Who are the 144,000 mentioned in the Apocalypse, and should we even care to know? The number has caused much speculation. Is it a cryptic literal number of tribulation Jews or of some other special religious population in the end times? Having heard many weird interpretations throughout my life, I’ve found that the best way to clarify the message of the 144,000 to others is to develop an understanding of the inner biblical narrative as it moves from Abraham to Jesus.
God had promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as limitless as the sand of the seashore (Genesis 22:17). They were not to be a few or even thousands but a great multitude of people that no one could possibly count. Unfortunately, the story of God’s people is largely a history of failure. If you examine the record, you will see that God has never had a people in a complete and unbreakable sense—at least not an entire people who remained faithful in the way He desired. Throughout history, we find most of God’s people failing miserably, going into captivity and dwindling in numbers. Instead of immeasurably growing, the number of God’s people kept getting smaller. At times, it seemed that none were faithful, but God always managed to preserve a small minority,even if His tattered faithful were reduced to just “one servant” (Isaiah 40–54).
When Jesus entered the scene as the faithful servant, He set the entire story within an eschatological framework. The people of God could now become what they were meant to be—a blessing to all people and a light to the nations. However, not long after Jesus came to reestablish a people for God’s name, apostasy crept into the apostolic community, and the Gentile mission became a state religion that was more concerned with wielding worldly power than living like Jesus. Soon, there were scattered disciples and overmatched apostles. Through the subsequent dismal record of repeated failure, God’s remnant continued to survive in shrinking pockets here and there, but God’s promise to make Abraham’s seed as innumerable as the sands of the seashore indicates anticipated growth. God fervently desired an entire people to whom He could relate and through whom He could present a true picture of His character to the world. God claimed an isolated case here and there, but how did Israel do as a whole? By considering the goal of history and God’s desire to create a people for His name’s sake, we can begin to understand the meaning of the 144,000. In this number, we see the history of God’s people—marked by disappointment and failure—turning out all right in the end.
The question underlying the 144,000 is whether God will ever find His people within the mess of this mad and chaotic world. Will God find a faithful people who will stand with confidence despite any circumstances, choosing to give God the moment? We may soon see the apocalyptic forces of destruction gathering for a final time of trouble, as described in the Book of Revelation. In this description, the earth is ripping apart at its seams, and the inhabitants of the world are asking: “Who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:17). In the face of this global catastrophe, John answers this anxious question, declaring 144,000 as an image of faithfulness. God gathers His people and seals them. These are the ones who will stand the tide of evil during the most challenging times of human history. God will not abandon the world that He loves, for He has claimed a people for His own name, a people ready to bring His glory into the chaos and clamor of this world.
In Revelation, the 144,000 are first described as Jews. Only members of Israel will be saved: “And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel” (Revelation 7:4, NRSV). This, however, does not describe a reformation of Israel’s ethnic people but rather the spiritual inclusion of individuals (Jews and Gentiles) into Israel’s ancient tribes (Romans 2:28-29). In the 144,000, Israel’s mission and vocation are fulfilled (Revelation 7:15–17). God still has big plans for the world; He speaks of taking a people for His name from every tribe, multiplying them so that they can fulfill their vocation as an image-bearing remnant. In them, we can see Israel as it was meant to be (Deuteronomy 1:11).
The second image of the 144,000—a multitude too large to count—shows us that the kingdom is universal and expansive, encompassing every group, tribe, and language. Again, the question of who can stand is answered though the vast number who join the faith as God’s kingdom advances. God will have an army of people conformed to His love, fixing their gaze on an irresistible Savior as they follow Him wherever He leads! Such witnesses become the meaningful expression of God’s unrelenting love, showing the world what God’s love can do through weak and fallible humanity (Judges 6:15).
Some may think that the number of God’s faithful people who live through the final conflict is limited to 144,000. However, if we consider how Revelation is filled with symbolism, it is easy to accept that the number is intended as symbolic rather than literal. A similar case is Jesus asking us to forgive 70×7 or 490 times (Matthew 18:21). Numbers are not necessarily used literally in the Bible. People sometimes fuss over figures that have nothing to do with the metaphor and message.
