Understanding Revelation / 10 — Rich Kelsey

Half-moon photo taken by Rich Kelsey

The 144,000 of Revelation:

In this chapter we look into Revelation’s mysterious 144,000 company. God seals this assembly of people on earth before any of Revelation’s trumpets sound so the plagues will not hurt them; then, later this same group is observed standing with Jesus on the heavenly Mount Zion. They are seen in heaven before the bowls of God’s wrath are poured out, yet they are also observed on earth during the fifth trumpet plague, so they fit into the same general time frame as the two witnesses who follow the seventh angel’s command to

“Come up here.” (Revelation 11:12)

Because the 144,000 are apparently taken up in the rapture at the same time as the two witnesses/prophets, the 144,000 may simply be another illustration of the Christian church.

A Literal Understanding:

Many ministers and Bible instructors presently label this 144,000 company as literal descendants of national Israel. One reason they do this is because in the book of Revelation, they are clearly labeled

“144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” (Revelation 7:4)

Even the names of the tribes are mentioned! If that weren’t enough, today’s widely accepted pre seven-year tribulation rapture view maintains that all of the Christians will have been taken from the face of the planet in the Rapture long before any of Revelation’s trumpets sound. So the general thinking is that only Jewish descendants who accept Jesus as Savior, becoming Christians after the rapture, would be left to make up the 144,000.

It’s supposed that these Jewish descendants, after witnessing the rapture, will realize the gospel message was true and accept Christianity. However, there is strong evidence to demonstrate that both the number 144,000 and the classification “Israel” are figurative of God’s children, regardless of their ancestral lineage.

What Does It Take to Be “of Israel” in This Dispensation?

We know from Scripture that God is no respecter of persons, but will allow all nationalities into heaven. Our Father determines how to deal with his children not by the color of our skin or because of who our great ancestors are, but by decisions we make in our hearts and the faith we have in Jesus Christ.

In a thoughtful attempt to solve this mystery, we should at least consider the possibility that the 144,000 are a multinational group of men, women, and children who are illustrated in Revelation as “the tribes of Israel.”

Let’s examine the Scriptures and see what it takes to be labeled “Israel” in this dispensation:

1. The gentile Christian nations were grafted into the tree of natural Israel in a symbolic sense, as observed in Romans 11. Might not this indicate that Christians are now considered “Israel” symbolically?

2. “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly.” (Romans 2:28–29)

That Roman epistle was written to Christians of all nationalities, ethnic origins, and skin colors. From this scripture we may understand that in Christ, people become Jews “inwardly.” Apparently in this New Testament dispensation, being “Jewish in a symbolic sense” is a condition of the heart!

3. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28)

From this last scripture we may understand that there is no longer such a thing as different ethnic groups “in Christ.” We are now all one.

4. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

Abraham is the father of Israel; in the New Covenant, Christians are Abraham’s seed.

Speaking of Jesus, the Scriptures read,

5. “For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants.” (Hebrews 2:16)

If we were to theorize that this expression,

“Abraham’s descendants,”

should be taken literally and not figuratively, we would end up with a teaching which maintains that Jesus helps only Israeli people.

6. [Abraham] “is the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16)

7. “That through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:16)

8. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s off-spring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.'” (Romans 4:16–17)

“Many nations” speaks of different ancestral heritages.

9. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith.” (Galatians 5:6)

Galatians 5:6 demonstrates that keeping the Mosaic Law is not the basis of our acceptance into the new covenant; faith is what really matters.

10. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)

In Scripture, “circumcision” is a general reference to the Hebrew people. The words “new creation” speaks of being born again; so, in other words Paul is claiming that being a Jew doesn’t count unless you are born again.

11. “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)

Revelation 2:9 clearly demonstrates that ancestry alone is not what constitutes being a Jew, figuratively speaking, in the New Covenant. Seeing that this message to the Church in Smyrna was written to an assembly with diverse ethnic backgrounds, and given the figurative word usage in our text, it’s very possible the Apostle John was not speaking of the ethnic origins of the people in the first place, but rather their faith and walk in Jesus Christ.

12. “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” (Romans 9:6)

That verse in Romans just demonstrated that the blood lineage from Jacob is not what constitutes being “of Israel” in this New Testament dispensation! So then, having “citizenship in Israel” must be a birthright accomplished through the new birth.

