Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. Revelation 7:2 – 4 (NIV)
When we consider the 144, 000 servants of God, there are two primary identifications.
They are literally Jewish Christians
The primary reasons for taking this passage at face value fall under the the lexical argument:
- The passage states that the 144, 000 come out of Israel… they are a remnant chosen out of the totality of Israel.
- The normal usage of the term “Israel” in the New Testament always refers to the physical or literal descendents of Jacob. References to a “spiritual Israel” are few and disputed.
- Reference to twelve tribes naturally refer to historic Israel and this group would literally fulfill Paul’s words concerning “all Israel” in Romans 11. It seems a bit “over the top” to divide the number into tribes and name them, if the idea is simply to communicate the notion of “completeness” through this symbolic group (see below).
John is using symbolic language to communicate the complete number of God’s people
- Paul himself made a distinction between the true, spiritual Jew and the physical descendants of Abraham (Romans 2:28-29; 9:8) and John also makes this distinction in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).
- Promises to the victors in the seven churches of Asia are fulfillments of OT promises given to Israel and the Jews in Philadelphia are cast in the same light as the pagan nations that Israel would subdue (3:9 cross Isaiah 60:14, 45:14, 49:23).
- In Revelation 21:9-12, the believers are called the “bride, the wife of the Lamb and identified with the New Jerusalem — on its twelve gates are inscribed the “names of the twelve tribes of Israel.”
- The followers of Christ are identified as “Abraham’s seed” (Galatians 3:29), as “the true circumcision” (Philippians 3:3) and as the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16, but this is disputed)… James addresses his epistle to the “12 tribes scattered” and Peter addresses his letters to the diaspora.
- Peter also describes the church (Jew and Gentile) as a “holy priesthood,” “chosen people,” “a royal priesthood” and a “holy nation”.
Under these two headings, commentators diverge into some very different identifications of who, what, where and when the 144, 000 are sealed. I will survey my stack of commentaries, identify some of these opinions and, then, conclude with the bottom line; God’s faithfulness to His people
Literal Jewish Christians
- The prevailing dispensationalist understanding of this group is that the Church was raptured in Chapter 4 of Revelation, that this passage is to be taken literally, that these are ethnic Jewish Christians, taken from tribal Israel, who are evangelizing during the seven year tribulation. Though there may be slight differences, this would be the understanding of John Walvoord, Robert L. Thomas, Hal Lindsey, J. Vernon McGee, Arno Gaebelein, Charles Ryrie, Donald Barnhouse and J.A. Seiss.
- Walter Scott takes the 144, 000 as literal Jewish believers, sealed to participate in the millennial reign of Christ.
- Matthew Henry, though a historicist, sees the 144, 000 as literal Jews, believing in Christ, preserved through the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.
- Preterists generally think these are Jewish Christians, sealed for deliverance from the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 A.D. I think they would say the number indicates completeness (symbolic), but nevertheless a “remnant of Israel through the tribulation.” Perhaps this is one of the few places the preterist agrees with the dispensationalist, the difference being that one sees the tribulation at the beginning, the other at the end. A variant of this idea would be David Chilton, who sees them as an army of believers in the first century (more on that in a later post).
The Complete Number of God’s People
- Albert Barnes, the historicist, sees this number as symbolic of “the Israel of God,” preserved through the time of the Roman empire.
- Preterists and idealists often see the 144, 000 (12, 000 X 12) as symbolic of completeness.
- Futurists such as George Eldon Ladd, Robert Mounce and Alan F. Johnson would view this as a symbolic number representing the complete number of Christians, both Jewish and Gentile, sealed to endure the great tribulation.
- James Ramsey, a postmillennialist, sees the 144, 000 as Mounce and Ladd, yet preserved throughout history.
As of this week, I throw my hat in with Ladd, Mounce and Johnson, citing many of the reasons under the heading above, “John is using symbolic language to communicate the complete number of God’s people,” yet I would put a lot of weight on the notion of completeness of God’s people, communicated through the number 12. For example, 12 tribes, 12 apostles, “a woman… with twelve stars on her head, [New Jerusalem, the bride]…high wall with twelve gates… twelve angels at the gates… On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel… The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb… The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl… On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” In the end, God resolves everything completely and brings the complete number of His people (the New Jerusalem, the Bride) to complete glory.
The bottom line for the 144, 000, whoever they are, is that God will preserve His people through whatever trials they face, whenever they face them. That would be encouraging to the believers in the seven churches, throughout time or through a future tribulation, the great one.
But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life. Luke 21:14 – 19 (NIV)