THE 144,000 IN REVELATION

PMW 2019-080 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

I have been giving a brief survey of Revelation beginning in Rev. 4. Now we must note that as the wrath of the Lamb against the Jews builds, we will witness a surprising pause in the horrifying drama. Four angels hold back the wind from “the land,” i.e., Israel (Rev. 7:1-3). This act is symbolic imagery, relating what Robert Thomas calls (at another place) “picturesque apocalyptic.” The angels are not holding back literal winds, but the winds of destruction (cp. Jer. 49:36-37; 51:1-2). The first six seals represent the early stage of the Jewish War wherein Vespasian fights his way through Galilee toward Jerusalem. But before he has an opportunity to besiege Jerusalem the action pauses as these angels seal the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:3).

The number 144,000, as most commentators agree, is surely symbolic. In fact, in Revelation perfectly rounded thousands all appear to be symbolic. Ten is the number of quantitative perfection, and one thousand is the cube of ten. Frequently Scripture uses 1000 as a symbolic value, not expressing a literal enumeration (e.g., Ex. 20:6; Deut. 1:11; 7:9; 32:30; Josh. 23:10; Job 9:3; Ps. 50:10; 84:10; 90:4; 105:8; Eccl. 7:28; Isa. 7:23; 30:17; 60:22; 2 Pet. 3:8). Furthermore, in this highly symbolic book we should note that exactly 12,000 people come from each one of the twelve tribes.

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But what does the number symbolize? And who are these people? What is the significance of this episode?

To properly assess these questions we must keep in mind the following facts: (1) The events are occurring in the first century, as John so clearly demands (Rev. 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10). (2) The judgments are falling upon Israel and moving toward Jerusalem. (3) Apostolic Christianity tends to focus on Jerusalem (Acts 1:4; 1:8; 18:21; 20:16; 24:11 ). (4) John considers non-Christian Jews as only “so-called Jews” and members of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9; cp. John 8:31-47).

Therefore, these “servants of God” from the “twelve tribes of Israel” (Rev. 7:4-8) are racial Jews who accept the Lamb of God (Rev. 5:1) for salvation (they later appear with him on Mount Zion, Rev. 14:1-5). When we compare their specifically defined number (144,000) to the “great multitude that no one could count” (Rev. 7:9), it is relatively small. But they are a perfect number, especially loved of God, and belonging to him (they are true Jews, the remnant, Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6, 27; 11:5). Thus, he places his (spiritual) seal upon them (v. 3, cp. 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Tim. 2:19). In a sense, their sealing is the answer to the question: “Who can stand?” (Rev. 6:17). The answer: only those God protects — precisely as per the Old Testament backdrop (Ezek. 9:4-9).

So before the Jewish War reaches and overwhelms Jerusalem, God providentially causes a brief cessation of hostilities allowing the Jewish Christians in Judea to escape (as Jesus urges in Matt. 24:16-22). This happens when the emperor Nero commits suicide (A.D. 68), causing the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus to cease operations and withdraw for a year due to the turmoil in Rome. We know from the church fathers Eusebius and Epiphanius that Christians flee to Pella before the war overwhelms Jerusalem (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:5:3; Epiphanius, Heresies 29:7).

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