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A Study of Revelation 14-15, Part I

The 144,000, Eternal Punishment, and the Wrath of God:

Insofar as the majority of chapters 12-13 focused on the persecution of believers by the Dragon (Satan) and his earthly agents, the sea-beast and the land-beast, it is understandable that chapter 14, together with 15:2-4, should describe the reward of the persecuted faithful and the final punishment of their enemies. In other words, “chapter 14 briefly answers two pressing questions: What becomes of those who refuse to receive the mark of the beast and are killed (vv. 1-5)? What happens to the beast and his servants (vv. 6-20)?” (Johnson, 141).

Rev. 14:1-20

vv. 1-5

The Lamb, i.e., Jesus, is seen by John standing on “Mount Zion” (v. 1a), a deliberate contrast with his vision of the dragon (Satan) standing on the shifting sands of the seashore (13:1).

On occasion in the OT, Zion could refer to the hilly area in southeast Jerusalem, to the temple mount, to the historical city of Jerusalem, and even to the entire nation of Israel. In Psalm 2:6, Zion is the “holy mountain” of God on which he installs Messiah as King. In other words, Zion may be the eschatological city where God dwells with and protects his people. Heb. 12:22-23 (cf. Gal.4:25-27) refers to Zion as the ideal, heavenly city to which believers even now aspire (and in which they hold citizenship; cf. Phil. 3:20) during the course of the church age. In certain texts, Zion is indistinguishable from the redeemed who dwell there (see Isa. 62:1-12). Many contend that it is, in fact, a reference to the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21) which “comes down out of heaven” as a dwelling for God’s people. In any case, it is where the Lamb and his redeemed share fellowship and the authority of the kingdom.

With the Lamb are the 144,000, undoubtedly the same group described in 7:1ff. Several things need to be said of this group, both in terms of how they are described in chapter 7 and what is also said of them here.

(1)            According to 7:3ff., they are “sealed” on their foreheads. The purpose of this “seal” is not to protect believers from physical harm that comes either as a result of divine judgments or persecution, for the fifth “seal” of 6:9-11 describes a multitude of those who have been martyred! Some suggest it is a seal of protection against demonic attack, while others contend that this is divine preservation and protection of a spiritual nature: it is God’s gracious provision of persevering faith in the midst of intense persecution and suffering. The seal strengthens their faith so that the trials through which they pass serve not to separate them from God but only to refine and purify their commitment to Him.

·      The verb “to seal” can also mean to authenticate and to designate ownership of something or someone. This is surely in view insofar as in 14:1 the seal is identified as the Name of the Lamb and the Father (cf. 22:4). Indeed, the “mark” of the beast on the forehead of his followers is identified as “the name of the beast” (14:9-11). It was a common practice in the ancient world for slaves to receive a mark on their forehead to indicate who owned them and to whom they owed service.

·      It may well be that the entire imagery of the “seal” is simply a reference to the Holy Spirit himself, whose abiding presence in Christians is likened unto “sealing” which marks them out as God’s and protects them from spiritual harm (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30).

(2)            As for the identity of this group, it would initially appear that those who are sealed are part of a larger group, for the Greek construction in 7:4ff. (ek plus the genitive) is partitive in nature: literally, “out of all the tribes of Israel . . . out of the tribe of Judah . . . out of the tribe of Reuben . . . etc.” Thus, whoever these people are, 12,000 from each tribe might mean a portion of those who make up the whole tribe. This is confirmed when we realize that this passage is an allusion to Ezek. 9:4 where only some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were marked in order to be preserved from the judgment that followed. The point is that the idea of the remnant may be in view (see Rom. 11:7). On second thought, too much should not be made of this. After all, no one denies that there were more than 12,000 in each tribe. But if there was a theological reason for limiting the vision to only 144,000 of the total (and I believe there was), how else could John have described it except in the way that he did? In other words, the 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes represent all in every tribe (see the more extensive discussion of this in the notes on chapter 7).