Evidently, any natural descendant from any of the original tribes of Israel cannot possibly be “of Israel” without accepting Jesus Christ in this New Testament dispensation. And, if he or she has accepted Christ, the Bible says it makes no difference what ethnic heritage he or she is from, or whether or not anybody is circumcised.

Speaking of the Israeli people, the Apostle Paul goes on to say,

13. “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Romans 9:7–9)

14. “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile.” (Romans 10:12)

Old Testament Illustrations:

In the New International Version of the Bible, the word “Lamb” is used thirty-one times in Revelation referring to Jesus Christ:

“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads . . . They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.” (Revelation 14:1,4)

Because the Lamb and the 144,000 of the tribes of Israel are observed in the same verse, this demonstrates that both the Lamb and the tribes of Israel are Old Testament representations of a New Testament design. If teachers of Bible prophecy would be consistent in their theology and use this text as a model to build upon, they would understand that the Lamb Jesus Christ is illustrated in Revelation with Old Testament symbolism and so is the end-time church.

The Firstfruit From the Harvest:

Let’s contemplate the meaning of this passage that is directly linked to the 144,000:

“They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb.” (Revelation 14:4)

A more accurate rendition of the word “firstfruits” is firstfruit in a singular sense. If we look at the meaning of the text, paying attention to the expression firstfruit without any preconceived theology, it would appear that these redeemed people are the

“firstfruit to God and the Lamb.”

This is a symbolic verse, so let’s look into what the expression firstfruit signifies. It’s symbolic of the first fruit that comes from the crop at the beginning of the harvest. The symbolism comes from the Old Testament feast of first fruits. This spring feast celebrated the harvest of the barley crop that had been planted during the winter, which came to maturity before the wheat and the corn. During this feast, the first sheaf of the harvest is cut and presented to God. This symbolism of the firstfruit implies that this company of 144,000 has been gleaned from God’s harvest first, before any of the other crops come in.

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” (1 Corinthians 15:22–23)

According to this scripture, the firstfruits are the first group of people to be presented to God after Christ’s resurrection. Apparently, this group of firstfruits includes every Christian caught up in the Rapture from among the living and the dead. However, the 144,000 as seen in Revelation’s seventh chapter have never died, so let’s consider that their numerology could be just one quality that the total assembly of saints ascending in the Rapture will have. The numeric symbolism of 144,000 may be pointing to something other than a literal number of people, it could be pointing to spiritual maturity and/or completeness.

Is the Number 144,000 Literal or Figurative?

Some might protest that the very number 144,000, if taken literally, is too small for the total number of Christians who will ascend in the Rapture. One thing is certain: Revelation’s seventh chapter depicts 144,000 living people from the twelve tribes of Israel being sealed to protect them from the coming judgments; then in chapter 14, the exact same number of people are seen in heaven shortly before the bowl plagues are poured out. If these Christians are part of the first resurrection and Rapture, why didn’t this 144,000 company grow in number as the multitudes of saints who had died were raised, ascending with them during the Rapture? This adds weight to the concept that twelve times twelve may be an illustration of the perfection of the church.

The 144,000 As Observed From Scripture:

The 144,000 are observed in Revelation 7:3–8 and also 14:1–5.

It is written,

“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God. Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.” (Revelation 7:3–8)

The Bride-City As Observed From Scripture:

In Revelation 21, the bride-city is described. This bride-company of Christians consists of all those who will be caught up in the Rapture and will reign with Christ in his kingdom. She is also illustrated as “Jerusalem,” meaning “the city of peace.”

“‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” (Revelation 21: 9–17)

The numbers twelve, 12,000, and also 144, used to illustrate the 144,000, are also used to describe this city. Even the names of the twelve tribes of Israel appear on her gates.

Let us look at a few parallel scriptures concerning the 144,000 and the bride-city. Speaking of the 144,000 it’s written,

“Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (Revelation 7:3)

And now a verse depicting the bride-company of Christians:

“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:4)

Something was written in the foreheads of these assemblies in both illustrations. The second passage indicates that the Father’s name is what is written in the foreheads of the bride-city. That brings us to a third text:

“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (Revelation 14:1)

The 144,000 have the same name on their foreheads as the overcoming bride. The 144,000 have the same exact numerical symbolism as the bride-city. The 144,000 are labeled with the same tribal names as the bride-city. The 144,000 are caught up in the same Rapture as the Christian bride. The 144,000 rule with Christ, as does the bride.

The scriptural indications that the bride-company of overcoming Christians, the Christians who get caught up in the rapture, is one and the same as the 144,000 are overwhelming.

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