Who are the 144,000 men and women we find in Revelation 7:1-8? Is the number significant? Stephen gives us insight into this mystery as he continues his study of John's Revelation.
Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5
There are certain numbers revealed in the Book of Revelation that have created incredible debate, along with amazing superstition, intrigue, religious fanaticism, not to mention, great confusion.
The number 666 would be at the top of the list. Debates are long and loud as to this symbol’s meaning. There are all kinds of notions, strange teaching, weird predictions related to this number and there are a lot of, I might add, websites.
Another number that has provoked just as much debate, if not more, is the number 144,000.
An amazing array of religious teachings incorporate this number, fixating on it as if it were some kind of spiritual key or clue to unraveling the mystery of immortality.
A religion called Raelism which began in 1974 and follows the teaching of a former French journalist. It is now considered the largest UFO religion in the world. They believe human life was the result of extraterrestrials. They also believe that there are 144,000 chosen people to continue the human race following, basically, the end of the world. They have actually attracted priests and bishops from other religions. This religion is popular outside America in places like France and South Korea.
The Church Universal movement believes that the extraterrestrial Lord of the Flame brought 144,000 souls from the planet Venus to earth.
More popular in America are the Seventh-Day Adventists who believe that the 144,000 are the true believers – made known by their observance of the Jewish Sabbath/Saturday as their day of worship. They sadly mix Old and New Testament practices and in the process confuse the meaning of both.
Their official website attempts to tone down their view from the public by stating that the 144,000 are not just 7th Day Adventists.
However, all you have to do is dig a little deeper, which I did, to find out they believe only those who worship God on Saturday will go to heaven; in fact they believe Sunday worship just so happens to be the mark of the beast.
The Seventh Day Adventist believes that the remnant church – code word for true believers – are those who worship God on the seventh-day – the Sabbath.
So, effectively, they are the ones going to heaven and everybody who worships on Sunday is in league with the devil and the coming antichrist.
Amazing to me, especially given the clear and plain record of scripture that now, in this New Testament church era, among other passages, Paul wrote, “No one can judge you any longer in regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16).
Further, Paul makes it clear that salvation is a gift from God without any contribution or work of man. (Ephesians 2:8)
So if salvation is by faith in Christ alone, but you have to collectively worship on Saturday in order to be saved, you have then added the effort and works of man to the gift of God.
The Sabbath sign of covenant relationship with Israel has been set aside and in this church age, we can worship God on any day of the week – individually and corporately. In fact, by the time of Acts chapter 20, the believers were meeting on Sunday – the day the Lord rose from the dead – as their day of special worship.
Even more popular, and connected to this number 144,000, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
They claimed that the 144,000 were not Jewish Christians in the Revelation account, but actually Jehovah’s Witnesses. They would comprise the 144,000 number of true redeemed, rescued believers.
The problem became apparent when the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses exceeded 144,000. (What does God do with the leftovers?) So they revised their doctrine and taught that there was an earthly band of 144,000 and a heavenly band. The heavenly band of Witnesses were for the charter members – many of whom had already died.
But then the problem of simple math reared its head again when they exceeded 288,000 followers. So they created a third band of 144,000 called the “servant band”.
Ray Stedman, God’s Final Word (Discovery House, 1991), p. 160
So you’ve got the heavenly band, the earthly band and the servant band. For those of you who don’t believe there will be bands in heaven, are you in for a surprise!
According to the latest data, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there are around 9000+ of this number registered.
It’s amazing how many convoluted problems result from taking this number in any way other than its clear, literal announcement.
So, let’s pick our study back up, now at Revelation chapter 7, and answer the 144,000 dollar question.
As you’re turning there, you may remember how the previous chapter ended.
We watched as the world entered an incredible time of cosmic upheaval. A massive earthquake shook the entire planet, causing the crust of the earth to shift; flaming asteroids came blazing through the atmosphere, colliding with planet earth and causing untold devastation. The sun and moon were totally eclipsed, plunging the world into eerie darkness.
