The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (the 144,000)

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaAmong the many visions that have captured the church’s imagination is the figure 144,000 found in —

(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.

Gorman explains,

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.

Virgins?

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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (the 144,000)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    This surely is puzzling rather than enlightening! How clearly is it taught that sex is God’s plan for both men and women, so why this passage about “virgins’ who had not “defiled’ themselves by enjoying sex. God wants the church of Jesus Christ to be led and taught by elders whenever possible. Elders are married men with children “who believe.” Adopted? Not usually. Angels are sexless, we suppose. Humans are sexual creatures and God obviously intends that the sex act will be pleasurable for both men and women. And NOT sinful within the confines of His decrees.

  2. Price Futrell says:

    Where I come from 144,000 means that there is going to be a whole bunch…

  3. laymond says:

    “Obviously, John is not saying that only 144,000 people will be saved.”

    Or maybe it is as the Jehovah’s witnesses believe, !44,000 will ascend to heaven to rule with God while the rest will dwell on the “New Earth”. created for the saved.

  4. laymond says:

    Price that is not very many, seeing as how there are more than 300 million people in the U S alone.
    But the bible said there will be few who find the gate to heaven.
    And 144,000 is a relative few, when we consider the billions who have passed through here.

    Sometimes it makes you wonder about all those people who say they already have their ticket in hand.

  5. laymond says:

    Jay if there are only 144,000 tickets to ride, the odds of winning the lottery are better.

  6. Dwight says:

    In other places the church is considered the betrothed of Jesus, which implies the fulfilment to come. The church is a virgin or not married, but promised to in marriage.
    Ray, I would argue God wants the church of Jesus Christ to be led and taught by Jesus, as He is the head of the church. The elders are tending the sheep for the master, but it is the master’s will for all in force.

  7. Alabama John says:

    Once again it is for the Jews (Israel) as others are not considered among those being in heaven. In fact, so many others in the world are not even known by the writers at this time.

    Had it pointed out to me once that the 144,000 are those that have a seal on their foreheads and I haven’t seen any folks with a tattoo or some kind of seal on their foreheads, especially among those of Israel. The thinking that the Jews are still above all the rest of us with God is still very popular.

    Just another thing to speculate about.

  8. laymond says:

    Well AJ, the bible is a book of Jewish history. is there any book in the bible not written by a Jew?

    What makes the Jewish version of God, any more viable than that of the American Indian?

  9. Alabama John says:

    laymond,
    The greatness of the God (whatever the name) in many places in this old world is so similar in so many cultures and civilizations it has to be the same one.
    I always think of all those from somewhere that were visited by Jesus after his death on the cross. Could of been all those that worshiped God the world over. The Bible just skips over that and leaves who they were and how they were contacted up to our imagination. I understand that as the writers of the Bible had no idea most of the world and the peoples at those locations existed at that time.
    Interesting that when the Spanish and others came to America and started telling about God, the Indians said that was old news as they had been worshiping Him in many ways for as long as they could remember. Pleasing God was very important to them.
    Preacher, Rabbi, Saint, Pope, Medicine Man, Elder, and many other names depending on the culture, all doing the same thing.

  10. Jay wrote:

    ten of the twelve tribes disappeared in Assyria, and the remaining two lost their separate identity when Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70.

    Amos 9:8-9 is a prophecy of the Assyrian captivity. Amos writes:

    “Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground, except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the LORD. “For behold, I will command, and shake the house house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the earth.”

    Verse 11 begins the prophecy James quoted in Acts 15, which he said showed that the Gentiles would be brought into the kingdom.

    “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair his breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declaares the LORD who does this.”

    This suggests to me that when Israel was taken into Assyria, they were so scattered among the nations as dust that not even a pebble could be found that could be identified as Israel. James interprets this to mean that for them to be restored to God’s people, the Gentile nations that had absorbed the “lost tribes” would themselves have to be assimilated into the people of God. Hence, his approval of Gentiles being admitted to the church without the “marker” of circumcision. As N.T. Wright points out frequently, the markers of the Christian family of God are Faith, Hope, and Love, not circumcision, dietary rules, and Sabbath.

  11. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Jerry,

    Very interesting theory. I’d not heard that reading of Acts 15.

  12. I usually think in terms of 12 tribes, 12 apostles, 10 (wholeness) tripled (superlative, perhaps even holy superlative).

    It’s a symbolic number indicative of the entire Church throughout the ages. The Church is clearly identified with Israel in the NT.

    This symbolism is in keeping with the 3 1/2 years (the second half of Daniel’s heptad) and the 1000 years of chapter 20.

    Good stuff.

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