The Four and Twenty Elders
February 11th, 1962 @ 10:50 AM
THE FOUR AND TWENTY ELDERS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-11-62 10:50 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock morning message entitled The Four and Twenty Elders. In our preaching through the Bible, we have come to the Revelation and in the Revelation, the last book, to chapter 4. And if you would like to turn in your Bible to chapter 4, you can easily follow the message of the hour [Revelation 4:1-11]. Revelation, chapter 4:
After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said: Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the Spirit: and behold, a throne was set in heaven, and One sat on the throne.
And He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.
And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the Lord—before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four cherubim full of eyes before and behind.
And the first cherub was like a lion, and the second cherub like a calf, and the third cherub had a face as a man, and the fourth cherub was like a flying eagle.
And the four cherubim had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
And when those cherubim give glory and honor and thanks to Him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever;
The four and twenty elders 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.
That is the fourth chapter of the Revelation and the beginning of the great, final section that describes for us the end and the consummation of this age. This is the beginning of the end of world history.
The Four and Twenty Elders: the vision opens with a throne set in heaven [Revelation 4:2]. The Greek word thronos, “throne” set in heaven, the exalted throne of the Lord God Almighty, Deity; the throne conspicuous and exalted. Then around that central throne, twenty-four thronoi, plural, “thrones,” translated here, “seats,” far better to let the word say itself; “throne.” And on those twenty-four lesser thrones, around the great central Deity were seated twenty-four elders [Revelation 4:4]. That’s the scene that the seer saw in glory in this first vision.
This coming Lord’s Day morning, next Sunday morning, I shall speak of those cherubim. This morning the pastor speaks of those twenty-four elders. Who are they? They are not spirits. It is incongruous to our thinking and it is certainly foreign to the revelation of God in the Book that spirits should be clothed, should be crowned, and should be seated. There is no such conception of that either in the mind of a rational man or in the Word of God. They are not spirits.
These twenty-four elders are not angels. In the description of these who give praise to God, they are always separated and separately delineated. For example, in chapter 5:11, “I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the cherubim and the elders” [Revelation 5:11].
They are not angels; angels are never numbered. Sometimes they are referred to as myriads by myriads by ten thousands of thousands of thousands [Revelation 5:11]. In Hebrews 12, it refers to an innumerable company of angels [Hebrews 12:22]. Angels are never numbered; they cannot be numbered. These elders are, they are definitely four and twenty. Angels are never crowned; these elders are crowned [Revelation 4:4]. And the Greek word for crown there is stephanos, “Stephen,”stephanos. There are two Greek words for crown: diadema, which is the crown of a potentate, a king. Then there is the word stephanos, which is the crown of a victor. It is the garland of success. These elders are crowned and angels are never crowned [Revelation 4:4].
Then if we can accept the Textus Receptus, that is the Greek basis, the Greek manuscript for the translation of the King James Version, in the fifth chapter, these elders sing, “For Thou wast slain,” singing to the Lamb of God:
Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood
out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
And hath made us kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
Now whoever these twenty-four elders are, they were sinful people. They were sinful humanity, and they have been redeemed under God by the blood of the Lamb [Revelation 5:9]. And such a thing could never be said of angels.
Then who are these four and twenty elders? They are God’s saints; they are the redeemed of mankind [Revelation 5:9]. They are His blood-bought people, and they are there enthroned around the great, heavenly throne of God [Revelation 4:2-4]. They are seated; they are not standing, waiting on the Lord, but they are seated as God’s royal counselors and co-laborers [Revelation 4:4]. They have won the victory over this life, and they are crowned with the garlands of achievement [Revelation 4:4]. And they are redeemed out of all of the languages, and tongues, and families, and tribes, and people in the earth [Revelation 5:8-10]. Those twenty-four elders are the redeemed saints of God [Revelation 5:9]
They number twenty-four—twice twelve. The twelve patriarchs of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and together they make up God’s redeemed society. The same kind of a number you will find in John’s description of the beautiful city, the New Jerusalem. There are twelve gates and on those gates are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel [Revelation 21:12]. And there are twelve foundations and on those foundations is written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb [Revelation 12:14]. The twelve of Israel and the twelve of the church: the twenty-four elders, seated on thrones before the throne of God [Revelation 4:4].
