June 1, 2008

NUMB3RS - The 144,000

I've held off posting the next week in the Revelation series blog entries partially out of busyness and partially because I was scheduled to preach on the section that we've now come to (ch.7) as the final message in our series "NUMB3RS - Messages from the book of Revelation". I'm not going to comment much on ch.7. Rather, I direct the reader to my message which should be posted shortly on GSUMC's home page.

However, I would like to offer the following remarks on the 144K of Revelation that I found to be quite a good summary of the concept. It's from the extremely helpful (even when I find myself in disagreement with its conclusions at times!) "Hard Sayings of the Bible" edited by, among others, one of my former OT professors Walt Kaiser. While this article unfortunately (and surprisingly) does not address the clear parallels to the Hebrew military census nature of the 144,000 list, it does a good job in bringing out many of the other theologically significant ideas contained within this number and the passages in which we find it.

"7:4 Who Are the 144,000?"
The doorbell rings on a Saturday morning and two people stand on the porch offering literature about the return of Christ. If questioned, they might reveal that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their motives for their door-to-door activity are not simply to gain converts for the movement, but rather to gain merit for themselves through their exemplary zeal. Their hope (faint though it may be, given the number of Witnesses worldwide) might be to become one of the 144,000 who will reign with Christ. While there are certainly a number of more important places at which orthodox Christians would take issue with these Witnesses in terms of doctrine, what they say about the 144,000 remains troubling, not because it is believed, but because we ourselves do not know what this number means.
The problem with the number is that it is clearly symbolic, but the question is, Symbolic of what? Three major scholarly options have been given. The first is that this figure is symbolic of a group of Jews whom God will redeem at the end of the age. The second is that this is symbolic of a group of martyrs whom God preserves for martyrdom. The third is that this number is symbolic of the whole of the church, which God will protect through the tribulation at the end of the age. Only an examination of the data will show which of these is most likely to be correct.
John’s picture draws on two Old Testament images. The first is that of Passover (Ex 12:12–13), during which the blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews’ homes was a sign protecting them from the judgment that the Egyptians were receiving. The significant elements in Exodus are that the world around the Hebrews was experiencing judgment and a God-given sign protected the people of God from this judgment. The second Old Testament image is that of Ezekiel’s man with an ink horn (Ezek 9). Again, the context is one of judgment. Again the people true to God are marked to be spared. In this case “a man clothed with linen who had a writing kit at his side” goes through the city and marks a Hebrew tāw, which in those days was an × or a +, on the forehead of each person faithful to God.
There may also be a New Testament background for John’s picture. In 2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13 and Ephesians 4:30, Paul writes that Christians are sealed with the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit is not said to protect believers from anything, the image is one of security. Likewise, “the Lord knows those who are his” stands as a seal in 2 Timothy 2:19. While there is no evidence that John had read any of these books, the fact that Paul used sealing language implies that it was used around the church before John wrote.
In the picture in Revelation 7 the judgment of God announced in Revelation 6 is held back until the sealing is complete. The sealed are identified as “the servants of our God.” The image is that of Ezekiel, both in the placement of the seal on the forehead and in the idea of only a remnant (in Ezekiel a remnant of Israel) being sealed from the judgment. This theme is picked up again in Revelation 9:4 in the fifth of the trumpet judgments, in which the “locusts” are to hurt only those “who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” The sealed are protected in the midst of judgment all around them.
In Revelation 14 the 144,000 are “the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.” They are described as celibate virgins, which in Revelation means that they have not been seduced by the forces of evil nor made a compromise with idolatry. They are also totally truthful. “They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb” (Rev 14:4). The firstfuit picture appears in James 1:18 for all Christians in relation to the world and in Romans 11:16 for Gentile believers in relation to the full repentance of Israel.
Who are these 144,000, then? The theory that they are the martyrs of the last days is attractive, but in the end unconvincing because nothing is said in these passages of their being martyrs. Instead it appears that all of the “servants of God” are sealed. These “servants” are part of a larger group that is not serving God. That many of these folk might become martyrs is reasonable, given the persecution described in Revelation 13, but John says nothing to make us think that they are exclusively martyrs.
The theory that they are the Jewish believers of the end time is also attractive since the tribes of Israel are named. However, there are also problems here. Both the order of the tribal list and the names included are unusual. For example, both Manasseh and his father, Joseph, are included (Joseph apparently standing for Ephraim). Dan is missing, although he is present in Ezekiel’s end-time list (Ezek 48). Thus John appears to indicate that the list stands for something other than any known form of Israel. Yet another problem is that most of “Israel” is not saved (that is, is not in the 144,000), while Paul’s expectation (Rom 11:26) is that “all Israel will be saved.” If both John and Paul have versions of Christian expectation about the Jews, there must have been two competing expectations in the early church. Finally, in Revelation 7 these folk are called simply the “servants of God,” which is not a term unique to Jewish believers. Likewise the description of them in Revelation 14 could fit any believer who is faithful to God and does not compromise with the “beast” and the “false prophet.” In Revelation 9 all who are not sealed are tormented. Does this mean that Gentile believers are tormented while Jewish ones are not? And doesn’t a Jew-Gentile distinction within the church run counter to all of Paul’s arguments about God’s breaking down the walls between the races? These reasons persuade me that this cannot be the correct explanation.
The 144,000, then, stand for God’s faithful people, Jew or Gentile. They are, just as the text says, “the servants of our God.” The image of Israel is probably drawn from the picture in Ezekiel 9. Just as all of the tribes of Israel present in Jerusalem (the last stand of Judaism before the exile) were included then, so all of the tribes of humanity will be included in the end. The 12 X 12 X 1000 stresses the completeness of this number; all of God’s servants from all of humanity are sealed. The purpose of their sealing is to protect them not from temptation or martyrdom, but from the judgment of God. This is God’s church of the end times, when God’s judgment is coming to a peak. Since they are faithful, there is no reason for judgment to fall upon them. In Revelation 7 the image of the 144,000 protected on earth is coupled with a parallel image of the church in heaven, an encouragement to persevere. In Revelation 14 the 144,000 are in heaven, for in the same chapter is the harvest of the earth. The final judgments, which will destroy everything and everyone in their path, are about to begin. No wonder that the church is withdrawn before that final curtain comes down.
What does this image say to the church today? On the assumption that we live in the last days (which in New Testament thought runs from the time of Christ to the end), our Jehovah’s Witness friends are right to wish to be numbered in the 144,000. The sad thing is that they are going about it the wrong way. It is not a limited number to which one gains entrance by merit, but the complete number of God’s faithful servants. One is counted in that number if he or she does not compromise the faith by going after the idols of the world and does not live in falsehood, but speaks and lives in truth. Another way of putting it is that “they follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4). In the context of Revelation this means that they follow him in heaven (and perhaps in his conquest of earth in Rev 19), but they do so in heaven because they have already been his followers on earth, whatever the cost.

[Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 761.]

The bottom line - The 144k of Revelation are the symbolic apocalyptic depiction of God's faithful followers who reject compromise, idolatry, and giving their allegiance to anyone but their One True King, the Lamb. Throughout history the true Church of Jesus (the "Righteous Remnant, to borrow OT imagery) may look from all outward appearances like a defeated minority paling in significance to the overwhelming majority who are living in rebellion or hypocrisy against God--and winning! But through the lens of the apocalyptic, from Heaven's point of view, these faithful followers are the true conquering army of the Israel of God! What could be more comforting and encouraging to the believer as he or she attempts to live faithfully in a fallen world?!

May we all walk together in the ranks of the Army of the Lamb!


Edit: In a discussion with my friend Savina, who is a Jehovah's Witness, she informed me that not all JW's seek to be one of the 144k. She said that she looks forward to living on the renewed earth, not in heaven with the 144k. Thanks for letting me know this Savina. I thoroughly enjoy our discussions.


Patricia Burns said...

The 144,000 are 12,000 each of the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen.49:28 below).

Gen.49:28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob): and this is it that their father (Jacob/Israel) spake unto them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.

Directly AFTER the Sixth SEAL (Re.6:12-17) and BEFORE the Seventh, and final, SEAL is opened (Re.8:1), the 144,000 will be sealed (Re.7:3-4 below). They will be sealed in Jerusalem (Eze.9:4, Eze.9:11 below).

Re.7:3 Saying, HURT NOT the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, TILL WE HAVE SEALED the servants of our God in their foreheads (Re.14:1 below).

Re.7:4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed (Eze.9:4): and there were sealed AN HUNDRED AND FORTY AND FOUR THOUSAND of all the tribes of the children of Israel (Jacob – Gen.49:28 above).

Eze.9:4 And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of JERUSALEM, and SET A MARK upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst (of the city) thereof.

