They only show up in a few spots in the Bible, but their veiled identity is intriguing. In case you don’t know to whom I am referring, here is one spot:
the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,Revelation 4:10-11 (ESV)
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
All of the references to this group come from Revelation. They talk but they are never explained as to who they are. Since they are not identified in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room, it is possible that they have been added since then. Perhaps they are 24 chosen representatives of the Old Testament righteous. The number 24 seems significant since that is twice the number of the tribes of Israel. This could be 12 from Israel and 12 from the nations.
One significant reference to Elders among the tribes of Israel is at Mt. Sinai. Here the number is not 12 or 24, but 70. These men are allowed to go up the mountain and to “see God”. Their experience ends up with an explanation of what was under God’s feet. It would seem that these men didn’t get the best view and are shielded from God by some type of floor. It is unlikely that there is connection between these two groups.
Another possibility for the 24 is a representative for each of the twelve tribes plus the 12 Apostles. This would include either Paul or Matthias in replacement of Judas, but it should also include John who is observing the group. To this I can’t say “no”, but I am not inclined to say, “yes”.
The elders do not permanently remain in a circle formation around God. In Revelation 7, one comes to speak to John:
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 worshiped God,… Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the LambRevelation 7:11,13-14 (ESV)
First, this Elder doesn’t include himself as someone who has come out of the Great Tribulation. The Great Tribulation may be a specific time period or event during which persecution is or was intense. I would also entertain the possibility that the Great Tribulation is how the inhabitants of Heaven refer to Earth. In that case, the Elder would not have been an inhabitant of Earth. He is also not identified as something other than a human, though that does not absolutely rule out some type of angel.
Why would we be told about these beings without an explanation of who they are? Even the Cherubim are given a brief explanation. What is their function? Do they only praise God from the front row? All we see are the Elders in action within the throne room of God. Their function within the room is connected to worship.
Since Revelation is an apocalyptic vision, it is possible that the elders are symbolic. Their likely symbolism is that they are the Church. So if that is the case, we circle the throne of God, we throw down our crowns of glory and give praise to God. We are enthroned and given some measure of authority. That would be my first choice if not for the conversation in Revelation 7.
I would still say that these are 24 actual individuals chosen to represent the church as a whole. The message they silently give is that we, as members of the church, are given close access to God in Heaven. We will no longer be separated by a floor, vision, cloud, curtain or anything else that necessarily isolated us from direct contact with God.