Some of these Old Testament saints have already been raised from the dead. After the resurrection of our Lord, they appeared unto many in the holy city of Jerusalem [Matthew 27:52-53]. Some of those Old Testament saints are already raptured. They are already translated, such as Enoch [Genesis 5:24] and such as Elijah [2 Kings 2:11]. And both of them together are presented in the Bible; such as [Hebrews 12:22-23]:
We are come unto Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, and to the general assembly and church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
[Hebrews 12: 22-23]
All of them there before the throne of God, the twenty-four elders [Revelation 5:8].
Now that number twenty-four is a descriptive symbol of the all-inclusiveness, without loss of one, of all of God’s people. In 1 Chronicles 24 and 25, the priesthood of the Levites was divided into twenty-four courses. And that included all of them; every Levitical priest was included in those twenty-four courses [1 Chronicles 24:1-25:31]. In 1 Peter chapter 2, verse 5 and in 1 Peter chapter 2, verse 9, we are told that God’s people are first a holy priesthood and second a royal priesthood [1 Peter 2:5, 9]. And the twenty-four courses of the priests represent all of God’s people. There is a definite number to God’s people. Their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of life [Revelation 17:8, 20:12, 15, 21:27, Luke 10:20]. And when the last one comes in, when that last name is checked—that is to be saved—that will be the end; that will be the consummation of history. God’s people are definitely numbered [Romans 11:25-26]. They have a certain arithmetical delineation and denomination. It isn’t a guess thing, it’s known to God. It isn’t, “It might be this” or “it might be the other,” there is a definite number of God’s people that are in God’s Book. And that is represented by the inclusive number of twenty-four, the definite number that included all of the priests of the Lord [Revelation 5:8].
Now that is the redeemed of humanity. And where are they? They are in heaven. At the beginning of chapter 4 in the Revelation, we come to an altogether different kind of a scene [Revelation 4:1]. A great event has transpired; a great thing has come to pass. Heretofore, in the other chapters, the previous chapters in the Revelation, the Lord is seen walking among the lampstands of His churches in the earth [Revelation 1:12-13]. But here is set, and is seen, the Lamb on the throne of His Father with His Father in heaven [Revelation 4:1-2]. Heretofore we have had the delineation of God’s churches here in the earth [Revelation 2:1-3:22], but now, we have God’s redeemed in heaven [Revelation 4:4-11]. And from here out, the church is always in heaven, looking down upon the things in the earth.
The church never appears in the earth until the people of God come with Christ in the nineteenth chapter of the Revelation, at the end of the consummation of the age [Revelation 19:11-14]. But the church, beginning at chapter 4, the sainted people of God, beginning at chapter 4, are always with the Lord in heaven [Revelation 4:1-4]. So something marvelous has transpired. It is the old English word for “the rapture,” it is the “taking away.” It is the translation; it is the resurrection of those who sleep in Jesus [1 Thessolonians 4:13-17]. It is the great assembly of the Lord’s people as they have been taken up into glory. And thereafter, the church, the people of God, the redeemed of the Lamb look down upon the events that are transpiring in that awesome and indescribably terrible Great Tribulation of the Lord [Matthew 24:21], which is described beginning at chapter 4 in the Book of the Revelation [Revelation 4:1-5:14].
These elders, the four and twenty elders [Revelation 4:4, 10-11, 5:8], the people of God, they look and they observe and they are in heaven, sharing in all of these things that transpire. They are there first and then these things follow after. They are there in heaven as they watch the Lamb take the sealed book in chapter 4 and in chapter 5 [Revelation 4:1-5:14]. And they worship God and fall down to praise Him for ever as He receives the book to open the seals thereof [Revelation 5:6-10].
Those twenty-four elders, mentioned twelve different times in the Revelation, those twenty-four elders are in their places as they watch the great accession of those who are coming out of the Great Tribulation, washing their robes in the blood of the Lamb and as they enter the gates of glory, tribulation saints, the martyred of the Son of God [Revelation 7:11-14].
And those elders are in their places. In the eleventh chapter of the Book of the Revelation, the seventh angel sounds and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ [Revelation 11:15]. And they glorify Him who is to reign for ever and for ever [Revelation 11:16-17]. They are in their places and in their positions when in the fourteenth chapter of the Revelation, the one hundred and forty-four thousand are gathered unto the Lord upon Mount Zion [Revelation 19:6-7].
