Who are the 144,000 in Revelation, historically speaking?

Mon, 23/01/2012 - 12:16

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.

Comments

This interpretation implies to me that part of the purpose of Revelation is to stimulate enquiry rather than present definitive conclusions. Who are the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8? The context would seem to make it obvious - Jewish believers in contrast with Gentile believers - "a great multitude that no-one could count from every nation" - 7:9-10.

But if these are the Jewish believers of the 1st century, as you suggest Andrew, then isn't there something not quite right about the symbolism? The 12 is there, reiterated (to suggest completion?) as 12x12. This is then increased by a factor of 1000 - always suggestive of a vast number. But the Jewish believers of the 1st century were a small remnant - Romans 11:5.

I can't get away from the emphatic Jewishness of the believers in Revelation 7:4-8, and equally can't get away from the view that this must represent all Israel (that is, all believing Israel) at the end of time - an encouragingly huge number, gathered from before and after the 1st century.

So who are the 144,000 in Revelation 14? Keeping the symbolism intact, they would still be Jewish believers, but gathered both from within the geographic nation of Israel before the 1st century, and from the scattering of Jews across the earth since then.  The group would comprise those redeemed (same word in both cases) from "the earth"/gē, which can also mean 'land' as in 'land of Israel', and from among "mankind" outside the land of Israel. The timescale would be all of history and the end of time, as they gather at Mount Zion, the gathering place of worshippers before God.

The key cross reference here is of firstfruits in Revelation 14:4  and Romans 11:16 - "If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits (ie believing Jews) is holy, then the whole batch (ie believing Jews and Gentiles) is holy." This is Paul, for whom salvation came from the Jews, also looking at the completion of the process, when one by one, Jews "aroused to envy" by himself (Romans 11:14), and subsequently by Gentile witness especially (Romans 10:19), will complete this part of the batch offered as firstfruits. "And so (heutos, in this way), all Israel will be saved (until and including the end of time)" - Romans 11:26.

Paradoxically, taking the whole orbit of the NT into account, "all Israel" is subsumed into the one people of God, where Jew/Gentile distinctions are removed.

The genius of Revelation is that it operates within time and history, (including the 1st century), it telescopes time (1st century, our time and the end of time), and it also moves effortlessly between time and eternity, heaven and earth. It also provokes us to ask questions, and stimulates discussion, for which there may not immediately be obvious answers, though when they come, I prefer my answers to others, of course.

 

Peter,

"Who are the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8? The context would seem to make it obvious - Jewish believers in contrast with Gentile believers - “a great multitude that no-one could count from every nation” - 7:9-10."

Yes the context is obvious.  They were Jewish believers.

"But if these are the Jewish believers of the 1st century...then isn’t there something not quite right about the symbolism?"

Not at all.

"The 12 is there, reiterated (to suggest completion?) as 12x12. This is then increased by a factor of 1000 - always suggestive of a vast number. But the Jewish believers of the 1st century were a small remnant - Romans 11:5."

The multiplication of 1000 has nothing to do with numbers.  It has everything to do with be brought into completeness/fullness into the image of Christ/God via inclusion into the consumated body of Christ.   Ever wonder why no OT saint (those in the covenant line) ever made it to the 1000 years old mark?  They all fell "short".  The OT's reference to their "age" did not have anything to do with their physical age.  Recommend Tim Martin and Jeff Vaughan's book "Beyond Creation Science" for an excellant  presentation on this.

"I can’t get away from the emphatic Jewishness of the believers in Revelation 7:4-8, and equally can’t get away from the view that this must represent all Israel (that is, all believing Israel) at the end of time - an encouragingly huge number, gathered from before and after the 1st century."

Disagree some here.  Yes, they are Jewish and believers.  No they do not represent "all Israel".  They are part of "all Israel".  Paul's "all Israel" were both houses (northern Kingdom and southern Kingdom) rejoined back together into one house (Ezk 37's two sticks being joined back together, restoration/resurrection).  This is clear from the OT passages that Paul quotes from as he develops his throughts in Romans.  It has to do with corporateness, not numbers or individuals.

"So who are the 144,000 in Revelation 14? Keeping the symbolism intact, they would still be Jewish believers, but gathered both from within the geographic nation of Israel before the 1st century, and from the scattering of Jews across the earth since then."

No.  It's the regathing of the Jews within geographic nation of Israel, and from the scatted Jews when the two Kingdom's were judged by God via. Assyria and Babylon (Peter's "to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus,... 1 Peter 1:1).  Of course this was accomplished in AD 70 when Israel was "resurrected", the two houses restored in the one Body of Christ, Israel's Messiah.

"The group would comprise those redeemed (same word in both cases) from “the earth”/gē, which can also mean ‘land’ as in ‘land of Israel’, and from among “mankind” outside the land of Israel."

