The following is an excerpt from Graeme’s book: Gotta Serve Somebody – The Mystery of the Marks & 666
Chapter 12 – The 144,000
We now come to consider the 144,000 in Revelation 14 who, as mentioned earlier, bear the names of God and of Messiah on their foreheads:
And I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads.1
John hears them singing a unique song:
And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been
purchased from the earth.2
They also have some particular characteristics:
These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless.3
This is the second reference to this unique number of people because in Revelation 7, John saw them receiving ‘the seal of the living God… on their foreheads’.4 He adds:
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty four thousand sealed from every tribe of Israel…5
John then goes on to name twelve tribes of Israel but with two omitted.
There has been almost as much speculation about this company as there has been about the mark of the beast. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for their claim that it is being fulfilled by and among them:
[In 1904], the first president of the Watch Tower Society, Charles T. Russell, recognized the 144,000 to be a literal number of individuals making up a spiritual Israel… In 1930, the Watch Tower Society’s second president, J.F. Rutherford… stated: “The 144,000 members of the body of Christ are thus in the assembly shown as selected and anointed, or sealed”.6
Today the J.W.s number over 4 million and believe that there are only 144,000 ‘anointed Christians’ among them who will go to heaven while the rest of them will live as immortals on the earth.
Amongst orthodox Christians, Dispensationalism is a widely-held view of Scripture, popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible. In this view, the 144,000 are a literal number of Jewish-only evangelists, appointed during the Great Tribulation to take over the Great Commission from the mostly Gentile church which has been ‘raptured’ or snatched away off the earth. Its teachers include a number of high profile Messianic Jewish teachers such as Arnold Fruchtenbaum and Zola Levitt. Zola explains with typical Jewish humour:
Of course! Why do you think the Lord has given us the kind of personality that we have? …God has given us that kind of personality so that we can be the world’s greatest salesmen. And one day, during the Tribulation, 144,000 believing Jews are going to use those skills to convert a great host of Gentiles to Jesus. We are going to push people up against the wall and hold them by the throat until they say, ‘Jesus!’ Before the Tribulation is over, we are going to convert more people to Jesus than you Gentiles have done in the past 2,000 years!
Tim LaHaye of the Left Behind series agrees that the 144,000 in Revelation 7 are literally Jewish but argues that the 144,000 in Revelation 14 are Gentiles and Jews who have been converted during the literal seven years of the Tribulation.
So, what if we read the context literally?
And I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads…These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes….7
Are we to understand that John saw a literal lamb, literally standing on the literal hill in Jerusalem with literally 144,000 men with names literally written on their foreheads? That they will literally follow the literal lamb as it walks around? Would that not be incredibly crowded and awkward? Of course, no, no, and yes. This rest of this passage is indisputably metaphorical.
Others teach the number is also to be understood metaphorically by breaking it into all its factors. For example, Andrew Knowles:
God’s number is 3… The world’s number is 4… Twelve is for the the tribes of Israel (the ‘first people of God’ in the Old Testament) and for the apostles of Christ (the founders of the Christian church in the New Testament)…(God) x 4 (the world) = 12 (God’s work in the world), (Israel) x 12 (apostles) = 144 (God’s people, old and new).
Ten is a number of completeness or perfection – so 1,000 (10 x 10 x 10) is the ultimate full and satisfying number. The multitude of the faithful in heaven is numbered at 144,000. That’s (12 x 12) x (10 x 10 x 10) – the perfect number for a perfect people.8
In other words, the 144,000 are all the people of God. Craig Koester sees it similarly:
The redeemed, who are pictured as a group of 144,000, are the whole people of God, not merely one part of it.9
He had earlier explained from Revelation 7:
…this passage uses two different images for the same reality. The redeemed are identified as an assembly of 144,000 in 7:4-8 and as a “great multitude” in 7:9-17, but both refer to the same group.10
I believe there is a better way to understand all of this.
Seven Identifying Features
Since John and the entire leadership of the Early Church were either Jewish or taught by Jewish leaders, we can be sure they all knew their Jewish history. This means that when John’s original audience heard Revelation 14:1-5, they would have recognised at least seven identifying features by which they would have understood the 144,000. Accordingly, let us try and catch up with them before we go any further.
Firstly, how would the number 144,000 have sounded to them? Wonderfully reassuring! They would have immediately recognised that despite the emperor worship, the persecution, the martyrdoms and wild animals in the Roman circuses, despite everything, God was nevertheless building exponentially on His usual foundation of twelve.
(i) The Foundation of Twelve.
