(Rev. 7:2-10 ESV) 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, 6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, 7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, 8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed. 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
(Rev. 14:1-5 ESV) Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, 3 and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
Some interpreters understand the 144,000 and/or the multitude to be only the martyrs who have died in the tribulation, but it is more likely that each group represents the whole church. In any case, however, the images convey two crucial dimensions of the church: (1) its international, multicultural character, and (2) the reward it receives for faithful witness. The latter is reinforced in chapter 11.
The beautiful vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9) is—or should be—at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. This is what God is up to in the world.
Gorman, Michael J. (2011-01-01). Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 3212-3218). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Okay … but that doesn’t really explain the image. Let’s try again. Mounce writes,
The chapter consists of two visions—one, the sealing of the 144,000, and the other, the blessedness of the great multitude before the heavenly throne. A great deal has been written about the identity of the 144,000 as well as the relationship between the two visions. The position taken in the following pages is that in both visions the church is in view, but from two vantage points. Prior to the trumpet judgments the last generation of believers is sealed so as to be saved from the destruction coming upon the earth and to be brought safely into the heavenly kingdom. The second vision is anticipatory of the eternal blessedness of all believers when in the presence of God they realize the rewards of faithful endurance. The visions contrast the security and blessedness that await the faithful with the panic of a pagan world fleeing from judgment. In a sense it answers the question just posed, “Who can stand?” (6:17). …
A few commentators interpret the 144,000 as a literal reference to the nation Israel. But this interpretation seriously complicates the book of Revelation by bringing in racial distinctions that no longer exist in the NT purview. It disregards the historical fact that ten of the twelve tribes disappeared in Assyria, and the remaining two lost their separate identity when Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70.
The number is obviously symbolic. Twelve (the number of tribes) is both squared and multiplied by a thousand—a twofold way of emphasizing completeness. It refers to that generation of faithful believers about to enter the final turbulent period that will mark the end of human history. That there are 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel) is a symbolic way of stressing that the church is the eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel’s inheritance. Their being sealed does not protect them from physical death but insures entrance into the heavenly kingdom. It indicates that they will remain faithful in the coming persecution.
Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 154, 158.
In other words, the 12 tribes represent the church as the continuation of Israel (per Romans 11). The numbers are symbolic of Israel (12), completeness (10), and holiness (3). Perhaps squaring the 12 to 144 means the church is the true Israel — or Israel fulfilled.
Obviously, John is not saying that only 144,000 people will be saved. Rather, he is saying that God’s protection is given to the church as God’s true chosen people.
In chapter 14, the 144,000 are described as “virgins” and have not “defiled themselves with women.” This sounds like only men are included among the saved and that women are somehow defiling. This is hardly the attitude we’d expect from a document written in the First Century. Centuries later, some in the church in fact considered sexual relations as defiling (for both men and for women), but that attitude didn’t develop until centuries after the latest possible dating of the Revelation. So the language is very surprising.
Some suggest that defile means improper sexual relations (so BAGD). But our passage seems to mean that the 144,000 had no sexual relations at all (‘they are virgins’).
The answer to the difficulties seems to be that here, as so often, John is using symbolism. Virginity is ascribed to the people of God in the Old Testament (e.g. 2 Kgs 19:21; Jer. 18:13; Lam. 2:13; etc.), and unfaithfulness to God is likened to improper sexual relations (Ezek. 16; Hos. 5:4; etc.). So also Paul sees the church as the bride of Christ. He says, ‘I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him’ (2 Cor. 11:2). Later John sees ‘the bride, the wife of the Lamb’ (21:9). But the marriage is at this point future; the bride must be chaste. So she is described as having no sexual relations at all. John is saying that the 144,000 were not unfaithful to their Lord. They glorified God in their bodies (1 Cor. 6:20).
… The people in question have kept themselves completely free from intercourse with the pagan world system. They have lived up to what is implied in their betrothal to Christ. We thus have one expression which strictly applies to men balanced by another which (as far as our knowledge goes) was used of women only right up to this time. In each case John is concerned with spiritual truth.
Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 20; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 170-171.
In other words, the OT uses “adultery” to refer to idolatry by Israel. Being a “virgin” thus refers to avoiding idolatry — fellowship with Roman paganism. Thus, by abstaining from the temptations of Rome, the church may be presented to Christ as a pure, virgin bride.
And the image works in part because participation in cultic prostitution was a common form of idolatrous worship at the time the Revelation was written.