The 144,000 and the Great Multitude

I would like, in this post, to look at Revelation 7, particularly at the two groups mentioned: the 144,000 and the great multitude. Many, if not most, Reformed commentators (see Beale especially) have argued that these are the same groups of people. It must be admitted from the start that this is a very respectable position with a long pedigree. Nor can the difference between a numbered group and an innumerable group be attested in support of the position that there are two different groups.

The number 144,000 is a symbolic number. This is obvious from several facts. That God would only seal some and not others implies two distinct classes of Christians, something which the rest of the New Testament takes quite some pains to deny. Whatever group the 144,000 represents, it cannot be only part of a group of Christians.

Incidentally, as the commentator Wilmshurst (in the Welwyn series) points out, the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretation makes this mistake and several others. The JW interpretation states that the 144,000 is a literal group of people that are to be in heaven around the throne room of God, and that the rest of the “good” people will have a decent life here on earth. Both groups are interpreted eschatologically in JW theology. However, the text makes it quite explicit that it is the great multitude who are around the throne of God in heaven, whereas the 144,000 are sealed here on earth to prevent them from receiving ultimate harm from the seals (see the flow of context from chapter 6). So the JW’s get the location of each group wrong. They also interpret the number literally, when it should be interpreted symbolically as 12 X 12 X 1000 (possibly the OT saints plus the NT saints times the number of perfection, implying the entirety).

We are more on the right track when we remember that census numbers were usually taken for military purposes. The 144,000 is a fighting group of people. This is confirmed when we look at chapter 14, the other time the 144,000 make their appearance. They were those who had not defiled themselves with women. Again, this is usually interpreted differently to point to their spiritual purity (and, no doubt, that is included). However, while fighting, Israelite men were to keep themselves from women. The indications are that the 144,000 is a fighting group.

However, they are not Israelites, contrary to the appearances of verses 5-8. For one thing, there wasn’t a Northern kingdom at the time John was writing. Secondly, the order of names is very curious (including Joseph and Manassah, but not Ephraim, and completely excluding Dan; as well as putting Judah first, and the sons of the concubines are fronted over some of the other sons of Leah, which would seem to indicate Gentile inclusion, as several commentators note). The only other group they could be is the church.

The innumerable multitude are standing around the throne room (and hence do not need the seal, since they are already safe). They hold palm fronds (v. 9), which is a symbol of military victory. They have their white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb (v. 13). They are out of the tribulation (v. 14).

The upshot of the whole here is to point to the logical conclusion: the 144,000 symbolizes the church militant; and the innumerable multitude symbolizes the church triumphant. This avoids the problem of seeing the 144,000 as part of a group (in the sense that the entire church militant is sealed, not part of it: I am not advocating a denial of the distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant). The indications of the military nature of the 144,000 are given full scope, as well as the triumphant nature of the innumerable multitude. This is roughly the same conclusion to which Dennis Johnson arrives, although I have fleshed out the arguments a bit more than he did.

19 Comments

  1. March 25, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Our Reformed Christian Heritage.

  2. March 25, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    This could not have been more perfectly timed, as I am looking at Revelation chapter 7 in relation to preaching on Palm Sunday.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    March 25, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    We’re probably preaching the same text: 7:9-12?

  4. Reed Here said,

    March 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Excellent Lane! Grateful for the connection to the OT military-celibacy practice. I missed that when I worked through Rev 14 recently. Makes simple, sound sense.

  5. roberty bob said,

    March 25, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    The true Israel of God would be the church that lives in covenant with the Lord; there is therefore no conflict in the use of Old Testament Israelite military formation numbers to describe the victorious army of God’s new and true Israel.

  6. March 26, 2015 at 11:27 am

    roberty bob. Be careful. Replacement theology is very dangerous. Its very easy these days to say that the first half of OT verses ( the condemnations) are on Israel, but the second half of the verses, all the promises, exclude them. God has not forgotten about his chosen people. I think replacement thinking has contributed greatly to the persecution of the Jews.

  7. roberty bob said,

    March 26, 2015 at 11:52 am

    to #6 Kevin . . .

    There is one olive tree, one root, one family of Abraham, one covenant people of faith, one true Israel of God, which is manifested in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is not an off-shoot of Israel; the true Israel lives on in the church.

    The Revelation of Jesus Christ is a word to the Seven Churches on the victory that is in store for them as they overcome the fierce foes [beast, false prophet, synagogue of satan, the great city that persecutes the prophets and the offspring of the woman] aligned against them.

    Or do you believe differently?

