#4. The 144,000 (Revelation 6-10)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (44:16)

The writer of Revelation shows God's judgments in the Last Days unfolding in three series of seven. Whether these are sequential and chronological, we can't know for sure. It may be helpful to see at least some of these as parallel with each other (www.jesuswalk.com/revelation/parallelism.pdf).

  • Seven Seals (6:1-8:5)
  • Seven Trumpets (8:6-11:19)
  • Seven Bowls of Wrath (15:7-16:21)

In the midst of this awesome destruction we see the faithful and witnessing church, herself protected from God's judgments (7:3), but subject to intense persecution and martyrdom by the enraged enemies of God (6:9-11; 7:14; 11:3; 12:11, 17; 13:7).

Lesson #4 is a long one, made up of five chapters. There's a lot of material here, but what I'm focusing on are the general outlines of God's judgments upon the earth and particularly the believers who are on earth and in heaven during this time of judgment and intense persecution.

At this point in Revelation, debates about the identity of various groups get hot and heavy. My goal isn't to convince you of a particular view, but to help you understand the core message of the Book of Revelation. The questions you find in yellow boxes aren't meant to get you to take sides in a speculative doctrinal debate, but to reflect on what the text teaches us -- in particular, lessons that we can apply in our own lives.

The Seven Seals (6:1-17)


Albrecht Dürer, "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1497-98)
Larger picture (123K)

The seven seals begin with the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", the subject of Dürer's famous woodcut. http://www.jesuswalk.com/images/durer_horsemen_lg.jpg  The imagery is similar to Zechariah 1:8-15; 6:1-8, with content that is similar to Ezekiel 14:12-23 and Leviticus 26:18-28. The parallels with Matthew 24 and Luke 21:9-27 are interesting if not complete. The destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) is omitted in Revelation, since it had presumably already occurred by the time the vision was recorded about 95 AD. If you haven't already, why don't you print out the 7 Seals chart on which you can take notes (www.jesuswalk.com/revelation/7_seals.pdf).

6:1 "A white horse ... bow ... crown conquering and to conquer." The identity of the white horse and rider is disputed.

  1. The rider is Christ, the white horse, the victorious progress of the gospel, in accordance with 19:11; 5:5, Matthew 10:34; 24:14; Mark 13:10, Psalm 45: 3-5. White is used elsewhere in Revelation in a good sense (14 times).
  2. But others insist that the four horses belong together. A horse is symbolic of strength, terror, warfare, and conquest (Isaiah 30:16; 31:1-3; Job 39:22-25). The first rider would then represent military conquest. The bow is a symbol of military power (Hosea 1:5; Jeremiah 51:56; Isaiah 41:2). (So Mounce, Morris, Bruce, Beasley-Murray, Beale). This view makes the most sense to me.

6:3 "Horse, bright red ... take peace away from the earth" (Matthew 24:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 2:6; Zechariah 14:13; Isaiah 19:2).

6:5 "A black horse ... a balance is his hand." The balance indicates a time of scarcity when food is measured out at greatly inflated prices. A denarius was about one day's wage, for which a man could buy enough wheat for himself only, or less nutritious food for his family, inflated to 10 times the normal price. Since the roots of the olive and vine go deeper, they would not be affected by a limited drought which would nearly destroy the grain crop.

6:7 "A pale horse ... Death, and Hades followed him." This horse was the color of a corpse. Death is brought by the "four sore acts of judgment" of Ezekiel 14:21. Three cycles of judgment seem to appear in increasing intensity: (1) The fourth seal affects "a fourth part of the earth" (6:8), (2) the trumpets destroy a third (8:7,8,10,12), and (3) the destruction by the bowls is complete and final (chapter 16).

6:9 "I saw under the altar the souls ... slain for the word of God." Christian persecution and martyrdom is inevitable in the end times and is seen as a sacrifice to God, as represented by their location "under the altar" (see 2 Timothy 4:6; Philippians 2:17). Notice the mention of "the testimony they had maintained," part of a theme throughout Revelation encouraging to the church to continue its faithful witness in spite of persecution and death (See the notes on 1:2.).

6:10 Vindication and justice, not revenge, is the theme of their prayer. See Psalm 79:10; Habakkuk 1:2.

