Mystery of the 144,000

Revelation 7

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
December 2022

Today, we come to one of the most misunderstood chapters in the Book of Revelation. It is the passage that deals with the mysterious 144,000.  It is a passage that has been badly misinterpreted by the cults.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses used this passage to teach that only 144,000 special people will go to heaven.  They believe that the rest will live on earth but only 144,000 will go to heaven.

There is only one problem with this view.   In Revelation 7, John sees 144,000 people ON EARTH and these people sealed are all JEWISH.  These were 144,000 Jewish Witnesses, not Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are NOT the 144,000.  The 144,000 are the servants of God (Revelation 7:3).  They claim to be the only group with the truth, but they are a cult.  They do not serve God.  They do not even believe His Word.  They don’t believe the Bible.

They do not believe in basic Bible doctrines.  They are not Christians.  They may be great people.  They may make great neighbors, but they are not Christians.

They do not believe in the Deity of Christ.  They don’t believe in the Trinity.  They do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ.  They don’t believe in salvation by grace.

They don’t believe in Hell.  They don’t believe in a literal Second Coming.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are not the only ones to misinterpret this passage.  Many Christians misunderstand it as well.

Many have said that, in the Tribulation, there will be 144,000 Billy Grahams.  There will be 144,000 Jewish evangelists.  Have you ever heard that before?  It sounds great.  There is just one problem.

There is nothing in the text that says that the 144,000 will be evangelists.  They are NOT called evangelists.  They are NOT called preachers. They are NOT sealed for ministry.  They are NOT sealed for service but for protection.  They have a safety seal put on them.

Many have called this chapter, “the coming world revival.”  It has been called “the world’s greatest revival meeting.”  It is pictured as the greatest revival in history.  It is said to be a revival greater than any Billy Graham crusade.

That is a bit of a stretch.  The 144,000 do NOT get saved.  They do NOT get sanctified.  They just get SEALED, which is completely different.  It is NOT a sealing of salvation.  It is a sealing of protection.

What is in the chapter?  There is supernatural deliverance in this chapter.  It is angelic deliverance.  There is a heavenly worship service with angels falling down on their faces and worshipping God.  There is a celebration in heaven.

There is an incredible picture of heaven in this chapter.  If you want to know what heaven will be like, look at this chapter.  Some believe that this chapter describes the rapture of the church.  We will see if that is correct. We can only scratch the surface of this chapter today.

To understand Revelation 7, you have to go back to Revelation 5.  In Revelation 5, John sees a mysterious book in the Father’s hand that is sealed and no one in the universe can open.  That is no one, but Jesus.  Jesus can open it because He redeemed sinners by his sacrificial death.

He took the book from the hand of the Father and began to open the seals.  Jesus opened six of the seals in Revelation 6 and then He stopped.  There are seven seals in the book but only six are opened.  Why?

When each seal is opened, it is all bad news.  It is doom and gloom, plagues, sickness, famine and death.  Believers are being slaughtered and all kinds of natural disasters are taking place.  It is a dreadful scene of God’s wrath falling on people without any way to escape.

The chapter ends with a question, a great question.  Who can withstand the wrath of God?  Who can survive it?  We get the answer in Revelation 7.  We see two groups of people who CAN withstand it.

We will see two survivors of the wrath of God.  There is a group in heaven and a group on earth.  John sees two incredible visions in this chapter.  He sees one in Revelation 7:1-8 and one in Revelation 7:9-17.

John sees a vision of the saints sealed on earth and he sees a vision of saints celebrating in heaven.  John has a vision of the saints protected on earth and singing in heaven.  We are going to look at these two visions.

Revelation 6 was all bad news.  Revelation 7 gives us some good news.  He gives us good news for believers.  He gives us good news for God’s people. In Revelation 7, we see grace in the midst of horrific judgment.

All through the Bible we see grace in the midst of judgment.  Adam and Eve sin against God.  God judges them and kicks them out of the garden but before He does, an animal is sacrificed on their behalf, and they are given clothes to wear.