How would they have known that? Because in their Book of Numbers, God called for every Jewish man of fighting age to be numbered according to the names of their twelve founding fathers, the twelve sons of the man, Israel. Then, as followers of Jesus, they would have known what Jesus did at the beginning of His ministry, even if it took them a while to grasp the true significance of why:
And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach.11
The whole Early Church referred to these particular disciples as ‘the Twelve’. Their role and work was hugely significant: Jesus chose them to ‘be with Him’ so that ‘He could send them out to preach’. Accordingly, they were called ‘apostles’.12
So, how had that worked out? On the Day of Pentecost, the number of disciples who gathered in the upper room were ‘about one hundred and twenty’13 – they had multiplied tenfold. Tragically, one of the Twelve, Judas, had turned away and betrayed Jesus but Peter reminded them that God was not surprised by this:
“Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was counted [lit. numbered] among us and received his share in this ministry.”14
Peter then pointed out that this number had to be re-established, so they chose Matthias ‘and he was added to the eleven apostles’.15 In other words, they knew there had to be twelve. Later, when John had his vision of the nation of Israel, her origin is portrayed in the crown of twelve stars.16 He then sees the heavenly city whose twelve ‘pearly gates’ are named after ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’.17 As for its wall:
And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.18
There is no doubt the Early Church knew that God builds on a foundation of twelve. What then would they have thought about the number 144,000?
And I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads… These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.19
They would have remembered how Jesus began and therefore how He was continuing:
(a) Just as He had called the Twelve to ‘be with Him’, He was now calling 144,000 to be ‘with Him’, to ‘follow [Him] wherever He goes’ i.e. 12 multiplied by 12 multiplied by a thousand!
(b) He was not going to stop when the last of ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ died – they were actually the foundations on which He was building.20
So, who are the 144,000? Many years ago, I asked the Lord and I believe the Holy Spirit answered me. As this is my personal testimony, it is for everyone to judge for themselves if it is true or not. He told me to consider John’s natural predicament. I understood then, and still do, that John was an old man, probably in his late eighties or early nineties, the last survivor of the Twelve and in exile on the island of Patmos. What more natural question would any believer have had at that time regarding John than, “What will happen after he dies?”
The Lord’s answer reminds them of how He began with ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ – it was ‘so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach’21. Now in 95-96 A.D., as John, the last of the Twelve, comes to the end of his life and apostleship, Jesus multiplies the Twelve by twelve again and multiplies that by a thousand! He is not finishing with John – He is just beginning! And just as He had sent out the Twelve to preach the gospel of His Kingdom to Israel,22 He is about to send out tens of thousands of apostles to every other nation on the earth.
When the New Testament closes, we do not know how many of the multitudes of new disciples had become apostles but at least ten more are named, one of whom was a woman called Junia, and another two were unnamed. Others had been found to be false.23.
As for the 144,000 following Him ‘wherever He goes’, when Jesus rose from the dead, He was no longer confined to one geographical location. He is now our omnipresent Lord and King:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations… and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”24
“Behold, I am with you always.” This means that the Lamb can easily lead tens of thousands of apostles in tens of thousands of different directions at any one time. Consider, for example, how did China hear the gospel so dramatically after 1948? Mao Zedong came to power then, outlawing Christianity, expelling all the European apostles (those we today call ‘missionaries’) and persecuting about 3.3 million Catholics and 750,000 Protestants. There are now estimated to be 21 million Catholics and 84 million Protestants, almost 8% of the population!
How did that happen? Where did all these believers come from? From thousands of Chinese apostles going from house to house, city to city, preaching the gospel to them. And what did John see immediately following his two visions of the 144,000? In Revelation 7:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”25
Then in Revelation 14:
And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people.26
Over the last 2,000 years, the 144,000 have been very effective apostles/missionaries and they have had angelic help to reach ‘every nation and tribe and tongue and people’.
We see then that the first identifying feature of the 144,000 is its metaphorical meaning as found in the calling of the first twelve apostles ‘to be with’ Jesus and ‘to be sent out’ with His message of the kingdom.
(ii) ‘Standing on Mount Zion’
Today, we can easily mistake this second identifying feature as referring to a literal, geographical location, the hill in the city of Jerusalem.
To the 1st Century Jewish believers, however, this was instead one of their most treasured dreams coming true. Zion was just a hill until David captured it and then Zion became synonymous with his kingdom.27 John’s vision is confirming that Jesus is fulfilling all the ancient prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah of Zion’s restoration through the re-establishing of the royal house of David. This is why at the Jerusalem council, James the Lord’s brother quoted Amos 9:11-12 9, here in capitals:
“With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME’ ”28
To them, this restoration was on a different kind of Mount Zion, a metaphorical one:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels… and to Jesus…29
This ‘Mount Zion’ is ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ which means, as we just saw, that Jesus is no longer confined to one geographical location, as He was when He walked about the land of Israel. The 144,000 ‘standing on Mount Zion’ means that they are citizens of His kingdom and are therefore not confined to the earthly Jerusalem but can be anywhere on earth. Notice, John saw them in the first century, when it all started, and his vision ends with believers ‘from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues’ gathered around the throne, including those of us from the ‘farthest ends of the earth’.30 As shown in my book Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, we seem to be very close to that time now.31 The time of the 144,000 is therefore not during a 3.5 or 7 year tribulation but, like most of the Book of Revelation, throughout the last two thousand years.
