Who Are the 144,000? — A Case Study in Understanding the Book of Revelation

From a 12th century commentary on Revelation 7, by Saint John of Lorvao, Portugal, depicting the 144,000. The variety of existing interpretations that attempt to decipher the 144,000 are legion. Which is the “correct one?”

Have you ever tried to read the Book of Revelation, and wondered to yourself, “Huh? What is this all about?

Despite its early reception in many quarters, Revelation was one of the last books to be accepted into the New Testament canon of Scripture. Eastern Orthodox Christians, even today, do not publicly read Revelation in their worship services. The early church fathers were reticent about Revelation, not because they did not value it, but because they were concerned that overly-enthusiastic, misguided readers might misuse it, and read all sorts of crazy stuff into it.

History has proven this reticence to be 100% correct. Remember Family Radio’s Harold Camping? Or David Koresh in Waco, Texas? All of the crazies have looked to Revelation, believing that they, and they alone, have figured out the true message of this book. Yet, they were all 100% wrong.

Still, Revelation simply fascinates people.

I once had a friend in college who supposedly “knew” all about Revelation, what the bowls and trumpets all mean, and those spooky, multi-headed beasts. My friend knew very little about what the rest of the Bible talked about, such as the basics about sin, our need for a Savior, and what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus. But he sure knew all about the Antichrist!

It seems like there are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to the Book of Revelation. First, you have folks, who are simply curious about understanding Revelation. Most folks are at least mildly interested, but more than a few are sort of like my college friend, simply obsessed with all things “End Times.” Many of them watch late night cable TV channels devoted to figuring out “Last Days” prophecies, reading New York Times bestsellers all claiming to reveal the “true secrets” about Bible prophecy, while others love to go to various, church-sponsored Revelation seminars. It is fine to take an initial interest in these things, I suppose, but only if it gets people to read the rest of the Bible.

The second group are those who just get really fed up with all things “End Times,” or at least the cacophony of voices that surround the discussion. They are bothered by the fact that there seems to be endless theories as to how to interpret the Book of Revelation. Even the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, observed that “everyone thinks of the book whatever his spirit imparts.” For Luther, at one point, he went so far as saying that Revelation is “neither apostolic nor prophetic, for Christ is neither taught nor recognized in it.” Nevertheless, despite discouraging its use, Luther recognized that the church historically did view Revelation as part of the New Testament canon, so he did include it in his 16th century translation of the Bible into German.

So that is where we are at: Some feel absolutely compelled to defend their own pet theory about Revelation, and demonizing others, while others simply just want to skip that book of the Bible all together! Well, that is all quite understandable, but both of those attitudes, too, are wrong-headed.

In this “deep-dive” blog post, I want to do a case study in Revelation, by explaining why this book is so difficult to understand, just by examining one, short passage, comparing different approaches, and then draw some positive lessons from the study of Revelation. The bottom line: We should not neglect the Book of Revelation, but neither should we cling too tightly to a particular interpretive tradition of the book. But before I start, I must issue this disclaimer: If you are new to Revelation, I would strongly encourage you to stop reading this blog post, and then click through to first read my introductory post on the Book of Revelation from a few years ago here on Veracity. Otherwise, this will get too confusing way too fast. 

So, who are the 144,000 spoken of in Revelation 7:1-8? Let us walk through this very intriguing question. This is not a short blog post, so you may want to pour yourself a beverage before we move on.

“Sealing the 144,000” Ottheinrich Bibel, c. 1430. Taken from Christopher Smith’s blog, who has a similar post on this topic (check it out).

Interpreting the Identity of the 144,000

First, let us look at the passage in question, Revelation 7:1-8 (ESV):

(1) After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. (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.

I remember one of the first times I dealt with this question of the identity of 144,000. A friend of mine was a Jehovah’s Witness, and he was explaining to me that the 144,000 were a special class of saints who would enter into Heaven. Once that 144,000 limit is reached, that is it. Heaven is pretty much full.

So, what happens to all of the other Witnesses? My friend further explained that the remainder of the saints, the bulk of the people, will live on the earth instead.

This explanation is so ad-hoc, that I wonder how Jehovah’s Witnesses can take it so seriously. Once a year, Jehovah Witnesses gather together for a communion service, where they partake in the Lord’s Supper. The caveat, however, is that only those among the select 144,000 are allowed to actually receive communion. Everyone else, the bulk of the Witnesses’ community, simply pass the elements along, untouched, to the next person.

