The 144, 000: Literal or Spiritual?
In the messages to the seven churches, the triumphant people of God, are presented under the heading of the sixth church. In the messages contained in the seven seals the people of God are presented in the same manner – under the heading of the sixth seal. Under the sixth church the people of God are known as the Philadelphia Church – under the sixth seal they are known as the 144,000. Once again, this is simply the principle of repeat and enlarge in practice.
The sixth seal finishes with the second coming of Christ. It does not proceed any further because a question is asked. In order to answer this question an interregnum is required – a whole parenthesis between the sixth and seventh seals is required to answer this question. The question is:
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand? Rev. 6:17.
The short answer to this question, is that it is the 144,000 who will stand. All those who remain alive and witness the second coming of Christ will constitute the 144,000.
The 144,000 have been a source of lively debate within the Advent movement for many years. So much so, that Ellen White has cautioned all, that consider the subject to tread cautiously:
It is not His [Christ’s] will that they shall get into controversy over questions which will not help them spiritually, such as, who is to compose the hundred and forty-four thousand? This, those who are the elect of God will in a short time know without question. 1SM 174.
In Ellen White’s time, speculative theories about the 144,000 were being taught. One such theory was that the 144,000 would be composed of Americans only. Naturally Ellen White opposed such unscriptural speculation. However, she is not recommending a total ban on the study of the 144,000 (such a position would be unscriptural). Her counsel is to be cautious.
Literal or Spiritual?
When it comes to literal verses spiritual issues, within the Advent movement, there is no bigger issue than the 144,000. Initially, it was taught or assumed that the 144,000 were a literal number. As time has gone by, the literal interpretation has been increasingly questioned. No doubt, the impetus to question the literal position, grew when membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church surpassed 144,000. The SDA Church now includes many millions and hundreds are being added every day. Therefore, this issue is becoming more and more relevant and it has an impact on the personal faith of all church members. Thus, any attempt to place the 144,000 correctly within the prophetic picture, must begin with the literal verses spiritual issue.
There are several biblical reasons why the spiritual interpretation is preferable to the literal interpretation. Firstly, we have already noted that Jesus spoke spiritually and that the Book of Revelation was sent to John by the use of ‘signs’ (see Rev. 1:1).
Secondly, the 144,000 are made up of groups of 12,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. If we are to understand that the 144,000 are literal then consistency compels us to believe that the 12 tribes are also literal. Adventists have never subscribed to the view that the Jews are still God’s chosen people today. Therefore, Adventist Bible expositors, have always taught, that the tribes in chapter seven are symbolic and represent 12 different characters, that God’s people will exhibit or develop. [Satan has counterfeited the work of character development into 12 spheres (the zodiac), through the pagan practice of astrology].
It is not consistent to regard two parts of the same thing to be different – one physical and the other spiritual. That interpretation, is like saying, that in a marriage the wife is spiritual and the husband is physical. It is a matter of either or. Either the tribes and the 144,000 are literal, or the tribes and the 144,000 are spiritual. And since the Biblical evidence is in favor of understanding the tribes spiritually, we should also understand the 144, 000 spiritually.
The reason why scriptural evidence, in regard to the 12 tribes, supports the spiritual interpretation is because, the list in Revelation is not the same as the literal list of tribes, that we find in the Book of Genesis. Of the literal tribes Dan and Ephraim are missing. In Revelation, Ephraim and Dan are replaced by Joseph and Levi. What is the difference between these four tribes? Why are Ephraim and Dan excluded and why are they replaced by Joseph and Levi. Answer: the first two developed degenerate characters and the last two developed Christ-like characters.
The record says of Ephraim: “Ephraim is joined to idols let him alone” (Hos. 4:17). In other words, God abandoned Ephraim because of their addiction to idol worship. Ephraim was the dominant tribe in the Northern Kingdom. Because they were dominant, they served as an example to the other tribes. God is particularly severe on those who lead others astray, therefore Ephraim was abandoned ad excluded from the inheritance.
Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes, prophesied that Dan would develop a character that like a snake (see Gen. 49:17). According to the prophecy Dan would act like a snake ‘biting’ the unwary. Instead of developing a Christ-like character, Dan developed a devilish character, therefore all Danites are excluded from the inheritance.
By contrast Joseph was found faithful under every trying circumstance and exhibiting a Christ-like character. In the same manner, when a major crisis occurred at Mt. Sinai, Levi revealed a faithful character, when they stood with Moses against the rebels (see Ex. 32:26-28).
In addition, even though both Joseph and Levi were included in the people of Israel, they were never reckoned as being included in the 12 tribes of Israel. Levi was excluded because they became the tribe that furnished the priesthood for the nation. And because Levi dropped out, it was necessary to insert another tribe, in order to be twelve. Therefore, the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manassas, were made into two separate tribes. This reinforces the spiritual and the character development interpretation. This is because, extraordinary action was taken to preserve the spiritual significance of the number twelve and the problem was resolved, by rewarding the son of Jacob, who had developed a Christ-like character, far above his siblings, with a double portion of the Promised Land – that son being Joseph.
