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The 144,000 Reconsidered

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Bible, Book of Revelation, Theology

This past Sunday I preached on the seven seals from Revelation 6-8. In the sermon I touched on the 144,000 from 7:4-8 and said that they represented all the elect from the nation of Israel (with the new covenant people represented by 7:9ff.). Well, that wasn't correct. Looking again at this symbolic group, I missed a key parallel text in Revelation 14:1-3:

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 first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. Rev. 14:1-5

This passage doesn't make good sense if the 144,000 are only the elect from Israel. Oops. Yet another reminder of the difficulty of this book and the many (many!) questions that we have to wrestle with along the way.

A much better approach is to see the 144,000 as another way of describing the church of God, the entire elect people of God. Such an exact number is clearly symbolic, but what does it mean?

Well, first of all it is the elect from Israel and the new covenant era. Here we need to see how to approach it numerically. The best option is to see it as 12 x 12 x 1,000. That is, 12 tribes of Israel (all the elect from Israel) times 12 apostles (all the elect of the new covenant era) times 1,000 (the complete number of them). This is similar to the way the new Jerusalem has twelve gates named with "the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel" (21:12) and "twelve foundation stones" named with "the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" (21:14). God is communicating that the new Jerusalem is the elect from all the people of God—old and new covenant, Israel and the church. Obviously, we can get carried away with the symbolism of numbers, but I think these are fairly straightforward.

Second, it communicates that the elect are precisely numbered by the Lord. God elects an exact number of people. Just as "the hairs of your head are all numbered" (Matt. 10:30), and not a single sparrow "will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (10:29), so he knows from the beginning of time exactly how many he will elect to be his own.

Third, remember that the elect are also a countless multitude. Revelation 7 gives us two looks at the people of God, which helps us if we are concerned that the number of God's elect will be a small one (only 144,000, for instance). We also learned in this chapter that the church in heaven is "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" (Rev. 7:9, see fn. below). While God numbers us precisely, to us it is "a great multitude that no one could number." This is a vision, of course, so the point is not the literal billions gathered at the throne, but simply that it is a vast multitude.

Fourth, the number reminds us that the people of God are also an army. Here we need to recall the other significant times when the people of God are counted. The dominant reason to do this was to establish how many men could go into battle:

Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. Num. 1:2-3

I think this, too, is in the background as the 144,000 are numbered in twelve tribes of twelve-thousand people. This is an army gathered—organized and ready to fight the Lord's battles. The Christian life is indeed a battle but a passage like this one reminds us that we don't fight as Lone Rangers. Instead we are soldiers in a vast army. God help us each to be "a good soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2:3) and to "fight the good fight of faith" (1 Tim. 6:12).

Others understand the significance of the 144,000 differently that what I say here, of course, but I think the above is a reasonable approach in light of the rest of Revelation and other clues throughout the Bible.

Hopefully we'll avoid such "oops" moments like this in the rest of the series, but given how thorny the path is in this marvelous book, I wouldn't want to promise that!

Daniel


Footnote: G.K. Beale from his commentary on Revelation: "However, as others have observed, the likelihood is that there is only one group, portrayed from different perspectives. The first pictures the church as the restored remnant of true Israel, whose salvific security has been guaranteed. They are numbered exactly because God has determined exactly who will receive his redemptive seal, and only he knows the precise number of his true 'servants' (so 7:3; 2 Tim. 2:19). Because of this, the exalted saints who have suffered so far are told in 6:11 that they must wait for vindication 'a while longer until the number of their fellow servants…who were to be killed…from the viewpoint of their actual vast number. Although they are a saved remnant, they are also those who have been gathered from all over the earth and have lived throughout the entire period of the church age. Therefore, they are a multitudinous throng" (NIGTC, 424).

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