Wow. Just imagine yourself at a Jehovah’s Witnesses annual communion service. If I was there, I would find myself looking around, trying to figure out who was “in” and who was “out” of the 144,000. It is as though the Jehovah’s Witnesses have turned the church into a two-tiered hierarchical, caste system. The elite 144,000 are on the top, and the rest of everyone else are at the bottom.

Is this really what the 144,000 is all about?

A More Responsible Literal Approach

This Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation is a good example of a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. But not all literal interpretations are that weird. Some literal interpretations are more compelling.

For example, a number of futurists; that is, people who believe that most of the events described in the Book of Revelation are to happen sometime in the future, interpret the 144,000 as being literally 144,000 people, namely Jews who become witnesses for the Gospel of Jesus in the EndTimes, in times of great persecution.

It can make sense to read this literally, in that the passage specifically mentions twelve tribes from the Old Testament, the tribes of Israel. There were twelve sons of Jacob, and there were twelve tribes of Israel that settled in the Promised Land, after the Exodus from Egypt, and their wanderings in the wilderness for forty years. Plus, you have this “12,000” thing going on, per tribe, for added emphasis. “12,000,” twelve tribes, get it?

Sounds good, right? Case closed, right?

Not so fast.

If you pay more attention, you might notice that things in Revelation are not always very simple. The key to handling the Book of Revelation is to become familiar more with the Old Testament. When you do that, a number of things stand out (You might want to skim over the next few paragraphs, and come back to it later, if this is all new to you).

Problems With A Literal Interpretation of Revelation

Here in Revelation 7, there is one big, glaring omission. If you study that list of the names of the tribes of Israel, you find that one of the names of the ancient tribes is missing: Dan.

So, where did Dan go? As someone who believes in the full trustworthiness of the Bible, it is difficult to conceive of this as simply a mistake on behalf of the New Testament writer.

Whoops!  Major typo?? Did the auto-correct feature on John’s papyrus typewriter delete something it should not have done?

Hardly….There is a purpose behind this omission. But then, what is it? Well, some say that the tribe of Dan loses out in Revelation because they gave themselves over to a terrible act of engaging in idolatry (see Judges 18:30-31 or Genesis 49:17). That is a reasonable conclusion, and as an observation, it should be held in view. But you might want to think about it some more, and read more of the Old Testament.

Did not all of the tribes of Israel commit some form idolatry at some time in the Old Testament period? The ten tribes of the Northern kingdom were practically wiped out or assimilated by the Assyrians, as an expression of God’s judgment against their idolatry, and the two tribes of the Southern kingdom, were exiled to Babylon, for the same reason. The answer is clearly, yes, idolatry was a problem with every Israelite tribe, so it seems strange that Dan would be singled out for elimination here.

But that is not the only problem.

When you think of the twelve sons of Jacob and the twelves tribes of Israel, it is important to consider that the tribe of Joseph was split in two, because Joseph was to receive a double-portion of inheritance, through Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. Furthermore, when the twelve tribes of Israel entered the Promised Land, all of the tribes of Israel received some land, but the people of Levi were treated differently. The tribe of Levi were a tribe of priests, so they did not receive the same type of land portion, which is generally why we think of twelve tribes of Israel settling in the Promised Land, and not thirteen.

So, why then is Levi listed in Revelation? Good question.

Notice also that Manasseh’s name is mentioned in the list, but Ephraim’s name is not. Instead, the name of their father is substituted for Ephraim: Joseph. Why did the New Testament writer do that?

Some say that Ephraim was also singled out for judgment for idolatry (Hosea 4:17). That is a good point, but you still run into the same problem we face with Dan.

Is your head spinning yet? This gets all kind of complicated, does it not?

Add on top of that, the observation that the tribe of Judah is listed first, which is highly unusual. Normally, children are listed in birth order, but not here in Revelation. If Judah is listed first because Judah is of the tribe where the Messiah, namely Jesus, would come from, then it is possible that the strange ordering of the tribes is trying to tell us something. What is then the best possible explanation, that takes into account, all of these biblical data points?

My old soccer cleats: “Excuse me, while I add a little more duct tape to this Bible interpretation”… Is this how you treat your Bible? Some Christians inadvertently do this when they try to read the Book of Revelation.

The Bible Scholars’ Dilemma: Literal or Non-Literal?

Let me sum it up this far with this Bible study principle, and then explain what I mean: If your reading of the Bible, begins to look like a patchwork of duct tape, holding it all together, you might want to rethink how you are reading your Bible.

