This entry is part 95 of 96 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
I heard the number of those who were marked with the seal, one hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed from all the tribes of the people of Israel.
There has, of course, been much debate over the identity of the 144,000.
Aune lists the following possibilities: ‘(1) the faithful remnant of Israel, (2) Jewish Christians, (3) Christian martyrs, (4) Christians generally, the Israel of God, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11–19), or (5) primarily gentile Christians, since the Jews have rejected their place.’
I shall present the main alternatives, but beginning with a brief mention of an ‘outlier’.
1. The ‘little flock’
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is the literal number of Jehovah’s Witness who will reign with Christ in heaven. David Reed (Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses) cites from a JW publication:’ “Jehovah has established a limited number, 144,000, to make up the little flock, and has been gathering it since Pentecost 33 C.E. … the general gathering of these specially blessed ones ended in 1935.” The idea of a ‘little flock’ is picked up from Lk 12:32; but the context makes it clear that our Lord is referring to his ‘disciples’, consisting of all who prove faithful (Lk 12:41-53).
2. Jewish Christians
Some teach that this number refers to Jewish Christians who who were spared at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Rev 14:4 is appealed to as showing that the group lived in the first century, for in that verse they are referred to as the ‘firstfruits to God’.
Matthew Henry inclines to this view, although he allows that it could be ‘more generally applied to God’s chosen remnant in the world’.
According to some futurists, the number refers to a godly remnant of Jews who are protected after the Rapture of the church (i.e., during the Great Tribulation). This would be in fulfilment of Scriptures such as Zech 12:10-13 and Rom 11:26-32, which speak of Israel being brought to repentance in the last days. Many proponents of this view think that these Jewish believers will be involved in zealous evangelism. The preach ‘the Gospel of the Kingdom’ (thought to be distinct from ‘the Gospel of Grace’) as a witness to the nations before the end (Mt 24:14).
Zuck (Basic Bible Interpretation) argues that the number should be understood literally: ‘The prophecy of the 144,000 in 7:4–8 need not be considered a symbolic number. The number is to be taken in its normal, literal sense because 12,000 people are said to be sealed from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Since the tribal names are literal and not symbolic, there is no reason to take the numbers symbolically.’
Wiersbe argues that the reference here is to a literal number of Jewish Christians who will be protected (‘sealed’) during the time of Tribulation. He arrives at this conclusion partly from his own prior theological commitments (and who does not have prior theological commitments?!), and partly from the naming of the 12 tribes. Wiersbe recognises some of the problems with this literal and futuristic interpretation, and also allows a secondary application of this passage to all of God’s people – both Jews and Gentiles.
Vlach writes: ‘The specific mentioning of each of the 12 tribes of Israel emphasizes the continuing role of the tribes of Israel in the plan of God. This is not a reference to Gentiles or the “church militant” as some assert. Immediately after this section, Rev 7:9 states, “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. John distinguishes Jews (Rev 7:4–8) and Gentiles (Rev 7:9). The group in 7:4–8 is made of ethnic Jews while the group in 7:9 is a multitude from “every nation.” Also, the group in 7:4–8 is finite; it is a group of 144,000, while the group in 7:9 is “a great multitude which no one could count.” These are not the same groups of people.’ (Vlach, Michael. Has the Church Replaced Israel? (p. 198). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Schnabel critiques the view that this passage refers to literal (i.e. biological) Jews on a number of grounds, including: ‘While the distinction between Jewish and Gentile believers was indeed a continuing issue in the early church, at least Paul regarded such distinctions as a problem since Jews and Gentiles were reconciled through Jesus Christ who “has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Paul asserts that God through Jesus Christ created “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace” reconciling “both groups to God in one body through the cross” (vv. 15–16). All who belong to Jesus Christ are “children of God through faith” with the result that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” because “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:26, 28, 29 NIV; see Col. 3:11).’
Wall mentions the view that ‘if we are to take the phrase more literally as referring to the saints of “old” Israel, then the 144,000 would form a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1; cf. Heb. 11:4–38) whose faithfulness to God established the first stage of Israel’s exodus from sin (Heb. 11:39–40) and movement toward their eventual destination (cf. Heb. 11:13–16), the new Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22–27). Their pilgrimage to promise is suggested by the exodus symbolism that lies behind the act of sealing the 144,000, which prepares for and awaits the coronation of the eschatological Israel as depicted in the second half of this interlude.’
3. The Church generally, consisting of Jewish and Gentile believers.
(a) For some, who do not hold to a pre-tribulation Rapture, the number refers to church as a whole (i.e. Jewish and Gentile believers) during the time of the final Tribulation. So Ladd, Mounce.