6:12 "The sixth seal ... earthquake," etc. See Isaiah 2:10, 19, 21. Haggai 2:6; Joel 2:30-31 quoted in Acts 2:19-20; Isaiah 34:4. The heavens are removed like an unrolled papyrus scroll, which, if it broke in the middle, would roll quickly back on either side (Mounce).

6:16 "What sinners dread most is not death, but the revealed Presence of God" (Swete). Better death by a crushing avalanche than face the wrath of the Lamb.

If we identify the sixth seal with Matthew 24:29, it would be placed "immediately after the tribulation" and just before the public coming of the Son of Man, accompanied by the "mourning" of all the tribes of the earth, that is, the unbelievers. That assumes, however, that both Revelation and Matthew follow the same time-based chronology.

Q1. (Revelation 6) Who initiates this great storm of destruction represented by the Seven Seals? Against whom is it directed? Is it just?
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Q2. (Revelation 6:9-11) What do we learn about the Church from what is revealed in the Fifth Seal? Where are these "souls" at the time of this scene? What does their proximity to the altar signify? Why were they killed? Why do they ask for vengeance? Is that a Christian prayer? What does the white robe represent? What do we learn from their instruction to "wait a little longer"?
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The 144,000 (7:1-8)

Chapter 7 This chapter is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals. The purpose is to assure the Church that she shall be protected from the wrath of God upon the world.

7:1 Four is again seen as the number of the created world -- four corners of the earth, four winds.

7:2 "The seal of the living God." The idea of the seal comes from signet rings like those used by Oriental kings to authenticate and protect official documents, and to declare their ownership (22:3-4). The imagery is from Ezekiel 9 where a man with an inkhorn places an X or a + on the forehead of the faithful remnant in Jerusalem to protect them from God's judgments upon the city. The idea may go back to the mark of the Passover Lamb's blood upon a house that protected the Israelites within during God's judgment on the Egyptians (Exodus 12). The seal in Revelation is the name of the Lamb and his Father (14:1). They are preserved from the wrath of God (1 Thessalonians 5:9), though apparently not from persecution (see 20:4) nor the effects of the destruction being wreaked upon the earth. The seal provides spiritual protection for Christians against the power of satanic forces and is emblematic of salvation (2 Timothy 2:19; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). This seal contrasts with the mark of the beast (13:16; 14:9, 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).

7:3 Revelation offers two looks at the 144,000. (1) 7:3-8 shows them on earth, protected from God's wrath and Satan's trickery by the "seal" on their foreheads. (2) 14:1-5 views them in heaven before the throne, now "redeemed from the earth." It makes sense to assume that these 144,000 comprise the same group in both places.

"144, 000 ... out of every tribe of the sons of Israel." There are 12 tribes listed, but Dan is omitted in favor of Manasseh who is included in addition to Joseph (see Genesis 35:22-26). The number 144,000 is 12 squared and multiplied by 1000. One thousand was for Greek speakers the "big number" like we use the word "a million." Thus 144,000 is a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness -- the full number which includes many, many people. I believe that number is not to be taken literally but symbolically, like a great many of the elements of John's vision (see chapter 21, especially verse 17).

Who are the 144,000? Literal Israel? Or the church?

  1. Literal Israel might be the reference. Romans 11:25-26 indicates a future salvation for Paul's kinsmen, probably after the "times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luke 21:24; so Beasley-Murray 141). Dispensational theology, the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsey, Walvrood, and others make a clear separation between the Jews and the church in prophecy. They see the rapture of the church as prior to the seven seals, the 144,000 as literal Jews, and the white-robed saints of 7:14 as Gentiles saved by the preaching of the 144,000 witnesses during the tribulation.
  2. Jehovah's Witnesses see the 144,000 referring to the true church in the Last Times, but take the number literally as a reference to members their own sect only. When their numbers grew beyond 144,000, their literal interpretation forced them to emphasize an entirely earth-bound paradise for later-born Jehovah's Witnesses.
  3. However, for several reasons, I believe that the 144,000 should be seen symbolically as the whole Church (Beale 416-423, Ladd 111-117, Caird 94-96, Mounce 168-170). Here's why I hold this view:
    1. The Church can be referred to as the twelve tribes (James 1:1 with 1 Peter 1:1), the Christian as the true Jew (Romans 2:29; Revelation 2:9; 3:9), and as the "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16). The Church is the heir of the promises and distinctions of Israel (1 Peter 2:9-10; Galatians 3:29; Philippians 3:3; Romans 4:11). The Church has been grafted into the one "olive tree" of God's people while the Jews as a people were broken off (Romans 11:17-21; Matthew 21:43).
    2. The "ten lost tribes" of Israel that went into exile have been assimilated into other cultures and lost their identity as Jews.
    3. As the number 144,000 is symbolic here, so also the designation "sons of Israel" is probably figurative of the Church.
    4. All "servants of God" on earth at the time were sealed. Unless the Church has been raptured by this time, these servants must include Gentile Christians. The martyrs of 6:9-11 correspond to the Christians to be persecuted in Mt 24:9-14. The rapture in Matthew 24:29-31 is supposed to come "immediately after the tribulation of those days."
    5. Protection from the wrath of God is possible for Christians while on the earth. For example, Israel in Egypt was protected from the ten plagues upon the Egyptians. The promise of sealing in Revelation 7:2-4 grants protection as did the sealing in Ezekiel 9.
Q3. (Revelation 7:1-4) There's disagreement about exactly who the 144,000 represent. Let's not debate that, but look deeper. From 7:1-4 what do we learn about God? Read Ezekiel 9, then answer: What is this seal supposed to do for the 144,000? (Please wait to consider 14:1-5 until we get there, okay?)
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The Great Multitude in White Robes (7:9-17)

