Revelation is a book of symbolic language that resounds with the theme of victory. Written to encourage Christians who were being persecuted, Revelation assures its reader that living for Jesus is well worth whatever price one has to pay (cf. Luke 14:25-33).
Revelation 7 is an answer to the question of Revelation 6:17: “The great day of [the Lamb’s] wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” That question deserves serious contemplation. Indeed, who will be able to stand up in the face of God’s wrath? The answer that John gives is the 144,000 (Rev. 7:4).
The number 144,000 is not to be taken literally, for the book of Revelation is a book of symbols, and numbers in this book are nearly always figurative. God is not literally saying that only 144,000 people can be saved, as some religious sects have tried to teach. Rather, 144,000 is a number representing the completeness of God’s people (12 x 12 x 1000). In Revelation, the number 12 generally represents the people of God (cf. Rev. 12:1; 21:12, 14), while the number 1000 represents completeness (Rev. 20:4). The 144,000 represents the full number of the people of God — those who are sealed and thus protected against the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 7:3-4).
Since 144,000 is a special description of the people of God, let us notice some of the characteristics of the saved based on this imagery.
God’s People Are Numbered In Census Language — The language of Revelation 7:4-8 is strikingly similar to that of the book of Numbers (cf. Num. 1:2-4ff), in which a census of all males 20 and older was taken to determine military readiness in Israel. The 144,000 seems to be a symbolic census of the church to determine its readiness to face spiritual battles. In Revelation 14:1-5, the 144,000 are again mentioned with the added detail of being undefiled males (v.4). Thus, the 144,000 is the symbolic census of God’s army, the church. The number tells us that God’s people are ready for spiritual battle, and that they are perfectly equipped to face anything that Satan and his cohorts can devise (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). The 144,000 is the picture of a perfect spiritual army.
God’s People Are Spiritual Israel — One of the clearest teachings in the New Testament is that those who are, “born of water and the spirit” (John 3:5) become Abraham’s spiritual descendants (cf. Gal. 3:26-29; Rom. 9:6). So it should not be surprising to find the church described as Israel in Revelation 7:4-8. The 144,000 are led by the tribe of Judah, which was the tribe from which Jesus came (Gen. 49:9-10; Heb. 7:14; Rev. 5:5). Dan and Ephraim, two tribes that became heavily associated with sin and compromise (cf. Judges 18:30; Hosea 4:17) are left out while Joseph and Levi — tribes with more positive connotations — are included in the list. The message of the 144,000 is that the church is spiritual Israel, heirs of the promise God made to Abraham (Gen. 12:3).
God’s People Comprise An Unusual Army — In Revelation it becomes clear that the victory of God’s people has been won by Jesus Christ (cf. Rev. 12:11). Thus, the 144,000 is no ordinary army. The army of God does not conquer with swords and spears, but rather by maintaining faithfulness through suffering. Just as Jesus, our Commander in Chief (Eph. 1:22-23), became victorious through His death on the cross, so the 144,000 participates in His victory by being faithful until death (Rev. 2:10; 14:13).
Take heart, fellow Christian. You are part of the 144,000 — perfectly equipped to face this life, part of a divine heritage, and following in the steps of Jesus Himself! —JB