Eze.9:11 And, behold, the man clothed in linen, which had the inkhorn by his side (Eze.9:2), reported the matter, saying, I have done as thou hast commanded me.

We will know that the sealing of the 144,000 will be taking place when we experience that the winds of the earth will have stopped blowing for the duration of the sealing (Re.7:1-4).

The 144,000 are sealed that they will not see death. The 144,000 are those who are “alive and remain” to be caught up with the dead in Christ at the Seventh Trumpet (1 Thess.4:16-17).

Witnessing the Sixth Seal, the 144,000 will know that Jesus is the Messiah. We know this because we see the 144,000, who have been redeemed from the earth, who have been redeemed from among men, standing with the Lamb (the Savior) on heavenly mount Sion (Re.14:1-2, Heb.12:22 below) directly after the Seventh Trumpet ascension.

Re.14:1 And I looked, and lo, a Lamb (Rev.13:8) stood on mount Sion (Heb.12:22 below), and with him AN HUNDRED FORTY AND FOUR THOUSAND, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads (Re.7:3-4 above, Eze.9:4).

Re.14:3 And they sung as it were a new song before the throne (Re.7:10, Re.7:17), and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn the song but THE HUNDRED AND FORTY AND FOUR THOUSAND, WHICH WERE REDEEMED FROM THE EARTH (Re.11:13, 1 Thess.4:17).

Heb.12:22 But ye are come unto mount Sion (Re.14:1 above), and unto the city of the living God, the HEAVENLY Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels.

The 144,000 are the firstfruits unto God AND to the Lamb because they were the first "chosen" of the church (1 Cor.10:32) before the foundation of the world (Eph.1:4).

The 144,000 are virgins (Re.14:4 below). They are virgins because the entire church (1 Cor.10:32) are a chaste virgin to Christ (2 Cor.11:2).

The 144,000 are without fault (Re.14:5 below), because the entire church of God are without fault (Rom.8:1).

Re.14:4 These (144,000) are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins (2 Cor.11:2). These are they which follow the Lamb withersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men (Re.14:3 above), BEING THE FIRSTFRUITS unto God (the Father) AND to the Lamb (the Savior).

Re.14:5 And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are WITHOUT FAULT (Rom.8:1) before the throne of God.

Referencing Dan.9:24, the 144,000 are the most Holy.

Patricia (ndbpsa ©) Bible Prophecy on the Web
Author of the self-study aid, The Book of Revelation Explained © 1982

JMS said...

Wow. Okay, um...this is precisely how NOT to read Revelation, I'm afraid.

Ms. Burns, nowhere in your interpretation is there any acknowledgement of Revelation's Apocalyptic genre. You seem to be being quite selectively literal (i.e. "there will be no wind"...but this will happen on the earth? The earth that has had every island and mountain removed and has had the sky roll up like a scroll and stars, which are millions of times larger than the earth itself, fall to the earth like figs from a fig tree (6:13-14)??).

To read Revelation in a literalistic sense violates the very way in which it was written and the way in which the first readers understood it.

If the 144,000 are literally from the tribes of Israel only, then the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, (ch.5) is literally different than the "lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (ch.5).

But we know this is not the case. John HEARS Lion of Judah (military image) but SEES slaughtered Lamb (symbol of weakness and defeat) in Rev.5. Likewise, in Rev.7 John HEARS 144k from Israel (military census format used in the OT), but SEES (innumerable mulititude from EVERY tribe...who have been martyred).

I would encourage you to re-examine the foundational hermeneutics of the Darby/Scofield/Lindsay reading of Revelation which your comments are representing and look at how 1st century Apocalyptic texts were intended to be read and interpreted. It won't be as neat and tidy, or as popular, as the Dispensational approach...but it won't have the exegetical weaknesses and contradictions inherent to that system of thought.


Patricia Burns said...

I would encourage you to keep studying the Holy Bible.

JMS said...

Thank you, I intend to. That's something that ALL of us could never do enough of! :)

Have a great rest of the week and thanks for stepping into the Dojo and taking some swings! That's what it's here for.


JML said...

Conversations amongst Christians with different beliefs are always the best. Obviously, we aren't going to say, "OK, I guess you're right." That is, unless we don't have any convictions. That's what I try to tell myself when I'm staring an angry person who happens to be quoting one-liners from the Bible at me. Bless them, hopefully they'll get some new revelation! You're doing a great job.

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