(3)            The 144,000 in 7:4-8 are surely identical with the 144,000 here in 14:1-5. In both cases it is said that they received the seal of God on their “foreheads” (7:3 and 14:1). In 14:3 they are described as those who had been “purchased from the earth” and again in 14:4 they were “purchased from among men”. This echoes 5:9 where the Lamb is said to have “purchased for God” people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This same phrase is used again in 7:9 to describe the innumerable multitude. This would seem to indicate that the 144,000 = the innumerable multitude = the redeemed of all ages, and not some special remnant of humanity.

(4)       There is one statement, however, in 14:4 that may support the idea that the 144,000 are less than the total number of the redeemed. There they are described as “first fruits” (aparche) to God and to the Lamb. This word occurs 9x in the NT, seven of which are in Paul. It may refer to new converts who were the first of many more to come (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Thess. 2:13. It also refers to the Holy Spirit as the first evidence of a greater end-time inheritance (Rom. 8:23). It is also used of Christ’s resurrection as the beginning of the subsequent resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 15:20,23), and of believers as the beginning of the new creation (James 1:18). In Rom. 11:16 it is used to speak of the OT patriarchs as fathers of later faithful descendants. If that is the meaning in Rev. 14:4 the idea would be that the 144,000 were an initial group, perhaps a remnant, of believers whose salvation was a foreshadowing of a yet greater ingathering or harvest of believers in the end time. Beale counters by pointing out that in Jer. 2:2-3, for example, the entire nation of Israel is called the “firstfruits” of God. Johnson agrees, contending that “first fruits” means simply “an offering to God in the sense of being separated to him and sanctified (wholly consecrated), where no later addition is made, because the firstfruits constitutes the whole (Num 5:9; . . . Deut 18:4; 26:2; Jer 2:3; James 1:18). Also possible is the suggestion that the 144,000 represent the totality of God’s redeemed at that time, and thus “first fruits” of the remainder of all the redeemed who will be gathered in the final harvest at the close of history.

(5)            These 144,000 are called the “servants” (douloi) of God (7:3). Whenever the word “servants” is used in Revelation (2:20; 19:5; 22:3) it refers to the entire community of the redeemed. Also, if Satan puts a seal or mark on all his followers (13:16-17; 14:9-11), it seems reasonable that God would do likewise.

(6)            Another interesting fact is that the numbering (144,000) is probably used to evoke images of the OT census, which was designed to determine the military strength of the nation (see Num. 1:3,18,20; 26:2,4; 1 Chron. 27:23; 2 Sam. 24:1-9). The point is that these in Rev. 7 and 14 constitute a Messianic army called upon, like Jesus himself, to conquer the enemy through sacrificial death. In the OT those counted were males of military age (twenty years and over). This explains why the 144,000 in Rev. 14:1ff. are adult males, i.e., those eligible for military service. According to Num. 31:4-6, one thousand soldiers from each of the twelve tribes were sent into battle against Midian. Some have countered that the tribe of Levi is out place in a military census. However, as Bauckham points out, “although the priests and Levites do not fight with weapons, they play an essential part in the conduct of war, conducting prayers before, during and after battle, and blowing the trumpets which both direct the troops and call divine attention to the battle. Without them the war could not be a holy war” (Climax, 222).

(7)            Thus this “military force” in 7:4-8 “conquers its enemy ironically in the same way in which the Lamb has ironically conquered at the cross: by maintaining their faith through suffering, the soldiers overcome the devil . . . . Consequently, they are those who ‘follow the Lamb wherever he goes’ (14:4). In particular, 7:4-8 portrays an army ready to fight, and 7:14 interprets the manner of their fighting: they conquer in no other way than that of the Lamb, by persevering in the midst of suffering” (Beale, 423).