(iii) Their Song
John hears them singing a unique song:
And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth.32
As strange as this may seem to us, it was a familiar concept to 1st Century Jewish believers because of at least three ancient songs of Israel, two by Moses and one by Deborah and Barak:
(a) The whole nation had sung the first Song of Moses by the Red Sea to celebrate God’s delivering them from Pharoah’s pursuing army.33
John refers to this song in Revelation 15 where he sees those killed for not worshipping the emperor now standing on another sea, celebrating their passing through death into the presence of God:
And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God. And they sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb…34
God had delivered Israel through the Passover Lamb and by opening and closing the Red Sea on Pharaoh’s army. In perfect symmetry, these martyrs are celebrating their salvation through the blood of Jesus and their passing through death to stand ‘on the sea of glass’, beyond all reach of their emperor-worshipping persecutors!
(b) The second Song of Moses were his last words to Israel.35
This song contained severe warnings of what would happen to Israel if and when they fell away but it finishes with an extraordinary promise:
“Rejoice, O nations [or, Gentiles], with His people;
For He will avenge the blood of His servants,
And will render vengeance on His adversaries,
And will atone for His land and His people.”36
Although the martyrs that John sees on the crystal sea have been killed for their faith, they are trusting in the timing of God and waiting for the Day of His justice.
(c) The third song was the Song of Deborah and Barak.37
This song of deliverance was to celebrate Israel’s miraculous victory at the River Kishon over the cruel regime of Jabin and his general, Sisera.38 The victory was initiated by Deborah and accomplished by Barak so they shared honours.
These three unique songs were war stories in musical form. They were, of course, not exclusive but the celebration of a shared experience and a thanksgiving for victory by all who were actually there. In the same way, the song of the 144,000 is their celebration for victories they have seen first-hand, one in which any of us can join if we too fight in the spiritual war.
(iv) ‘They Are Virgins’?
The King James Version of the fourth identifying feature of the 144,000 is literal and accurate but gives a wholly incorrect impression:
These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.39
This understanding has led to some bizarre speculation and conclusions over the centuries. Some assume it confirms the idea that sexual intercourse even within marriage is defiling so that God requires a celibate priesthood or ministry. J.B. Phillips translates this as, ‘who have never defiled themselves with women, for they are celibate’ (emphasis added).
What is again demonstrated here, as if we needed any more examples, is that we have to read it as it would have been read and heard, not by 3rd and 4th Century ascetics and monks but by 1st Century Jewish believers. They knew that those numbered by names in the Book of Numbers were the fighting men:
…every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel.40
We also need to know what every 1st Century Jewish man would know, that Israel’s warriors had a particular short-term holiness enjoined on them whenever they went out to war – immediately beforehand they were to separate themselves from the legitimate sexual pleasures of marriage. We see this in the conversation between David and Ahimelech the high priest when David sought food while on the run from Saul:
The priest answered David and said, “There is no ordinary bread on hand, but there is consecrated bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women”. And David answered the priest and said to him, “Surely women have been kept from us as previously when I set out and the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was an ordinary journey; how much more then today will their vessels be holy?”41
They were set apart for battle, just as Moses commanded:
“When you go out as an army against your enemies, you shall keep yourself from every evil thing. If there is among you any man who is unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he must go outside the camp; he may not reenter the camp.”42
This is why David was unable to tempt the faithful Uriah to sleep with his wife Bathsheba after David had made her pregnant – Uriah was still on duty.43 Many sportsmen today, especially boxers and footballers, abstain from sex before they compete. This is not for holiness as in ancient Israel but because of the belief that their reflexes will be faster or to increase their aggression. A thousand years later, the apostle Paul spelled out temporary celibacy for married couples as an aid to prayer, provided that it was consensual and only temporary:
The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband… Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.44
What then are we to make of Revelation 14:4a, that the 144,000 are ‘virgins’? The KJV is literally accurate because the Greek word John uses, parthenos, according to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the Bible, means:
“a mature young woman”. According to context, the stress may be on sex, age, or status. By a process of narrowing down, the more general sense yields to the more specific one of “virgin”, with a stress on freshness, or on physical or spiritual purity.