7:9 "A great multitude clothed in white robes." Now the scene shifts from the 144,000 who are, at this point, on the earth, to an unnumbered multitude in heaven before the throne of God.

7:9-12 In this throne room scene we hear the same kind of worship we saw in chapters 4 and 5. The white-robed humans praise God for their salvation. Humans, angels, elders, and the four living creatures all bow down to worship and offer a fitting seven-fold doxology before God. Count the seven elements in 7:12.

7:14 "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation." How they came out of the great tribulation is not stated. The possibilities are: (1) by natural death, (2) by martyrdom (in which case they might include members of the group described in 6:9-11), or (3) by rapture (see Matthew 24: 29-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; alluded to in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). The chronological order of this scene is not given, only that John saw it after the scene of the 144,000 on earth (7:9). Could it be that these white-robed saints represent the same 144,000 who have gone through the tribulation and are now in heaven, at rest (as in 14:1-5)? We can't be sure.

"The great tribulation" is the "hour of trial" (3:10), the "time of trouble" (Daniel 12:1), and is probably the same times described in Matthew 24:21, 29. The destiny of the saints who follow the Lamb has always been persecution. The great tribulation is that persecution escalated in intensity to fever pitch. This great multitude comes from "all nations" the result of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19), the great work of preaching "the gospel of the kingdom," which must be completed before the end comes (Matthew 24:14). This great innumerable multitude is probably a picture of the entire church of Christ, gathered in the new heavens and new earth (see 21:1-4).

"Washed their robes ... in the blood of the Lamb." Being washed in blood seems like a strange metaphor, but it is originally seen in Genesis 49:11. The idea of sins being cleansed by the atonement of blood sacrifices is a common figure in the Old Testament and the new (for example, Hebrews 9:14 and 1 John 1:7). This group of forgiven and cleansed people is likely to be the same as the 144,000 as "these (who) have been redeemed from mankind," bought by the atoning blood of the Lamb whom they follow (14:4) and worship (7:10).

7:15-17 The description of their privilege to live in God's presence has inspired hope in hurting and oppressed Christians throughout the centuries. This passage contains a number of echoes from the Prophet Isaiah (4:5-6; 25:4-5, 8; 49:10; also in Revelation 21:4). These verses capture the hope of those who must undergo the pain and hurt of this world order. Notice the deliberate incongruous images of the Lamb who is also a Shepherd (7:17), with strong echoes from the Twenty-Third Psalm!

What are the promises made to this group of Christians who have come out of great tribulation? In the space provided, write down the poetic way in which each of these promises is framed. This is not to share in the Forum, but for your own notes.


Presence of God (7:15a)

 

Protection of God (7:15b)

 

Provision of God (7:16)

 

Guidance of the Lamb (7:17a)

 

Salvation from the Lamb (7:17b. What does "living water" signify here?)

