The Mysterious 144,000
Who are the 144,000 in Revelation and what is their purpose?
© Pat Marvenko Smith
There is probably no part of Revelation that has been more abused than the first half of chapter 7 which tells about 144,000 Jews being "sealed" as "bond-servants" of God. The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that a group of their founders and pioneers constitute this group. Other cults claim they are the 144,000. Most mainline Christian commentators argue that this group is symbolic of the Church.
How 144,000 Jews could be symbolic of the Church is beyond my comprehension. This interpretation is a good example of the fanciful ideas that people seem to delight in pulling out of Revelation. What would God have to do to convince us that He is speaking about 144,000 Jews? He says they are Jews. Specifically, He calls them, "the sons of Israel" (Revelation 7:4). He even enumerates them by their tribes, stating that 12,000 will come from each tribe. Does He need to put a flashing neon sign in the sky that says, "I'm talking about Jews!"?
Why are some Jewish tribes excluded from the 144,000?
This is an intriguing question. The list of tribes is certainly unusual. The original twelve tribes included both Levi and Joseph. But normally, when the twelve tribes are listed in the Bible, Levi — the priestly tribe — is not mentioned because its inheritance was the Lord Himself (Deuteronomy 10:9). And Joseph's name is usually dropped and then replaced by his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh who were adopted by Jacob (Genesis 48:8-22). So, Levi and Joseph are usually replaced by Ephraim and Manasseh, keeping the list at twelve.
In the listing in Revelation 7, the tribes of Dan and Ephraim are dropped and replaced by Levi and Joseph to keep the list at twelve. Why? Well, no one knows for sure. My guess is that Dan and Ephraim were dropped because they were the ones that led the children of Israel into idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:18-21 and 1 Kings 12:25ff). It thus appears that the two tribes responsible for luring others into idolatry will not be entrusted with sharing the Gospel with others during the Tribulation.
But God's grace in this matter is reflected at the end of Revelation when the description of the new Jerusalem is given. Revelation 21:12 says the city will have twelve gates and that each gate will be named after one of "the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel." In Ezekiel 48:30-34 we are told which tribes will be included in this significant recognition. They are the original twelve, including Levi and Joseph. That means one of the gates will be named for the errant tribe of Dan, and both Manessah and Ephraim will be included under Joseph's name.
Are the 144,000 of Revelation 7 the same as the 144,000 portrayed in Revelation 14?
I believe they are. Why would the book introduce us to a totally different group of 144,000 people without telling us so?
In his book, Revelation Illustrated and Made Plain, Tim LaHaye argues that the 144,000 in Revelation 14 are a group of Gentile Christians who have been converted during the Tribulation and who have served the Lord with distinction before experiencing martyrdom. He admits that this is interpretation puts him "in the minority among commentators."
The scene in Revelation 14 portrays 144,000 men standing on Mt. Zion with Jesus. LaHaye contends that since this scene takes place in the middle of the Tribulation, and since Jesus would not be standing on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem at that time, the reference to Mt. Zion must be a symbolic reference to Heaven. So, he concludes that these are Gentiles who have died for their faith and who are now in Heaven with Jesus.
I don't think so. The first point I would make is that this scene is not in the middle of the Tribulation. All of chapter 14 is a flash forward to the end of the Tribulation, giving the reader a preview of what lies ahead, assuring him that Jesus will ultimately triumph. The second point I would make is that the group is not in Heaven. They are on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem where Jesus has returned to reign as King of kings. He has preserved them through the Tribulation, and He is celebrating His victory with them. They are singing a song heard from Heaven, a song which only they can sing (Revelation 14:2-3). Again, if this were a different 144,000 from the 144,000 Jews mentioned in Revelation 7, I think the text would tell us so.
What is the Purpose of the 144,000?
What is the role of these 144,000 Jews during the Tribulation? What is their purpose? All the text says is that they will be "bond-servants of God" (Revelation 7:3).
But the context indicates that they will serve the Lord as evangelists. I say this because their description is followed immediately by the description of "a great multitude which no one can count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Revelation 7:9). John sees this great host of people in Heaven standing before the throne of God, and he asks "Who are they, and from where have they come?" (Revelation 7:13). He is told that they are people who have come out of the Great Tribulation who "have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14).
In other words, this multitude of Gentiles are those who accept Jesus after the Rapture and who are martyred for their faith during the Tribulation.
Because they are placed adjacent to the 144,000 believing Jews, the implication is that they are converted by the Jews during the Tribulation.
I once called Zola Levitt and asked his opinion on this matter. Zola is a Messianic Jew who has a Bible prophecy ministry. When I asked if he believed that the 144,000 Jews of Revelation 7 would serve as evangelists trying to convert the world to Jesus, he said, "Of course! Why do you think the Lord has given us the kind of personality that we have?"
I wasn't about to touch that question with a ten foot pole, so I played dumb. "What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Haven't you ever noticed," asked Zola, "that Jews are very pushy people?"
"Well yes," I responded, "now that you mention it, I must say that I have."
"Well," said Zola, "God has given us that kind of personality so that we can be the world's greatest salesmen. And one day, during the Tribulation, 144,000 believing Jews are going to use those skills to convert a great host of Gentiles to Jesus. We are going to push people up against the wall and hold them by the throat until they say, 'Jesus!' Before the Tribulation is over, we are going to convert more people to Jesus than you Gentiles have done in the past 2,000 years."
All I could say was, "I hope you are right."
Revelation Study Resources
- An Overview of Revelation multimedia training kit covers the book of Revelation verse by verse.
- Dr. Reagan's book, Wrath and Glory, covers the book of Revelation chapter by chapter.
- Dr. Reagan's video program, Revelation Revealed, presents a sweeping overview of the entire book of Revelation.