However, if we were to insist on a literal interpretation, should we not also insist on the 144,000 all being non-lesbian women? The NASB has retained the correct sense in translating the verse as metaphorical:
These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste.45
The NIV similarly has ‘kept themselves pure’ while Eugene Peterson’s The Message has them as ‘virgin-fresh before God’. Tom Wright therefore refers to them as the Lord’s ‘crack troops… elite warriors’:
It is because they are elite warriors that (strictly within the bounds of the symbolism John is using) he speaks of them as ‘celibate’ or ‘virgins’. Ancient Israel had a clear policy about going to war; if war was justified, war was also holy, and those who fought in it had to obey special rules of purity, including abstemption (for the time) from sexual relations… As usual, we need to be clear about the symbol and the reality to which it points.46
The point is the 144,000 are apostles/missionaries, spiritual fighting men and women, and they are spiritually battle ready whether married or unmarried. This is no more than was required of all of the 1st Century apostles – Peter was married47 as were ‘the rest of the apostles’ except Paul and Barnabas.48
Does this mean the number is limited to only those ordained or commissioned as apostles or missionaries? Not if the number is metaphorical. Paul was called as an apostle, ‘not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father’.49 I believe we may be very surprised when we finally find out who has been sent by Jesus.
(v) ‘First Fruits’
The fifth identifying characteristic is also very Jewish:
These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb.50
Again, while this may not mean much to us today in our urban, suburban, and secular environments, it was deeply significant to 1st Century Jewish believers. Every Jewish child grew up in the natural rhythm of the annual agricultural festivals, two of which were ‘first fruits’ celebrations. The first ritual of First Fruits was on the third day after the Passover51 and prefigured the resurrection of Jesus and, as prefigured by the ritual, ‘a handful’ of others:52
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.53
Its name celebrated the certainty that the rest of the fruit of the harvest was not far behind. Accordingly, Jesus being raised from the dead on the third day to fulfill ‘first fruits’ was wonderful evidence to every Jewish believer that one day God will raise all of us from the dead.
This first, third day ‘first fruits’ consisted entirely of barley, the earliest cereal to ripen in the first month of their agricultural year, in about the Northern Hemisphere’s mid-April. The second ‘first fruits’ ritual was on a day called the ‘Feast of the Harvest of the First Fruits’54 to differentiate it from the first ritual, counted off as seven weeks after the first so was also called the Feast of Weeks, and on exactly the fiftieth day after the first ritual so it was also called Pentecost, from the Greek, pente, or fifty.55 This was in their third month and came from the now-ripened wheat harvest. Both first fruits rituals heralded the ultimate in-gathering of the whole harvest, which included figs, grapes, pomegranates, dates and olives, in their seventh month:
You shall observe [in the third month] the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year [in the seventh month] when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field.56
The 144,000 being ‘first fruits’ therefore signified the harvest was about to start in earnest. This is how the 1st Century believers would have understood the outcome John saw in Revelation 7:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues. 57
And again, after the 144,000 in Revelation 14:
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a son of man, having a golden crown on His head and a sharp sickle in His hand. And another angel came out of the temple, crying out with a loud voice to Him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is ripe.”58
This harvesting of the earth and the consequent winnowing and threshing is perhaps the most common metaphor of Judgment Day in the Scriptures, being a major feature of John the Baptist’s message and Jesus’ parables.
Lastly, the entire 1st Century church was called first fruits by James the Lord’s brother:
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.59
Later in this letter, he completed the metaphor of the harvest:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.60
It is my belief, explained in Silencing the Witnesses,61 that a metaphorical ‘late’ or latter rain of the Spirit is beginning to fall on the land of Israel today. If so, the Lord’s coming is near.
(vi) ‘No Lie…’
The next characteristic may seem at first glance to not be particularly distinctive:
And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless.62
After all, this should be said of every Christian.63 However, it is also a particular requirement of every minister of the gospel that they not be ‘double-tongued’64 and ‘not malicious gossips.’65. They need to ‘obtain for themselves a high standing and great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus’.66 or, in other words, genuine credibility so that listeners can safely trust their message. Accordingly, this is particularly required of the 144,000 who have been sent out to preach the gospel.
(vii) Numbered, Sealed and Named
With the seventh, we come to the most obvious but also most difficult identifying feature of these 144,000 apostles. In Revelation 7, they are described as coming from ‘every tribe of Israel’:
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of Israel: from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.67
There is therefore a strong case for accepting the 144,000 as literal, Jewish-only believers. It would require at least 12,000 male individuals from each of these tribes to become followers of Jesus and accept the call to this unique work. Each of them would also need to be told by God to which tribe they belonged because most of Israel’s genealogical records were destroyed with the Temple in 70 A.D. so most Jews today have no attested tribal genealogy or identity, but God is God, so it is theoretically possible.
I believe, however, the case for a metaphorical interpretation is much stronger and, in the context of the Book of Revelation, more consistent. Moreover, to understand the metaphor, all that is required today is a bit more Jewish history, history which would have been well-known by John’s 1st Century listeners. It matters, for example, that although these tribes are named after the twelve sons of Jacob, or Israel as he became known, two are actually missing.
Before we look at the tribes, let us summarise the identifying features of the 144,000.
Summary of Their Identifying Features
The 144,000 can be understood as a literal or metaphorical number of literal or metaphorical Israelites:
(i) Jehovah’s Witnesses think it is the literal number of their adherents, whom they consider to be spiritual Israel.