Cain commits the crime on the planet.  He commits the first murder.  He murders his brother.  God did not sentence him to death.  He just exiled him.  In fact, he protected him from death.  He deserved to die but Cain received mercy in the midst of judgment.

Before the Flood, the world was extremely wicked.  It was full of violence, sexual deviance and demonic activity.  It was so bad that Genesis says that the whole earth was corrupt but there was one man who received grace, even in this wicked world, and his name was Noah.

Even in the Tribulation Period, a period of suffering and persecution, a time of wrath, as God’s judgments are poured out on the earth, we see evidence of incredible grace on earth.

In heaven, John sees more people there than he could have dreamed.  He sees people in heaven from all over the world.  He sees more people than he could count, and they were all celebrating. Let’s look at the first vision.

The First Vision

7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “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.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, 6 from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,

7 from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000. (Revelation 7:1-8 NIV)

What is this mysterious group?  Why are they sealed?  What does it mean for us today?  What message does this have for today?

We come to a very controversial topic.  You are going to hear some things today that you have not heard before.  We will not all agree.  We do not have to.  This is not a major doctrine of the faith.  We can have different views.

It begins with four special angels.  We saw four horsemen in the last chapter.  Angels are used in judgment.  Four angels were sent to dispense judgment on earth.

Before they do it, another angel tells them  in a loud voice not to judge the earth until something takes place.  The 144,000 have to be sealed first with he seal of the living God.  The million-dollar question is, who are the 144,000?  There are two different views.

Identity of the 144,000

They are described as ethnic Jews.  If that is the case, these would be 144,000 Messianic Jews.  That is the plain meaning of the text.  It takes the Bible literally.

If you take the Bible literally, this refers 144,000 literal Jews. “One hundred and forty-four thousand from all the tribes of Israel” means national ethnic Israel.

One reason for this view is that it is very specific.  A specific AMOUNT of people (144,000) from a specific COUNTRY (Israel) were sealed.  Specific TRIBES (12) from that country were sealed and a specific NUMBER from each one of those tribes (12,000) were sealed.  If this is not literal, why is it so specific?

Furthermore, believers in the NT are not called Israelites.  They are not called “sons of Israel.”  They are called “sons of Abraham” by faith but not sons of Israel.

Nowhere are Gentile Christians said to be from any Jewish tribe.  The tribes of Israel refer to ethnic Israel in the NT but there is another view of the 144,000.  Many believe this is not literal.

We all believe in interpreting the Bible literally, but the book of Revelation is symbolic.  It is apocalyptic.  In any other book, this would be literal but not necessarily in the Book of Revelation.  What is some of the evidence it may not be literal?

First, Revelation 7 cannot refer to the literal twelve tribes, because all of the tribes are not even mentioned.  The Tribe of Dan is NOT mentioned at all.  One of the Tribes of Israel was never sealed.

Commentators speculate why Dan was not mentioned (e.g., idolatry) but that misses the point.  All of the Twelve Tribes were not listed.  One of the Tribes of Israel was never sealed.  This cannot be a sealing of twelve of ALL of the tribes of Israel if one tribe is missing.

Second, the sealing is figurative.  It is an invisible mark on the forehead.  People could not see it, but the angels could.  We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and that sealing is invisible.  If the sealing is symbolic, why couldn’t the tribes or number 144,000 be symbolic.

If this is literal, it causes a big problem.  Angels go around and seal the servants of God on their foreheads, but they only seal the JEWISH servants, and we know from Revelation 14 that they only seal men.[1] That is strange.

Why wouldn’t any female believers be sealed?  Why wouldn’t they be protected from the Tribulation plagues?  Don’t women need to be protected as well?  Why would God protect only men?

Why would these angels not seal the Gentile servants as well?  The sealing protects them from the judgment of God.  Why would God send divine judgment on Gentile believers but not on Jewish believers?  Why would one group get special treatment?