(8)            Whereas John uses holy war language in Rev. 7 and 14, he transfers its meaning to non-military means of triumph over evil. In other words, the people of God are portrayed as engaging in holy war, but in a spiritual, non-violent way. John’s aim is to show that “the decisive battle in God’s eschatological war against all evil, including the power of Rome, has already been won – by the faithful witness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians are called to participate in his war and his victory – but by the same means as he employed: bearing the witness of Jesus to the point of martyrdom” (234). Thus, later on, when the beast puts the martyrs to death, who wins? From an earthly perspective, the beast does (cf. 11:7; 13:7). But from a heavenly perspective, the martyrs are the real victors. They conquer by dying in their faith, committed to the end to Jesus.

(9)            So, who are the 144,000?

a.            Most dispensational, pre-tribulational, premillennialists, i.e., most who read the book in a futurist sense, understand the 144,000 to be a Jewish remnant saved immediately after the rapture of the Church. Many then argue that, in the absence of the Church, they serve as evangelists who preach the gospel during the Great Tribulation. In other words, these are literally 144,000 (arithmetically speaking, neither 143,999 nor  144,001) ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The innumerable multitude, some go on to argue, are Gentiles saved in the tribulation through the evangelistic efforts of the 144,000. Be it noted, however, that there is nothing explicitly said in this passage about these people functioning as evangelists or being responsible for the salvation of the multitude.

I have four problems with this view.

·      First, it depends entirely on a futurist interpretation of the book.

·      Second, why would God protect only Jewish believers and leave Gentile believers to endure such horrific judgments?

·      Third, why would God protect only 144,000 Jewish believers? Why would he not protect all of them?

·      Fourth, in 9:4 we read that only those with the seal of God on their foreheads are exempt from the demonic torments that are so horrible and agonizing that men will long to die. Is it feasible or consistent with the character of God that he should protect only a select group from such wrath while afflicting the rest of his blood-bought children with it? The answer is a resounding No. Therefore, those who are sealed on their forehead in 7:4-8 (and 9:4) must be all the redeemed, not a select few.

b.            Robert Gundry, who believes in a post-tribulational rapture, argues that the 144,000 “constitute a Jewish remnant – not members of the Church and therefore not to be raptured – physically preserved through the tribulation, converted immediately after the rapture as they see their Messiah descending onto the earth (Zech. 3:8,9; 12:9-13:1; Mal. 3:1-5; Rom. 11:26-27), and entering the millennium in their natural bodies to form the nucleus of the re-established Davidic kingdom. They would be ‘orthodox’ (though unconverted) Jews who will resist the seductions of the Antichrist. The designation ‘bond-servants’ (7:3), then, anticipates their role in the reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom. . . . Thus, the 144,000 will include both men and women who will populate and replenish the millennial kingdom of Israel. If they will resist the Antichrist but remain unbelievers in Christ until the second coming, the reason for their sealing at once becomes apparent: their unconverted state will require special protection from the wrath of God and the persecution of the Antichrist” (82-83). One could hold this view without insisting that only 144,000 are saved. In other words, this view is compatible with taking the number figuratively.

c.            Others, such as myself, contend that the number 144,000 is symbolic (as is the case with virtually every number in Revelation). 12 is both squared (the 12 tribes multiplied by the 12 apostles? cf. 21:12,14) and multiplied by a thousand, a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness. Hence, John has in view all the redeemed, all believers, whether Jew or Gentile . . . i.e., the Church. As Beale points out, “if Gentile believers are clearly identified together with ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’ as part of the new Jerusalem (21:12,14,24; 22:2-5), then it is not odd that John should refer to them together with Jewish Christians in 7:4 as ‘the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel’” (417). Let us also not forget that the “seal” of 7:2-3 is equivalent to their receiving a name. And one of the names written on Gentile believers, in addition to the name of God and Jesus, is “the name of the new Jerusalem” (3:12)! Finally, as noted earlier, in Rev. 9:4 the demonic scorpions are told to harm only those “who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads,” implying that all Christians (whether Jewish or Gentile) have such a seal.