All of unbelieving humanity began to pray to the rocks to fall on them and for their lives to end . . . to be saved from the wrath of God. From Kings to slaves, they were all equalized as this 6th seal was broken the scroll unrolled.
The last part of their prayer in chapter 6, verse 17 asked the question, “and who is able to stand?”
In other words, who can possibly survive the terror and wrath of God?
What God does for us through the writing of John the Apostle here, is put on the brakes for a moment and answer that question.
Chapter 7 is an interlude – a parenthesis – a pause, so to speak in the chronological progression of the opening of the seals. And the reason for it is to let us know the status of the gospel – and to let us know about a very special group of people who not only survive, but thrive.
Adapted from Robert L. Thomas, Revelation: Volume 1 (Moody Press, 1992), p. 462
Notice how John opens verse 1 with – After this I saw. That’s the way he consistently introduces a new vision. Here it is – After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth.
Let me stop here briefly. This is one of those verses the liberal’s use to mock the Bible. Poor John . . . poor Christians . . . they’re stuck with a Book and an ancient church father who obviously thinks the world is flat with four corners.
Can you believe that?! Angels are standing at the four corners of the earth.
We can understand the four winds – an obvious reference for winds from the north, south, east and west; but this four corners thing – now you’re stuck with pre-scientific understanding and you gotta hang your head in the presence of modern science and say, “Aw shucks, John didn’t know science, so don’t hold it against him.”
However, I found it fascinating that the modern science of Geodesy has proven this true.
Geodesy is a branch of applied mathematics which determines of the size and shape of the earth, among other things.
In recent years, geo-detic measurements have actually proven the earth really does have four corners. Earth actually has four projections or protuberances standing out from the basic spherical shape of the earth.
One scientist wrote, “The earth is not really a perfect sphere after all, but is slightly flattened at the poles and it has an equatorial bulge caused by earth’s rotation; it has a bulge around its middle. How many of you can identify! I’m just gonna move on here.
This author writes, “Because of the equatorial bulge and the flattening at the poles, you have four corner protrusions – one at each pole and two at opposite ends of the strategic equatorial diameter. But listen, there’s more . . . and I quote, “These four corners [play a role in controlling] the great atmospheric circulation which governs the winds of the earth.”
Henry M. Morris, The Revelation Record (Tyndale House, 1986), p. 126
“And I saw 4 angels standing on the four corners of the earth holding the 4 winds!”
Listen, this 2,000 year old document was centuries ahead of its scientific times.
Now these four angels are stationed at each pole and along the equator to do one thing – restrain the winds – a reference to the destroying winds of God’s wrath. Notice 1b, “so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree.”
By the way, the four winds have often been referred to in scripture as the judgment of God.
So at the outset of this interlude – this pause – there is the calming of hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis and a host of disturbances that have just ravaged the earth in the previous seal of chapter 6.
Would you carefully note that the wind will not, at this point, disturb the earth, the sea or the trees.
In other words, the churning bodies of water and the collapsing of trees has now ceased – but what I want to point out is the presence of bodies of water and trees.
Let me point out something contrary to public opinion.
Near the end of human history, as we know it, prior to the coming Kingdom there are plentiful bodies of water and plenty of trees.
We evidently didn’t run out.
In fact, chapter 8 will unroll even more terrors upon the planet and then “a third of the trees will burn up and all the green grass will burn up (v. 7). We’ve even got green grass – green grass! Evidently my lawn isn’t part of this picture.
The next verse tells us that the springs of water and rivers that will be poisoned by God’s judgment – so evidently there are rivers and fresh springs of water.
Listen, this planet belongs to God and God will sustain his planet and His creation and the human race and the animal kingdom until He moves with judgment to wipe most of it out.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to manage earth well and take care of it and work to enhance her beauty and resources . . . but that’s different from believing you must save the planet.
God never asked you to save His planet.