If you take this literally, you have a theological problem.  You have God’s wrath falling on some believers in the Tribulation period.  The Bible clearly says that believers cannot experience God’s wrath (cf. I Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 5:9).  Only unbelievers can experience the wrath of God

A strong case can be made that the 144,000 is symbolic.  It represents the complete number of the saints. The number itself is symbolic of completeness (twelve squared times ten cubed)

There is symbolism in the way the tribes are listed. The first one on the list is Judah (Revelation 7:5).  No list of the tribes of Israel had Judah first.  Judah was not the firstborn.  Reuben was and yet Judah was mentioned first.  Why?  Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

The 144,000 may refer to all of the people of God (Jew and Gentile).  It could not refer to the redeemed of all of time but to believers who came out of the Great Tribulation.  What is the evidence they refer to all believers?

They are called “the servants of God” (Revelation 7:3).  That term is not limited to Jewish believers.

They are described as redeemed (Revelation 14:3-4).  That also is not limited to Jewish believers.

They sang the song of the redeemed.  It is a salvation song.  If this refers to literal Jews, they would not be the only ones to sing this song.  Gentile believers who were saved would be able to sing it as well.

The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. 3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (Revelation 14:2-3 NIV)

This does not necessarily mean that God is through with Israel but it does mean that OT language regarding Israel is applied to the new people of God. There are many similarities between Israel in the church in Revelation.

Both were SLAVES.  The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years.  They were physical slaves.  We were spiritual slaves.

Both were REDEEMED.  God redeemed the Jews out of Egypt with an outstretched arm.  Jesus “freed us from our sins by his blood” (Revelation 1:5).  He “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9 NIV)

Both were PRIESTS.  The nation of Israel was described as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5 NIV).  Jesus “made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father.” (Revelation 1:5 NIV)

The Second Vision

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:

“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9-14 NIV)

Identity of the Great Multitude

After seeing a group of believers on earth, John sees a group of believers in heaven.  Some believe that these are two different groups.

They look like two different groups of people.  One is in heaven, and one is on earth.  One is Jewish and one is not.  One can be counted, and the other group cannot.  It is innumerable.

Others believe that this is the same group of people.  We have already seen this before in the book.  John hears something and then he sees something.  They seem different but they are the same thing.

In Revelation 5, John HEARD about a lion (the lion of the tribe of Judah) but he turned and SAW a lamb.  Lions and lambs are different animals.  They are opposite animals, but they refer to the same person.

In Revelation 7, John HEARD the number that was sealed on earth (Revelation 7:4-8) but he SAW an innumerable multitude in heaven (Revelation 7:9).

Who were the innumerable multitude?  John didn’t know who they were.  He had to be told by one of the elders.  He was told, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14 NIV)

They did not just come from a background of great suffering.  They came out of THE great tribulation. The Greek has the definite article.

Is this the Rapture?

Some preachers believe the rapture takes place in Revelation 7.  They believe the rapture takes place around the middle of the Tribulation and they think it takes place here.  Here you have all of these people (an innumerable number of them) suddenly show up in heaven.  Is this the rapture?  No.

This is not the entire church throughout history being raptured.  It is not the rapture of every Christian.  Every dead Christian who ever lived was not resurrected at this point.  They do not come out all at once but gradually.  The word “are coming” is a present participle (ἐρχόμενοι).[2]

This does present a huge problem for the advocates of the pretribulation rapture.  They believe that the church was raptured immediately before the Tribulation.  The Antichrist arrives on the scene and begins to persecute and kill believers.

Who do all these believers come from?  Where did the great multitude come from?  Every single believer would have been taken up in the rapture just before the Antichrist appears.

The chapter ends with a picture of heaven.  Two things immediately stand out.

One, there will be a lot of people in heaven.

There will be more than you can count. After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count (Revelation 7:9 NIV).  Some of those people we will recognize.  Friends, family members or ancestors will be there.  We are going to be shocked at how many people are there.

