What does the Bible tell us about the future? - Part 9 - The 144,000 of Revelation chapter 7
A question is asked in chapter 6 verse 17, where the subject has been the events that will take place during the time of the tribulation that is to come upon the whole world to try the earth dwellers, and particularly when the Lord Jesus shall descend out of heaven to take His rightful place once again upon the earth. The question is, ‘who shall be able to stand’? There follows a parenthetic chapter in which the answer is given. Two companies are introduced, the first being the 144,000 who are linked with the Jewish nation, vv. 1-8. These are then followed by an innumerable company of people who will be saved out of the Gentile nations of earth, vv. 9-17. There is a vast difference between the two companies in that those who are among the 144,000 cannot come to any harm during the tribulation period and will be preserved throughout that time. The Gentile company, on the other hand, will know suffering and death but, ultimately, will stand before the throne of God clothed in white robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. This speaks of their salvation, which will be no different to any other salvation; the blood of Christ alone can be effectual. The order is divine for it is to the Jew first, Rom. 1. 16. Clearly, God is going to reserve a people for Himself even in the world’s darkest hour.
This study will concentrate on the 144,000; who they are and what their purpose is.
Distinction in judgement is brought before us in verse 1. We have a scene, just before the tribulation begins, where four angels are standing on the four corners of the earth, ‘holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree’. This holding back the wind is for the sake of the sealing of the 144,000 before the tribulation begins. These angels are instructed not to hurt the earth or the sea until the sealing of the 144,000 is complete, v. 3. From the directions given to the angels, it appears that the 144,000 are from various parts of the earth where the Jews have been scattered. In the opening verse, the judgements are restrained until, in verses 2 and 3, a people are reserved and, in verses 4 to 8, their names are recorded.
The existence of a period of time after the rapture and before the tribulation can begin is emphasized in various parts of the word of God. We are not told how long that time will be, but certainly the tribulation cannot begin immediately after the rapture of the church takes place. This is clearly taught in 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verses 3, 6 and 7, for the ‘man of sin’ cannot rise to dominate the world whilst the church is still in the world. It is also clear from
1 Thessalonians chapter 1 verse 10, that we will be removed from this scene by the Lord Jesus who is our deliverer away ‘from’, apo, the wrath to come. Wrath is always associated with the outpouring of God’s wrath upon living men and generally refers to tribulation judgements. Revelation chapter 3 verse 10 teaches the same thing, for the Lord promises to keep us from the hour of temptation (trial) that will try the earth-dwellers. In both passages we are assured that we cannot pass through the tribulation period at all. Further, Daniel chapter 9 verse 27 instructs us that the tribulation begins when the man of sin moves into Jerusalem to confirm the covenant – a peace treaty that obviously he had previously made with Israel, and this is when the tribulation begins for seven periods of time, a ‘week’ of years. Please note there is no word of him breaking a covenant.
It appears it is in this period of time that the sealing begins, for it must be after the rapture but before the tribulation begins.
The fact that all the judgements that are worldwide are held in check, indicates that the 144,000, who are sealed, are found scattered throughout the world and do not consist only of those who have returned to their homeland, Israel.
There is a very strong influence of angelic ministry in the book of Revelation. Angels are seen as observers in the present dispensation of grace, the time of the non-intervention of God in world affairs apart from drawing out a people for the Lord Jesus. Having been completely rejected at Calvary, when the people cried ‘Away with him’ and ‘We will not have this man to reign over us’, God has left man to his own devices and we see the sorry mess that man is making of trying to control a world that is under the ‘prince of the power of the air’. 1 But in the great tribulation, God is going to take direct dealings with the world again and at this time angelic ministry will be restored. The angel of verse 2 ascends from the east; the sphere from which all idolatry and rejection of the will of God has come. The Lord is going to deal with this now at last, and the world will be cleansed from its devilment. This angel has the seal of God in his hand and he is going to identify those who are to be reserved during the tribulation as belonging to God. The seal in the forehead speaks of public and prominent acceptance by God. There will be no secret disciples during tribulation days!