Therefore, the list of tribes in Revelation is a spiritual list not a literal list. It is teaching us that, literal descendance is not what determines one’s salvation. It is spiritual descendance that counts – Jesus said, “you must be born again” (Jn. 3:3, 7). Spiritual rebirth is paramount and supersedes literal birth.
Thirdly, John tells us that, when he received the different signs, it was often the case that he would first hear and then see. Towards the end of Revelation, John makes a concluding remark. He tells us, that:
And I John saw these things and heard them. And when I had heard and seen… (Rev. 21:8).
In other words, John would hear something or someone say something and then he would look and see the thing that the ‘hearing’ referred to. Often John would something and when he looked he would see something very different to what he had heard. This is the case with the 144,000. After the sealing is finished, John hears the number 144,000. He does not see the 144,000, he only hears the number (see Rev. 7:4). When he does look upon the sealed, he sees a great multitude. This would indicate that the great multitude are symbolically portrayed by the number 144,000. And it is not difficult to realize why the number 144,000 is a symbol of the great multitude. It is because we have just been presented with the sealing work being symbolically portrayed as being made up of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. And 12,000 times 12 = 144,000.
[Note: other instances of John hearing and then seeing are: John hears a great trumpet. He turns to look and he sees seven golden candlesticks and he sees one like the Son of man walking amidst them. (see Rev. 1:10-13).
One of the 24 elders tells John that, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, had prevailed to open the book. When John looks he sees a Lamb as if it had been slain, with seven horns and seven eyes. (see Rev. 5:5, 6)]
[Note: more evidence for the spiritual understanding of the 144,000 is presented in the next chapters].
[Note: for an explanation as to why Ellen White wrote “144,000 in number” in Early Writings and then removed “in number” from the same passage in Spiritual Gifts, see Appendix 2, 144,000 ‘in number’].
Israel and the 144,000
The 144,000 are described as being “sealed” from “all the tribes of the children of Israel” (Rev. 7:4). The name ‘Israel’ is a name full of spiritual significance. It appears in the context of the 144,000 like a code word – and we need to unlock the code. To unlock the code, we need to begin with the principle of first mention.
When we hear the name Israel mentioned in Scripture, we should immediately think of the patriarch Jacob. This is because, Jacob was the first person to bear the name. Jacob was the first ‘Israelite.’ The principle of first mention, requires us to go back to the life and times of Jacob, to discover why Jacob was given this name. In this way, we can discover what significance it has, in the Book of Revelation and how it applies to God’s people today.
The story of Jacob begins with his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. God told Abraham, on several occasions, that he would be the father of many nations, and that his progeny would be as numberless as the stars and the sand on the seashore – and yet the couple remained childless. Their solution was to provide the promised blessings themselves, and through their own efforts they procured Ishmael. However, this solution was merely the result of works instead of faith. It was a human solution to the problem. It was not God’s solution. Moving from one generation to the next – Isaac and Rebecca were faced with the same dilemma. God repeated the same promises to Isaac. But twenty years went by, and Isaac and Rebecca remained childless. This time however, Isaac did not repeat the mistake of his father. He petitioned God. He turned to God for the solution – and Rebecca conceived.
Why did God make Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca wait so long? The answer is that it was a test. But it was more than a test. God wanted to demonstrate that He was going to fulfill His promises, and that He did not need any help. All He needed was faith and cooperation. Abraham and Sarah learned this lesson the hard way [resulting in family dysfunction that endures to this day – Ishmael became the father of the Arab nations]. Isaac appears to have learned from his father’s mistake. He prayed, in faith, and God delivered.
Rebecca was sufficiently concerned about her pregnancy, to inquire of God, as to why there seemed to be a war going on in her womb. God told her that she was carrying twins. She was further informed that:
Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separate from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. Gen. 25:23.
The first of the twins to emerge was “red all over like a hairy garment” (Gen. 25:25). Therefore, he was called Esau, which means ‘hairy.’ The second twin was born holding the first twin’s heel, so he has given the name Jacob, which means, ‘heel holder.’ However, by a coincidence of language the name Jacob, also means ‘supplanter’ or ‘usurper.’ Thus the name Jacob, was destined to be full of prophetic significance, not only for Jacob himself, but also for his literal descendants – the Israelites, and also his spiritual descendants – the 144,000.
As the twins grew, they not only had physical differences, but temperamental and character differences as well. Jacob liked to work at home and Esau liked to hunt in the fields. The parents made the mistake of favoring the one above the other. Isaac favored Esau, and Rebecca favored Jacob. Thus, the scene was set for the subsequent events, that occurred, that now serve as antitypes in the Book of Revelation.
All of Jacob’s family knew about the prophecy, that foretold, that the one would be stronger than the other, and that the elder would serve the younger. However, instead of allowing for God’s providence to work out the fulfillment, Jacob and Rebecca resorted to trickery to accomplish the promised fulfillment. Once again, the people of God, had fallen into the trap of working out the divine plan through their own works.
