Who Are the 144,000 of Revelation 7 and 14?

By Wayne Jackson

“Who are the 144,000 people mentioned in the book of Revelation, chapters 7 and 14?”

The book of Revelation is a highly symbolic treatise (cf. 1:1). Because of this fact, many false religionists have attempted to exploit the message of the narrative to their own theological ends. The Apocalypse has become a happy hunting ground for some religious cultists who seek biblical support for their peculiar doctrines.

Twice in this book, mention is made of a group consisting of 144,000. In chapter 7:1ff John heard of 144,000 (12,000 each from twelve different Israelite tribes) servants of God who had been sealed on their foreheads. They were thus obviously redeemed people.

Also, the apostle saw a “great multitude, which no man can number” out of every nation. These too were redeemed individuals who had been made white in the Lamb’s blood (v. 14). They had victoriously triumphed over tribulation, and they served God continuously in his temple.

Some feel that these two groups are really the same people — just from different angles.

Again, in Revelation 14:1ff, John saw the Lamb on Mount Zion. With him were 144,000, sealed with the Father’s name upon their foreheads. This great multitude had been “purchased out of the earth,” and they were said to be the “firstfruits unto God and unto the Lamb.”

The “Jehovah’s Witnesses” have almost no concept of the distinction between the literal and the figurative language in the Bible. And so, they literalize the number 144,000 in these two contexts, and ridiculously argue that only 144,000 people will gain heaven.

A Watchtower publication states that “the final number of the heavenly church will be 144,000, according to God’s decree” (Let God Be True, p. 113). The balance of saved humanity, they contend, will live on God’s glorified earth.

It should be noted that the term “thousand” is used nineteen times in the book of Revelation, but not once is it employed literally in this document.

The 144,000 in Revelation 7

There are some minor differences of opinion among reputable Bible scholars as to the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7.

John T. Hinds argued that the number referred to those who were saved from the physical nation of Israel (112).

Others, like J. W. Roberts, felt that this company is spiritual Israel, i.e., the church (71). Some think this group represents the martyrs who have given their lives for the cause of Christ.

Be that as it may, it is generally acknowledged that:

“The number is obviously symbolic. 12 (the number of the tribes) is both squared and multiplied by 1,000 — a twofold way of emphasizing completeness” (Mounce, 168).

We must emphasize the following two points:

First, one simply cannot take a symbolic section of scripture and interpret it in such a fashion as to make it contradict other clear, literal portions of the Bible.

Second, any doctrine which logically implies an absurdity is false and must be rejected. The Watchtower theory regarding the 144,000 violates both of these principles.

Consider the following points.

If 144,000 is literal, what about other descriptive terms?

If one argues that the 144,000 represents a literal number, he should similarly contend that the group of which that number consists is also literal, i.e., literal Israelites.

That would mean, according to the Watchtower scheme of interpretation, that no one would be in heaven who was not of the actual tribes listed.

This would also exclude Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — who were never of the tribes of Israel. And yet, that conflicts with Jesus’ affirmation that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 8:11).

Are there any Gentiles in the 144,000?

If only a literal 144,000 Israelites will enter heaven, then not one Gentile has the hope of the kingdom of heaven. However, the Lord was plainly alluding to Gentiles when he stated that:

“many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 8:11).

Are the tribes of Ephraim or Dan included in the 144,000?

If the tribes of Revelation 7 are to be literally pressed, not a person from either Ephraim or Dan will enter heaven, for they are excluded from the list.

This would mean that Old Testament heroes like Joshua (from Ephraim) and Samson (from Dan) will not be in heaven.

The fact is, mention of the “tribe of Joseph” (7:8), which was not a tribe at all in a literal sense, is evidence of the symbolism of this context.

What about the “great multitude” and the 144,000?

Logically, the Watchtower people must exclude the “great multitude, which no man could number” (7:9) from heaven. This group, they allege, represents the “earthly class.”

That is not so. This multitude was described as “standing before the throne” (7:9), which is in heaven (1:4; 4:2-10). Furthermore, these saints “before the throne” were serving God in “his temple” (7:15). Elsewhere John comments that “the temple of God … is in heaven” (11:19).

What about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 14?

The 144,000 are mentioned again in Revelation 14:1ff. Once more, however, the numeral is clustered with several other prominent symbols.

First, there is the “Lamb,” a figure representing Christ (cf. Jn. 1:29; Rev. 5:6).

Second, there is Mount Zion, a symbol of divine government (cf. Isa. 2:2-4).

Third, there is the numeral 144,000, suggestive of the heavenly complement of God’s people — no one will be missing who is supposed to be there.

Fourth, the saints are depicted as “virgins,” which descriptive emphasizes their purity (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2).

Again, though, it must be stressed that if one contends for a literal 144,000, if consistent, he should argue also that a literal Lamb was literally standing on literal Mount Zion with a group of literal men who had never been intimate with literal women, hence, were literal virgins!

If a consistent literal scheme of interpretation is pursued, here is the situation that would obtain:

  • Only men will be in heaven, hence, Hannah, Mary, Dorcus, and women of like faith are without that hope.
  • Only unmarried men who are virgins will gain heaven. This would exclude Abraham, Moses, Peter, and a host of other biblical worthies.

These conclusions are utterly ludicrous and thus without any merit whatever.

Who are the 144,000?

The 144,000 of Revelation 14 likely signifies the entire body of the redeemed.

This group represents a body of people who were “purchased” from among men. The only purchase price ultimately available for human salvation is that of the blood of Jesus Christ. His blood was effective for the obedient who lived before the cross (Gal. 4:5; Heb. 9:15-17), and for those who have submitted to God’s will since that historic event (1 Pet. 1:18,19; Acts 20:28).

Finally, the Bible makes it clear that no one will dwell on a “glorified earth,” for there will be no earth subsequent to the Second Coming of Christ (see Mt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:10ff; Rev. 21:1). Also see, Will Heaven Be On Earth?".

For further study, see Does the ESV Translation Support Watchtower Doctrine?.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Hinds, John T. 1937. Commentary on Revelation. Gospel Advocate: Nashville, TN.
  • Mounce, Robert. 1977. The Book of Revelation. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Roberts, J. W. 1974. The Revelation to John. Sweet: Austin, TX.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.