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From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called "Theological Primer." The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we look at the 144,000 in the book of Revelation.

RevelationThe 144,000 are not an ethnic Jewish remnant, and certainly not an Anointed Class of saints who became Jehovah's Witnesses before 1935. The 144,000 “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev. 7:4) represent the entire community of the redeemed. Let me give you several reasons for making this claim.

First, in chapter 13 we read that Satan seals all of his followers, so it makes sense that God would seal all of his people, not just the Jewish ones.

Second, the image of sealing comes from Ezekiel 9, where the seal on the forehead marks out two groups of people: idolaters and non-idolaters. It would seem that the sealing of the 144,000 makes a similar distinction based on who worships God, not who among the Jewish remnant worships God.

Third, the 144,000 are called the servants of our God (Rev. 7:3). There is no reason to make the 144,000 any more restricted than that. If you are a servant of the living God, you are one of the 144,000 mentioned here. In Revelation, the phrase "servants of God" always refers to all of God's redeemed people, not just an ethnic Jewish remnant (see 1:1; 2:20; 19:2; 19:5; 22:3).

Fourth, the 144,000 mentioned later in chapter 14 are those who have been "redeemed from the earth" and those who were "purchased from among men." This is generic, everybody kind of language. The 144,000 is a symbolic number of redeemed drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews. Besides, if the number is not symbolic, then what do we do with Revelation 14:4, which describes the 144,000 as those "who have not defiled themselves with women"? Are we to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men? It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is a symbolic number that is described as celibate men to highlight the group's moral purity and set-apartness for spiritual battle.

Fifth, the last reason for thinking that the 144,000 is the entire community of the redeemed is because of the highly stylized list of tribes in verses 5-8. The number itself is stylized. It's not to be taken literally. It's 12 x 12 x 1,000: 12 being the number of completion for God's people (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb) and 1,000 being a generic number suggesting a great multitude. So 144,000 is a way of saying all of God's people under the old and new covenant.

And then look at the list of the tribes. There are more than a dozen different arrangements of the 12 tribes in the Bible. This one is unique among all of those. Judah is listed first, because Jesus was from there as a lion of the tribe of Judah. All 12 of Jacob's sons are listed--including Levi, who usually wasn't because he didn't inherit any land--except for one. Manasseh, Joseph's son (Jacob's grandson), is listed in place of Dan. So why not Dan? Dan was probably left out in order to point to the purity of the redeemed church. From early in Israel's history, Dan was the center of idolatry for the kingdom (Judges 18:30-31). During the days of the divided kingdom, Dan was one of two centers for idolatry (1 Kings 12:28-30). And there is recorded in some non-biblical Jewish writings that the Jews thought the anti-Christ would come out of Dan based on Genesis 49:17.

The bottom line is that the number and the list and the order of the tribes are all stylized to depict the totality of God's pure and perfectly redeemed servants from all time over all the earth. That's what Revelation means by the 144,000.


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27 thoughts on “Theological Primer: The 144,000”

  1. Jim Korth says:

    Thank you for this, Kevin. Having been trained in dispensationalism I can say I did teach that during the tribulation, God would raise up 144,000 Jewish male virgin evangelists to preach the Gospel. Even though much of Revelation was symbolic, the numbers never were. I have since shifted from that position, but know many that still teach it. This is an excellent primer, and I look forward to your arrival in Charlotte!

  2. Curt Smith says:

    Great distillation of some key arguments for the symbolic use of 144,000.

  3. Rick Walton says:

    Hi Kevin, I’d love to hear your top 3 recommended commentary or resource to help think through revelation, as you are interpreting the Scripture? Thanks for your transparency and challenge…

  4. Colin Eakin says:

    Given this interpretation, I would be interested to know if you believe that the Millennial Kingdom to come (Rev. 20) is to fulfill God’s promises of an earthly kingdom for ethnic Israel, with Jesus ruling in bodily form in Jerusalem, and will last for one thousand literal years?