What it does mean is that the sustaining and the longevity and the resources of planet earth are ultimately in the hands and providence of God . . . and you get to the time of Tribulation and guess what – life is still sustained and trees and grass and rivers and springs of water are not only present but prospering.
Imagine . . . God’s earth has somehow survived the hole in the ozone layer. He has somehow caused earth to survive in spite of all our oxygen consumption and water drinking and population exploding and carbon foot-printing – and dare I say it, global warming.
Somehow He’s kept it together.
I have been in an airplane with all four of my children at some point in time when they were younger. As soon as we got up around 20,000 feet I would say to each of them,
“Look down there . . . what do you see?”
They’d answer, “Trees.”
And I’d say, “But, I thought we were almost out of
“Oh no . . . look at ‘em all”
Every once in a while, throughout the trip I’d say, “What do you see down there?” “Trees!”
Trees were everywhere.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this might not be politically correct, and you know I care deeply about that; planet earth is ultimately under the jurisdiction and protection of God and He will cause it to survive whether you have children, cut a tree down, recycle or not.
I’m not against recycling. Please do if you’d like. What I don’t believe is Biblical is the attachment of recycling or anything else mankind does with saving the planet – the view that mankind is responsible to save the planet is an affront to the sovereignty of God; it’s also a rejection of the Biblical account of the last days.
Paul wrote, “The earth belongs to the Lord and everything it contains” (I Corinthians 10:26)
It belongs to Him.
So here in verse 1 of Revelation 7, you have 4 angels, serving God by corralling the winds of judgment.
Now notice another angel appears in verse 2. And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun (that is, from the east), having the seal of the living God.
Now listen to his message, verse 3. “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.”
A sphragis (sfragiV) was a reference to the mark made by the signet ring that an eastern monarch used to press into wax or pressed into clay to reveal his seal.
The signet ring was given to Joseph by Pharaoh after Joseph interpreted his dreams and was promoted to second highest in all of Egypt in Genesis 41:42.
These 144,000 have the authority and power of the living God, John writes.
Who are they? Verse 4 tells us, “And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” That is, every tribe that is mentioned in the list below.
Two facts are easily presented which help us answer the 144,000 dollar question. And we can answer it without any special Bible code or extraterrestrial help. There’s no need for textual gymnastics.
Fact #1: These are Jews.
This is not the church. This is clearly a reference to literal, historical, ethnic Jews – from the sons of Israel.
Some authors have even suggested that since the passage is so clearly referring to Jews, it must have been added later to Revelation because it just can’t be . . . this has to be the church.
This isn’t the church. In fact, if national Israel instead of the church is understood here in this paragraph, as it plainly states, the difficulty dissolves. But if you try to make this the church –then you’ve got a problem.
Thomas, p. 466
12 tribes of Israel are mentioned here in an itemized list.
“Whenever anybody says the church is a part of the 144,000, here in Revelation 7, ask them, “Which tribe?”
Adrian Rogers, Unveiling the End Times in Our Time (Broadman, 2004), p. 98
These are Jews from the tribes of the sons of Israel.
By the way, this also strikes a death blow to the belief that Jewish tribes have been forever lost – or that Europeans are the lost tribes.
There are no lost tribes . . . God doesn’t lose things. He certainly doesn’t lose people.
There are the lost boys, but that’s Peter Pan and the lost boys. The lost boys are not in the Bible . . . I hate to break it to you.
God has not lost any tribes along the way . . . in fact, they will all show up at one point or another in the Book of Revelation.
Fact #1: they are Jews.
Fact #2: there are 144,000 of them.
There is no need for confusion. This isn’t a figurative number.
Lest anyone should think this is a mere symbol, John gives an itemized list of tribes;
Stewart Custer, From Patmos to Paradise (BJU Press, 2004), p. 88
12,000 from each of the tribes listed and then the tribes are listed with the number repeated over and over again.
Listen, if this number in Revelation is figurative as the Amillennialist says, there is no good reason to take any other number in Revelation literally.
