Kevin DeYoung asks, “Who are the 144,000 in Revelation?” Are they a remnant of ethnic Jews who are left behind after the rapture, who will evangelize the Gentiles, as presumably dispensationalists would argue? Or does this symbolic number stand for the “entire community of the redeemed”?
DeYoung favors the latter interpretation, which is the mainstream Christian interpretation, for a number of reasons: i) in Revelation 13 Satan seals his followers, so you would expect God to “seal all of his people, not just the Jewish ones”; ii) in Ezekiel 9:4 the mark on the forehead differentiates between idolaters and non-idolaters, so the sealing of the 144,000 should make a “similar distinction based on who worships God”; iii) the 144,000 are called “servants of God” (Rev. 7:3), we are all servants of God, therefore we are all part of the 144,000; iv) the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-5 are spoken of in “generic everybody kind of language”, as a group drawn from all peoples, not just from the Jews; and v) the list of the 12 tribes is “highly stylized”, so that 12 x 12 x 1000 means the completion of God’s people multiplied by the apostles multiplied by a “great multitude”.
DeYoung makes some sensible points here, some more sensible than others. But what is missing from his discussion is any consideration of narrative-historical context, and I think that in the end this undermines his argument. He sets out from the assumption that the content of Revelation necessarily has reference to events in our future rather than in the future of its original readership. I will suggest here that we make best sense of the passage—and of Revelation generally—if we assume that it was written in order to interpret the world as it was seen from the perspective of a Jewish-Christian writing in Asia Minor some time around the middle of the first century. For the details of this argument I refer readers to my book The Coming of the Son of Man, if they can get hold of a copy.
The 144,000 from every tribe of the sons of Israel
The sealing of the 144,000 occurs after six seals of divine judgment have been opened. The language and imagery used in chapter 6 is consistently drawn from Old Testament prophecies of judgment against Israel. At the opening of the sixth seal, for example, there is “a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood”, and the paragraph concludes with the statement “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”. This is John’s reworking of Joel’s prophecy of judgment against Jerusalem:
The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining…. For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it? (Joel 2:10-11)
The angels hold back the winds that will stir up the forces of destruction (Rev. 7:1), the pagan power that will make war against Jerusalem (cf. Dan. 7:2). DeYoung is right to notice that the image of sealing derives from Ezekiel 9 but he mangles the interpretation. The mark on the forehead separates idolatrous Jews from faithful Jews—from those who “sigh and groan over all the abominations” that are committed in the city (Ezek. 9:4). The context of judgment against Israel is absolutely clear: Israel faces destruction because of unrighteousness, and only a remnant will be spared.
This points to the conclusion that the 144,000, “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel”, in Revelation 7:4 are Jewish believers in Jesus who will be safeguarded from the “wrath of the Lamb” before judgment reaches its dreadful climax in the destruction of Jerusalem by an overwhelming pagan power. But we should also consider how this group is differentiated from the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” that is seen immediately after in Revelation 7:9-17, and what relation it has to the 144,000 that appear in Revelation 14:1-5.
The great multitude
Briefly, the description of the “great multitude” in Revelation 7:15-17 draws on Old Testament accounts of the restoration of scattered Israel to Zion, where they will be sheltered by the presence of God (cf. Ezek. 37:27 LXX; Is. 49:10; Jer. 31:7-14). So the prophetic narrative would run like this. Judgment is coming upon Jerusalem; the faithful servants of God, the 144,000—that is, Jewish Christians in Judea—will be protected; through this catastrophe the people of God will be restored; and Old Testament visions of the nations coming to participate in the worship of Israel’s God, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14), will be fulfilled.
The 144,000 on Mount Zion
DeYoung thinks that the 144,000 “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” and the 144,000 who are seen on Mount Zion with the Lamb are the same group of people, and he draws conclusions about the first from what is said about the second. I disagree. The first 144,000 are Jewish believers threatened by the coming judgment against Jerusalem, which is why their association with the 12 tribes of Israel is spelled out. The second 144,000 are defined, as DeYoung says, in more general terms—”redeemed from the earth… redeemed from mankind” (Rev. 14:3-4).
More importantly, the fact that they have the name of the Father of the Lamb written on their foreheads is to be interpreted not by reference to Ezekiel 9 but on the basis of the contrast with those who have been “marked on the right hand or the forehead” with the name of the beast (13:16-18). These 144,000 have not colluded with the demonic power behind idolatrous empire but have been loyal to the God of Jesus. Their appearance is followed by an angelic proclamation of judgment on “Babylon the great”—and I don’t care what the Preterists say, this is judgment on pagan Rome.
So the first 144,000 constitutes a group of Jewish believers preserved in the course of judgment against Jerusalem. The second 144,000 constitutes a group drawn from the nations preserved in the course of judgment against Rome. This seems to me in general terms a fully plausible reading—there may be some disagreement over details—that takes account of both the historical perspective of the text and its relation to the Old Testament, from which so much of the apocalyptic narrative has been constructed.