  5. William Lefranc says:

    As a preterist, I loved the symbolical interpretation that you gave to this passage. Most of the problems we have with Revelation is that we fail to find its historic background, what it meant to the fist century church and what did they believe John was saying.

    I wonder what else do you have to say about the book of Revelation.

  6. My observations on this post. First, to untrained eye it is very strange that the first point is about Satans seal. I believe it is more logical to assume that Satan copy God, rather than other way. Second, Revelation 14 does not talk about ” having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.” Similar to Ezekiel 9. Also Rev 7:4 very specific about 144k being children of Israel. Lastly, in 4th point the quoting of Scripture is rather loose. I can propose much more credible version of who are these 144k. Jewish male infants and toddlers killed during the times of Moses birth, and Herolds massacre. It is very strange that author invoking gematria in numerical symbolism, but chooses 5 points.

  7. Correction to the above: in the 3rd line, revelation 14 does talk about.. Please disregard not.

  8. Paul Douglass says:

    Interesting, that you would apply “tribes” in a broader, non-literal way. Such understanding is inconsistent w/ most of the NT (James 1:1, for example). I find it highly unlikely that the first century church, who received this book, and was not only born out of Judaism, but itself represented a mix of Jew and Gentile alike, would accept this broader interpretation, or understand it this way.

  9. neville briggs says:

    If we look carefully at the photo of the bible page accompanying this article, we can see that the
    text says ” the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place ”
    I have seen literature and presentations that try to get this book to reveal all sorts of things, but the book says it is to reveal Jesus Christ, not reveal the antichrist or reveal the projected history of 21st century international confrontation, but reveal Jesus Christ.
    The text says : things that must soon take place . If the scripture is God’s word and if words mean anything, then there are prophetic utterance in this book which can’t be about events 2000 years down the track, a future of 21 centuries is not “soon”.

    I think that Mr KDY’s interpretation of biblical numerology and symbolism fits the stated purpose of the book.

  10. Thomas says:

    Die ersten beiden Argumente sind keine wirklichen Argumente. Zum dritten Argument: nun ja, Vers 4 tut genau das. Würde man über V.8 hinauslesen, fiele schnell auf, dass die Bibel auch hier ganz wunderbar zwischen Israel und der Gemeinde unterscheidet. Welcher Logik stünde dahinter, erst symbolisch von den Heiden zu sprechen, und dann aber einen Vers weiter wörtlich? Nein, Johannes macht ganz klar, wen er meint.

  11. Thomas says:

    Am Ende läuft es wieder hierauf hinaus: geben wir die wörtliche Bedeutung auf, gibt es keine Möglichkeit zu wissen, was der Text bedeutet. Das wird letztlich in dem Text von Kevin deutlich, wenn er Formulierungen wie “it would seem” oder “it would make more sense” oder am Ende sogar “was probably left out” – das ist also letztlich rein spekulativ.

  12. Miss Marci Hunt says:

    The only response I have is to NevilleBriggs’ taking the word soon and saying that that means that none of Revelation can apply to today (or the future) because2,000 years is not “soon”. Soon is a relative term. To us, 2,000 years is not “soon”, but to an eternal God, 2,000 years is the blink of an eye. But to contradict your interpretation using the Bible, Revelation closes by Jesus saying “Behold, I am coming soon.” He hasn’t come yet, so if His coming is “soon” and Hr hasn’t come, then we must conclude that John writing that the things will happen “soon” does not mean soon by our definition. One thing I have learned in my study of the Bible – God’s soon and my soon are nowhere near the same.

  13. David Z says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the post.

    I had always felt interesting about this point –

    “Besides, if the number is not symbolic, then what do we do with Revelation 14:4, which describes the 144,000 as those “who have not defiled themselves with women”?”

    It sounded like married people are “out”…. funny?

  14. Rick Knight says:

    Kevin,

    Is there anywhere else in scripture where an actual number is symbolic?

  15. Thomas says:

    @Rick Knight, Good question, my experience is that people usually say it’s symbolic because elsewhere it’s symbolic. When you ask them the same question about that other verse, you will get the same answer. It’s, as far as I can judge that, a circular argument.

