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In Revelation 7:4-8, John hears the number of those sealed: 144,000 from the tribes of Israel (with Dan notably missing, but Manasseh rounding out the twelve). The same(?) 144,000 also appear with the Lamb on Mount Zion in 14:1-5, where they are described as firstfruits. Who are these 144,000 people who are sealed? I've considered a couple options:

  • Being "firstfruits" they represent a group of special Christians who have kept themselves especially righteous.

  • Being from Israel, they represent the number of Israelites according to the flesh who are also Israelites according to God's Spirit.

  • Owing in parallel to a hearing/seeing theme with 5:5-6, the 144,000 from Israel in 7:4-8 might be the same as the uncountable multitude from every tribe in 7:9.

I'm not fully convinced by any of these, though. I realize Revelation is a difficult book to interpret, but I'm looking for any thoughts that might help.

  • I believe they are indeed the same group of people mentioned in both Rev7 and Rev14. In Revelation 7 They are sealed before the wrath of God (first four angles of Rev16) In Revelation 14 we see they stand on Mount Zion, they get to go back to Jerusalem due to the fall of Babylon, as the antichrist's 42 month rule is over (which happens just before the wrath) They are thus in Jerusalem during the feast of Firstfruits, after the Great Tribulation and Believe and say Jesus is Lord (Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.) – Marinus Jul 13 '16 at 14:19
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First we must lay out two basic interpretive principles. Then I will list the meaning of the 144,000 (Revelation 7:4-8; 14:1-5) for each of the four main Christian interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation.

Interpretive Principles

First we must decide if the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7:4-8 are the same as those in 14:1-5, or if they refer to separate groups. Early Christians such as Origen understood these to be the same, but some dispensational theologians do not believe that this is the case.

We then have essentially two interpretive choices remaining: to interpret the number symbolically or literally. Assuming both Revelation 7 and 14 refer to the same group, they are either literally 12,000 Jewish male virgins from each tribe or they are symbolically the people of God. There are good arguments on both sides of the fence, but we must be consistent with the approach chosen. For instance, a literalist who believes both Revelation 7 and 14 refer to the same people should not take the number 144,000 literally without also taking the ethnicity, gender, and celibacy of these individuals literally as well.

Four Main Perspectives

All of these approaches are inherently symbolic except for the futurist approach, which is literal (although some futurists also believe the number to be symbolic).

Historicists associate the 144,000 with the Church. They believe the number is symbolic and indicates the totality of the Church.

Preterists believe that 144,000 is a symbolic number of Jewish Christians who escaped the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Futurists claim that the 144,000 are either a remnant of the Jewish people (literal) or the last generation of Christians alive during the Tribulation (symbolic).

Idealists consider the 144,000 to be a symbolic number representing all God's people throughout all history under the old and new covenants (i.e. spiritual Israel).

Sources

Origen, "Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John", trans. Allan Menzies In, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IX: The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement (Complete Text), Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I-X, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, II, and X-XIV, ed. Allan Menzies (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1897), 297-98. The relevant sections referenced in this answer can be read for free online here and here.

John D. Barry, Michael R. Grigoni, Michael S. Heiser et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

For a detailed report on how this has been interpreted in Church history see this great article.

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  • Nicely done and thanks for all the sources! It's nice to have a summary of the various viewpoints. Since I tend toward Preterism, it's easy to look up what other Preterists believe. Or, since I tend to see the 144,000 as representing God's people in general, I can see which framework(s) agree with that. This is a model answer. – Jon Ericson Jan 9 '13 at 19:45
  • @Dan I believe the OP indicated that the poster was aware that there were different theories but found none compelling. I don't see where you resolved the poster's question. Or are you saying that it depends on your tradition? – user10231 Oct 29 '15 at 3:49
  • @WoundedEgo the latter – Dan Oct 29 '15 at 12:07
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I take the 144,000 to be certainly a symbolic number. A perfect amount of 12,000 people from anything, and that twelves times over, can't under any rational system be literally 144,000 people regardless of the prophetic situation, current, past or future.

The question then is what does it mean as a symbol surrounding the Lord? Naturally the twelve tribes represent the church of God, with respect to the people of Israel and 1000 indicates a full large extension of the meaning it multiplies. Therefore there are only two competing interpretations in my own mind, one which I prefer.

The first possibility, is that they represent the entire invisible church, from the beginning of days until the end (or if one interprets this vision not to encompass all of time, then the church during that time one envisions). Under this possibility, the great multitude are the same, but as seen by John in its more literal sense following right after.

The second possibility is that they represent the Jewish part of all the believers in Messiah and the great multitude represent is the rest of the elect, so that both images combined represent the entire church under all ages (or whatever age one thinks this prophecy speaks of).

My personal view is that the 144,000 represent Jewish believers only, From Abraham until the final judgment. I believe this distinction is made not that the Jewish believer is superior to the Gentile, but because:

...the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. (Romans 1:16, NIV)

I guess that falls in line with your middle bullet. As I understand it all of these believers, Jew and Gentile were sealed from eternity in their election and represented by a definite number for an indefinite. Therefore, I see no difficulty clamping down on this interpretation with a certain amount of confidence. If I took a narrower scope of this vision, for example, only during the destruction of Jerusalem, or only at some future time near the end of the world, I would still hold the same position from the symbolism employed.

