In Rev. 7:4 we have the following: “And I heard the number of them that were sealed, a hundred and forty and four thousand.” To be “sealed” is a figure for their conversion to Christ, since Paul plainly said that Christians (members of the church of Christ) have been “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,” (Eph. 1:13). Like many other things in the Revelation, the “sealing” is not literal, as in a literal mark or physical brand of some type. It is an actual, profound truth, presented in symbolic language.
But the question of who these 144,000 are has spawned numerous speculations, extending to the very far-fetched. One of the most common mistakes is to view the 144,000 as a literal number of Jews, since the verse says they are “sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel.” But there are a number of problems with this approach.
First, as already noted, the book of Revelation is highly symbolic, filled with figurative language designed to encourage God’s people to remain faithful through the trials and tribulations of this life. It’s hard to see how a reference to an exact number of Jewish persons from ages past would accomplish that purpose, either in the first century or thereafter. The book was written to Christians, and they are blessed by reading it, (see Rev. 1:1-3).
Second, this does not appear to be a reference to literal Jews, since a couple of the tribes are missing. The tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted from this list. Were there none saved from these tribes? Further, inclusion of the tribe of “Joseph” here shows this is to be taken figuratively, since there never was such a literal tribe.
Third, if the list is referring to literal Jews, it would appear to teach that only Jews will be saved. But what about the patriarchs who lived prior to the 12 tribes? Men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not included in the twelve tribes, for they live many years earlier. Yet Jesus clearly taught that such men will be in “the kingdom of heaven,” (Mt. 8:11). Further, what about the gentiles? If the list refers only to literal Jews, gentiles have no hope of salvation. But again, Jesus taught otherwise, (cf. Mt. 8:11).
These objections, and others which could be cited, show the danger of misinterpreting the book of Revelation by placing literal constraints upon figurative language. The truth is, the number 144,000 represents a full and complete number-a number known only to God and not to man. It is the result of taking the number 12, squaring it and multiplying it a thousand-fold, (see a similar technique used by Jesus in answer to Peter’s question about how many times one should forgive, Mt. 18:21-22).
The 144,000 are identified as “servants of God,” (Rev. 7:3). Servants of God are described as followers of the Lamb in 7:9-17, referring to ALL of God’s people. There were people of God in the Patriarchal Age (such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the Mosaic Age (such as the faithful Israelites), and in this, the Christian age (members of the church of Jesus Christ).
It was appropriate to represent ALL of God’s people, including those of the Christian Age, by a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, since members of the church of Christ today are the true and only Israel of God. “And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise,” (Gal. 3:29). Paul actually refers to the church of Christ as “the Israel of God” in Gal. 6:16, (see also Phil 3:3; Rom. 2:28-29). This theme is fully developed throughout numerous passages in the New Testament, (cf. Rom. 9-11; 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:9-10 et al).
The vision of the 144,000 in Rev. 7:1-8 is amplified and further explained by the next vision in Rev. 7:9-17, which teaches the same thing. But in the second vision this group is referred to as “a great multitude, which no man could number,” (7:9). This helps explain the first vision. They mean the same thing, similar to Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows and the seven ears of grain, (Gen. 41:25). If we are to properly understand apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation, it is important not to get bogged down in literal images and numbers. Rather than trying to limit God to saving precisely 144,000 souls, we should look for the big picture. The meaning of these particular visions, and of the entire book of Revelation for that matter, is that those individuals who are on the side of Jesus Christ are going to ultimately win. Far from excluding anyone because they are not part of the “144,000,” these images encourage all of us to faithfully obey and follow Jesus Christ, through whom we will partake of the victory.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.