(ii) Some, such as Dispensationalists, believe it is a literal number of literal Jewish evangelists who will appear some time soon.
(iii) Others believe the metaphorical number means all the people of God throughout the ages.
(iv) This study argues that it is a metaphorical number of apostles/missionaries who have been evangelising the world since the 1st Century. The Lord was never going to stop when the last of ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ died – they were actually the foundations on which He was building.68
Their identifying characteristics include:
(i) The similarity of their calling to the calling of the original twelve apostles of the Lamb who were to be with Him so that He could send them out.69John sees the Lord calling 144,000 to be with Him on Mt Zion and to follow Him wherever He goes as the omnipresent discipler of all the nations, i.e. 12 multiplied by 12 multiplied by a thousand.
(ii) Their standing with Jesus on Mt Zion reveals they are re-establishing the house of David, as James saw when he finally accepted that Gentiles can be in the Kingdom without becoming Jews.
(iii) Their unique song echoes the battle-songs of Israel, sung by the participants. This is particularly relevant in the light of the next characteristic.
(iv) They are not literally virgins but have instead kept themselves chaste just as Israel’s ancient soldiers did before battle. This was a temporary abstinence, not a permanent state for married soldiers, and signifies spiritual battle-preparedness in married apostles.
(v) They are ‘first fruits’ of the great harvest of the whole earth.
(vi) Their truthfulness ensures their credibility to the hearers, a particular requirement for ministers of the gospel.
(vii) Being numbered according to the name of a tribe was also a requirement of ancient Israel’s soldiers, hence for the frontline of the Kingdom of God throughout the last 2,000 years.
Missing in Action
As John listens, he hears that the tribes of Dan and Ephraim are not included but the half-tribe of Manasseh is.70 We may easily miss this today but for any 1st Century Jew, this would have never gone unnoticed.
The inclusion of Manasseh would not itself have been considered strange because, although there were always considered to be twelve tribes, at various times they were counted differently. When Israel first entered the land, the sons of Levi became the priestly tribe so they were to earn their living from the Temple and needed ‘no portion or inheritance’ of the land.71 However, Joseph received a double portion,72, one each to his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh,73 so the land was still apportioned twelve ways and Ephraim and Manasseh were often referred to as ‘half-tribes’.74
In John’s list, Joseph being included as a tribe75 therefore encompasses Ephraim and Manasseh, but Dan’s omission requires one to be differentiated again.
(i) Why Dan?
Why has Dan been replaced? For the same reason that Judas Iscariot was replaced by Matthias.
In all wars, there are appalling casualties and nowhere is that more evident than in spiritual warfare where there are the very different outcomes for each of the fallen: all who are killed for their faith in Jesus enter His presence as martyrs;76 those who seek to save their own lives by avoiding Jesus, worshipping the beast and receiving his mark will, tragically, lose their lives eternally.77
In all wars, there can also be very different outcomes for those who go missing in action. When the war is at last over, some may return to their families from prisoners of war camps, to great celebration and honour; others may be found to have perished and be mourned; others may be found to have been collaborating with the enemy.
In spiritual warfare throughout the ages, surely the most tragic of casualties are those who have been the Lord’s, even as leaders of His people, but then turned away and betrayed Him. Consider Judas Iscariot – from being counted one of the Twelve, potentially one of the most significant men in all of human history whose name could have been eternally on one of the foundation stones of New Jerusalem, his name is today a by-word for treachery. His place had to be taken by Matthias.78
In the same way, Dan’s place has been taken here by Manasseh. The tribe of Dan became a type, a metaphor, for those disgracing themselves, for those who have left ‘the holy nation’ by their own choices and often at great cost to others. We see this in Jacob’s prophecy:
Dan shall be a serpent in the way,
A horned snake in the path,
That bites the horse’s heels,
So that his rider falls backward.79
Five hundred years later, during the time of Deborah, the tribe of Dan refused to fight alongside all the other tribes80 despite being the second strongest tribe after Judah.81 Soon after, they captured Laish, the northernmost city in what became the land of Israel, renamed it Dan and, despite the Tabernacle being in Shiloh, set up their own shrine for worship of a graven image.82 Five hundred years later again, Dan hosted one of the two shrines to the golden calves which, just as Jacob predicted, caused many in Israel to stumble.83
(ii) Why Ephraim?
What then of the tribe of Ephraim? Why is Manasseh preferred in this list?