When Bible scholars run into difficulties like these, no matter what the text is, they end up scratching their heads as they try to add up all of these peculiar observations. Faced with these situations, some scholars nevertheless insist that explanations still exist that would reasonably account for such peculiarities, to defend a literal point of view. That may be so. But those who disagree often think that such scholars are being tempted to come up with all sorts of ad-hoc conjectures, that try to force-fit bulky interpretations onto the text, thereby mangling the passage under review.

Imagine taking a size 8 shoe and trying to fit it on a size 11 foot. Sure, you could rip out the stitching, apply a bunch of duct tape, and say, “See, the shoe fits perfectly now!” Well, that might work, but your foot may end up looking pretty odd when you walk around with all of that duct tape. That shoe may not last very long.

Instead, it might be that these peculiarities exist as clues, suggesting a non-literal interpretation was intended by the original New Testament writer, as opposed to a literal one. In other words, as with the case of the 144,000, possibly the focus of Revelation is not on Israel as an Old Testament people. Instead, it could be that the focus is more on Jesus Christ, the “high priest” that transcends the old order of the priestly tribe of Levi, one born of the tribe of Judah, the first tribe mentioned in the list. Perhaps the 144,000 refers to Christ’s people, the church, those who believe upon Jesus, in faith, made up of Jew and Gentile.

Literal vs. Symbolic Views of the 144,000… and Duct Tape??

Not every scholar agrees with this conclusion, as you might expect. Critics of a symbolic view complain that a symbolic interpretation stands against the “plain meaning of the text.”

I get that. It sort of reminds me of my soccer cleats.

I love them dearly. My feet have finally adjusted to them. The problem is that the stitching has come apart, where the leather attaches to the sole. But thanks to my trusty duct tape, they keep going. To me, my cleats plainly still work. Some of my soccer buddies, however, take one look at me, and plainly see a problem. They say, “You know, Clarke, you can buy a new pair of those pretty cheap at the Reebok outlet store.”

Yeah,” I respond. “But if these cleats are working for me right now, why do I need a new pair? Do you not see that?

Here is the rub: The “plain meaning of the text,” in difficult passages like these, is not always so “plain” to the reader. Otherwise, why would there be a debate if the meaning of the text is so obviously “plain?” What looks like the “plain meaning” of a difficult passage to one person, may look like an unruly patchwork of duct tape to someone else. This is really, really important, so I will highlight it here:

The “right answer” depends on which solution best accounts for all of the available evidence, throughout the whole Bible, not just selective bits from here and there. But frankly, what often determines the “best solution” in the minds of many pastors, best-selling “prophecy experts,” and even more than a few scholars, is the set of presuppositions that the interpreter brings to the text… and not all presuppositions are created equal. Some presuppositions are better than others. The best way to work through those differing interpretive options revolves around understanding what the original writer was trying to do, within the original context.

Despite the difficulties, many futurists stick with the more literal view. Such futurists do not find the objections described above compelling enough to adopt a more symbolic view. So, here is an observation, that is worth remembering: Literalists think that the non-literal proponents have the duct tape, and not them! One should not too quickly dismiss a literal interpretation, simply because there are difficulties, and this is a good point to keep in mind (Futurist scholar Thomas Ice, in this article, defends his literal view).

Another thing to remember is that no one is a consistent literalist when it comes to the Book of Revelation. For example, even a futurist will admit that for the events in Revelation, where the first verse of the book describes the “things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1), that the word “soon” does not mean what we normally think “soon” means, in normal usage. Revelation was written in the 1st century A.D. So if most of the events in Revelation are still in our future, with respect to today, a literal “soon” can hardly mean 2000+ years!!

So, what does a student of the Bible do with this?

As discussed at length in the introductory blog post, there are four main interpretive models for how to understand the Book of Revelation. Just glance at any introduction to Revelation in any major study Bible on the market today, and the notes will say pretty much the same thing:

  • Futurist (by far, the most common view today, among evangelical Christians. Most evangelicals have never heard of the following three alternative views).
  • Preterist (“preterist” means “past”).
  • Historicist.
  • Idealist.

Consider some of the arguments made by other, non-futurist interpreters of the Book of Revelation. Those from a partial preterist school of thought; that is, those who believe that much (though not all) of Revelation was already fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., understand the 144,000 to be symbolic. They believe that the 144,000 symbolically represents the Jewish Christians who were left in Jerusalem, just prior to the period when the Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.  Partial preterists believe that the Book of Revelation was written before 70 A.D., and therefore, the events described in most (but not all) of the book prophetically point towards the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, that would literally take place “soon,” that is, within just a few years.

