Next to the number 666, the number 144,000 is the most discussed and debated number in the Book of Revelation. Interpretations range from that of The Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim that the 144,000 sealed servants of God refer to members of their organization, to Classic Dispensationalists who see those thousands as Jews in the last days who are chosen witnesses during the Great Tribulation[i], to the growing number of commentators who see the number as symbolic of the whole company of believers in Christ. Those in the last category can be divided into two camps: Those who see the 144,000 as believers from all epochs of redemptive history,[ii] Old and New Covenants up to the present and on to the culmination of this age; and those who believe it applies to martyrs during the end-time tribulation and judgments of God. [iii]
Both of these latter views see the number as symbolic, not literal. There are good reasons for viewing this number as symbolic. First, while the first mention of 144,000 sealed believers lists twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 7:4-8), the verses following describe “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV) Then in Chapter 14 the 144,000 appear again:
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (Rev 14:1-3)
It would certainly seem that those who bear the name of Jesus (“the Lamb”) and God the Father, and who sing the new song are all the redeemed of God, regardless of ethnic background. Verse 3 also states that they “have been redeemed from the earth.” Mounce, a pre-millennialist, states: “The number is obviously symbolic. Twelve (the number of the tribes) is both squared and multiplied by a thousand – a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness.”[iv] While Mounce limits this “completeness” to “that generation of faithful believers about to enter the final turbulent period that will mark the end of human history,” Beale, an amillennarian idealist, sees the 12 x 12 x 1000 as the whole number of believers from Old Testament times through to the very end. He relates the number to “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 ESV).[v] John consistently uses the title “bride” to refer to the Church, those for whom He shed his blood on the Cross (John 3:29;[vi] Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17).
I agree with Beale. The Holy City described in Revelation 22 clinches it for me. The angel clearly identifies the “city” as “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb" (Rev. 21:9). Then he goes on to describe this Bride in richly symbolic terms:
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel's measurement. (Rev 21:9-17 ESV)
Look at the twelves in that passage! Twelve gates have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel – a reference to Old Testament believers. The twelve foundations of the wall of the city bear the names of the twelve apostles – a reference to New Testament believers. And the wall is 144 cubits – 12 x 12. Multiply 144 by 1,000 (indicating an innumerable company) and you get 144,000, the totality of the redeemed people of God. And that “city?” Are those measurements literal?
The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. (Rev. 21:16 ESV)
The measurement “stadium” is equal to a furlong, or about 1/8 of a mile.[vii] The city described would be a cube of 1,500 miles! Symbolic, don’t you think?
I find great blessing in the grand and glorious plan of God and its culmination in the glorification of all God’s redeemed children, united in the presence of God Himself! “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)
Next: "666 -- What Does It Mean?"
[i] Walvoord, John F. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. Chicago: Moody Press, 1971.
[ii] Hendriksen, William. (1967) More Than Conquerors. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1967; Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U. K.: William B. Eermans Publishing Company, 1999.
[iii] Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U. K.: William B. Eardmans Publishing Company, 1977.
[iv] Ibid. p. 158.
[v] Beale, pp. 1076-77
[vi] This statement of John the Baptist might seem to imply that only the New Testament Church is the Bride, and that John does not include himself in that number. The “Bride” is a corporate designation, not individual. Each believer is not personally “married” to Christ; each believer is a part of that corporate body that makes up the Bride. John was simply saying that Jesus, not John himself, was the Bridegroom. This does not exclude Old Testament believers from the body that makes up the “Bride of the Lamb.”
[vii] American Heritage Dictionary