Two, there will be a lot of different kinds of people there.  They will be “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9 NIV).

Heaven will not just be full of Jews.  It will be full of people from every country, every skin color, every race, every nation, every language, and every ethnicity.

There will be people there from every denomination.  There will be Baptists and Methodists there.  There will be Armenians and Calvinists there.  There will be people there who spoke in tongues and some who never spoke in tongues.

Five Pictures of God’s People

1) God’s people protected

We see this at the beginning of the chapter.  The 144,000 are sealed, which is another way of saying that they are protected.  There are terrible things in the world that they were going to be protected from.

This is not to say that they were invincible or indestructible.  They could still be martyred but that seal kept them from experiencing the plagues that were going to fall on the earth.  It kept them from experiencing God’s wrath.

What is the lesson?  They did not have to be afraid of the Tribulation plagues since God would protect them.  We should not be afraid of all of the bad things happening in the world either.  God’s people have divine protection.  Remember what Satan said to God about Job.

“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. (Job 1:10 NIV).

God’s people were protected in the OT.  They are protected now and will be protected in the Tribulation Period.

2) God’s people cleansed

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14 NIV)

Believers are people who are cleansed from their sins.  We are not sinless.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9-9 NIV)

No matter how bad the sins are, we can be cleansed.  Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18 NIV).

We have seen a paradox in Revelation already.  We have seen Jesus as the lion and the lamb.  Now we see people taking dirty robes and washing them in blood to get clean.  They wash them in the blood of Jesus.  Blood does not make anything white.  Blood normally stains clothes.  This blood makes things white.

At the end of the chapter, we see another paradox.  The Lamb is our Shepherd (Revelation 7:17).  That is strange.  Normally a lamb needs a shepherd, but this lamb is the shepherd.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  The Lord will continue to be our Shepherd in heaven.

3) God’s people worshipping

What are believers doing in heaven?  They are serving God.  They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple (Revelation 7:15 NIV).  They are worshipping God day and not, not once a week and they were loud.

And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” (Revelation 7:10-12 NIV)

Believers are worshipping in heaven and praising God for salvation.  The angels praise God for other things (glory, wisdom, thanks, honor, power and strength) but not salvation.  The angels were never lost and never got saved.  If we are saved, we should be praising God right now for what He has done.

4) God’s people rewarded

One day, God’s people will be rewarded and vindicated.  We may not be rewarded on earth, but we will be rewarded in heaven.  We have a picture of the afterlife in Revelation 7.

John sees a great multitude of them.  They are wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.  One of the promises to the Church of Sardis was that the one who overcomes will be dressed in white (Revelation 3:5).

These were people who went through great suffering on earth.  They went through the Great Tribulation, not just tribulation but the Great Tribulation.  Many were martyred. In heaven, they will be rewarded.  God promises to reward us as well.

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. (Hebrews 6:10 NIV)

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (Matthew 10:42 NIV)

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. (Revelation 22:12 NIV)

5) God’s people comforted

Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Revelation 7:16-17 NIV)

Heaven will be a place without any suffering.  Believers will not suffer in any way.  They will not suffer externally (too hot or too cold).  They will not suffer internally either (with hunger or thirst).

There will not be any environmental problems in heaven (no tornadoes or hurricanes).  There won’t be any starvation in heaven.  People will not go around hungry.

They will have no unsatisfied desire.  They will not want anything.  Every need will be met.  We will have a Shepherd in heaven who will take care of that.  The Lamb will feed them.

We are also told that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. This promise is later repeated for all the redeemed (Revelation 21:4), not just for Tribulation saints.

People in heaven will not be sad.  They will not be depressed.  They will not cry in heaven.  There will not be any tears in heaven.  Imagine what that would be like to live in a world without any tears and without any sorrow.

[1]The word “virgins” in Revelation 14:4 is masculine in Greek.  We are told that these 144,000 male virgins “have not defiled themselves with women”

[2] Renald Showers points this out in

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