In light of the evidence given above, I believe the 144,000 constitute one group of people: the redeemed of the Church. In 7:4-8 they are numbered, like unto the census of OT Israel, because they constitute a messianic army called to carry on the battle of the Lion of Judah. They are the true Israel of God, the remnant of believers whose salvation and preservation have been secured by the seal of God. Perhaps also they are numbered to highlight the fact that “God has determined exactly who will receive his redemptive seal, and only he knows the precise number of his true ‘servants’ (so 7:3; 2 Tim. 2:19)” (Beale, 424). In 14:1-5 it may be that they are portrayed at the close of history, in heaven, having suffered martyrdom under the beast but triumphant in Christ.

(10)            Since the name of the Lamb and the name of His Father written on the foreheads of the 144,000 is obviously figurative, the same should be true of the “mark” of the beast in 13:16-18.

(11)            The “new song” (14:3) is most likely a hymn of praise for the victory God has secured on their behalf over the Dragon and his two beastly cohorts. “Just as only those redeemed by Christ can know the ‘new name’ of God that they possess (2:17), so only those who have experienced Christ’s redemption [i.e., the 144,000] can ‘learn’ the ‘new song’ and sing it” (Beale, 737). Some have argued that the “voice” (v. 2) that sings the new song is not that of the 144,000 but of the angelic harpists. But why would it be important to say that only the 144,000 can “learn” the song if they never “sing” it?

(12)            They are described as “ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste” (14:4a). Some have taken this literally as a group of celibate men. However, if the 144,000 is a symbol for the entire people of God, as I believe it is, this would mean he envisions all Christians as celibate! This may then be an allusion to the OT requirement that an Israelite soldier preserve ceremonial purity before entering battle (see Deut. 23:9-10; 1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 11:8-11).

Others see in the word “virgins” (parthenoi) a metaphor of all saints who have not compromised with the world system or yielded to its idolatry. They have remained loyal as a “virgin bride” to their betrothed husband (see 19:7-9; 21:2; 2 Cor. 11:2). “That Jerusalem and the picture of a ‘prepared bride’ are both figurative for the entire church in 21:2 enforces an all-inclusive symbolic interpretation of the ‘virgins’ here” (Beale, 739). Note also the many OT texts where the word “virgin” is applied figuratively to the nation of Israel (2 Kings 19:21; Isa. 37:22; Jer. 14:17; 18:13; 31:4,13,21; Lam. 1:15; 2:13; Amos 5:2), as well as the fact that idolatry and injustice are often figuratively pictured as “harlotry” or “sexual immorality” (see Jer. 3:1-10; 13:27; Ezek. 16:15-58; 23:1-49; 43:7; Hosea 5:4; 6:10). Israel’s idolatry was also described as “defilement” (Isa. 65:4; Jer. 23:15; 51:4). This is similar to what we find in Rev. 2:14,20-22. In other texts in Revelation, to “fornicate” (porneuo) and its cognates usually are metaphorical for spiritual apostasy and idol worship (14:8; 17:1,2,4,5,15,16; 18:3,9; 19:2). When these words are used literally, they are part of vice lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15).

In summary, the “virginity” in view here and the refusal to “defile” themselves with women is a figurative description of all believers who resist the temptation to compromise morally with the system of the beast or to yield to its idolatrous ways.

(13)            They are also said to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (14:4b), a likely allusion to the statements found in the synoptic gospels about believers “following” Jesus (e.g., Mt. 8:19; 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:57; cf. 1 Pt. 221-22).

(14)            For the statement that they were purchased as “firstfruits” to God the Lamb, see above.

(15)            One element in following the Lamb (v. 4) is that “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (v. 5). This is an allusion to Isa. 53:9 (“Nor was there any deceit in His mouth”). This may be more than a reference to general truth-telling and point also to “the saints’ integrity in witnessing to Jesus when they are under pressure from the beast and the ‘false prophet’ to compromise their faith and go along with the idolatrous lie (so 13:10,18; 14:9-12)” (Beale, 746). They are “blameless” in the sense that they maintain a truthful witness concerning Jesus. They resist the temptation to embrace the “lie” of the beast. Here we see the fulfillment of the command: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pt. 1:16; cf. Zeph. 3:13).