144,000 Sealed Saints

Revelation 7:1-17

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
April 2012

We have been studying the Book of Revelation.  It is the only prophetic book of the NT.  We know from the very first verse that it deals with “things which must take place”.  Last week we looked at chapter 6.

Revelation 6 describes the first of three judgments that will take place on earth – the seal judgments (chapter 6), the trumpet judgments (chapter 8 & 9) and the bowl judgments (chapter 16).  Revelation 6 gives the first six seals.  They are divided into two parts and they get progressively worse.

The first four of the seals deal with events on earth.  The last three are located in heaven.  The first three are introduced by four living creatures who say “come” and are followed by four mysterious horsemen who bring judgment on earth.  The last three do not have any horsemen and are not introduced by the four living creatures.  The chapter ends with a very important question.

The chapter ends, “They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (6:16-17).

Who can possible stand against the wrath of the Lamb and survive?  Revelation 7 answers that question.  Revelation 7 describes one group of people in heaven, “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9).

Tonight we will be looking at a passage that is very controversial.  It is one of the most controversial passages in the whole book.  There is a lot of debate about this chapter.  It deals with the 144,000.  Who exactly are they?  We will find out tonight.

There are all kinds of crackpot ideas about this group.  Cultists have some strange views on this group of people. The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that the 144,000 small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses are the 144,000.  Are they right?

No.  They are not even Christians.  They deny basic Christian doctrines.  They deny the doctrine of Hell.  They deny the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  They deny that Jesus is God.  They deny that Jesus rose from the dead bodily.

They believe that he was raised as a spirit creature.  They deny a literal Second Coming.  They deny that Jesus will return to earth physically.  They believe that he already returned in 1914 but it was an invisible return.  The 144,000 are called “the servants of God”.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, while many of them are sincere and many have a lot of zeal, it is not zeal according to knowledge. They are not the servants of God; they are the servants of Satan.  What the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe about the 144,000 is very easy to refute.

They take the first half of 7:4 literally and the second half of the verse figuratively.  They take the number 144,000 literally but they take the words “from every tribe of the sons of Israel” figuratively.

Problems with the Jehovah’s Witness Interpretation

The problem with the Jehovah’s Witness view is the lack of consistency. You either have to take it all literal or all figurative.  You cannot pick and choose. You cannot say that the number (144,000) is literal but the race (from every tribe of Israel) is completely figurative

They believe that only 144,000 will go to heaven.  It is only limited to 144,000.  Everyone else who is saved will live in paradise on earth.  They will make up the Great Multitude and live on earth but only 144,000 will go to heaven.  How do you answer them?  There are two problems with their interpretation.

Problem 1: The Bible does NOT say that only 144,000 will go to heaven.

The only thing it says is that 144,000 will be sealed from tribulation plagues ON EARTH.  It never says that only 144,000 will go to heaven.

Problem 2: The great multitude in Revelation is ALWAYS in heaven.

These saints are “before the throne” near the angels who are also standing around before the throne (7:11).  Their location is heaven.  They served God in “his temple” (7:15) which happened to be located in heaven (11:19).  The great multitude is mentioned only two times in Revelation (7:9-17; 19:1) and both times they are in heaven.

Nowhere in Revelation is the great multitude said to be on earth.  The 144,000 are located ON EARTH in Revelation 7 during the Great Tribulation (7:14).  If they were in heaven, they would not need to be sealed, because there will not be any plagues in heaven.

If the 144,000 have nothing to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses, then who are they? There are two possible interpretations.  Both views have strengths and weaknesses.

Possible Interpretations of the 144,000

The 144,000 refer to Future Ethnic Tribulation Jews (Literal)

One view is that the 144,000 will be Jews who will be saved and sealed in the Tribulation period.  This view tries to take the passage literally and distinguishes the two visions in Revelation 7. Revelation 7 describes two visions.  Both visions begin with the words, “after this I saw” (7:1, 9).  They believe that the two visions in Revelation 7 refer to two DIFFERENT groups of people. The two groups seem to be different in location, in number and in race.

The 144,000

The Great Multitude

Made up of 144,000 ethnic Jews, according to the text Made up of all peoples and races (not just Jews).
Located on earth Located in heaven (before the throne with white robes and palm branches in their hands)
A group which can be counted (144,000) A group which can NOT be counted.  It is innumerable.
This group is said to be sealed This group is not said to be sealed.  Since it is in heaven it does not need to be sealed.  There will be no plagues in heaven that it will need to be protected from.

Strengths

1. It takes the passage literally.

Nowhere else in the Bible does the word Israel mean anything other than literal Israel. Nowhere else does the twelve tribes of Israel mean anything other than the twelve tribes of Israel.