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An interesting question. I have also asked my RE teacher about this last year. This answer combines what he said, what the comments in my edition of the Bible say and some personal opinion.

From the comments in the Universal Translation of the Bible to German:

(ad 7:4-17) There are twelve tribes of Israel, thousand is the number of multitude. The number 144,000 is twelve times twelve times thousand and symbolizes all the people who will be saved. The "sealing" means God knows their number in advance. In verse 9, the saved people are explicitly called an uncountable group of people (compare Daniel 12:1, Mark 13:10).

So, the 144,000 are not to be taken literal, but mean that many people from the twelve tribes of Israel will be saved. The "uncountable multitude" (I have translated it more literally in the citation of the comment) means that not only Jews, but righteous people from any "tribe" will be saved.

The commented Bible edition quoted here is the one handed out in Austrian schools and was created by the Roman Catholic and the Protestant chruches.

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Andrew of Caesarea, who authored the oldest complete commentary on the Apocalypse in existence (originally written in Greek), maintained that the number was entirely symbolic and related to the number of the Apostles:

The precise equality of the numbers of those saved from each tribe, it seems to me, indicates the fruitfulness of apostolic seed, because the number twelve taken twelve times and multiplied by a thousand gives the number indicated here, for they were the disciples of the seed which fell on the ground and brought forth the multiple fruits of universal salvation.

Commentary on the Apocalypse

Translator and editor Dr. Eugenia Constantinou comments:

Andrew recognizes that not only are the names of the tribes entirely symbolic, representing spiritual qualities of those who will be saved, but likewise also, the number of those saved is entirely symbolic, the number representing the fullness and perfection as a result of the apostolic preaching. It was a well-recognized principle in patristic interpretation that twelve times twelve (144) symbolized the fullness of those who are saved from among the Old and the New Israel, that the number 1000 was symbolic of a large number of people, and that this was not intended to be understood as a precise number. Origen begins his entire commentary on the Gospel of John with an explanation of the meaning of the number 144,000. Those who comprise the true twelve tribes are the spiritual Israel, the believers. (Comm. on John, 1.1)

With respect to the second mention of 144,000 in 14:1, Andrew allows the same interpretation ("the fruitful abundance of the apostolic seed of grace") or is related to those who are "virgins of the New Testament according to both the inner [Eph 3:16, Rom 7:22] and outer [2 Cor 4:16] person. Here, Dr. Constantinou elaborates:

Andrew recognizes that the number 144,000 is symbolic and attempts to explain it. The 144,000 mentioned earlier (Rev. 7:4-8) were those who were "sealed," whom Andrew interpreted to be all those saved from the Old and New Israel, represented on the thrones by the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament and the twelve Apostles oft he New. However, here the group is identified as 144,000 virgins (v. 4). Andrew again accepts that the number is symbolic, but nonetheless because it is a large number he cannot apply the same rationale to this group, (that an equal number of virgins will come out of both the Old and New Israel), noting that virginity was uncommon among the people of Israel. Therefore, the twelve times twelve must signify either the perfection of the apostolic teaching, or those who are virgins both inwardly and outwardly (i.e., spiritually and physically).

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This post is the logical continuation of this post.

In the Hebrew Bible, the faithful remnant were a subset of Jews. Please click here. That is, while all Israelites were the biological descendants of Abraham, they were not all sons of the Promise by faith like Abraham. The Apostle Paul specifically mentions the faithful remnant of Israel in Romans 9:27, which started with the cadre of faithful Jews at Pentecost.

When Pentecost occurred, this entire faithful remnant of Israel at that time passed from the Old Covenant and into the New Covenant. (According to Matthew 24:6 in partial fulfillment of Ezekiel 37:12-14, some of the faithful remnant who had died actually rose from the dead in order to participate in Pentecost.) The faithful remnant, again, are those Jews whose faith was in the Promised Seed (Jesus Christ), and of course all unbelieving Jews were cut off from the New Covenant. Please click here. Shortly after Pentecost the Gentiles were added (or grafted) into the “olive tree,” which Paul discusses in Romans 11:11-24. Please click here.

At a certain point in the future, when apostasy will characterize the professing Body of Christ (1 Tim 4:1-5; 2 Tim 3:1-5; and 1 Thess 2:3), the Gentiles will be broken off (Romans 11:22 and Romans 11:25). What that means is that the time of baptizing believers into the Body of Christ has come to an end. What faithful remnant among Gentiles and Jews on the earth at that time will be removed (1 Thess 4:15-17). Please click here.