  8. tjustincomer said,

    March 26, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Did you notice the amount of language borrowed from Ezekiel 9? I’ve looked into this, and I’m not convinced that the 144,000 are the church. What that said, I’m not unconvinced either. There is a prophecy in Genesis 48:19 that Ephraim will be a “multitude of nations”, or to literally translate the Hebrew, a “fullness of Gentiles”. Paul then quotes this in Romans 11:25. It could be said that the reason Ephraim is not mentioned is because this is Israel and not the church… But that still doesn’t answer why Manasseh and Joseph are mentioned, and why Dan is missing. In all sobriety, I say that I don’t hold to any conclusions on WHO they are. It seems like the 144,000 is a contrast between the “everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave” that “receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead.” Ultimately, I have become convinced that John references, alludes to, and directly quotes the Hebrew Old Testament in everything. What exactly he is referencing and saying with that reference, I’m not sure. Ezekiel 9 is obvious, but beyond that is quite difficult to answer. Also, look at 1 Chronicles 4-7. The tribe of Dan is missing from this list, and we also find a similar (not identical) order of the tribes. Actually, just about every time the tribes are mentioned in the Old Testament they are in a different order.

  9. roberty bob said,

    March 26, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    I find it interesting that Jesus promised and reserved twelve thrones to his twelve disciples so that they might each rule over one of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, the tribes of Israel shall have twelve ruling elders in the coming kingdom.

    In Revelation 4:4 twenty-four thrones are shown circling the throne of Christ for the twenty-four elders who will sit upon them and rule.

    Does this mean, then, that Israel is represented by twelve elders and the nations represented by another twelve elders, totaling twenty-four?

    If so, then perhaps John, in Revelation 7, intends to show the twelve tribes of Israel victorious in Christ, and also the multitudes from the nations sharing in that same triumph.

  10. jedpaschall said,

    April 1, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    Richard Bauckham came to the same conclusion in his brief Cambridge series Theology of the Book of Revelation. He also describes the 144k as the church militant through the age of the church, with the caveat that they were also an army of martyrs – resisting the devil and testifying to the saving work of Christ, while not loving their own lives, even if their death were the result.

  11. Jack Bradley said,

    April 4, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    Lane, here are some much abbreviated notes from a study I did on the 144,000 some time back. Please let me know what you think.

    There is no way, exegetically, to get around the fact that verses 4-8 are describing, specifically, Jewish Christians. “144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel”—and each tribe is then individually named.

    In the Old Testament—the tribes are arranged in at least twenty different sequences and compositions—which tells us that we don’t need to get exercised about the exact order and composition because the Old Testament itself isn’t too particular about it.

    I contend that if we miss this ethnic specificity we go astray in a fundamental way in understanding this book, and possibly the entire New Testament / New Covenant:

    This brings us to the all-important remnant motif we find throughout the Old Testament. The root meaning of the word “remnant” is a “called out” group of people. Revelation 7:4-8 contains thirteen uses of the Greek word ‘ek’ (‘from,’ ‘out of’) ESV: “from”; NKJV: “of”. Literally: “out of”.

    Amils, and some inconsistent Postmils, maintain that the 144,000 are the same as the innumerable multitude of 7:9: Jews and gentiles at the end of history, consummation of the ages. But they do not do justice to the remnant motif that is so critical, both here and throughout the Bible. [Phil 3:3-4]

    Paul says: “for we [the church] are the real circumcision”—spiritual circumcision, of the heart—as he says in Romans 2. Ethnic, national Israel, physically circumcised, is not the real, the true circumcision. In fact, that’s what he’s been talking about throughout the entire book of Romans leading up to chapter 11: the real Israel, the true Jew, the true circumcision. [2:29]

    Romans 9:6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”

    Paul expressly declares that the unbelieving part of the nation of ethnic Israel is not the true “Israel”. And he goes on to say, Romans 11:7: “Israel (ethnic Israel) failed to obtain what it was seeking, the elect (the elect remnant, circumcised of the heart) obtained it.”

    Romans 9:27: “and Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved.” Romans 11:5: “so too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”

    Again, the root meaning of remnant is a ‘called out’ group of people. Significantly, the Greek work for ‘church’ is ekklesia, a combination of two words, ek (out of) and kaleo (call), meaning ‘called out.’ The very word for church contains the remnant principle.

    But it is this Jewish remnant that becomes the first-fruits of the New Testament church, as the parallel passage in Revelation 14 brings out more fully: 14:3-4: “no one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. . . These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb. . .”

    The Jewish remnant must be preserved, physically preserved, to be the *first*-fruits of the ekklesia. And the sealing of this Jewish remnant is an essential fulfillment of God’s Old Covenant promises to the preserve a “remnant”.

    Remember, I have emphasized that the New Testament church is the one covenant people of God, Jew and gentile. However, I am still maintaining that there is a distinction between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians in this passage: revelation 7. The whole point of the remnant motif is, as Romans 11:7 puts it: “Israel (ethnic Israel, Israel as a nation) failed to obtain what is was seeking (seeking in the wrong way: 11:6: ‘on the basis of works’). The elect (the remnant) obtained it (11:6: ‘by grace’).”