The number of those who are sealed is specific: 144,000, and their origin is also specified so we do not have to speculate; they are stated to be from the twelve tribes of Israel. The word of God could not be plainer and no amount of speculation or distortion by the Jehovah Witness movement can refute the clear word of God. Let none be drawn aside by their nonsense and ignorance!
Whether the number is literal or symbolic matters little, though I would take it as being literal. Being 12,000 from each tribe indicates that these will have some place in the future government of the Kingdom, for twelve is the number of governmental perfection.
Kelly shows how they are linked together by their mothers and places according to their birth. 2 Leah gives us Judah and Reuben, but God takes away the first and puts Judah in that place, being, of course, the tribe from which the Lord Jesus comes. Her handmaid Zilpah gives us Gad and Asher. Bilhah produces Naphtali, and Manasseh, Joseph’s firstborn, is substituted in place of her other son, Dan. Then, four sons of Leah: Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Zebulun, and finally, the sons of Rachel, Joseph and Benjamin, make up the twelve.
There are notable absentees from this list, such as Dan and Ephraim. Dan is the first tribe to go a-whoring as they take Micah’s image and his man-made priest, Judg. 18. Dan is ever given to idolatry. Hosea unfolds Ephraim’s follies, where God also said that they would be desolate in the day of rebuke, Hos. 5. 9. This is that day, and Ephraim will be bereft of 12,000 being preserved in the midst of tribulation days. Nevertheless, Ezekiel makes it clear that both tribes will enter the millennial kingdom. 3 The difference is that there are those who will not come to any harm during the tribulation for they are sealed of God, whereas others will suffer during that time, but still be brought into blessing finally. The fact that no harm will come to the 144,000 makes me wonder if these are the ‘elect’ of Matthew chapter 24 verse 22, where the true devastation that will mark the tribulation is unfolded: for ‘except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened’. No harm can touch these even in such a day.
There are many who sadly add to the word, for they would tell us these are the preachers who will be the means of the Gentile multitude getting saved. I cannot see that the scriptures state this. This is speculation and it is unwise to build doctrines on suppositions. All that is said of them is that they will be preserved during the tribulation but nothing else – nowhere do we find them preaching the gospel.
Chapter 14 looks to the future, where they are seen when the tribulation is over, and a glorious kingdom is now the sight that fills the eyes. The Lord is seen on mount Zion accompanied by the 144,000, walking together, indicating the fellowship that they will enjoy during the millennial period. Scott in his commentary tries to make a distinction between this 144,000 and those in chapter 7, saying these are from Judah whilst those from chapter 7 are from all Israel. 4 This is unsubstantiated and must be rejected. Others say this is the ‘Sion’ of Hebrews chapter 12 verses 22 and 23. Those of Hebrews chapter 12, however, are clearly believers of the present day, and it is describing the present spiritual experience of the saints of this dispensation; yet they say it is in heaven rather than at Jerusalem. Zion will be the capital of the world and the Lord will reign from there, Ps. 132. 13; 110. 2. It is the place where the Lord will be crowned, Ps. 2. 6.
The scene in chapter 14 is one of praise and delight, with ‘the voice of harpers harping with their harps’, and a new song being sung, vv. 2, 3. This is evidently a special song, for it can only be learned by the 144,000 who sing on redemption ground. These are ‘the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb’, v. 4. We see their purity (virgins); their pursuit – they ‘follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth’; their privilege – ‘redeemed from among men’ and ‘the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb’. The preservation of the 144,000 is the guarantee that others will be redeemed, even though they will pass through tribulation days with no immunity from the terrors that will be known in that day.
1 John 19. 15; Luke 19. 14; Eph. 2. 2.
2 William Kelly, Lectures on the Revelation, G. Morrish.
3 Ezek. 48. 1, 5.
4 Walter Scott, Exposition of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, Pickering and Inglis, pg. 291.