|By: Dr. Robert Thomas; ©2000|
|Many different groups have tried to claim exclusive right to be the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7. Dr. Thomas explains why they are mistaken, on the basis of what the Scripture has to say about the identity of this group.|
ONE HUNDRED FORTY-FOUR THOUSAND: WHO ARE THEY?
Revelation 7:1-8 introduces 144,000 “slaves of our God” (7:3) who must be sealed before four angels release the wind that will blow on the earth, the sea, and every tree (7:1). Various people have advanced ideas about the identity of the 144,000. Years ago I met a man in a campground in Alabama who said he was one of this number. He belonged to the movement called Jehovah’s Witnesses. Being one of the 144,000 placed him in a special category of the elite among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he thought. Such an identification of this numbered group, of course, has nothing to do with the context of Revelation 7 and is therefore erroneous.
Another line of reasoning understands 144,000 as a symbolic number, divided into three multiplicands, 12 x 12 x 1000. The number 12 is both squared and multiplied by a thousand, a twofold way of emphasizing completeness. The principal reason for this explanation is a predisposition to have the 144,000 as representative of the church. No sound reason exists for taking this number or any other number in Revelation as symbolic. Verse 4 states a simple fact: “I heard the number of those sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand.” One cannot justify taking that statement as a figure of speech. These are servants of God whom He will reserve for Himself during the future Great Tribulation just as he reserved 7,000 for Himself in the days of Ahab (1 Kgs. 19:18; Rom. 11:4). The listing of 12,000 from each of twelve tribes in 7:5-8 confirms that the number 144,000 is not symbolic, but literal. Further confirmation comes from Revelation 7:9 where John reveals his way of designating a large crowd. He simply says the crowd was so big that no one could number them. That is how John describes a very large crowd, not by using a specific number such as 144,000. The number represents an actual numerical count of God’s servants.
Verse 4 not only states the number, but also gives the identity of the 144,000. They are “those sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” Discussion from various sources has sought to build a case that “every tribe of the sons of Israel” refers to spiritual Israel, another name for the church. The proof consists of a long list of New Testament passages that supposedly identify the church as spiritual Israel, the assumption being that Israel rejected her Messiah at His first coming and God has permanently replaced national Israel with members of the body of Christ composed of both Jews and Gentiles. None of the passages cited proves the point, however. The same debate rages in each of the other Scriptures as the one that exists in Revelation 7:4.
Others reason that the 144,000 must consist of the entire Christian community, both Jew and Gentile, because God would not secure some of His servants by sealing and leave others unprotected. Yet who can say what God must do? Only God Himself determines that.
The fact is that the New Testament has no clear cut example of the church being called “Israel.” Neither is there such an example in all ancient church writings, until A.D. 160. The “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, which refers to national Israelites within the church, is no exception. Revelation 7:5-8 confirms that “the sons of Israel” in 7:4 refers to descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when it lists the descendants of twelve sons of Jacob, tribe by tribe. To interpret that the church falls into twelve such divisions does serious violence to the listing.
Identifying the 144,000 as the physical descendants of Abraham agrees with a literal understanding of the promises made to ethnic Israel in both Old and New Testaments. Israel as a nation has not lost her distinctive national identity before God and will emerge in a prominent role during the days of the future Great Tribulation.
Revelation 7 is an interlude between the sixth seal judgment of 6:12-17 and the seventh seal judgment of 8:1 ff. It answers the question of 6:17, the one asked by the panic-stricken earth-dwellers as they come to the realization that they are face to face with the wrathful judgment of the Father and the Lamb. They will say, “Who will be able to stand?” (6:17), a question that receives its answer in the two visions of chapter 7. In brief, the answer is the 144,000 and the innumerable multitude will be able to stand because they will have been delivered from the consequences of God’s wrath. Some will survive and even prosper under the blessing of God during earth’s future terrors.
Our earlier discussions of the first six seals have identified their time period as the first half of Daniel’s seventieth week, that is, the three-and-a-half years of a future seven-year period just before the return of Christ to earth. The pause in progression of the numbered seal judgments in Revelation 7 gives the reader a picture of conditions that prevail at the midpoint of that future period. The vision of 7:1-8 describes conditions on earth, and the one in 7:9-17 pictures conditions in heaven. Such a chronological placement of the visions fits with the withholding of the winds (7:1) until the sealing of the 144,000 (7:3) is completed. The parts of nature protected from the winds—the earth, the sea, and every tree— will be objects of the plagues brought by the trumpet judgments during the last half of the seven-year period (8:6-12). The sealing of the 144,000 protects them from the plagues of the trumpet judgments to come (e.g., 9:4). Thus, several lines of confirmation reinforce the conclusion that the sealing of the 144,000 will transpire in the middle of the future seventieth week.
The seal of God upon this group will protect them as God pours out His wrath against the earth-dwellers around them. The earth-dwellers will stand in rebellion against God, but the 144,000 as slaves of God will faithfully proclaim the gospel. They will keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus (12:17) in the face of severe persecution inflicted on them by God’s enemies. They will escape the impact of God’s wrath, such as the “locust” plague because that plague will hurt only “the men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads” (9:4). This will free them to conduct their worldwide ministry of evangelism in those last days. By this time the church will be in heaven, the rapture having occurred at the beginning of the seven-year period, and the rest of Israel and redeemed Gentiles will be in a secluded place enjoying the protection of God. These faithful 144,000 will be His voice in a world marked by unbridled human sin and darkened by the reign of the false Christ. That will be their role. We will meet them again in our study when we get to Revelation 12 and 14, but Revelation 7 marks their preparation for serving the Lord during future perilous times.
God will never leave the world without a witness to Himself. Fellow Christian, you and I are His witnesses during the present era as we await our Lord’s coming for His church. We must be faithful to represent Him because many around us need to hear and embrace the good news that Jesus saves. We will face opposition, but we can rest assured that He will protect us as long as He has a job for us to do just as He will protect the 144,000 in the future. Probably the pressure upon us will be far less direct and harsh than that upon our future fellow-witnesses, but on us the temptation to remain silent will perhaps be more subtle. Let’s not be lulled to sleep by the enemy. Let’s redeem the time because the days are evil.
Note: For more details about the 144,000, see my discussion in Revelation 1–7 (Moody Press, 1992), pages 461-482. To order this volume, you may contact Grace Books International at (800) GRACE15 or www.gbibooks.com.