We know from history that the Jewish Christian community eventually fled towards Syria, just prior to the Roman siege of the city, which was one of the most tragic events in the history of the ancient world. Therefore, the prophecy of the 144,000 has already been fulfilled, so there is no need to speculate about events hundreds of years into the future. As opposed to the futurists, partial preterists simply find it impossible for such a significant book of the Bible to completely ignore one of most critical events of Jewish and world history during this period of time!

It would be like reading a history of the early 21st century, and neglecting to tell the reader of the “911” attacks on the New York City Twin Towers, in 2001. Mmmmm…..

Other interpreters, following either an idealist or historicist school of thought, understand that the Book of Revelation gives you a general framework as to how to understand the history of the church, down through the ages, from the 1st century to the very end of time. In this approach, the 144,000 symbolically represents the church, God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, in every generation, particularly in times of persecution. A good example, that surely is not the ONLY example, of a historicist (or idealist) view of Revelation, is held by the Seventh Day Adventists (see this Veracity blog series on the Seventh Day Adventists, for more detail).

Sorting Out the Viewpoints

Steve Gregg’s Revelation: Four Views, is a one-of-a-kind commentary on the Book of Revelation, comparing four different interpretation perspectives. Not overly technical, this is a highly recommended for the serious Bible student to get an overview of how different Christians over the centuries have understood this fascinating book of the Bible.

In his incredibly helpful book, Revelation: Four Views, Revised and Updated: A Parallel Commentary, veteran Bible teacher Steve Gregg goes into more detail about the futurist, preterist, historicist, and idealist approaches to passages, like Revelation 7:1-8 (p. 176-179).  For example, one historicist view goes on to say that the 144,000 represent the body of believers in Christ who remained faithful to the teachings of Scripture, after nominalism and corruption crept into the official church, when Emperor Constantine, and later emperors, established Christianity as the approved religion, towards the end of the period of the great Roman empire. Groups like the Seventh-Day Adventists tend to adopt this historicist reading of the Book of Revelation.

Likewise, from an idealist perspective, years of intermarriage among the Old Testament Israelites, the Babylonian exile, and other factors make it really impossible to literally pick out legitimate, bloodline representatives of the twelve Old Testament tribes in any future time. Of course, the answer to this argument is to say that man may not know, but God knows!

However, idealists will press their argument onward. Since God has pointed out that it is those who have genuine faith in Jesus, who are the ones fulfilling God’s original purposes for Old Testament Israel, it makes sense to say that the 144,000 represent Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. They are the ones who will hold fast to the true faith, despite pressure to abandon or dilute that faith (Here is a good brief article by Kevin DeYoung, at The Gospel Coalition, in less than 500 words, describing the main points behind this view).

Non-Literal Does Not Necessarily Mean Not-Real

One more thing to consider here: Yes, there are good reasons why more literal minded scholars follow a more literal interpretation of the 144,000. A good, solid rule of Bible interpretation is this: Unless you find compelling reasons otherwise, you should always stick with a literal interpretation of Scripture, rather than a non-literal one.

However, it would be wrong to dismiss a non-literal reading, only based on the premise that “non-literal” somehow means “not real.” That simply is not true.

If it turns out that the 144,000 symbolically represents the Jewish Christians that fled Jerusalem before the great destruction of the Temple, this does not make the events foretold any less “real.” Jewish Christians really fled the city prior to the destruction of the Temple. That is verifiable history.

If if turns out that the 144,000 really represents the church, particularly the church throughout the ages that remains faithful despite persecution, that does not make the events that happen any less “real.” Christians have really been faithful throughout the history of the church, as a result of God’s faithfulness, despite the difficulties of persecution. God has really preserved a faithful remnant of believers in every age.

So, then. What is the correct way to interpret the meaning of the 144,000? Take your time, search the Scriptures for yourself, examine all of the evidence, and come to your own conclusion.

If you do your study, and you still are not sure, then, relax. God has it all figured out. We can therefore trust that God will show us the correct understanding of things in His timing.

Conclusions: Read the Book of Revelation with Some Humility

My point in laying all of this out is not to confuse the reader of the Book of Revelation. Admittedly, it can be difficult to sort out the “right way” to interpret Revelation, versus the “wrong way.” However, we can easily dismiss some of the more strange views of the 144,000, like what it is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But there are some basic concepts and principles that we can all use when reading the last book of the New Testament.