    What I want to show you is that if we come to the first eight verses of Revelation 7 and simply morph the 144,000 into an indistinct part of the innumerable “multitude” of the last nine verses of chapter seven—we are not doing justice to this fundamental scriptural theme of the remnant.

    Paul is making the case in Romans 11 that the covenant God has indeed been faithful to his covenant people, Israel, by preserving a remnant, the true Jew: circumcised of the heart, to be the first-fruits of all the fullness of his New Covenant promises to “all Israel”: Jew and gentile. “First to the Jew, then to the gentile.”

    Aune, in his commentary on Revelation, makes a distinction between the 144,000 in the first 8 verses of chapter seven, and the “multitude no one can number” in the last 9 verses. He writes: “the number 144,000. . . Though it is a very large number, it is obviously a finite number (therefore representing earthly realities).” [his parenthesis] Aune makes the same case in chapter 14—that, “the scene in 14:1-5 should be understood as both highly symbolic and as set on the earth.”

    Just to emphasize one final time: the New Covenant is not interested in racial or national distinctions. Galatians 3:28: “neither Jew nor Greek. . . For you are all one in Christ.” Romans 2:29: the believer in Christ is the true Jew. I Peter 2:9: the church as a holy nation, a chosen people. Philippians 3:3: “it is we (the church) who are the circumcision, we who worship by the spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus.”

    There is one people, one church, one covenant of grace. But, after reminding ourselves of the spiritual oneness of all God’s New Covenant people—Jew and gentile, there is no way, exegetically, to get around the fact that verses 4-8 are describing, specifically, Jewish Christians in that critically important time and place in history.

  12. Jack Bradley said,

    April 4, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Lane, just a postscript to make it clear that I’m not saying Aune himself connects the distinctively Jewish dots. But he clearly sees that 7:1-8 cannot be synonymous with the “multitude” in 7:9:

    “The sealing. . . refers to a particular group of Christians who have been specially protected by God from both divine plagues and human persecution just prior to the beginning of the eschatological tribulation and who will consequently survive that tribulation and the great eschatological conflict with which it culminates.”

  13. greenbaggins said,

    April 6, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    Jack, I cannot agree with this interpretation. Some of the reasons for that are listed in the OP itself. Most telling is the fact that you are asserting that John means Jews: Jews are from the tribe ONLY of Judah, whereas twelve tribes are listed, almost all of which did not even exist in any recognizable form at the time John was writing. Therefore, the listing of the twelve tribes is symbolic, not literal. And whatever he means, John CANNOT mean Jews. Even on a literal interpretation, he would have to mean Israelites, not Jews. But how can John mean the literal tribes of Israel when they didn’t even exist at that time? Add to this Galatians 6, where Paul calls the CHURCH the Israel of God, and 1 Peter where the OT language is used of the church, and we have a clear indication that the New Testament views the church as NT Israel.

  14. Jack Bradley said,

    April 7, 2015 at 1:07 am

    Lane, I affirmed and reaffirmed that the church and Israel are one. Let me affirm it here once again. But in case I somehow wasn’t clear enough: the 144,00 are Jewish *Christians*. Your response doesn’t address the critical remnant/firstfruit motif of the 144,000 (which I also affirmed is “highly symbolic”, yet “finite” – Aune).

  15. Jack Bradley said,

    April 7, 2015 at 1:16 am

    Actually, I don’t know how I could be clearer in my initial post: “verses 4-8 are describing, specifically, Jewish Christians.”

    So your objection really doesn’t make contact: “But how can John mean the literal tribes of Israel when they didn’t even exist at that time?”

    I certainly wasn’t claiming that they did, and the “highly symbolic” yet “finite” reading doesn’t require that they did.

  16. greenbaggins said,

    April 7, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Jack, my point about the northern tribes would still mitigate against the “Jewish Christian” position you espouse. It can’t be just Jewish Christians, it would have to be Israelite Christians. It can’t just be from the one tribe of Judah. Furthermore, the numbers of 12 X 12 X 1000 do not suggest remnant numbers, but rather complete numbers. From chapter 14, and the military celibacy suggested there, not to mention the purpose of census numbers in the OT, it seems that the church militant is a much better interpretation of the 144,000. It explains far more of the data than your interpretation does.

  17. Jack Bradley said,

    April 7, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Lane, your Judah fixation is lost on me, and we’ll just have to disagree about the best explanation of the data.

  18. roberty bob said,

    April 7, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Hi Jack,

    In your support, Jesus did promise and reserve twelve thrones for The Twelve who were his handpicked disciples so that they would rule over the ________ ________ __ __________ [fill in the blank] in the Age to Come.

    I’m wondering how Lane understands and explains that promise.

  19. Jack Bradley said,

    April 7, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I will give that some thought, Roberty, but I’m not seeing how that supports my view.


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