Who are the 144,000 in Revelation?

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number…- Rev 7:9


At the breaking of the sixth seal, when the wrath of the Lamb is revealed, people cry out with this question: “the great day of… wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:17). The following chapter is a response to that question. Who can stand on the Judgment Day? God’s people, those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” (7:14). We, the Church, have taken shelter under the blood of the Lamb so we are now spared from the wrath of the Lamb. This assumes, however, that the 144,000 described in chapter seven are referring to all of redeemed humanity, Jew and Gentile–the Church.

Here are reasons for this interpretation:

Numbers in the book of Revelation are highly symbolic. It is very unlikely the 144,000 refers to a literal group of individuals totaling 144,000. It is the 12 tribes of Israel squared and multiplied by a 1,000. The sum of a “thousand” need not be interpreted literally, but symbolizes wholeness and totality. Think of God’s description of Himself in Exodus 34:7, where we are told that He keeps steadfast love for “a thousand generations.” That doesn’t mean that generation 1,001 does not experience God’s steadfast love. A “thousand” simply conveys totality, wholeness; it is like when you tell your child that you love them “times a million.” The squaring of the 12 and it then being multiplied by a thousand signifies the full and total sum of all of God’s people.

The 144,000 appear again in the book of Revelation in chapter 14. There, the 144,000 are described as those “redeemed from the earth” in 14:3 and as having been “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb” in 14:4. These descriptions appropriately describe both Jews and Gentiles redeemed by Jesus. Further, 14:4 identifies the 144,000 as virgins, “those who have not defiled themselves with women.” This suggests that the 144,000 ought to be interpreted symbolically, for certainly virginity here must be likewise interpreted symbolically. Sex within marriage is a gift from God; false teachers are the ones who forbid marriage (cf. 1 Tim 4:1-3). In Revelation, John patterns the Old Testament prophets method of describing compromise with idolatry of the world in the form of spiritual adultery, describing the world as “the great prostitute… with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk,” (Rev 17:1-2). Thus, those who are “virgins”, the 144,000 are those who have refused to participate in the spiritual whoredom of the world. In stark contrast to those who sully themselves with the prostitute, God’s people are clothed in pure white, like the wedding garment of a pure bride (Rev 7:14; 19:8).

Further, the description of the 12 tribes is odd. “The list of tribes doesn’t match any rendition of the tribes in the OT,” writes New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner, “Judah may be first since Jesus the Messiah, head of the people of God, comes from Judah. What is also striking is that Dan is omitted, perhaps because of the evil associated with that tribe (Judges 18). Instead we have Joseph and Manasseh. This is curious, as Manasseh descended from Joseph, and thus we would expect Ephraim and Manasseh. These peculiarities in the listing suggest a symbolic reading,” ESVEC: Revelation, on 7:4-8.

We further know not to take this literally because of what happens immediately afterwards. John “hears” the numbering of the 144,000 in 7:4, but in 7:9 he “looks and beholds” a “great multitude that no one could number.” This is similar to John hearing Jesus described as a lion, but turning to see a lamb in 5:5-6. What John hears doesn’t restrict the totality of the truth of what he sees, but complements it. Jesus is a lion, but He is a lion who is also a lamb. This vast, innumerable multitude is drawn from every tribe and nation and thus isn’t restricted to ethnic Israel; but this new multi ethnic people of God are a people who exist as those who have been grafted in to Israel’s story (cf. Rom 11:11-24) and so are described like the people of Israel.

But, you may say, doesn’t John specify that this great multitude are specifically those who have escaped the “Great Tribulation” in 7:14? How could this then refer to all Christians? Don’t these just refer to the Christians who have made it through the final, climactic tribulation at the end of times and persevered in their faith?

That is for another post and another time, but the answer to the question depends on how you interpret what the “great tribulation” is. John himself understands that he is in “the tribulation” back in chapter 1, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom…” 1:8. John has been exiled to the island of Patmos for following Jesus and thus sees persecutions stemming from following Jesus as being evidence of enduring “the tribulation” that other Christians (like those in the seven churches he writes to) are experiencing. Even still, if it does only refer to Christians who have endured the final moments of tribulation before the Final Judgment, it may be that John is choosing to describe the whole of God’s people as a suffering people: those who have been imprisoned (2:10), slain for the testimony (6:9), given their lives (12:11), are conquered (13:7), and been beheaded (20:4) because he understands persecution to be the normative experience of all Christians (cf. 2 Tim 3:12).

Thus, it seems to make most sense to understand that people identified as the 144,000 to be the same as the vast multitude from all nations, the Church.

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