Thus, from that point forward, the New Covenant will be the exclusive prerogative of Israel as was promised in the Hebrew Bible. But there is a problem. There are no believers on the earth, since what faithful remnant remained was taken away (or raptured). Thus the Lord will call 144,000 Jews (who are biological descendants of Abraham) to be his faithful remnant on earth, and they will be the ones through whose ministry peoples of the earth will be able to participate in the New Covenant, which will vie with the pseudo New Covenant, operating by the pseudo Antichrist. Please click here. The 144,000 will be witnesses of the true New Covenant to the world, but believers will not be conjoined into mystical union with the Body of Christ until later (discussed below).

Please note that these 144,000 are sealed so that they will not be killed by the divine judgments to occur on earth (see Rev 7:3 and compare with Rev 7:16 for those believers who are not sealed). In Rev 14:1 the mark of the 144,000 is in contradistinction to the mark of the Antichrist in Rev 13:18. Thus the mark (seal) of the Antichrist is his false “New Covenant” written on the heart and mind, and the mark (seal) of the 144,000 is the New Covenant of the Lamb (also written on the heart and mind per Jeremiah 31:33 when compared with Hebrews 8:10)... So the gospel message of the 144,000 will be no different than it is today. The only difference will be that believers will become part of the faithful remnant of Israel and not members in mystical union with the Body of Christ until the marriage [supper] of the Lamb.

The passages in the Christian New Testament that alluded to the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt 24 and Luke 21) will now find complete fulfillment for these believers (living in Israel) in the future. That is, they will be saved if they persevere (and they must reject the false “New Covenant” of the pseudo- or anti-Christ of the future). In addition, at this time the Antichrist will consummate the abomination of desecration of the future temple, which the Apostle Paul allude in 2 Thess 2:4. Please click here to see the "timeline." This desecration will silence heaven for one-half hour, and mark the time of the Great Tribulation. Please click here.

Thus the unfulfilled predictive prophecies in the post-exilic prophets (such as Joel, Zechariah, et al.) will come into focus because now we are talking about “Israel” and the faithful remnant again, which will be purged in the Day of the Lord that starts (in "darkness") and will end with the glorious appearing of the Lord (in "light"). This is the same Day of the Lord (starts at night and ends in light), which Peter had expected at Pentecost, but which did not occur on the entire earth because of the intervention of the mystery. Please click here to review that narrative and background.

After the Second Advent, the faithful remnant will be saved (which will comprise every tongue, tribe, and nation according to Rev 7:9); these believers (along with the entire pre-Pentecost faithful remnant) will become members of the Body of Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb, when all faithful from all ages will become “one flesh” (or married) into mystical union with the Body of Christ.

Thus the 144,000 are actual biological descendants of Abraham, who will witness to Jews and Gentiles in the end times concerning the true New Covenant.

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  • (+1) Thanks for your thoughts. Additionally, the 144,000 are just like Jesus, himself: they are the firstfruits unto God (not the only fruits, though), they have not known women (Rev 14:4), and no guile is found in their mouths (Rev 14:5). The Father's name is written in their foreheads (Rev 14:1), which distinguishes them as separate from all others, able to behold the face of God and reign over the nations (the other fruits harvested from creation) with Jesus for ever and ever (Rev 22:1-5) – enegue Dec 25 '16 at 0:45
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The 144,000 Sealed in the Apocalypse are Converts to Christ from the Gentile World.

Origen's Commentary on the Gospel of John — Origen

These, then, who are sealed on their foreheads [4458] from every tribe of the children of Israel, are a hundred and forty-four thousand in number; and these hundred and forty-four thousand are afterwards said in John to have the name of the Lamb and of His Father written on their foreheads, and to be virgins, not having defiled themselves with women. What else could the seal be which is on their foreheads but the name of the Lamb and the name of His Father? In both passages their foreheads are said to have the seal; in one the seal is spoken of, in the other it appears to contain the letters forming the name of the Lamb, and the name of His Father. Now, these taken from the tribes are, as we showed before, the same persons as the virgins. But the number of believers is small who belong to Israel according to the flesh; one might venture to assert that they would not nearly make up the number of a hundred and forty-four thousand. It is clear, therefore, that the hundred and forty-four thousand who have not defiled themselves with women must be made up of those who have come to the divine word out of the Gentile world. In this way the truth of the statement may be upheld that the first fruits of each tribe are its virgins. For the passage goes on: "These were brought from among men to be a first fruits to God and to the Lamb; and in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without blemish." The statement about the hundred and forty-four thousand no doubt admits of mystical interpretation; but it is unnecessary at this point, and would divert us from our purpose, to compare with it those passages of the prophets in which the same lesson is taught regarding those who are called from among the Gentiles.

The above is from Church Father, Origen Adamantius "Man of Steel"

"Elijah shall first come to seal the beloved ones." Source: Commodianus 240 A.D, ANF 2:411

In other words, the 144,000 will be empowered by Elijah's mantle and spirit. 144,000 is a metaphorical number, there will be much more than 144,000. Their minds are sealed with the ALEPH-TAV or the fullness of the nature of God.

12 x 12 = 144, a perfect square speaks of the New Jerusalem's or Holy of Holies spiritual dimension. The number 12 is symbolic of the foundations and gates of the Kingdom of Heaven structure.

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