DO THE 24 ELDERS IN REVELATION CHAPTER FOUR DEPICT THE CHURCH HAVING BEEN RAPTURED BEFORE THE TRIBULATION? This is one of the questions I examine in chapter 7 of my book*
(The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne, c. 1803–5. William Blake)
Chapter 7 of my book is entitled “Multitudes In Heaven”. It examines the major scenes we read throughout Revelation in which there are large numbers of people or angels gathered. Who are they, and what is their significance? I will just excerpt the most relevant sections of chapter 7 on this blog, the first excerpt being today’s post.
THE TWENTY-FOUR ELDERS
When John is called up into heaven after Jesus dictates to him seven letters to seven churches, he sees around the throne of God (among many amazing sights) twenty-four elders, all seated on thrones. Some pre-tribulation teachers believe that these elders represent the raptured Church, or the raptured Church plus important Old Testament figures. Because the elders are there in heaven with their white robes and crowns before any of the tribulation events are described, experts see this as evidence that there will be a pre-tribulation rapture, which John, they say, had just demonstrated for us by being called into heaven.
The elders sing of redemption (5:9-10) and the NIV translates certain words in their song to ‘they’ and ‘them’, suggesting the elders are referring to the redemption of others who are not present. Pre-tribulation teachers insist that these words ought to be translated ‘we’ and ‘us’, just as they are in the King James Version, meaning that the twenty-four are actually the people who’ve been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. In other words, the redemption the elders are singing of is their own, and that of the entire Church. This scene, say the experts, signifies that the Church will be in heaven before the tribulation, because it’s described before any of the tribulation events are described, and before any of the seals of the scroll are opened.
There can be no doubt that the elders do represent the Church, because angels are not redeemed, but humans are:
“…for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (5:9 KJV).
However, the observation that these elders are in heaven before the seals of the scroll are broken does not automatically prove a pre-tribulation rapture. To aid in a different way of interpreting this scene, we can ask if the seals, as they break, are setting in motion the real future events they foretell. Was John transported not only to heaven but forward in time, to witness real-time implementation of the judgments of the book? Or was he being given a prophecy; a fore-telling; a representation of the events yet to come? Was he seeing a picture; a vision of the future, rather than the real thing?
My first observation in answer to this is to recall that John had to see the entire sequence of Revelation events, or he would not be able to relate them to us. There would be no point in him being taken into heaven mid-way through the Revelation events, if it was his job to relay it all to us: he would only know half of the story, as would we. And without meaning to take this point to the absurd extreme, there would be no point in him being taken to heaven at the end of all the events for the same reason. He had to see the whole thing. The reason John was taken to heaven before any of the seals are seen to be broken is that he had to witness all the events Jesus wants us to know about.
Next, notice that when John arrives in heaven and surveys the scene, the elders are already there and settled in. They didn’t arrive at the same time as John in his ‘rapture’ (chapter 4 verses 4 and 9 to 11). Therefore, if the rapture takes all believers, living and resurrected, why did John arrive late for the party? Why are the twenty-four already sitting there like they belong, while he’s only just arrived and wondering what it’s all about? Why isn’t the entire raptured Church there, instead of just a small representation? Isn’t Jesus “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? Then why isn’t he one of the twenty-four elders? Why isn’t he sitting there on one of the thrones with a white robe and a crown on his head? Why doesn’t he say, “Oh, Hi Peter! Hi Thomas! Hello Paul-good to see you! Oh look-there’s me over there!”
And why didn’t any one of the twenty-four say to John “Hey John-it’s great to see you-we’ve been waiting for you!”
The twenty-four elders are not only settled in, but they already know everything about what’s going on and proceed to tell John (5:5; 7:13-21). This seems strange since John was an original member of the Church, and one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. But on the scene he isn’t even invited to take his place with them. Surely, there should have been twenty-three elders and one empty chair for John?
The answers to all of these questions must be that these elders John sees are not the literal Church or literal Church founders or apostles, they only represent them. It isn’t literally Peter and all the others of Jesus’s inner circle sitting there. John has not traveled forward in time to see the actual, live, real-time events of the tribulation. Instead he’s watching something like an informative, inspirational documentary; a staged vision which represents the most significant aspects of the tribulation.
On top of that, The prophecies of Revelation are not all in chronological order from chapter 5 up to the end: they’re told and re-told. The story is told in some detail, then we’re taken back to see some different detail. Some of the events and scenes and characters of the Revelation are not just of tribulation events, but they span the entire history of mankind. For example, consider the Harlot: Mystery Babylon. She’s been “riding the beast” of human history. She’s been an integral companion to the kingdoms of the world all the way along.
Some prophecies in Revelation speak of the past, and some of the future: they’re not all events of a seven-year period. Therefore it’s not necessary to conclude that the representatives of the redeemed in heaven are, by their presence, foretelling a pre-tribulation rapture. The fact that the twenty-four only represent the Church, and that the entire Church does not seem to be present, must be significant. Why would only twenty-four Church members sing of their redemption, if the entire Church is there? Why do only twenty-four represent the Church in this scene, if all are there? Shouldn’t they all be described as being one body at this point, if the entire Church has been raptured?
Moreover, the fact that the Church is not mentioned by name in heaven is very significant evidence against the pre-tribulationist’s claim that the Church is not mentioned as being on earth in tribulation passages of Revelation. The Church is no more “mentioned” by name in heaven than it is on the earth.
It seems most likely that this scene is speaking of the status of the Church in a history-wide sense, and of the future authority the Church will have when they reign with Christ.
*My book, “ALL LEFT BEHIND: THE CASE AGAINST THE PRE-TRIBULATION RAPTURE”, by NICK FISHER, is available in paperback and electronic form on Amazon.