2. Other numbers in Revelation are literal.

Literal numbers in Revelation (7 churches 42 months, 1260 days, 4 angels, 7 trumpets, 7 seals, 7 bowls, 3 unclean spirits).

3. It would explain how the great multitude got converted.

There is nothing in the text about the 144,000 preaching or going around doing evangelism. However, some believe that the 144.000 convert the great multitude. If this is true, the Tribulation may not only be the greatest period of suffering on earth, it will also be the greatest period of evangelism and salvation on earth as well.

It may produce the greatest revival in the history of the world. What it would not explain is how the 144,000 got converted in the first place.

Weaknesses

1. There is a problem of consistency.

Everything is NOT taken literally. The race is literal. How can the 144,000 represent the literal twelve tribes of Israel when the tribe of Dan is missing? This cannot refer to the literal twelve tribes when one of the tribes is not even there.

Most who take the number completely literal and believe that they refer to literal Jews do NOT believe that the seal is literal. They do not believe that there will be a visible seal on the forehead of 144,000 Jews in the Tribulation. The seal is spiritual and invisible. The point is that they will be marked out for protection.

2. There is also a theological problem with this view.

The Tribulation plagues fall on everyone who does not have this seal on their forehead (9:1-4). This raises an important question. Why would some of the tribulation saints be sealed from the tribulation plagues but not others?

Why would only some believers who are alive during the Tribulation be sealed from the Tribulation plagues but not others? Why would any of these plagues fall on any believers? The plagues represent the wrath of God and the wrath of God can ONLY fall on unbelievers.

I have the greatest respect for John MacArthur as a Bible teacher but John MacArthur believes that true believers in the Tribulation Period can die in some of the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments[1] but that makes absolutely no sense to me.

Scripture clearly teaches that believers CANNOT experience God’s wrath (cf. I Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 5:9).  Only unbelievers can experience the wrath of God and the Tribulation period will be a time in which God’s wrath will be unleashed on the earth.

Why would Jewish believers in the Tribulation be sheltered from these Tribulation plagues but NOT Gentile believers?

Why is this divine protection for only some Jewish believers (a small group of Jews) but NOT other Jewish believers?

Only single males are sealed. We know that because the word “virgins” in 14:4 is masculine in Greek and because it says that they “have not defiled themselves with women”.  Why are female Jews in the Tribulation who follow Christ not sealed?

Why are married Jewish men in the Tribulation who have come to faith also not sealed? Some translations say, “for they are pure” (NIV) or “for they are chaste” (RSV) in 14:4, rather than “for they are virgins”.  Single and married people can both be chaste but the Greek word παρθένος is a noun, not an adjective and there are several other Greek words that John could have used for “pure” or “chaste”.[2]

144,000 refers to All Tribulation Saints (Symbolic)

This view believes that this is not a reference to literal Jews.  They believe that the number 144,000 is not literal.  It is figurative but figurative of what?  In the context, this is referring to Tribulation saints (7:14).  It is not referring to all of the redeemed of all of time (so Beale, Aune) but to believers who came out of the Great Tribulation.

According to this view, the two visions in Revelation 7 do not refer to two different groups but to the same group from two different perspectives.  The first group he heard and the second group he saw.  It is very similar to Revelation 5 when John was told about a lion and he turned around and saw a lamb.

This view sees the 144,000 not as physical Israel but as spiritual Israel.  Who gets the seal?  The servants of God.  “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” They are also called “the servants of God’ (7:3).

That is a very general term.  Nowhere else in the book does that phrase refer exclusively to Jewish Christians (2:20; 19:5; 22:3).  They follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4).  They are described as the redeemed from the earth (14:3, 4).

Strengths

1) It solves the theological problem.

You do not have God’s wrath falling on believers in the tribulation.  It only falls on unbelievers.  In the OT, just before the Exodus from Egypt, God sent a bunch of plagues on the Egyptians (darkness, frogs, boils, etc.) but the Jews were protected from those plagues.  They did not receive any of the plagues.

All of the Jews were protected, not just some of them.  In the Tribulation, God will send another series of plagues on the world and many of them will resemble the plagues of Egypt but this time it will not be physical Jews that are protected from the plagues.  It will be spiritual Jews.

2) It is completely consistent.

  • The seal is figurative.
  • The number 144,000 is figurative.

Revelation is an apocalyptic book and apocalyptic book often have symbolic numbers.  The number 144,000 is a twofold way of emphasizing completion and perfection.  You start off with twelve, a sacred number (twelve Apostles and twelve tribes) and square that number and then multiply it by a thousand.

Twelve times twelve equals one hundred forty-four.  The number one hundred forty-four is a perfect square (twelve squared) and one thousand represents a perfect cube (ten times ten times ten or ten cubed).

  • Their marital status is figurative.