  16. Stephen Drake says:

    I like the post. The non-literal view makes sense because the tribe of Dan situation. At least for me. It seems highly unlikely that the Holy Spirit or John for that matter forgot an entire tribe. Maybe because it’s a symbol of complete redemption to the faithful? I think so. Well done.

  17. Byron Banks says:

    Kevin,
    Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this text. To your bottom line that “the number[s] . . .are all stylized to depict the totality of God’s servants from all time over all the earth” Greg Beale, whose idealism you seem to share, would take exception: “Our conclusion,” he says, ” [is] that the group of Rev 7:4-8 represents a remnant from the visible church” (The Book of Revelation, NIGCT, 423). In addition it seems strange that “since the whole system of OT symbolism is . . . pressed into service in the book [of Revelation] (Henry B. Swete, cxxxiiii) you approach this number’s interpretation with so little reference to the OT. The number 1,000, for instance, in scores of places there is the standard size of an important Israeli military unit–and you yourself mention the purpose of “set-apartness for spiritual battle.” Most importantly, with the source-critical work of F. D. Mazzaferri proving, as it seems to me, that Rev is classical prophecy in essence–even R. Bauckham concedes that this part of Mazzaferri’s thesis is valid–the view of the genre of Rev as apocalyptic, with its accompanying use of numbers seen as exclusively symbolic, is now thrown into reverse.
    No doubt we agree that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, is still coming to “judge and make war,” in a climactic victory that still mixes the spiritual and the physical (I think of Moses’ last battle of vengeance in Num 31). Meanwhile, it would be most helpful to the church’s faith and to the advance of the gospel, for teachers and pastors to tell us, in such a debated area, just what they think biblical prophecy itself really is and why. Thanks again.
    .

  18. Given that the verse literally says “And I heard the number of those who were sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand, sealed out of every trip of the sons of Israel:” and then goes on to name the tribes, I think it’s quite clear that the 144,000 are Jews. There’s no need to add all the complex symbolism and allegory when the text is perfectly understandable in its literal form (even if it fogs your hermeneutical lens that you came to the text with).

  19. Roy Thomas says:

    Romans 11.

  20. D Keyes says:

    While The Revelation is a struggle for just about everyone to interpret in a way that we can all agree, and I try to keep an open mind to others’ ideas because I don’t believe that I have it all nailed down, there is one point in this post with which I really struggle.
    If someone has an idea about something being allegorical or symbolic, there are times that I can accept (even if I don’t see it that way) that it COULD be just that. However… how could the reference in v.4 concerning the men being virgins & undefiled, be symbolic? If we take that as symbolic, can we stand firm in our argument against those who say the reference to Mary’s virginity simply meant she was a young woman? Perhaps my faith is too naive, but after 40+ years of reading the Bible and almost 30 years of preaching it since seminary, I just don’t know how you can translate the words in a way that is… symbolic. I believe if God’s Word says what it says on this matter, then if He wanted 144,000 or 144 million who were literally virgins, He could do that… couldn’t He?

  21. Luke Taylor says:

    If Revelation 7 actually was referring to ethnic Jews such as those in the modern state of Israel, what would the Bible have needed to say in order to convince you of this, to be more clear that it’s referring to literal Jewish people?

    That’s how you know Revelation 7 is referring to the Jews.

  22. Tim Brown says:

    …because when you don’t take scripture in it’s clearest sense and let it mean what it clearly says, you can call on “symbolism” and make it say whatever you wish.

    No. Thanks.

  23. Dirks says:

    My favorite explanation… (Beale, Stott, Wilcock, etc)
    They point out that John had just HEARD the (nonliteral) lion and turned to look at the lion but SAW the (nonliteral) lamb. That was probably an unexpected surprise to John.
    Both the lion and the lamb are two symbolic ways to describe the same person, each with a specific emphasis.
    Then the letter looks at the people of the lamb in the same way…
    After hearing the lion and seeing the lamb, he HEARD God had numbered those sealed. He turned to look at These sealed and he SAW a multitude from every tongue, tribe, and people that could not be counted. That was probably also a surprise to John. Not only can God count them while John cannot, but the group he heard is also the group he saw.