 

Comfort from God (7:17c)

 

 

Q4. (Revelation 7:9-18). From this passage what do we learn about the kind of people who make up the "great multitude" before the throne? Let's not debate whether they are the 144,000 or not. But what is their origin? What does their spirit within them cause them to do? What does the first verse of the song "Amazing Grace" have to do with 7:14?
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The Seventh Seal and the Golden Censer (8:1-5)

8:1 "The seventh seal ... silence." Silence is often associated with judgment in the Old Testament (Psalm 115:17; 31:17; Isaiah 47:5; Ezekiel 27:32; Amos 8:2-3; Lamentations 2:10-11; especially Habakkuk 2:20 and Zechariah 2:13; Beale 446-454).

8:3 "A golden censer" is an elegant utensil for burning incense. Incense often gracing the homes of monarchs and the wealthy (Psalm 45:8). In the Bible, however, burning incense is almost always mentioned in the context of worship of a deity. In Revelation, incense is used as a metaphor of prayer (see also 5:8).

The Seven Trumpets (8:6-9:21)

The Israelites used a ram's horn, the shofar, as a trumpet to signal coming events and to coordinate troops in battle. If you haven't already, why don't you print out the 7 Trumpets chart on which you can take notes (www.jesuswalk.com/revelation/7_trumpets.pdf).

8:6 The seven trumpets seem to develop out of the seventh seal. But do the trumpets follow the seals in chronological succession? There are several views:

  1. That the trumpets follow the seals in chronological succession. This is the simplest understanding of these verses in the opinion of C. C. Ryrie, Salem Kirban, and other dispensationalist (pre-tribulation, pre-millennial) writers. They see the seven seals as belonging to the first 3-1/2 years of the Tribulation Period; the Trumpets and Bowls to the second 3-1/2 year period of the Tribulation. However, this view has (as does every other view) certain objections which have led to other approaches.
  2. That the trumpets and seals and bowls are at least partly parallel chronologically. Wilcock fits the visions into the chronological framework of Jesus' Mt. Olivet discourse (Matthew 24) and sees a "repeat of patterns." A major fact which seems to substantiate this parallelism theory is that both the sixth seal and the seventh trumpet seem to declare the events of the coming of Christ, parallel to Matthew 24:29-31. Other writers with various adaptations of this theory are Morris, Ladd, Bruce, Hendriksen, and Beale. This is the view which I consider preferable and most helpful to understanding the intention of the book.

If the church is present, as I believe it to be, during this period (9:4-5), it is certainly sealed and protected from the wrath of God upon the earth, much as the Israelites in Egypt were protected from the plagues (see Exodus 8:22; 9:4, 26; 11:7). However, when final destruction comes, God's servants are removed (for example, Lot in Sodom, Genesis 19:12-13, 22; and Noah and his family, Genesis 6-8).

Notice that some of the trumpets seem to parallel, but with greater intensity, the plagues on Egypt, Exodus 7-11. That only 1/3 of the earth was destroyed indicates the as yet restricted intensity of God's trumpet judgments.

8:7 "First trumpet ... hail and fire ... blood." See the seventh Egyptian plague (Exodus 9:13-35).

8:8 "Second trumpet ... sea became blood." See the first Egyptian plague (Exodus 7:20-21).

8:10 "Third trumpet ... Wormwood" also suggests the pollution of the fresh water experienced in the first Egyptian plague. Wormwood is a plant with a strongly bitter taste. See Proverbs 5:3-4; Lamentations 3:19; Jeremiah 9:15; 23:15.

8:12 "Fourth trumpet ... darkness." Compare the ninth Egyptian plague (Exodus 10:21-23). These last day plagues are the prelude to that great and final exodus in which the church is taken out of the world and enters into the eternal presence of God. See Amos 5:18; Joel 2; Mark 13:24; Isaiah 13:10.

8:13 "Woe, woe, woe." These woes correspond to the last three judgments (9:12; 11:14). The eagle, a predator, now announces the last three parts of the vision.

9:1 "A star fallen from heaven to earth." See Revelation 8:10; Luke 10:18; Isaiah 14:12; Revelation 12:4. However, he may well be the angel of God seen in 20:1.

9:2 "Shaft of the bottomless pit" (Greek abyssos). The rising smoke of a great furnace suggests that the abyss is a place of torment of the evil spirits imprisoned there until the final judgment (Luke 8:31; Revelation 20:3; 11:7; 17:8; 9:1, 11; 20:1, 3; also Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4; Luke 16:23-24).