This appears to have been the view of Matthew Poole:
‘By the tribes of Israel mentioned here, are to be understood the several gospel churches of the Gentiles, who are now God’s Israel ingrafted into the true olive.’
For Poole, the meaning of the passage as a whole is that ‘although within that period of time which is signified under the seventh seal, there should be great persecutions of the church, yet God would preserve unto himself a great number in all his churches, which should not apostatize, and who in the persecutions should not be hurt; so as his church should not fail, though the archers should shoot sore at it; for though men raged, yet it was by God’s permission; and his angels overruled it, who should take notice of those numbers that he had sealed, and marked in their foreheads.’
Wall inclines to the view that ‘if one assumes that the phrase refers to a spiritual Israel as elsewhere in the NT (e.g., James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1; cf. Rom. 9–11) including Revelation (14:1), then the 144,000 could refer to an “extra special” remnant within the church, perhaps to its martyrs who exemplify fearless devotion to God of the sort John encourages. While there is no indication in the text that the 144,000 enumerate the remnant of martyrs, it does make sense of the immediate context to identify this group with those who earlier cry out for vindication (6:10). This first part of the visionary interlude, then, responds directly to the martyrs’ earlier question, “How long?” (6:10).’
(b) Still others teach that the number refers to the entire church, represented here (as in other places in the NT) as the true Israel. Proponents of this view urge that it is consistent with the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation. In the present case, the symbolism is highlight by the way the tribes are listed. As Wilson observes: ‘Judah is placed first as the Messiah’s own tribe, Dan is omitted, Levi is included as an ordinary tribe and Joseph replaces Ephraim.’
‘In Rev 14:3–4, the 144,000 are said to have been purchased “from the earth” and purchased “from among men.” The almost identical language suggests that the two are the same group—the church of all ages. This would explain why, immediately after the vision of the sealing, John sees a great multitude of people from every nation and tribe and people and tongue (Rev 7:9).’ (Beale, Shorter Commentary)
They have already been identified: they are ‘the servants of God’, v3, and will later be described as those who have been ‘redeemed from the earth’, Rev 14:3. The number, like everything else in the Apocalypse, is symbolic; but even though symbolic, it is still a number, for God is, as it were, carrying out a census of his people, so that each and all should be accounted for. This stylized number represents ‘the company of God’s people across the centuries’. (Bewes)
Wilcock calls this number ‘a diagram of the Church’.
Ian Paul unpacks the numerical symbolism:
‘If twelve is the number associated with the people of God, ten is a natural number (not least because it is the base for our number system), a square suggests the completeness of God’s people (the plan of the New Jerusalem) and a cube suggests the Holy of Holies and the presence of God, then the number 144,000 has a powerful symbolic meaning. It is the complete people of God, representing his holy presence in the world, a meaning which correlates with the idea of God’s people as the body of Christ and as the temple in Pauline theology.’
But why are they referred to as coming from all the tribes of Israel?
According to Mounce: ‘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.’
In v9, we read of ‘a great multitude that no-one could number’. While, at first sight, this seems to be a different, and still vaster crowd of people, there are good reasons for thinking that this is a simply an alternative way of expressing the same group of people who make up the 144,000. ‘A. M. Farrer considered that this contrast gives expression to two complementary themes of the Scriptures: on the one hand that God knows the number of his elect, and on the other, that those who inherit the blessing of Abraham are numberless as the stars’ (NBC).
Wright takes a similar view to the one just mentioned, as does Ian Paul. Both note that John ‘heard’, and then turned to ‘see’, strongly suggesting that both groups are the same.
But the most likely answer is not difficult to find once we remember the symbolic nature of this book. Here is Morris’ summary:-
The church can be referred to as “the twelve tribes” (Jas 1:1; cf. Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30), and this is probably the thought when a letter is sent to “the Dispersion,” 1 Pet 1:1, mg. The Christian appears to be the true Jew, Rom 2:29 and the church “the Israel of God,” Gal 6:16. Descriptions of the old Israel are piled up and applied to the church, 1 Pet 2:9-10, cf. Eph 1:11,14. It is the church which is God’s “peculiar people,” Tit 2:14, and Christ’s own who are “Abraham’s seed,” Gal 3:29 and “the circumcision,” Php 3:3. Many hold that “Israel after the flesh,” 1 Cor 10:18 implies an “Israel after the Spirit”.’ Here is Revelation, John in the same way ‘speaks of those “which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan,” Rev 2:9; cf. Rev 3:9. He regards the new Jerusalem as the spiritual home of Christians, Rev 21:2, etc., and it has on its gates the names of the twelve tribes, Rev 21:12.
See Kevin DeYoung’s discussion here.