There is a great deal of confusion created when people make this number meaningless – just some random number.
Furthermore, they create even greater confusion when they spiritualize it all away to be an unspecified number of believers; -or the church of all ages;
-or a remnant of Christians who worship only on Saturday;
-or a group of chosen people marked by extraterrestrials who will survive the end of the world.
Those viewpoints are philosophical, they are not exegetical.
This text leaves no doubt that the number is definite and the people are unmistakable.
From these Jewish tribes each, 12,000 are chosen by God to serve Him as special ambassadors, supernaturally protected from the antichrist.
And they are given a special, visible mark on their forehead.
So we’ve answered how many there are and who they are . . . now, just why are they sealed and what exactly do they do?
There is a detailed description of them in Revelation chapter 14, so let’s turn there and make four descriptive observations of these 144,000 Jewish believers.
Revelation 14:1. Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion – this is on earth – and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven – further evidence that they are on earth since they are hearing a voice from heaven.
John MacArthur, Revelation: Volume 2 (Moody Press, 2000), p. 71
Now, here’s the first of four observations we can cull from these texts:
- First observation: The 144,000 are sealed as the Sovereign Lord’s possession
The text says they had the name of God the Son and Father on their foreheads. (14:1)
That sounds strange doesn’t it; to have a name written – or maybe artistically designed as an insignia on your forehead?
Not to John’s generation.
It was not uncommon for a soldier or a guild member in John’s day to have some bodily mark as a devotee; it was not unusual for people to receive a mark on the forehead as a sign of consecration to a deity. The forehead was chosen because it was the most conspicuous. You couldn’t hide it.
Thomas, p. 473
The pagan religions of the ancients marked themselves with special symbols representing their devotion to their god.
It wasn’t unusual in John’s generation and it really isn’t unusual in our generation.
Today in India, millions of Hindus attach great importance to this ornamental mark on the forehead – called a bindi. It’s usually a small round mark made on the forehead among the poorer classes, and expensive jewelry worn on the forehead by the wealthy women of India.
While it is considered a touch of beauty, throughout much of India it is required for married women. A red dot on the forehead is a sign of marriage and guarantees the social status of the woman . . . it performs the same function as a wedding ring.
They believe that a dazzling red bindi on a bride’s forehead on her wedding day will usher in prosperity and it grants her special honor as the guardian of the home and her family’s well being.
The insignia declares that she belongs to another and that her loyalty and devotion is to her husband.
By the way, all the antichrist will do later on in his jealous rage is mimic this by having his own followers signed with his own seal in Revelation 13:6.
Well, for the 144,000, this mark on their forehead signifies they belong to Almighty God.
It is a mark of the Sovereign’s possession.
- The 144,000 are sealed with supernatural protection
They are unable to be put to death. In chapter 7 they are sealed and in chapter 14 they stand with the Lord as the Kingdom is about to be ushered in at the end of the Tribulation.
John Phillips writes, and I quote,
“The mobilized armies of the earth will not be able to touch a hair of the heads of these sealed ones; the concentration camps and torture chambers of the Beast’s fearful inquisition will leave them unscathed. The fire will not kindle upon them; the secret police will have dossiers as thick as prison walls, but they will be unable to harm them. The seal of God rests upon them and they are secured, come what may. They will be a living proof to the devil that not only is his secular power strictly limited by divine decree, in the end he cannot win. If he cannot conquer these Jews, then he cannot possibly win in the end.”
John Phillips, Exploring Revelation (Loizeaux Brothers, 1991), p. 110
They are sealed as the Sovereign’s possession;
They are sealed with supernatural protection;
- Third, the 144,000 are sealed with spiritual power
More than likely, the great multitude of martyrs who sing in chapter 7, are those who believed the uniquely effective gospel preaching of these 144,000 passionate missionaries.
The vast millions who are saved throughout the Tribulation are saved, largely because of the powerful testimony of these Jews who testify to the Living God they serve.