And they are in the nineteenth chapter and the fourth verse, where they are last mentioned; when they last appear, they are there rejoicing over the conquest of Babylon and the fall of that awful system that blasphemes the name of God [Revelation 19:4]. And they rejoice in singing hallelujahs to the Lord God, world without end[Revelation 4:1-5:14]. They are first in heaven and then, all of these things transpire in the days of the Great Tribulation upon the earth.
Now the remainder of my sermon I have prepared as a description of what happens to us when we are taken up into glory. There are two great events that transpire when we are resurrected, or if we are alive when the Lord comes [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]—when we are changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, to meet our Lord and His saints [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]—to be taken up into the Father’s house in glory. There are two things, two great events that transpire when God’s people are taken up into heaven.
The first is this: we shall all stand at the bēma, at the judgment seat of Christ [2 Corinthians 5:10]. The Greek word bēma is the word for a step; a step, a step. And it came to refer to the raised steps upon which the judge would sit when he crowned a victor, say in a race, or when he gave the rewards of state and finally, of course, referring to a tribunal, a judge’s seat.
Now in the Scriptures, always is presented this thought, this revelation, that all of us one day shall stand at the bēma of Christ. For example, in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 10:
For we must all appear before the bēma of Christ: that every man may receive the reward of the deeds done in the flesh, whether they be good, whether they be bad.
[2 Corinthians 5:10]
We shall all stand at the judgment seat of Christ—all of us. In 1 Corinthians chapter 3, there is delineated in detail what shall happen there. When God’s children are standing before the bēma, the judgment seat of Christ, our works will be tried:
The day shall declare it and they shall be tried by fire.
And if any man’s work be made out of gold, silver, precious stones, his work shall abide and he shall receive a reward.
But if his work be made out of wood, hay, and stubble, his work shall be burned,
yet he himself shall be saved as though by fire.
[1 Corinthians 3:12-15]
As though a naked man ran out of a house and everything that he possessed burns down; but he himself escapes with his life—that will be those whose work perish at the bēma of Christ [1 Corinthians 3:15].
Now the bēma of Christ is not the judgment as to whether we are saved or damned. That judgment is here; that judgment is in this place. That judgment is down here in front of this pulpit. That judgment is in your heart and in your soul [John 3:16-18]. You are being judged now according to the damnation or the salvation of your soul. To those who will accept the faith of Jesus, the judgment of God upon our sins, the judgment and the wrath of God against our iniquities, to us who will accept Jesus, that judgment falls upon Him [Romans 10:8-13]. And in His sufferings, and in His cross, and in His tears, and in His blood, atonement has been made for our sins [1 John 2:2]. To those who refuse the overtures of mercy and say “No!” to God and “No!” to Jesus, that judgment is now. You’re not going to be lost, you’re lost now. You are not going to be damned, you’re damned now. You’re not going to perdition, you’re on the way to perdition now [John 10:16-18]. The road leads to no other thing but darkness and death and the unwearying, burning of the judgment of God to those who refuse the mercies of grace. There is an awful judgment going on now in the hearts of all mankind, but this judgment is altogether different [1 Corinthians 3:11-15].
When we are taken up into glory, this judgment has to do with our rewards, and we receive the fruit of our hands and of the labor of our lives at the judgment seat of Christ [1 Corinthians 3:11-15]. Now that judgment is always at the end of the age; that judgment is always connected with resurrection and with the return of our Lord. A typical passage would be in the fourteenth chapter; the fourteenth verse of the fourteenth chapter of Luke, when the Lord says to us, “When you make a dinner,” for example:
Do not call those to the dinner that can call you back again and so recompense and repay you.
But when you make a dinner, you call in the poor, and the blind, and the maimed, and the halt;
for they cannot recompense you.
But thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.
The reward for a man’s life for the good that he does is always at the time of the end, at the resurrection. And that, of course, is connected with the return of our Savior. For example, Paul in the last chapter of the last letter that he wrote said:
I have fought a good fight, and I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that loved His appearing.
[2 Timothy 4:7-8]
The great reward is not when the man dies, not when he is deceased, but when Jesus comes again at the resurrection. For example, in Revelation 22:12: “Behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give to every man [according] as his work shall be.” Our “reward” is at the end of the age; it is at the resurrection day. It is at the return of our Savior [Revelation 22:12].
Now just for a second: that is very, very plain why it should be. No man could be given the reward of his life when he dies, because when you die, you don’t die. The influence of your life goes on; it lives on and on and on and continues on until Jesus comes again. And only God, at the bēma of Christ, is able to unravel the skein of the influence of a man’s life, and make it all one, that the man might receive the deeds of his flesh [1 Corinthians 3:11-15, 2 Corinthians 5:10].