Yes!  As I just stated above.  But those from among mankind were the Jews of the diaspora.

"The timescale would be all of history and the end of time, as they gather at Mount Zion, the gathering place of worshippers before God."

No.  The time line was within that 1st century "generation" when all things would be completed.  Matthew 24:34. And when the shattering of the power of the people came to an end, Dan. 12:7.

"The key cross reference here is of firstfruits in Revelation 14:4  and Romans 11:16 - “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits (ie believing Jews) is holy, then the whole batch (ie believing Jews and Gentiles) is holy.” This is Paul, for whom salvation came from the Jews, also looking at the completion of the process, when one by one, Jews “aroused to envy” by himself (Romans 11:14), and subsequently by Gentile witness especially (Romans 10:19), will complete this part of the batch offered as firstfruits. “And so (heutos, in this way), all Israel will be saved (until and including the end of time)” - Romans 11:26."

The firstfruits is definitely an imporatant connection to make here, and you were doing great until your theology got in the way.  As I stated above "all Israel" has to do with Israel.  It was the regathering of the two corporate houses that were judged by God but also given the promise to  be restored in the latter days (AD 30-70).  Your desire to push things out to some supposed "end of time", which is nowhere stated or referred to in Scripture, is making you force connections that do not exist.   Your very last paragraph demonstrates this point clearly.

I can't recommend Max King's article on this very subject enough.  I have found it to have no equal

http://wiki.ad70.net/index.php?title=And_So_All_Israel_Will_Be_Saved_by_Max_R._King

Rich and Peter,

The 'uber' comments make it difficult to keep up on this blog. I would recommend comments that focus on a paricular point of investigation. Sometimes the comments are longer than the posts! Anyway, I often am inclined to agree on some aspects of Peter's remarks, but can't get myself to comment because of the verbosity and multiple-points-nature of the whole thing. Please, more points for clarification and fewer treatises.

Amen.

Well, actually, there was only one point in my comment, not multiple points, which was addressing the question: Who are the 144,000? I was making a detailed case for saying that both Kevin De Young and Andrew are mistaken. Rich too (and pf) are, I believe, mistaken. Rich has misinterpreted me at various points, and I'd be happy to give examples,  except that it would appear to be diverting attention from the subject of the thread.

"I was making a detailed case..." My point exactly!

Revelation "telescopes" time? What is your evidence of that?

Revelation was written to comfort persecuted believers and send a coded message at a time when free speech didn't exist and the punishment for dissent was certain, painful death.

We don't know the exact audience, who would have been well-versed in the symbolism, so we can only guess at what the author was referring to when he wrote the piece.

But there is no reason to believe that it has any meaning at all about anything that will happen in the future.

 

I enjoyed the first 2/3's of this article enough that I'm looking forward to passing it on.  Though I know you don't care what the preterists say, I think you would get something out of "Who is this Babylon" by Don Preston.  I'm between the two of you in the spectrum of preterism, but his thoughts on Babylon in Revelation deserve to be confronted head on.

 

Doug

Back to the drawing board for the non-multi-taskers amongst us. Re the numerology of the 144,000 (Revelation 7), points made so far:

AP:

This (preceding argument resting on OT imagery of idolatrous Israel v. non-idolatrous Israel and the six seals of Revelation 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.

Me (PW):

The 12 is there, reiterated (to suggest completion?) as 12x12. This is then increased by a factor of 1000 - always suggestive of a vast number. But the Jewish believers of the 1st century were a small remnant - Romans 11:5.

Rich:

The multiplication of 1000 has nothing to do with numbers.  It has everything to do with be brought into completeness/fullness into the image of Christ/God via inclusion into the consumated body of Christ.   Ever wonder why no OT saint (those in the covenant line) ever made it to the 1000 years old mark?  They all fell “short”.  The OT’s reference to their “age” did not have anything to do with their physical age. 

My case rests on evidence for the status of Israel as a small but faithful remnant in other NT texts, Romans 9-11 especially. Also on how Romans 11 interprets the inclusion of "all Israel" in the renewed people of God, where I propose that they were added over time by the witness of Gentiles making them envious, a process far from complete when Romans was written (AD 57?), and, historically, incomplete by AD 70, the end time of Revelation proposed by Andrew (and supported by the preterist contributors to this website).

The multiple of 1000 echoes the use of the term in Revelation 20, where it appears, according to Andrew and most commentators as a period of time beyond AD 70, and suggests here that we are looking at a fulfilled Israel beyond AD 70.

Rich's argument about the number representing Jews being "brought into completeness/fullness into the image of Christ/God via inclusion into the consum(m)ated body of Christ" has some weight, except that it does not agree with the representation of the remnant of faithful Israel in the rest of the NT, and disagrees with Paul especially in Romans 9. 

