether their song refers to them as "we" or "them" makes no difference.
However, it may be interesting to ponder, "Why did some Greek scribe change the words?" For example, suppose the original word was "them." In that case, why did an early scribe change it to "us"? It must have been deliberate, because he changed three words, "us" two times and "we" one time. Just one word might be an accident, but three words would be deliberate. What in the context might cause him to make such a change?
To change "them" to "us" the scribe would have had to believe that the elders were redeemed men. Was the context so clear, so obvious, that the scribe felt compelled to make the actual words conform to the context? Interesting to think about.
Well, so much for my explanation. How do you explain the change? What could have motivated the scribe?
Gundry rightly refrains from arguing about the "us-them" difference, but he does point to the fact that the elders do what angels do, namely, interpret events to John.1 Does this indicate that the elders are angels? Let's take a closer look at the interpretations given by angels and elders to see if the inference logically follows. We'll start with the interpretations given by angels.
In Revelation we see two angels interpret events to John. The first angel shows John the harlot, the city of Babylon (17:119:10). The second angel shows John the bride, the heavenly city (21:922:11). Each angel begins by carrying John away in the spirit, a job well suited for angels because angels are spirits (Hebrews 1:7). Each episode ends with John mistakenly worshipping the angel. After being told not to the first time, you'd think he'd know better the second time, wouldn't you? There must have been something compellingly powerful about their presence.
The elders, in contrast, never carry John away in the spirit, and John never attempts to worship an elder. Apparently John saw a vast difference between the elders and angels. He was therelet's go with his judgment.
Another difference is the object of interpretation. An elder explains the white-robed multitude (7:1317). Why didn't an angel explain this, just like the angels explained the harlot and the bride? Apparently the elder could better understand how they "washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Angels were never washed or made white. But the elder, being cleansed by the blood himself, could better understand this and explain it to John. An elder introduces the Lamb that was slain (5:57). Why doesn't an angel do this? There's a pattern here. In this book at least, elders explain past redemption, and angels explain future plans.
Therefore, the elder interprets, not because he is an angel, but because he is not an angel. Precisely the opposite conclusion.
Does the mere act of interpretation prove a similarity between the elders and the angels? No, upon closer examination, it turns out to be a dissimilarity.
Now let's get down to the most basic characteristic of the elders, their name. They are called "elders." What is an elder? An elder is someone who is older. Older, and therefore, wiser, and therefore, qualified to rule. That's an elder.
Need I point out the obvious? Angels don't get older.
Only men get older. Men have sinned. Sin causes death. So men get old.
Have you ever heard of an older angel? No such thing. Even if they could age, like men age, they were all created at the same time; so they're all the same age. Even if you say that "older" applies to wisdom alone, apart from physical age, the angels were created with perfect wisdom from the beginning. They were always older, or they are forever young, whichever way you want to look at it.
Even if you say that "elder" refers to rulership privileges, apart from age or wisdom, then recall Paul's statement, "know ye not that we shall judge angels?" (1 Corinthians 6:3).
Like a diamond, you can look at it from any angle and see the same light shining through.
Every single characteristic of the elders, not only the name "elder," but also their other characteristics, apply uniquely to men. Only men sit on thrones. Only men wear victory crowns. Only men wear white raiment. These characteristics are listed in a straightforward manner at the elders' first mention in chapter four. Each of these, by the way, was promised to the churches just a few verses earlier (Revelation 2:10, 3:5, 3:21).
To put the elders and angels into perspective, one view infers a solitary similarity, which turns out not to be a similarity after all, while ignoring the plurality of plainly stated characteristics, which are true characteristics. Furthermore, the inferred similarity finds its match several chapters later, while the plainly stated characteristics find their match in the nearby context.
I could remind you that victory crowns are awarded only at the coming of Christ, not a minute sooner (2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4), but other facets beg to refract their light too; so let's move on to the role of the elders.
As I said, I identify with the elders, because they appear in key places throughout Revelation. Learning about their role helps us to prepare for our role.
How to prepare for the tribulation has been a question in the minds of many. Those who believe the church will go through the tribulation say that we need to become spiritually strong so that we'll be ready when the time comes. But I believe we are strengthened by present tribulation, not future tribulation. That's the point of Revelation 3:10. Passing the past test exempts us from the future test. Make the most of today's trial, offering to God your trust and worship, with a thankful heart. Like the manna in Moses' time, we cannot borrow from tomorrow.
We who believe the church will not go through the tribulation have been accused of a great omission. By not warning the church of the great danger to come, we are guilty. Well, if I am guilty, then I am guilty of the same omission that the Bible has. The Bible warns the church of local present-day tribulation (Revelation 2:10), it warns Israel of the great tribulation (Matthew 24:21, Daniel 12:1), but it omits warning the church of that future great tribulation.
So what preparation should we make? The twenty-four elders offer a model.
Besides the occasions of speaking to John, the twenty-four elders appear four times in Revelation. They appear in chapters 4, 5, 11, and 19. In three of these places, the elders act in concert with the four beasts.
In chapter 4, the elders, drawing their cue from the four beasts, "fall down before Him that sat on the throne, and worship Him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Revelation 4:1011). Why is God worthy? Because He is creator.
In chapter 5, the elders sing "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" (Revelation 5:910). Why is the Lamb worthy? Because He is redeemer.
Now He is doubly worthy. Worthy as creator and worthy as redeemer.
Based on this twofold right to rule, the elders in chapter 11 worship God, "saying, We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth" (Revelation 11:1718).
Also based on the twofold right to rule, in response to the judgment upon the harlot Babylon the elders worship God "saying, Amen; Alleluia" (Revelation 19:4).
To tie all four passages together, we can go back to the promise in Revelation 3:21, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne." The key word, "throne," symbolizes rulership. The elders, who themselves sit on thrones surrounding God's throne, share in God's throne.
Besides sharing in God's throne, the twenty-four elders share association with the four beasts. Perhaps these beasts are cherubim, because they are similar to the cherubim in Ezekiel who were guardians of God's glory. Cherubim were also guardians of the garden of Eden and guardians of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. Here in Revelation they are guardians, along with the elders, of God's throne, of God's right to rule.
The elders desire God's rule. They thank Him because He has the right to rule as creator (Revelation 4), they thank Him because He has the right to rule as redeemer (Revelation 5), they thank Him for exercising His rightful rulership over the kingdoms of the world (Revelation 11), and they thank Him for exercising His rightful rulership over Babylon (Revelation 19).
In thinking of the tribulation to come, what do you desire the most? Do you most desire escape from trials? Or do you most desire God's rightful rule? When you pray, do you pray for your relief or God's rulership?
Do you want to prepare for the tribulation? Identify with the elders, study their prayers, and start praying like them.
1. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation, p. 70.