A man that does good, think of the illimitable reward that will come to a man like the apostle Paul; a man like the writer of this Revelation, the sainted disciple John, or the great reward that comes to some of those mighty preachers of other days. And the sainted of God through the years, their lives live on and on and on in others.
And then think of the awful reward that shall come to those who have sown seeds of death and destruction. Think of those who have precipitated those horrible, indescribable wars. Oh, if a man died when he died, the greatness of his reward or the awfulness of his reward might not be so much, but it goes on and on and on until the end of time. And at the end of time, we appear before God, the Lord’s people at the bema in Christ, where we shall receive all of God’s goodnesses to us who have tried to serve Him and to love Him [1 Corinthians 3:11-15]. And then in these sermons that are yet to come, at the Great White Throne judgment, God will give to the evil lost, all of the bitter rewards that they have sown in their lives and in the influence and shadow of their lives that have gone beyond the grave [Revelation 20:11-15].
Now that’s the first thing that comes to God’s people when we enter into heaven—when the dead are resurrected [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]; when all of us are changed [1 Corinthians 15:51-52]—we shall appear immediately before the bēma of Christ, there to receive the rewards of our life [2 Corinthians 5:10]. Incidentally, if a man wanted to live a thousand times, think of what you could do at the Baptist Foundation. Just to give what you had to our godly people that it might be used of the Lord forever, until Jesus comes again, to bless others. Oh, in a thousand ways is it possible for a Christian to reap and to sow and to work for God; now, and until Jesus comes again. That’s the first thing that shall happen. We shall stand before the bēma, the judgment seat of Christ [2 Corinthians 5:10].
Now the second great event in heaven: that event is the marriage of the Lamb and the marriage supper of the great King. And that leads me to my twenty and four elders, the last time that they are mentioned, and the last time the word is used in the Apocalypse. The second great event for God’s people in heaven is the marriage of the Lamb. In the nineteenth chapter of the Revelation:
Let us be glad and rejoice . . .
for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white.
For the fine linen is the dikaiomata, the “righteousnesses,” plural; the good deeds, the rewards at the bēma—that fine linen, clean and white is the righteousness of the saints [Revelation 19:8]
And he saith unto me, Write, blessed—
Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.
And he said, These are the true sayings of God.
The second great event is the marriage of the Lamb:
For His wife hath made herself ready.
And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in linen, clean and white;
for the fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.
That is, the bēma of Christ is over. The judgment day for God’s people is over, and the Lord hath given to us our rewards. And that is what it refers to when it says, “His wife hath made herself ready. And she is arrayed in her robes, the righteousness of the saints” [Revelation 19:7-8]. God has given us our rewards, which there is there under the figure of the robe, white and pure and clean [Revelation 3:5, 6:11, 7:9].
And at the bēma of Christ, God’s people are prepared to be married to the Lamb of God. All of our filthinesses are taken away. All of our unrighteousnesses are discarded forever. All of the things that might maim or hurt are changed forever. And at the bēma of Christ, the bride of Christ is prepared, and ready to be presented to the Lamb of God [Revelation 19:7-8].
Now we’ll have to wait to get to heaven for this, for the Greek word here, the marriage of the Lamb, elthen ho gamos, it is already happened. The Bible never describes it, just says it [Revelation 19:7-9]. And we’ll have to wait to get there to see what it’s like when God’s bride is presented to Jesus. But there are some things that we are told about the marriage supper, and that is this: there is a distinct delineation made here in the Word of God between the bride married to the Lamb—which is not described, it’s just said as having already happened up there in heaven on the eve of the Lord’s return back to the earth—but there is a description of the guests that are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb[Revelation 19:9]. The bride of Christ is the church [Ephesians 5:25]. It is not Israel, nor is it a remnant of Israel, but the bride of Christ is His church [Ephesians 5:25]. There is a special blessedness to you who have been saved and who love Jesus in this day of grace. All of the saints from the beginning of the church in the days of our Lord and at Pentecost [Acts 2:1-47], and until the resurrection [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17] and the translation when God takes us to heaven [1 Corinthians 15:51-52], all of the saints of God in this era, in this dispensation are the bride of Christ [Ephesians 5:25]. And there is a special blessing for you. Everywhere in the Scriptures, the church is presented as the bride of our Lord. Just the church: that’s the reason I had you read Ephesians 5 this morning. “Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it . . . that He might present it to Himself without spot, without wrinkle, without any such thing [Ephesians 5:25, 27]. The bride of our Lord is the church.