This single point, one detail, is now almost as long as my other comment. Is it too long to read through and comment on? It also illustrates my original starting point, that Revelation  exists as much to stimulate debate and enquiry as to provide simple defintive answers. I realise my position as described here will probably give rise to further misinterpretation of my understanding of Revelation!

.

"Rich’s argument about the number representing Jews being “brought into completeness/fullness into the image of Christ/God via inclusion into the consum(m)ated body of Christ” has some weight, except that it does not agree with the representation of the remnant of faithful Israel in the rest of the NT, and disagrees with Paul especially in Romans 9. "

It does not agree when filtered through your understanding yes, but it fits perfect when filterd through a correct understanding of Paul's thoughts throughout Romans 1 - 11, especially Romans 9.  I could recommend a great resource for you to read but you won't go read it, so I'll not waste the effort. :)  Did you read the article I posted a link to by Max King?  That will definitely help.

Preterism neatly ties up all the otherwise irritatingly loose threads and tantalising hints and suggestions of a coming consummation in a 1st century  parousia and appearing of Jesus after his ascension. Comprehensive/full or radical preterism encompasses a fulfilled 1st century resurrection and in-gathering of Israel as well. Then it leaves some rather large questions open. Did the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple really mark the consummation so devoutly to be wished which preterism longs for? Is the 1st century NT story really the glorious in-gathering of "all Israel" which Max King enticingly describes? Is it really as clear in the NT as he paints it?

I read of a Paul who discovered that Jews increasingly opposed his message, while Gentiles increasingly accepted it, and of Jewish/Christian agitators whose activities very nearly undid all his work. I read not a whisper of the in-gathering of the lost 10 tribes in the NT version of the story. In what sense at all was judgement on Jerusalem a glorious parousia of Jesus? How could it be? In this sense, I have as much difficulty with Andrew's location of key NT texts as being fulfilled in the 1st century as I do with preterism's.

The passion and vision of King's presentation is very alluring. I just don't see it in the NT; certainly not in Romans 9-11, where a large-scale  in-gathering of Jews comes about in the untidy, lengthy, not so glorious process through time rather than the triumphal 1st century fulfilment which King describes.

Neither do I accept that the resurrection is exclusively the 1st century metaphorical fulfilment of Israel's in-gathering that comprehensive preterism says it is. Passing from death to life is a powerful metaphor of Israel coming into her destiny - but only because it is part of the renewal of creation which will be fulfilled in physical resurrection yet to come.

Incidentally, my apologies to Andrew and all and sundry if my previous post seemed somewhat prickly. I started composing it whilst still in night-clothes, unshaved, not having had breakfast, and needing to run my wife to a hospital appointment. Everything was done in haste, and without the benefit of those profound and eirenic qualities which come from leisurely reflection, and which normally characterise my contributions. Likewise sorry if this seems dismissive, Rich. I've just come in from an evening meeting, which is not the best time to be composing messages. I'm not a full preterist, and that's a perfectly respectable position to be in. That doesn't stop me from engagingly positively with preterists like yourself.

Rich,

Max King is in error about alot of things, including the reunification of both houses under God. Rewind back to Pentecost. That is where you had that event fulfilled.

Plus, this re-unification of both houses was of no mystery to the prophets, as it had been uttered numerous times in Hosea, Ezekiel, etc. The mystery was the inclusion of the Gentiles. This was only given to Abraham, and was thus revealed to the NT prophets such as Paul, a minister to the Gentiles, not Jews who he wanted to preach to, but was given another task that was against his will. Another failure in many full preterist corners that causes many to go astray, even to the point of denoucing their faith altogether. I don’t want to even get started on the corporate body. That is a full blown denial of Christ’s resurretion of the dead, and its ontological pattern for us, the saints of Matt 27, and those at the final judgement in Revelation 20.

i believe the 144,00 will be the natural remnant God saves from the 12 tribes of Isreal, to repopulate the earth in the millenium.

Because the believers will be in a spirit form with flesh and bones but no blood, as Jesus was when he was resureected, so also will the saints after the Bridal feast of the lamb.

So the earth will have to be repopulated by humans again. So that will be the role of the 144,000

this also forfills the prophecy to abraham that his decendants will be as numerable as the grains of sand …

At random...

Scot McKnight and Jesus' vision for Israel I am reading Scot McKnight’s book A New Vision for Israel: The Teachings of Jesus in National Context, and I’m very impressed so far with his decisive and really quite radical argument about Jesus and the kingdom. The book was published in...
The limited ambitions of the people of God William Cheriegate asked me to expand on the following remark in my post on Transmillennialism – not least for the benefit of those who ‘grew up in the midst of a conquering American “christian” empire’: To my mind, the Bible has lower...
Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross One of the implications of a narrative-historical hermeneutic is that the community, not the individual, is made the locus for New Testament theological reasoning. So, for example, eschatology—the “end” stuff—is not about what happens to...