Conclusion #1: The reader should possess a little humility when trying to understand one of the most difficult books of the Bible to interpret. Bible scholars have been debating the exact meaning of the 144,000 for hundreds of years. One day, the answer will become crystal clear, but those of us living on this earth will probably not find out for sure, in this present age. It is highly doubtful that any one person today will suddenly discover the “true” meaning of the 144,000 that will convince everyone else. If you feel like you must be the one to completely figure it out for the rest of us, then knock yourself out. More power to you. Good luck with that. Let me know how well that works out for you.

Steve Gregg, Bible teacher at the Narrow Path Ministries, and author of Revelation: Four Views.

Conclusion #2: It is worth taking the time to try to understand why faithful, God-honoring students of the Bible, from diverse backgrounds, come to different conclusions, in how they interpret Revelation. You might learn something. Sometimes, the study of Revelation can become a battleground in churches. But a more charitable way of approaching Revelation would be to learn to better understand why another Christian, who loves Jesus just as much as you do, might see something a bit differently in Revelation.

Furthermore, there is at least one concept that believers should reject when it comes to understanding the Book of Revelation. Even the most responsible futurist interpreters of Revelation will agree with this. Revelation is not about unlocking the secrets events of the future, where all you have to do is find some “magic decoder ring” to get an exact timetable for the coming of the Antichrist. Many of our answers to questions about Revelation will only be known in hindsight. Conclusion #3: There is an element of mystery to a difficult text, like Revelation, and that, oddly enough, is a good thing.

This should not discourage the student of Revelation in their studies. Learning to appreciate why others read Revelation differently might just help you to refine your own understanding of the Book of Revelation. You might even discover, as I have been learning, that Revelation is deeper and richer in meaning, more than I have ever realized before.

As for me, the verdict is still out. The futurism that I learned as a young Christian has some good points to make, and I am still open to it, but I no longer think that the case for futurism is a “slam dunk.” I do not mind duct tape on my soccer cleats, but I am not so sure how well it works on the Bible.

If there are principles that can be used when reading Revelation, what then, can we say, does Revelation actually teach? Thankfully, there are some relatively straight forward teachings that we can all take away from Revelation. As I showed in a previous, introductory post on Revelation, the book teaches us two main ideas, that everyone can agree upon, plus one final idea that is worth adding:

  • First, Revelation helps us to understand what it is like to live under the threat of persecution. When we find that our faith is under pressure, reading Revelation is meant to encourage us. When the forces of darkness bear down against us, we can go to Revelation to give us a message of comfort and hope.

 

  • Secondly, the Book of Revelation illuminates God’s grand, long-term biblical design for redeeming the world. Revelation is filled with allusions to the Old Testament. Studying Revelation shows us how the themes of the Old Testament are woven throughout the whole Bible. Revelation is more about getting the “big picture” of God’s working in history, than in pandering to the latest “End Times” fantasies.

 

  • Thirdly, the Book of Revelation, as with the rest of the Bible, was not written TO us, but rather, FOR us. In other words, while there is much that we can gain from reading Revelation, that is applicable for us, it was originally written to an audience in the first century, among Greek speaking Christians living around the Mediterranean Sea. To view Revelation completely as a book that only describes events that would happen, 2000+ years after the original readers would read this, makes the book completely irrelevant to those original readers. Once we begin to appreciate how Revelation might have been received 2000 years ago helps us to better understand the message the book has for us today. Read some of the short essays written by Brandon D. Smith, a young scholar who works with the Christian Standard Bible translation, to explore what this means.

 

Hopefully, this case study in how to understand the Book of Revelation has this one final lesson to teach us, that bears repeating again: Humility is a really good attitude and characteristic to have when studying the Bible.

 

Notes:

A helpful book plug…. if you made it through this (quite lengthy) blog post, but still want more information, I have book to recommend to you..

Steve Gregg’s Revelation: Four Views commentary is something I always recommend on the topic of studying the Book of Revelation. Gregg’s book is geared towards the lay person, it stays away from being too technical, and it is fair and balanced in covering the different viewpoints. If I were to teach a Bible study on Revelation, this would be the textbook I would use, in addition to the Bible itself.

I could easily give someone a detailed list of the best academic commentaries available, as has been ably done by The Gospel Coalition’s Sam Storms, but my sense is that all of the references to Jewish apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple period, and first century Greco-Roman texts, would probably only overwhelm the reader. Steve Gregg’s book, on the other hand, is so refreshing in how he gets to the heart of things with Revelation, without getting people bogged down in rabbit trails that simply lose people, by putting things right there on the bottom shelf. If you are seriously interested in studying Revelation, but you do not want to spend hundreds of dollars in commentaries, written within narrow perspectives, save yourself some money, precious time, and mental confusion by picking up a copy of Steve Gregg’s book.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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