But there is at—there is a great marriage supper prepared and to that marriage supper, there are guests invited. The bride is married to the Lamb, the church is married to Christ, beautiful, holy, spotless, perfect; all of God’s sainted people in the church [Ephesians 5:27]. And then there is a marriage supper to which guests are invited [Revelation 19:9]. Well, who are they? Well, this is what I think: for the last time in this chapter of the nineteenth of the Revelation, the four and twenty elders are referred to [Revelation 19:4]. After that, the term is never used again. I think those four and twenty elders divide, and I think that the twelve representing the church of Christ are married to the Lamb, that is His church, the bride of Christ, and I think the other twelve represent the saints of the old dispensation, and I think they are the guests at the wedding supper, the marriage supper of the Lamb [Revelation 19:7-9]. Why do you think that? Because of the idea that is presented in the Word of God, consistently like that all the way through.
For example, our Lord will say of John the Baptist, “Of those born of women there has never been a greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” [Matthew 11:11]. Then John will say, in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, John the Baptist says:
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom:
but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice:
this my joy therefore is fulfilled.
The great Baptist preacher was martyred before the church was formed[Mark 6:14-28]. And it is the church that is the bride of Christ [Ephesians 5:25]. And that’s why Jesus said, “Of those born of women, there is not a greater than John the Baptist; but the least child in the church, the least child in this age of grace, is greater than John” [Matthew 11:11]. As the concluding verse in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews says, “These all died in the faith in the Old Testament, they did not receive the promises that they without us, should not be made perfect” [Hebrews 11:13, 40]. The blessing of the bride is that she is married to the Lamb [Ephesians 5:25].
But what of these Old Testament saints? Does God forget them? And are they not also honored and remembered?
Look at what Jesus says, “And he saith,” the angel writing, “And he saith unto me, Write…” [Revelation 19:9]. That means a speciality in the commandment, “Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” [Revelation 19:9]. There is a special and particular blessing for us who belong to the church; we shall be the bride of Christ, married to Him [Ephesians 5:25]. But there is also a blessing for those who are called to the marriage supper of our Christ; such as, John the Baptist, who died [Mark 6:14-28], was martyred before the church was built, but who’s standing, “rejoiceth in the bridegoom’s voice” [John 3:29].
And at that glorious and incomparable banquet, which I think shall last for a thousand years, at that incomparable banquet of the Lord, when God’s people sit down with Him, to rejoice in the kingdom for ever, there shall come in God’s guests [Revelation 19:7-9]. And I would think that maybe, that the greatest of them all would be that Baptist preacher, “of those born of woman, none is greater than John the Baptist” [Matthew 11:11]. And when John comes, he will be the most honored of all of the guests. And then shall come in Abraham, “who rejoiced to see His day: and he saw it and was glad” [John 8:56], and [John], “rejoicing in the voice of the Bridegroom” [John 3:29]. And so God’s saints coming in, seated around our glorious Lord, rejoicing in Him and in one-another, world without end.
Did you ever hear of such a thing? Did you ever imagine such a thing? Oh, the glory and the wonder, and the incomparable greatness, and goodness, and sweetness, and celestial favor, and loving, shepherdly care of the Lord for those who love Him.
Do you belong to the household of faith? If Jesus were to call us today, is it with gladness and with rejoicing that we behold His face? Is it right with you and God? Is your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? [Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:15]. Have you giving your heart to Jesus? When you listen to a preacher preach about these glorious days that some day we shall see, does your heart lift up in gladness? Do you raise up your face in anticipation? Or, is it a foreboding and a dread, and a darkness to you? Which is it? Ah, that it might be the light and the glory of heaven.
Make it that and make it that today, “Here I come, pastor, and here I am.” While we sing this song of invitation and appeal, somebody you in this balcony round, down one of these stairways and down to the front, “Here I come, preacher, and her I am. I give my heart to Jesus and my life forever in His caring keeping; here I come” [Romans 10:8-13]. A family you on this lower floor, “This is my wife, these are our children.” A couple, a family, “We are coming to put our lives with you in this precious congregation” [Hebrews 10:24-25]. As God shall say the word and open the door, make it now. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.