Satan will no doubt attempt to kill these fearless preachers of the gospel, but God will not permit them to be harmed.
John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Moody, 2007), p. 228
They will be a perpetual thorn in the side of Satan and his puppet antichrist.
There is simply no way to even imagine their delegated power as they travel the globe; they are unstoppable and indestructible.
- Fourth, the 144,000 are sealed as a symbolic pledge
John calls them in chapter 14 verse 4 the firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.
They Jews represent the pledge and promise of God to redeem ethnic Israel to Himself, and these 144,000 represent the beginning of that harvest.
The Apostle Paul used the same phrase when he referred to the new believers in the household of Stephanas as the first fruits of Achaia. In other words, they were among the first to believe in that region and they represented the harvest of souls to come from that region. (I Corinthians 16:15)
God will keep His word and redeem the Jew . . . no matter what happens . . . no matter the hatred or demonically inspired holocausts against them . . . the existence of the Jew even today is a testimony to the pledge of God.
These are ethnic Jews and they still exist.
Listen, you have never met a Ninevite, or a Girgashite or an Amalekite, Hittite, Jebusite, Amorite or any other mosquito bite.
But you have met a Jew.
In 1936, the mayor of New York faced a dilemma. Anit-Jewish sentiment was at fever pitch in Germany and Nazi Germany was known for it’s hatred of Jews . . . believing Jews to be swine, the offscouring of humanity and worthy, eventually, of death.
But the mayor of New York, Mayor La Guardia was confronted with a difficult dilemma. A high-ranking diplomat from Nazi Germany was coming to New York for meetings and it was the mayor’s job to provide him with protection. Of course, New York was heavily populated with Jewish immigrants and they, along with the mayor, considered Nazism repulsive.
What was he to do?
He was inspired to use this as an opportunity to send a message to the Nazis that they were terribly wrong in their treatment of Jews; he hand-picked the body-guards from New York City Policemen and made sure they all happened to be Jewish men. What wonderful irony – this German diplomat who hated Jews would owe his personal safety and life – to the care of Jews.
Stedman, p. 155
There will come a day when all the hatred of the world will be pointed at the Christians and the Jews – can you imagine the hatred against Christians who also happen to be Jewish. Messianic Jews, we call them today; Jewish men and women who have placed their faith in the Messiah who has come and who will come back.
But these 144,000 will be uniquely marked.
They are sealed as the Sovereign’s possession;
They are sealed with supernatural protection;
They are sealed with spiritual power;
And they are sealed as a symbolic pledge.
What struck me as I studied the profile of these Jewish men who travel the globe discipling new converts was the fact that in this church era, we are also sealed.
Paul tells the Ephesian believers, “You were sealed in Christ by the Holy Spirit of promise.” (Ephesians 1:13)
Further in chapter 4 he wrote, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30)
This is not the visible name of the Father and Son on the forehead of these Jewish evangelists, but it is a seal nonetheless during the church age.
We are also the Sovereign’s possession; we have also been empowered to serve Him as slaves of God and we also will see His promises to us, the church fulfilled, for we will reign with Him in His coming glory.
In fact, it struck me that the lifestyle and character of these Jewish witnesses should be our own reputation and character.
They were physically marked with a seal; we are spiritually marked with the Spirit, but the 144,000 were also marked with characteristics which should also mark us today.
Let me give you four of them.
- First, They are marked by purity
Notice what John says of them in chapter 14, verse 4.
These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste.
This doesn’t mean these men were unmarried, since Hebrews 13:4 declares the marriage bed un-defiling.
It could mean they were virgin, single men, but more than likely it is simply a reference that they keep themselves away from the sexual promiscuity that runs rampant during the Tribulation.
The worship of the Antichrist will be unspeakably vile and perverse. With divine restraint removed (2 Thessalonians 2:6-7) and the unbelieving world abandoned by God, sin will be released like a flood, inundating the world.
