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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. Continue reading


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