After the ten tribes split from following the house of David, they formed the northern kingdom called Israel but sometimes Ephraim after its leading tribe. Those remaining with David’s dynasty became the southern kingdom, called Judah after its leading tribe.84 To consolidate his position as the new king of Israel/Ephraim, Jeroboam set up his alternative worship system in Dan at the northern-most border and in Bethel, at the southern-most border of the land of Ephraim.85 Although Ephraim was rightly supposed to bear the name of Israel,86 the tribe’s leading in this idolatry brought dishonour to it:
“In the house of Israel I have seen a horrible thing;
Ephraim’s harlotry is there, Israel has defiled itself”87
We also see in the ‘dark sayings of old’ in Psalm 78 that Ephraim is used as a type of ‘a stubborn and rebellious generation’ when all following generations were warned to…:
…not be like their fathers,
A stubborn and rebellious generation,
A generation that did not prepare its heart
And whose spirit was not faithful to God.
The sons of Ephraim were archers equipped with bows,
Yet they turned back in the day of battle.
They did not keep the covenant of God
And refused to walk in His law;
They forgot His deeds
And His miracles that He had shown them.88
The NASB Study Bible comments on this psalm:
Neither the tribe of Ephraim nor the northern kingdom had a reputation for cowardice or ineffectiveness in battle – see e.g. Deut 33:17. This verse is best understood as a metaphor for Israel’s betrayal of God’s covenant, see Psa 78:10 related to the figure of the “treacherous bow” in Psa 78:57.
Accordingly, in this typological list of the spiritual warrior-apostles of the Lamb, the names of Dan and Ephraim are left out. This in turn signifies those Christian leaders, Jewish or Gentile, who, like Judas, have had their names been removed from the Lamb’s ‘book of life’.89
Some teach today that this cannot happen, that Jesus taught that no believer can ever be lost. They often base this idea on:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”90
Of course, any who ‘follow’ the Lord will never be lost but what of those who later choose to not follow Him? Just as the mark and name of the beast can be removed from anyone’s hand and forehead through their repenting and trusting in Jesus, the Lord’s name can also be removed from anyone turning away or becoming unfaithful to Him.
As a minister, I have many times remembered the warning parable Jesus gave us, in Luke 12:
“Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.
“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks.
“Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes…
“You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.”
Peter said, “Lord, are You addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well?”91
Peter, recognising this as a general warning to all disciples, asks Him to clarify so Jesus then focuses on the role of the steward. He shows how anyone He appoints as a leader to care for His other servants can make two very different choices:
And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time?
“Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes.
“Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
“But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming’, and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”92
The contrast is stark: if any leader remains ‘faithful and sensible’, he or she will receive great reward; if instead, any begin to abuse, physically, psychologically or spiritually the other servants of God, he or she will be judged ‘with the unbelievers’. Like Dan, like Judas.
In our own time, there have been a number of high-profile Christian leaders who have overtly walked away and with terrible consequences e.g. Moses David Berg, founder of the Children of God, began as a very effective evangelist and led many to faith in Jesus but died in 1994 as a false prophet, promoting promiscuity and incest. Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple in California, began with a heart for the underdog and fighting racial segregation. However, in 1978, in Jonestown, Guyana, he led 908 followers to their deaths, most of them drinking his poisoned Kool-Aid. Similarly, David Koresh in Waco, Texas, caused the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians and four law enforcement officials in 1993. These leaders presented their followers with a new, different Jesus, different gospel and different spirit, as discussed in my book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.93
Accordingly, Paul warns us:
If we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.94
God will always be faithful but He will not hold us against our will – if we deny Him, He will deny or disown us. This is why names are ‘erased’ from ‘the Lamb’s book of life’95
Of course, God is ‘not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance’.96 He therefore gives us vast grace: King David fell into adultery and murder but was restored;97 Peter denied the Lord three times but repented.98 Both leaders, however, needed to turn back to be saved, as James taught99 and Paul too.100
To finish the parable in Luke 12:35-48, we see there will also be some pain for all of us who are not fully faithful and not fully unfaithful:
“And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes,
but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”101
In other words, these disciples will not be lost but will, for a time, have some painful regrets. This is particularly true of teachers, as James says:
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 102
The Building of the 144,000
We saw how the 144,000 being ‘first fruits’ culminates in the harvest of believers from ‘every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues’.103 Now let us change the metaphor as Paul did from agriculture to construction:
Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we [Paul and Apollos] are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. …like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it.104
What then are the 144,000 building? The heavenly city, New Jerusalem. Look at its construction. The twelve original ‘apostles of the Lamb’ are the foundation stones of the boundary wall of the heavenly city.105 After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the whole Early Church became ‘devoted to the apostles’ teaching’ ,106 so, accordingly, the boundary wall is a multiple of twelve:
And he measured its wall, seventy-two yards… 107
However, we also see here a dilemma faced by its translators. ‘Seventy two yards’ is logistically accurate and it does help us comprehend the size which can be literal, but it also obscures its typological meaning. John actually says the wall is ‘one hundred and forty four cubits’, as in the margin notes of the NASB. A cubit is the length of a man’s arm from elbow to fingertip, meaning it is approximately 18 inches, half a yard or half a metre. What we really need to know in order to understand the meaning of the metaphor is that it measures 12 x 12 rather than 12 x 6 because, as we have established, in Jewish thinking 6 and 12 have very different metaphorical meanings. As John is shown 12 x 12, the 1st Century church would understand that God is not directing them to the humanity of the apostles but rather to His multiplying of their initial work.