MacArthur, p. 76
The world will live out the debauchery of Romans chapter 1.
Yet, these men shine like beacons of purity. John writes further in verse 4, they have kept themselves chaste.
The same word for chaste here – parthenos (parqenoV) – is used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:2 to refer to the virgin pure Bride of Christ.
Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume 5, 1967), p. 837
This is a challenge to the church today to live sexually pure lives. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Sexual activity before marriage and outside of marriage (I Thessalonians 4:3).
He wrote to Timothy, “Flee youthful lusts” (2 Timothy 2:22)
He wrote to the Corinthians, “Flee immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:13)
Has it ever occurred to you that God never commanded you to fight sexual temptation; He simply told you to run.
The mark of a witness for Christ, today, should be one who so fears sexual misconduct that he or she runs from it – fears it – abhors it.
Perhaps our testimony for Christ so suffers in our culture today, because the Christian is no more distinctively pure in his relationships than the unbeliever is.
It’s time to recapture what Robert Murray McCheyne, the godly 19th Century Scottish preacher said, and I quote; “It is not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister/Christian is a powerful weapon in the hand of God.”
MacArthur, p. 77
These witnesses are marked, not only by sexual purity;
- Secondly they are marked by loyalty.
Notice verse 4 again, “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”
In other words, they’re priority is the will of God.
Henry Blackabey made popular a saying that I was reminded of here – the wise Christian finds out where God is at work and simply joins Him there.
This is no-strings attached loyalty . . . they will go anywhere, do anything that God wants.
Gordon, p. 302
They are passionately loyal to their redemptive cause and it’s Christ.
I had lunch this past week with a couple of North Carolina Supreme Court justices – I’m not in any trouble, so don’t worry. They had wanted to tour our facilities and learn about the church and Shepherds seminary, having read about us in the News and Observer. During our lunch, one of the Justices was telling us about his son who served as a Marine and how tough they really were. Any marines out here? He said his son loves every bit of it – he can sleep standing up, leaning against a tree. You say, that’s nothing, I can sleep sitting up in a chair on Sunday morning.” And I know who you are.
The Justice said that his son has a poncho to wear during a rain shower but he uses the poncho to cover up and protect his equipment rather than himself.
These 144,000 here are the Messiah’s marines.
Marked by loyalty to the cause of the Lamb.
- Thirdly, they are marked by honesty
John writes, in verse 5, and no lie was found in their mouth.
Listen, isn’t that what a good witness is supposed to do? To tell the truth, the whole and nothing but the what? Truth.
The believer’s life even now should be as good as his handshake – marked by honesty.
They will be a marked contrast to the antichrist who speaks the native tongue of Satan, whose language is lying (John 8:44).
- One more: They are marked by destiny
The word John uses at the end of this paragraph when he writes at the end of verse 5, “and they are blameless”, is a unique word.
He ends his description of them by calling them blameless. It doesn’t mean perfect . . . it means justified.
In fact, the word refers to the blamelessness of a sacrifice offered to God. It refers to the future, eschatological blamelessness which has in view the accounting they will give to God.
Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume 4, 1967), p. 831
Jude uses the same word in his little epistle to speak of that day when we all stand in the presence of God’s glory blameless with great joy (Jude 24)
In other words, they served Christ not on the basis of their own perfection but the perfection of Christ.
We are not perfect . . . but we are enveloped by Christ’s perfection.
The question remains, can people see our mark? Do we bear the marks of God’s witnesses in our daily lives?
Would that our lives mirror the purity and loyalty and honesty and sense of destiny that so marked these 144,000 Jewish witnesses as we witness for our Lord even today.
Would that we would join the Messiah’s Marines and take seriously the call of God in our own lives to testify of His grace and His glorious gospel.
Would that we would answer the call of John Wesley who once said, “Give me a hundred believers who love nothing but God and hate nothing but sin, and I will shake the world for Christ.”
Stedman, p. 260