Note: This article is part of a series.
And I heard the number of those who were sealed. One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed:" (Revelation 7:4, NKJ)
The book of Revelation uses a number of unique images to picture the church as it exists today. These pictures are designed to encourage us as we serve Christ in the time between his two advents. Sadly, the images of Revelation are often badly misunderstood in ways that not only fail to encourage but actually discourage believers. The image of the 144,000 described in Revelation 7 is a great example of this. Jehovah’s Witnesses have popularized the idea that this is the total number of people who will be in heaven with God while all other believers will be on an earthly paradise. In other words, the 144,000 refers to an elite group of believers but not to believers in general. While most Christians dismiss the JW theory, they still do not know what to do with this picture. The tendency is to place this group and setting in the distant future or in heaven, thus missing the true significance of the vision.
Revelation 6 ends with a question: “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:17, NKJ). Chapter 7 answers the question of who is able to stand in light of the wrath of the Lamb of God being poured out on His enemies. In verses 1-3 of chapter 7, John is shown four angels holding back the winds of judgment and an angel calling for the suspension of the judgments until the servants of God have been sealed on their foreheads. Those sealed are described as “One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel” (Revelation 7:4). The 144,000 are then described as 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Old Testament Israel. The list of the tribes given here is unique in scripture, being the only one that begins with Judah and which substitutes Manasseh for Dan. It is this group of 12 companies of 12,000 each, which is sealed by the angel.
At first this description may seem bizarre. What is going on and what does it have to do with us? By applying the right hermeneutic we see that, in fact, this is another profoundly encouraging picture of the church as it exists on the earth today! The proper hermeneutic recognizes that the visual images are symbols drawn from the Old Testament and that they are pictures that had meaning to the original audience. What we have here is the church being portrayed as an army of Israelites all assembled for battle in their ranks.
How do we know this? There are several lines of evidence. The first is simply to note the connection between the OT people of God and the NT people of God. The NT routinely uses the language of the OT to describe the church. As Paul writes, “And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29, NKJ). The second line of evidence is the fact that the text refers to the 144,000 as the “servants of God” in verse 3. Third, the symbolic use of numbers points us toward the church. As I noted in an earlier post, 12 is the number of the people of God. There were 12 tribes in Israel and 12 apostles. Twelve times twelve times one thousand is a symbolic number that points to the church in all ages. The fourth line of evidence is that these 144,000 are those who are marked for salvation from the judgment by the angel. Throughout the book of Revelation marking or sealing is used to determine those who are set aside to serve the dragon and those set aside to serve the Lamb. Every person is on one side or the other. Finally, the unique ordering of the tribes puts Judah, the tribe of our Lord Jesus, first. Scholars note that Dan, a tribe known for its idolatry (Judges 18:30, 1 Kings 12:29-30), is replaced by Manasseh, one of Joseph’s sons. The symbolism would suggest that this group is one that is free from idolatry and led by its Messianic King.
While many believers are willing to accept that the 144,000 is a description of God’s people in some form, many readers assume this vision shows us the people of God in heaven. But the vision says that the angels are standing at the four corners of the earth and that they are holding back judgment from the earth (v. 1-3), suggesting that this vision is actually meant to picture what theologians call the “church militant.” That is, the church as it exists on the earth, constantly under attack from Satan and his supporters. This is why the church is described as being in companies of 12,000 from each tribe. In the book of Numbers we read, “So there were recruited from the divisions of Israel one thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. 6 Then Moses sent them to the war, one thousand from each tribe; he sent them to the war…” (Numbers 31:5-6, NKJ). John’s vision draws on this OT concept to portray the people of God who are on the earth as a vast army, sealed by the Lamb. Lutheran commentator Louis Brighton says, “The 144,000 thus present a picture of the church militant throughout the entire period of the prophecy of Revelation and at any given moment in this time period” (p. 191).
So what difference should any of this make to you? Quite a lot, actually. If this is a description of the people of God on the earth at any given time, then notice that from God’s perspective you are part of a vast army that represents the Lamb of God. Although your warfare is not physical but spiritual (Ephesians 6:12), it is helpful to be reminded that you are in a battle. It is also helpful to be reminded that while the church might not look like much to the world, it is, from God’s view, a massive, organized, and powerful army. In addition, the fact that the total number of the army is derived from squaring the number of the people of God (12) and multiplying by a derivative of the number of completion (10) indicates that the army is complete. 144,000 means that the full number of God’s soldiers are there. This should encourage you. If you have put your faith in Jesus, you are in this army. There are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Far from teaching that there are super-believers, this vision encourages you to remember that you are in the army of the Lamb too.
Another significant encouragement of this passage is to know that every one of God’s soldiers is marked out as belonging to God. Sealing in the Bible connotes ownership, authenticity, and protection. This is not a physical reality but a spiritual one. As Paul says,: “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14, NKJ). If you belong to Jesus, He has made you a soldier and put His seal of ownership upon you. As you participate in the warfare of this world, there is nothing that can happen to you that is outside His control.
We hear regularly that the United States military is the greatest fighting force ever assembled in the world. Revelation 7 begs to differ. There is a greater fighting force on this planet – one that has been fighting against far more dangerous enemies since the beginning of time. The specific soldiers in that army change over time, but the army itself is always here. It is the army of the Lamb, those redeemed by His blood and made into His loyal servants. Although this army often goes unnoticed and unappreciated on the earth, it is where the real locus of power lies in the ongoing battle with the spiritual forces of darkness. This army of Christ is sealed in Him and therefore untouchable spiritually. This army is organized and completely outfitted and staffed. Not one soldier is missing as it marches forward – always advancing and growing. It is an army that can never be defeated no matter who or what fights against it. By this great army, the Lord Jesus is steadily conquering more and more souls and building a greater and greater kingdom. The believers in your church are part of this army. Perhaps we need to ask Jesus to help us see this reality more clearly so that we will not grow faint in the midst of the battle.