John then sees how the whole city will likewise grow exponentially:
The city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as the width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.108
Again, the translators’ dilemma. This heavenly city, the ultimate destination of all the redeemed of the earth, is in today’s measurement ‘fifteen hundred miles’ (NASB) in length, width and height. However, John’s original hearers actually heard ‘twelve thousand stadia’. It is therefore 12,000 x 12,000 x 12,000 stadia or, symbolically, 12 x 12 x 12 x 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000. The Twelve did indeed go forth and multiply. From an initial congregation of 12 x 10 (the church in the upper room), they multiplied throughout the length and breadth of the earth to become 12 x 12 x 1,000 apostles, to create a heavenly city that has the length, breadth and height of 12,000 x 12,000 x 12,000! The multiplied believers of their preaching in the whole earth throughout all the ages.
We also need to note that this city of God did not begin with the New Covenant – the wall has twelve gates on which are the names of ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’.109 Since God has always justified anyone who trusts in Him,110 everyone who, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, offered the Old Covenant sacrifices that prefigured the Lamb111 thereby entered this city ahead of us.112 The writer of Hebrews is explicit:
By faith he [Abraham] lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.113
So… Literal or Metaphorical City?
Consider now the difference between a literal reading of this description of New Jerusalem and a metaphorical understanding.
Firstly, the dimensions can be literal and simply that size. However, given the obvious multiples of twelve throughout, even those taking the description literally will surely see some metaphorical significance in the repetitions. I am just taking the metaphor as its primary meaning. Secondly, if it is to be literal, we who believe are all headed to an astronomically big apartment block where those who live on the ground floor in the centre and want to go out will have to walk at least 750 miles in any direction, or climb 1,500 miles of stairs to the rooftop, just to get a bit of fresh air! Of course, there may be no problem with this as there will be no claustrophobia in heaven and we will have plenty of time – I just do not think this would have seemed any more attractive to John’s original hearers than it does to many of us today.
Fortunately, John is given several other descriptions of the city in Revelation 21, one of which is that it is ‘made ready as a bride adorned for her husband’.114 The other includes its famous ‘streets of gold 115 in the middle of which runs ‘a river of the water of life’ surrounded by exquisite trees.116 If it all turns out to be literal with only metaphorical meaning, perhaps we will be able to ask for a room with a view of the park!
Summary of the 144,000
The 144,000 are described in Revelation chapters 7 and 14. Some today insist they are to be understood literally but that creates clear inconsistencies e.g. ‘the lamb’ they follow is obviously not literal, being a metaphor for Jesus and His extraordinary achievement; the 144,000 are fighting men yet ‘female virgins’ so this expression also has be understood as a metaphor.
Happily, we are given at least seven identifying features, features which may seem strange to us but would have been easy work for 1st Century Jewish believers or those taught by Jewish believers. These features have unambiguous metaphorical meanings:
(i) The number twelve is foundational to both ancient Israel, because of the twelve sons of Jacob, and the 1st Century church, because of the twelve apostles.
(ii) John was the last of the Twelve so his vision of the Lord calling another 12 x 12 x 1,000 apostles to ‘be with Him and so that He could send them out’ was wonderfully reassuring to the persecuted church of the 1st Century.
(iii) Their standing with Jesus on Mount Zion showed He had restored the fallen house of David in the heavenly, new Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the many Old Testament prophecies, and could therefore lead every one (or, ‘two by two’) of the apostles in every direction simultaneously.
(iv) Their unique song is like the battle song of the martyrs in chapter 15. It is not arrogantly exclusive but, like Moses’ and Deborah’s songs, the singers have to have been there, to partake of the battles and sing first-hand of the victories. The number being metaphorical means anyone can learn the song if they go when sent by Jesus.
(v) They have kept themselves from women not because they are literally virgins or permanently celibate, any more than the original twelve apostles were. In ancient Israel, temporary celibacy was required of all warriors before battle and, in the Early Church, Paul encouraged it for ‘the purpose of prayer’ or spiritual warfare. It simply means the 144,000 apostles are battle-ready.
(vi) Their being ‘first-fruits to God’ changes the metaphor from warfare to harvest, the harvesting of the whole world. Just as Israel’s first-fruits festivals celebrated the beginning of the harvest, these were to remind John’s hearers that God would complete the work. Accordingly, the ‘ingathering’ of their spiritual harvest is ‘a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb’ to worship.
(vii) The truthfulness of the 144,000 is a standard requirement for every Christian but particularly for every minister of the gospel, to gain and maintain their credibility.