  24. Jeff says:

    Whether it is Rev 7 or Rom 9-11 or Zech 8 or many other passages, the interpretation starts with the eschatological POV. I have been a member in dispensational churches as well as covenantal and have listened to how scripture is interpreted. Those who hold to Replacement Theology (though many don’t call it that) as this author does (please correct me if I am wrong), have to make prophetic interpretation fit that view. Everything in the OT that refers to future Israel must be fulfilled in the church, which leads to a significant amount of allegorical imposition in the texts. While I appreciate that there is not a single end-times position that is without debate, turning massive amounts of prophecy into something that you would never get at a face-value reading is a scary road for me to go down.

    When it is all said and done, regardless of whether or not I hold the most accurate view of prophecy (which I am most certain I do not, though I don’t know how to determine who does!), I believe that the message of Revelation is to be prepared, to be an overcomer. We are to assume affliction and persecution and be ready for it. The notion that Christians will escape Satan’s wrath is naive and dangerous. We are promised to be spared the wrath that is to come, but that is explicitly talking about the wrath of God, which we are no longer subject to.

    I appreciate my amillennial and my dispensationalist ones….I fall into neither camp completely when it comes to interpreting Scripture, in fact oftentimes strongly disagreeing, but I love you all the same.

  25. Onethought4 says:

    The last comment is the truth! But where you got it was virgin men so way off base. For one boys men cannot be virgins enunchs but virgins they do not have a hymen!

  26. John Wecks says:

    First Reason Reply: This refers to the mark of the beast (13:16-17). God does not seal all his people with the same protection as the 144,000. G provides no protection for all saints because many are martyred during the Tribulation (Rev. 6:11), and Satan through Antichrist was allowed “to make war with the saints and overcome them” (13:7), and some saints will “die in the Lord” (14:13). The 144,000 are sovereignly protected by God and make it all the way through the Tribulation to appear “before the throne” in Jerusalem (14:3).
    Second Reason Reply: DeYoung misuses Ezekiel 9 in collapsing correlation that has no basis in either context. In addition, he says that the sealing of the 144,000 “makes a …. distinction based on who worships God,” but this eisegesis reads into the text where it says nothing about “who worships God” in connection with the 144,000.
    Third Reason Reply: There is every reason in the text to “make the 144,000 …more restricted than” servants of our God” — 12 tribes of Israel are listed to indicate more restriction on this group. In addition, they have “His names and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” (14:1) to further restrict this special group.
    Fourth Reason Reply: Yes we are to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men. It does not make “more sense” to spiritualize this to refer to the general moral purity of all the saints. What does not make good sense is that DeYoung has to assume his conclusion first, and then spiritualize the celibacy. It makes “more sense” to take the text as it reads.
    Fifth Reason Reply: DeYoung admits that he does not apply a literal hermeneutic. This is the error common to most Reformed theologians. DeYoung takes the number and does whatever he wants, and what he does might not agree with other Reformed theologians! DeYoung divides out the number so that he can insert the 12 apostles in it to get representatives from the “old and new covenant.” Wow. He would have been better served by leaving it as a general representative number.
    Bottom Line Reply: By DeYoung’s admission, God changes the order or names of the 12 tribes many times in the Bible. This fact does not necessarily support the conclusion that he assumes.

    Two scary facts emerge from this blog. 1) The normally healthy hermeneutics of Reformed theologians (like those found in The Gospel Coalition) are skewed to spiritualize the eschatological passages of the Bible. 2) The 144,000 are sealed and sovereignly protected by God and cannot die in the Tribulation. The fact that the Bible says that saints will die (Rev. 6:9-11) at the hands of Antichrist (the Beast, Rev. 13:7) during this time is assumed to be not true even though the Bible says it. This approach then denies the truth, and becomes a dangerous teaching.

  27. L says:

    The 144,000 are incarnate here now in pairs as a total 288,000. They are the way showers into the new earth. I am one of them

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Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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