9:3 "Locusts ... power of scorpions." See the eighth Egyptian plague (Exodus 10:1-20), and the vision of Joel 1:2-2:1. Throughout the Old Testament the locust is a symbol of destruction. Breeding in the desert, they invade cultivated areas in search of food. They may travel in a column 100 feet deep and up to four miles in length, leaving the land stripped bare of all vegetation. The scorpion is a lobster-like vermin, 4 to 5 inches long with a stinger on the end of the tail that secretes a poison when it strikes.

9:11 "The angel of the bottomless pit." This is not likely to be Satan, but a servant of God who controls the pit. Hebrew Abaddon, seen in Job 28:22, is associated with Sheol, death. Apollyon means "the destroyer" in Greek. Destroying angels are seen in God's judgments in Sodom (Genesis 19:13, 22) and Jerusalem (Ezekiel 9:2, 5-8; 1 Chronicles 21:16, 30; 2 Kings 19:35; etc.).

9:13 "Sixth trumpet ... four angels released" at the head of 200 million troops of cavalry.

9:18 "Brimstone" is what is known today as sulfur, a greenish yellow. See the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24).

9:20 "Did not repent." The limited scope of these judgments was designed to provoke repentance, yet "those who dwell upon the earth" were set in their wickedness, much as in the days of Noah (Genesis 6:5, 11).

The Angel and the Little Scroll (10:1-11)

10:1 "Another mighty angel." See Ezekiel 1:26-28 for a similar description.

10:3-4 "Seal up what the seven thunders have said." Part of God's plans are yet unrevealed and hidden from God's people. See Daniel 12:4, 9.

10:6 "No more delay" is in contrast to 6:11, "rest a little longer." The opportunity for repentance is gone; God's judgments now move forward to the final consummation without interruption.

10:7 "In the days of the trumpet call ... the seventh." See Revelation 11:15; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Matthew 24:31. In other words, this is the period of the very end.

"The mystery of God" refers to the purpose of God's total redemptive plan, which includes the judgment of evil and the eschatological salvation of his people (Ladd).

10:9 "The little scroll ... bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth." See parallel in Ezekiel 2:8-3:3. Beale says, "The little scroll connotes the Christian's purposes on a small scale in imitation of the large-scale purposes of Christ signified by the larger book (scroll) of chapter 5." The sweetness is closeness to God and His Word (Psalm 19:7-11; 119:97-104; Proverbs 16:21-24; 24:13-14; Jeremiah 15:16; Deuteronomy 8:3) as well as the grace of God to the redeemed. The bitterness is disputed:

  1. The ordeal of the church and of its two witnesses in chapter 11 (Mounce, Alford, Hendriksen, see 6:10, Ezekiel 3:14).
  2. Final judgment upon the earth's wicked people (Luke 19:41; Jeremiah 9:1; Ladd, Morris, Wilcock, Beale).

Q5. (Revelation 10:1-9) What is bitter about what you've read in Revelation 6 through 10? What is sweet? Why do we tend to reject what is hard for us to understand?
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In this week's lesson we have seen a panorama of terrible judgment and destruction:

  • The Seven Seals (chapter 6).
  • The sealing of the 144,000, which is symbolic of the whole Church, to protect them both from God's wrath and Satan's fury (7:1-8).
  • A scene change to the heavenly throne room where the saved of earth -- now come out of the "great tribulation" of the last days -- are standing before the throne of God and the Lamb in worship (7:9-17).
  • The Seven Trumpets (chapters 8-9) which bring even greater judgments upon the earth.
  • The Little Scroll, both sweet and bitter (chapter 10).

Even though the Seventh Trumpet doesn't sound until the end of chapter 11, I am ending this long lesson with chapter 10. Chapters 11-13 talk about the role of the Church during this time of intense persecution, so I want to consider them together in the next lesson.

Even though my soul is overcome with the bitterness of heavy punishment met with an unrepentant heart (9:20-21), yet I am encouraged by the fact that none of these things shall move the Church. We are watched out for and protected by God in the worst of times, and have a hope of joy in the presence of the Lamb. The message of Revelation is both sweet and bitter. Come soon, Lord Jesus.


Prayer

Lord, my soul cries out when I read of all this destruction. Why, Lord, why? I understand your forgiveness, but not your judgment. What can forestall your judgment? What can I do to help those in danger of judgment? How can I prepare to be alive during this great tribulation if that is your plan for me? Thank you for your promise of aid and protection in the darkest hour. In Jesus' name I trust. Amen.

References and abbreviations

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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