Revelation is one of the most difficult books of the Bible to understand with all of its intricacies, and yet the main themes are clear: worship God and the Lamb, Jesus the Messiah. Trust and obey them. While suffering is inevitable, Jesus and those who follow Him will conquer in the end. God will one day make all things new and deliver us from sin, death, and the devil for all eternity. But once you get past the main themes and try to understand individual details, readers can become quite bewildered not only with the flow of thought and symbols themselves, but the many explanations for them. One key debate within the book concerns the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4, which occurs within the series of the seven seals.
The Seven Seals of Revelation Explained
The visions of the first four seals provide us with a snapshot of the dangers of tribulation before the final judgment. Until Christ returns again, nations will continue to conquer nations. Humans will continue to kill one another. Economic hardship will always be a problem. And no one escapes death.
And the visions of the fifth and sixth seal contrasts two groups. On the one hand, the martyrs who suffered greatly on earth due to their witness to Jesus find ultimate security and rest in heaven, while the rest of humanity, those who look to this world for protection, do not find it when faced with Christ but only judgment when he returns. And this sixth seal ends with the people of the earth asking who can stand before God in the day of the Lamb’s judgment? If nations, leaders, prosperity, or health can’t protect people, who or what can when God comes to judge the world?
John gives us a two-fold answer in Revelation 7, the 144,000 and a vast multitude. After the sixth seal but before the seventh, John receives two more visions. In the first, John hears that 144,000 from every tribe of the Israelites will be sealed on their foreheads (7:4–8). In the second, John sees “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (7:9). However, the question is to whom does the 144,000 refer? Are they a different or the same group as the “vast multitude”?
The Literal Interpretation
One interpretation views the listing of the twelve tribes of Israel as ethnic Jews. A variation of this viewpoint teaches that the church will be raptured out of this world before a great end-times tribulation occurs. Then, a great number of ethnic Jews will come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah before the last judgment. A “vast number” of Gentiles (Rv 7:9) will also come to faith due to these ethnic Jews.
While this perspective may at first seem the simplest way to interpret the passage, the problem with a literal interpretation of the 144,000 as ethnic Jews only comes when examining more closely the way the tribes are listed in Revelation 7. For instance, when you compare the census in Revelation with a listing of the tribes in Genesis 49, there are some differences in the list. Besides the difference in order (for instance, Genesis 49 starts with Reuben while Revelation 7 starts with Judah), Dan completely drops out of the Revelation 7 census, while Manasseh, one of Joseph’s sons, takes his place even while Joseph is listed.
"Let us look only to Jesus for our salvation from God’s judgment for He is the one 'who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood.'"
Beyond that, Revelation is a highly symbolic book. We can’t automatically assume a literal interpretation as a starting point in this book given the prevalence of so much symbolism throughout the book. Touting a viewpoint because it is a literal reading isn’t a virtue for reading this book. We must understand how symbols and patterns are used in the context of the whole book of Revelation without making assumptions about literal or symbolic interpretations on the front end.
The Symbolic Interpretation
The other major interpretation views the 144,000 as all those faithful to God. This perspective explains that the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8 and the “vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language” in Revelation 7:9-10,14 are referring to one and the same group of people. This interpretation is stronger than it seems once the reasons are examined. First, both the 144,000 and the “vast multitude” are viewed as servants (the noun is used in Rv. 7:3, while the verb “to serve” is used in Rv. 7:15).
Second, John later identifies the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1–5 as those who sang before the throne, the four living creatures, and the elders (14:3), while the vast multitude are also described as singing at the throne along with the angels and elders (7:9-12). More importantly, they are not identified as Jewish but as ones “redeemed from the earth” (14:3), “who have not defiled themselves with women” (14:4), and “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). Jesus also warns both the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira about committing “sexual immorality” as acts they must avoid to conquer and receive eternal life.
Lastly, whereas John hears the number of 144,000 in Revelation 7:4, he sees the vast multitude in 7:9. This may seem like a trivial point, but John has already established a pattern of hearing and seeing in Revelation 5 where he hears one thing and sees another. Yet, what he hears and sees is the same person. In Revelation 5:5-6, he hears one of the elders refer to the one worthy to open the scroll with seven seals as “the Lion from the tribe of Judah,” yet when he looks he sees “one like a slaughtered lamb.” Jesus, the one worthy to open the scroll, is the promised Messiah from David’s descendants, the Lion of Judah, but he conquers through his death on the cross as the Lamb of God.
Who Can Stand before the Lord?
Regardless of which interpretation we take, we can’t miss the overarching question and answer Revelation 6-7 provides. These visions prompt John’s readers, and us, to ask questions on which we normally don’t like to dwell. How much trust do we put in our nation, people, money, or health to deliver us from trouble? When God’s final judgment comes, how will we ever stand before a righteous and holy God? It is only those who “have the seal of the living God” (7:2), who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14), and who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). Let us not forget that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead, and let us not be taken off guard but be prepared. Let us look only to Jesus for our salvation from God’s judgment for He is the one “who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood” (1:5).