They are called “virgins” in 14:4.  They are not necessarily physical virgins.  One hundred forty-four thousand male virgin Jews would be a very strange picture, since celibacy is not a strong Jewish virtue.  Jews emphasized marriage.

They did not oppose celibacy but most Jews got married and were encouraged to marry, because God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”.  These are not physical virgins but spiritual virgins who are faithful to Christ and did not defile themselves with the worship of the Beast.

  • The race is figurative.

The group does not refer to literal Jews but to spiritual Jews.  Our spiritual heritage is Jewish.  It goes back to the Jews.  It refers to Jews and Gentiles who will be saved during the Tribulation Period.  Is there any evidence in the text that the 144,000 does NOT refer to physical Jews?

Evidence of a Spiritual Israel in Revelation

1) Revelation has already mentioned physical and spiritual Jews (2:9; 3:9). That is the first hint.

2) There are many similarities between Israel and the church.

Both were redeemed. The nation of Israel was slaves in Egypt for over four hundred years and God redeemed them out of Egypt.  Exodus 6:6 says, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments”.  The OT describes a group of physical slaves who were set free (slaves to the Egyptians).

The NT describes a group of spiritual slaves where set free (slaves of sin).  Jesus “freed us from our sins by his blood” (1:5).  We are told that with his blood He “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9).  Both were priests.   Both had priests.

The nation of Israel was described as priests in the OT, God said concerning the Jews “Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (Exodus 19:5).

Guess what?  The same thing is said about the church.  Revelation 1:6 says, that Jesus “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God”.  Revelation 5:10 says, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth”.

3) The final resting place of the saints is called the New Jerusalem (21:2).

Applications from Revelation 7

1. God is not only able to keep believers FROM tribulation, He is able to keep believers THROUGH tribulation.

He promised to keep the Church of Philadelphia from tribulation (3:10).  He promised to preserve the 144,000 through this tribulation (7:1-4).  Sometimes, believers do not face things like divorce, death of a spouse or a child or cancer.  God keeps us from certain things.  Other times, He gives us the grace to go through those situations and survive them.  Some believers in Scripture were kept from tribulation.

Enoch was kept from tribulation.  He did not die.  He was raptured instead.  He was also not on earth when the Flood took place.  Other believers in Scripture were kept THROUGH tribulation. Noah was kept through tribulation.  He survived the Flood.  He survived because of the ark.

2. Heaven will be filled with many people (an innumerable group).

That does not mean that everyone is going to heaven.  They are not.  Jesus said, “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many will enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

The majority will not be in heaven but heaven will still be filled with an innumerable group of people from every race, language and country.  If the group of believers who come out of the Great Tribulation will be innumerable, what will be the number of every saint from every period of human history?

3. The only way to escape God’s wrath is to be saved.

Last week we saw one of the most terrifying pictures in the Bible of sinners standing before a holy God with nowhere to run or to hide and they would rather kill themselves than face God’s wrath. The chapter ended with a question.

Who can possibly endure this wrath and survive. The answer is ONLY those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb (7:14).

Why did they need to wash their robes? They were dirty. How they get clean is very strange. They washed them in blood (the cleansing blood of Christ) and got clean. They took a blood bath. It is a picture of salvation. They only thing that can save us is his blood.

4. Heaven will be a place where all of your needs are met

Believers will not suffer in heaven (7:16-17).  They will not suffer externally (no scorching sun).  In that part of the world, the sun was the problem.  It was always hot.  In other parts of the world, it is always cold.  In heaven, we will not have to worry about being too hot or too cold.  We will not suffer externally.  We will not suffer internally either (no hunger or thirst) and we will not suffer emotionally.

“God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”.  The lamb will be their shepherd and lead them to streams of living water. That is a mixed metaphor. We normally think of a lamb as needing a shepherd but here the lamb IS the shepherd (7:17). Jesus is the good shepherd.

 


[1]  MacArthur writes in his sermon “Survivors of the Wrath of God (Revelation 7:1-8)”, “The second group appears to be standing on the earth. There will be people redeemed during that time period, some will die and go to heaven, some will live to enter the Kingdom. Many of the Gentile believers will die from the persecution. Some of them surely will die from the physical factors of earthquakes and famines and pestilences and the breakup of the universe and asteroid showers and meteorite showers and the chaos in the universe. But some of them will survive and go into the Kingdom. Even those who die will be immediately ushered into the presence of the Lord, won’t they? True Christians may die in the persecution but that’s not God’s wrath” (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/66-28/survivors-of-the-wrath-of-god)

[2] He could have used καθαρός (Matthew 5:8) or άγνός (I Timothy 5:22; Philippians 4:8; II Corinthians 11:2; I Peter 3:2; I John 3:3)

[3] A mixed metaphor combines two unrelated metaphors like “Wake up and smell the coffee” or “Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel.”

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