We might consider that 144,00 is the last census count taken before the final conflict, though this census is not about the number of people but about each person becoming a part of God’s plan and mission.If we take a close look at Revelation’s census, we find something beautiful underlying its enumeration. It’s not about counting people as figures but about counting them as names (Numbers 1:2, 3). From God’s perspective, the 144,000 are not a nameless crowd of people. Each included individual is identified and recognized as having distinct worth and value, implying that each individual has an important destiny in His plan. The act of counting names reveals God’s grace in redeeming and transforming us. It is a testimony to His grace. If we view the numbering of the 144,000 in this light, we see that it’s not about measuring numerical strength but rather identifying each individual who belongs—each one named and accounted for—thereby revealing the communal fullness of God’s people.
The prophet Jeremiah predicted a time when God would “count” His people, like a good shepherd counting his sheep (Jeremiah 33:12–15, NIV). Ezekiel anticipated a restoration of the twelve tribes to full strength (Ezekiel 47:13–48:35). The vision of God counting and returning His people, ensuring that no one is missing before the final storm breaks, is very comforting. Being tenderly counted like this is far more significant than any census. God does more than count heads. His counting is about being included and belonging to Him to become the people He has called us to be (Exodus 30:12). Thus, I think that 144,000 is a symbolic number, telling us that the faithful are perfectly numbered and accounted for. No one is missing; no one is left out; no one is lost; no one is looked over or left to the side. Everyone has been accounted for and sealed.
John seems to declare a successful campaign. After a prolonged history marked by failure and disappointment, the story of Israel reaches its God-ordained conclusion. God doesn’t have a floundering handful of pitiful followers who lack faith or wander in exile or apostasy but an entire army of fully dedicated and faithful people ready to live and act for Him. Despite the turbulence on earth, God will have His people, who are presented as an organized army of lovers prepared to enter the coming conflict. Where the tribes of Israel have historically failed, God will finally succeed. God’s response to failure and defeat is to pull His people together—from every nation, kindred, and tongue—and form them into one eschatological remnant.
So, do I have a chance of becoming one of these special ones? I feel so imperfect, so inadequate—how could I ever join this triumphant band, this victorious crowd? The good news is that the 144,000 presented in Revelation 7 and 14 are not an elite group that we have little chance of belonging to. The message is inclusion—not exclusion. No one who wants to join will be excluded from the tribes of Israel: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people [Israel]’” (Isaiah 56:3, NIV). God is not trying to keep people out of His kingdom but trying to gather as many as He can to establish His name among the nations. We can be sure that no one who wants to join His ranks will be left out. If you look at the twelve sons of Jacob, who made up the ancient tribes, you will find that they were not exemplary characters. No one could have less chance of joining God’s people than did crafty Simeon, violent Levi, lustful Reuben, or headstrong Judah (Genesis 49; Romans 5:20). If these characters could make it with God’s help, you and I can certainly make it too. The various personalities and diverse backgrounds represented in the 144,000 will be used to do God’s will against what seem to be impossible odds. The 144,000 will become not only more receptive to Jesus, which will transpose them to an experience of greater intimacy, but also sealed to live through the final crucible (Revelation 7:1–4, 14:1).
The seal of God is simply described as an outward expression of an inward reality—as having the names of the Lamb and the Father written on one’s forehead (Revelation 14:1, 22:4). Our daily decision-making patterns brand us via the way we think about God, becoming permanent marks of our characters (Deuteronomy 6:7–9; Revelation 22:11). Servants of God are prepared to present their lives as examples of allegiance, even at great peril to themselves. The empowering Spirit galvanizes them into truth by pouring into them a display of love that seals their hearts (Song of Songs 8:6). We can rest assured that God will place His redeemed people in His loving care as they stand up for His loving values against the world’s chaotic pattern.
Finally, the message of the 144,00 is not about setting the bar of moral achievement higher or getting our performance absolutely perfect. It’s about aligning ourselves with God’s unselfish love for the world and sharing in that experience (1 John 14:12). God wants to empower lives, enabling them to become part of the great destiny He has planned. God’s longing desire and goal for human history have been to find a receptive people whose faces are turned towards Him, offering the world a reflection of Jesus. We have been invited to share with others what God has been doing for the world that He passionately loves. What an astounding invitation of eternal fellowship! This is what really matters. When the mission is accomplished, we will stand before the throne, amazed at what God has wrought in the process—an innumerable group of sons and daughters bearing the image of Jesus as they rejoice in His presence. Let’s follow the Lamb wherever He goes today so that we can be among this group.
Craig Ashton Jr.