The 144,000 Sealed (Rev. 7:1-8)
Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that prior to 1935 144,000 people were anointed to enter heaven. Latter Day Saints believe there are 144,000 high priests who have been ordained according to the holy order of God. Christians have their own confusion about this number.
With so many confusing interpretations, we must remember the context of the original audience. Late in the first century John received a revelation from God of which he was to make a written record and send it to seven churches in Asia Minor. This revelation was meant to be preserved and shared with the broader church community. There is something about the sealing of the 144,000 servants of God from the twelve tribes of Israel, that is meant to encourage the whole church of God.
The previous passage concluded with a cry of despair from Christ’s rivals, “Who can stand?” (6:17). Only those who have received his seal will be able to stand in that day.
Read Rev. 7:1-8
The first question we need to answer is…
WHO ARE THE 144,000 SEALED?
Probably the most common view among evangelical Christians today is that the 144,000 represents a literal number of ethnic Jews. According to this Dispensational view, Christ has already raptured the church up to heaven. These Jews have somehow converted to Christianity, but now they must go through seven years of tribulation. Their task is to proclaim the gospel during that time, which results in the great multitude of believers depicted in 7:9-17.
The Dispensational view sees ethnic Jews in 7:1-8 and their converts from every nation in 7:9-17. However, it makes more sense to view both groups as referring to the same people, namely the Israel of God or true Israel.
- The 144,000 are mentioned again in 14:1-5. A consistent literal reading would limit these saints to those “who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” (14:4). Now we must see them as male Jewish virgins who have converted to Christianity. It makes more sense as a reference to the purity of the saints who have not defiled themselves spiritually with idolatry.
- The number 144,000 is too perfect to be a precise statistic. Rather, it is a figurative reference to the complete number of God’s elect. Much like Jesus’ exhortation to forgive 70×7 (490) times, the idea is to always be ready to forgive completely. We can reach the number by multiplying 12×12 (144) and then multiplying 144×1,000. We see these same numbers again in Rev 21. After John sees the new heaven and new earth (21:1-8), an angel brought him to the new Jerusalem to see the Bride of the Lamb (21:9). The city is 12,000 stadia long (21:16, roughly 1,380mi) surrounded by a great wall that measures 144 cubits tall (21:17, which is about 216 ft). If this were a literal city it would have covered the entire known world at the time of this writing. In other words, John saw the New Jerusalem covering the globe. In addition to this, the city’s wall had twelve gates on which are written the names of the sons of Israel (21:12) and twelve foundations on which are written the names of the twelve apostles (21:14). 12 representatives of the old covenant times 12 representatives of the new covenant equals 144 representatives as the bride of Christ. Multiply that by 1,000 to express the complete people of God. It seems clear from these parallels that the entire people of God are represented symbolically as 144,000 saints who belong to true Israel, who will inherit all the blessings the new Jerusalem.
- The idea that God has separate purposes for Gentiles and Jews during the last days goes against the consistent teaching of the New Testament that the church has brought Jews and Gentiles together as a single people. All of the servants of God, not just ethnic Jews, are said to be sealed elsewhere in Scripture (Eph. 1:13; 2 Cor. 1:22). All of this is consistent with how John portrays saints in the rest of Revelation. “Servants” always refers to all redeemed saints (1:1; 2:20; 19:2, 5; 22:3) who have been marked by God’s name on their foreheads (22:4). The same Lamb who was praised for ransoming “people for God from every tribe and people and nation” (5:9) also redeemed the 144,000 servants (14:4). All believers are referred to as a kingdom and priests fulfilling the kingly and priestly roles of the old covenant (1:6; 5:10). The conquering saints in Pergamum will be rewarded with hidden manna (2:17), while the conquering saints in Philadelphia will become pillars in God’s temple (3:12).
- If the 144,000 represents the whole people of God why are they depicted as coming from each tribe of Israel? Similar language is found in census passages of the Old Testament. Whenever a census is recorded it served the purpose of numbering the size of their army. Only males of military age were counted (always less stylistic, Num 1–Reuben 46,500 Simeon 59,300), which makes sense of the reference to male virgins in Rev. 14:4. However, this is not a literal army, made up precisely of 12,000 from twelve tribes. Rather, it represents the church militant, called to fight against spiritual principalities and powers throughout this present age.
In summary, the 144,000 are the church militant on earth which upon Christ’s return makes up the great multitude of the church triumphant in heaven (7:9-17). All of chapter seven considers the complete number of saints from two different locations. In chapter 5, John heard of the Lion of Judah who was worthy to open the scroll (5:5) and then turned to see the Lamb who was slain (5:6). The Lion and the Lamb referred to the same person. In chapter 7, John heard the number of the sealed servants of God was 144,000 (7:4), before seeing the great multitude that no one could number (7:9). Thus, the 144,000 and the great multitude are the same people.