(viii) Being numbered according to the names of the twelve tribes, like all the fighting men of Israel, affirms their identity as spiritual warriors.
(ix) Tragically, as in any war, there are casualties so the numbers have to be made up again by replacements. Of the twelve apostles, Judas was replaced by Matthias. Of the metaphorical twelve tribes of Israel, John sees Dan replaced by the half-tribe of Mannasseh. Ephraim also has been subsumed within Joseph. This is because, historically, these two tribes housed ancient Israel’s re-establishment of the golden calf worship after the death of Solomon.
(x) The 144,000 are not a literally limited number of celibate Jewish men but a symbolic muster of all the warriors of God, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, young and old, who down through the ages have been sent by Jesus to preach the gospel and have ‘fought the good fight’.117 They have avoided the mark of the beast and will sing the songs of victory.
(xi) We who are the ‘ingathering’ of their harvest are also being built as ‘living stones’ into not only a ‘spiritual house’ or temple of God but also the heavenly Jerusalem. This city ‘whose architect and builder is God’ has metaphorical dimensions of 12,000 x 12,000 x 12,000 that dramatically complete the metaphor of the multiplied believers and their preaching in the whole earth throughout all the ages.
By User:Rursus – Image:Charles Taze Russell.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3327377
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Image: Orthodox Christianity The Good Shepherd: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=509456
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- Rev 14:1
- Rev 14:2-3
- Rev 14:4-5
- Rev 7:2-3
- Rev 7:4
- Revelation – Its Grand Climax at Hand! New York, 1988, p. 118.
- Rev 14:1 & 4
- Andrew Knowles, The Bible Guide, Oxford; Lion Publishing, 2001, p. 695
- Craig Koester, Revelation and the End of All Things, Grand Rapids; Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001, p. 136
- Ibid. Also Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, p. 70
- Mark 3:13-14, emphasis added
- Luke 6:13
- Acts 1:15
- Acts 1:16-17
- Acts 1:26
- Rev 12:1-6
- Rev 21:12 & 21
- Rev 21:14, emphasis added
- Rev 14:1 & 4b
- Rev 21:14. Also Eph 2:20
- Mark 3:12
- Matt 10:5-6
- 2 Cor 11:13, Rev 2:2
- Matt 28:18-20
- Rev 7:9-10, emphasis added
- Rev 14:6, emphasis added
- Psa 2:6-9
- Acts 15:16-18
- Heb 12:22 & 24
- Mark 13:27
- Pp. 120-122
- Rev 14:2-3
- Ex 15:1-18
- Rev 15:2-3
- Deut 31:19-32:44
- Deut 32:43
- Judg 5:1-31
- See also Psalm 83:9
- Rev 14:4a
- Num 1:2-3
- 1 Sam 21:4-5
- Deut 23:9-10
- 2 Sam 11:1-13
- 1 Cor 7:1-5, emphasis added
- Rev 14:4a
- Revelation for Everyone, London; SPCK, 2011, pp. 124-125.
- Matt 8:14
- 1 Cor 9:5-6
- Gal 1:1
- Rev 14:4c
- Lev 23:5-11
- Matt 27:52-53
- 1 Cor 15:20
- Ex 23:16
- Lev 23:15-16
- Ex 23:16
- Rev 7:9
- Rev 14, emphasis added
- Jas 1:18
- Jas 5:7-8
- Pp. 280-282
- Rev 14:5
- Eph 4:24-25
- 1 Tim 3:8
- 1 Tim 3:11
- 1 Tim 3:13
- Rev 7:4-8
- Rev 21:14
- Mark 3:14
- Rev 7:6
- Deut 10:9
- Gen 48:22
- Gen 48:8-21
- e.g. Num 34:13-15
- Rev 7: 8
- Rev 7:13-17
- Rev 14:9-12, Matt 16:25
- (Acts 1:26
- Gen 49:17
- Judg 5:17 cf. 5:23
- Num 1:39, 26:42-43
- Judg 18:30-31
- 1 Kin 12:29-30
- Ezek 37:16-19
- 1 Kin 12:26
- Gen 48:16-20
- Hos 6:10
- Psa 78:8-11, emphasis added
- Rev 3:5
- John 10:27-28
- Luke 12:35-41
- Luke 12:42-46
- Pp. 110-117
- 2 Tim 2:12-13, emphasis added
- Rev 3:5, 21:27
- 2 Peter 3:9
- Psa 51
- Mark 14:72
- James 5:19-20
- 1 Cor 9:27
- Luke 12:47-48
- James 3:1
- Rev 7:9
- 1 Cor 3:6-10
- Rev 21:14)
- Acts 2:42
- Rev 21:17
- Rev 21:16
- Rev 21:12
- Rom 10:11-13
- John 8:56
- Matt 8:11
- Heb 11:9-10
- Rev 21: 2
- Ibid., v. 21
- Ibid., vv. 1-2
- 2 Tim 4:7