Phillips They are one body, the church, first depicted in battle array on earth and then as glorified in heaven.
The second question we need to answer is…
WHEN ARE THE 144,000 SEALED?
If we were reading in strict chronological order, as most Dispensationalists do, we would have to read this sealing as taking place after the breaking of the first six seals (ch.6). Those seals clearly depicted judgment upon the earth. But, the angel’s command in 7:3 would suggest that we are looking at an event that precedes the destruction of the seals.
The first four seals unleashed the four horsemen of conquest, war, famine, and death. Regardless of their limitations, they do indeed harm the earth and its inhabitants. Or consider the description of the devastating judgment from the sixth seal (6:12-17). How could 7:3 make any sense if it follows chapter 6 chronologically.
However, when we consider the Old Testament allusions the picture becomes more apparent. These four angels who are holding back the four winds of the earth (7:1) are equivalent to the four horsemen who were permitted to wreak havoc upon the earth (6:1-8). John alludes to Zech. 6:1-5 where four chariots are driven by horses of various colors. The angel informs Zechariah that “these are going out to the four winds of heaven” where they will bring judgment upon the nation who treated Israel with cruelty (Zech. 1:8-15).
When the four winds are allowed to blow in Jeremiah 49:36 they scatter Elam into exile in every direction. The wind stirs up the sea (Dan. 7:2). Here the angels are preventing the wind from bringing destruction while God’s servants are sealed. So when are the 144,000 sealed?
God ensures the safety of his people by marking them with his seal (7:1-8), before they go through the tribulation of the seals (6:1-8). Before the Lamb breaks the seven seals of destruction, the servants of God are sealed for protection.
The only question left to answer is…
HOW ARE THE 144,000 SEALED?
“Seal” is used for different purposes in Scripture. They conceal the contents of the scroll (5:1). Satan is thrown into the pit that is then sealed so he cannot deceive the nations (20:3). Letters are sealed in order to designate the authority of the sender. And finally, saints are sealed in order to protect them and preserve them through suffering.
The 144,000 are secured in the hand of God because of their adoption. These servants of God are set apart as belonging to him. They have been identified as God’s chosen servants. He places his seal upon them to certify the authenticity of their faith. And, finally, the seal of God speaks of the confirmation of the Holy Spirit that has been given to each believer as a guarantee of their inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30).
In Ezekiel 9:4 the Israelites who “sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed” in Jerusalem were given a mark on their foreheads. This mark protected them from the one who passed through later and slaughtered everyone in the city who did not have the mark.
Here in Revelation, the protection must be spiritual rather than physical. Many in the church had already suffered persecution and even death (2:10, 13). Some who would not worship the beast will be slain by the beast (13:15). Rather than physically escaping tribulation by the rapture, the Church is spiritually protected through tribulation.
The mark of the beast is another counterfeit of Satan to mimic God’s seal. Just as all Satan’s followers are given his mark, so all of God’s followers are given his seal (not just ethnic Jews).
Resseguie In the narrative world of the Apocalypse persons bear either God’s seal or the mark of the beast (cf. 13:16).
This fulfills Isaiah’s prophecies. Those who have been effectually called by God belong to him and receive the promise that he will keep them and usethem to open the eyes of the blind (Isa. 42:6-7). They will be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6) and “to all generations” (Isa. 51:8). Because saints have received God’s seal the world will be evangelized until representatives from every tribe, tongue, and nation belong to the great multitude of the church triumphant.
But the seal also enables our perseverance. The seal of God prevents believers from accepting the mark of the beast. Because God has written his name upon their foreheads, Satan cannot mark them out for himself. They may be persecuted, even beheaded (20:4), but the seal of God empowers their witness and enables them to stand fast.
Spurgeon It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord. Ill to him is no ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain.
Therefore, if you belong to Christ by faith you belong to the 144,000 who have already received the seal of his Spirit who both empowers your witness and enables your perseverance.
Who can stand? Truly, no one can stand under the wrath of God. His wrath must be averted somehow. But his holiness demands justice.
First, we acknowledge that the penalty of our sin has already been paid for by the blood of Christ. The wrath of God has been averted by the Lamb who was slain in our place. The holy Lamb satisfied the demands of justice. Second, those who accept the free offer of the gospel by faith are immediately sealed by the Holy Spirit. That seal of the Holy Spirit empowers and enables us to fight against sin and to persevere until Christ’s return.
If you are a true believer, you will indeed witness and you will indeed persevere. The evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit in your life will be the fruit of your labors. Do you pray for the lost to be found? Do you pray for more laborers to enter into the plentiful harvest (Matt. 9:37)? Are you willing to go out and share your faith empowered by his Spirit? You can go in the confidence that he will keep you and use you.