Jacob saw an opportunity to ‘supplant’ and ‘usurp’ the birthright, when Esau came home famished from a hunting trip. Jacob was cooking a stew of red lentils outside his tent and Esau asked Jacob to share it with him. In return for lentil stew, Jacob made Esau swear that he would give him the birth right. and Esau “despising his birthright” (Gen. 25:32-34) agreed. However, Isaac was not party to the agreement, and as he prepared to bestow the birthright upon Esau, Rebecca persuaded Jacob to impersonate Esau, and deceiving his father, Jacob received the blessing of the firstborn.
The goal was achieved by deception and typically the consequences were drastic. Even though Esau’s actions proved that he considered his spiritual birthright of no consequence, he hated Jacob for his deceptive behavior, and he planned to kill him when Isaac died. Therefore, Jacob’s reward was to flee from his home without the inheritance he was hoping for.
In God’s moral universe one of the principles that affects us all is “you reap what you sow” (Gal. 6:7). And so, it proved with Jacob. He fled to his distant relatives in Mesopotamia and being a trickster himself, he fell into the hands of another trickster – his uncle Laban. The trickster was about to reap what he sowed. Because of Laban’s deviousness, Jacob ended up with two wives, instead of one, and the subsequent relationship between Jacob and Laban was a litany of deception to see who could out-trick whom, but with God’s help, Jacob proved to be the winner.
Eventually, Jacob escaped the clutches of Laban and returned to his homeland. However, he was still in fear of his brother Esau. And his fear was justified when he heard that Esau was on his way to meet him with an army of 400 men. When Jacob came to the Jabbok River he sought the Lord in an all-night prayer vigil for deliverance from Esau. Jacob spent the night confessing his sins. During the night the Lord Himself ‘wrestled’ with Jacob, and Jacob refused to release his hold, until the Lord blessed him. As a result of Jacob’s perseverance, the Lord changed his name:
Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men and hast prevailed. Gen. 32:28.
The name Israel means: ‘God contends’ and/or ‘ruling with God’ [as a prince]. And it carries the meaning of elevation to a higher plane of relationship with God – “for as a prince hast thou power with God.” Jacob’s new name is symbolic, of the victory that he achieved with God, that night beside the river. It is a name that celebrates the forgiveness of his past sins and the renewal that he experiences, because God has accepted his confession and has blessed him. Jacob has achieved what Jesus described as the process of being ‘born again.’ And all who participate in the born-again experience, are entitled to bear the name of Israel, and be a part of the spiritual nation of Israel.
However, it is sometimes overlooked how Jacob won the victory. He was victorious because of his perseverance. His perseverance was the outward expression of his inward faith. He knew God’s grace was available to him and he was determined to secure it. Jacob’s attitude is recorded as an example for all ‘Israelites’ to emulate and his victory illustrates the veracity of Jesus’ words, “…he that endureth to the end shall be saved” (Matt. 10:22).
This is why the 144,000 are called Israelites. It is because they too have ‘wrestled’ with God – they have endured to the end – and come away victorious. They are further described in Revelation as: “standing on Mount Sion with the Lamb” – “having His Father’s name written in their foreheads” – “they are virgins” – “they are the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb” – “in their mouths is found no guile” and “they are without fault before the throne of God” (Rev. 14:1-5).
The thing that characterized Jacob’s life, before his conversion, was ‘guile.’ The word guile means one who practices deceit and duplicity. Deceit and duplicity are the tools of trade of the devil. Deceit and duplicity have been his chosen methodology from the very beginning when he tricked Adam and Eve into disobeying God. Jesus called him “a liar and the father of it” [originator of guile]. (Jn. 8:44).
Jesus demonstrated, the connection between the Israelites and guile, when he met His disciple Nathaniel, for the first time. He described Nathaniel as “as Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile” (Jn 1:47). How does Jesus therefore define an Israelite? An Israelite is one in whom there is no deceit or duplicity. Deceit and duplicity belong to Satan’s kingdom – Christ’s kingdom is defined, in this instance, as being characterized by the absence of deceit and duplicity. This is why the 144,000 are described as being virgins [representing purity] and without fault before the throne. And this is why it is specifically stated that those who “maketh a lie” – and – “whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (Rev. 21:27; 22:15), will never enter the New Jerusalem and will never inherit the right to the Tree of Life.
The experience of Jacob, has entered Scripture, as a type that God’s people would have to endure down through the centuries. For example, Jeremiah, prophesied that God’s people would have to endure the same anguish that Jacob endured when Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem:
Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it. A terrible day is coming. Jer. 30:7.
Esau was coming to attack Jacob, and the Babylonians were coming to attack Jerusalem. These are both types for the same kind of attack that will take place at the end of time, against God’s people. God’s people, in the last days, have to endure the terror of a threatened attack, against them, by the entire world. Just as Jacob wrestled through the dark night, so too, do the 144,000 have to wrestle their way, through the spiritual darkness that covers the earth at that time:
I saw that the four angels would hold the four winds until Jesus’ work was done in the sanctuary, and then will come the seven last plagues. These plagues enraged the wicked against the righteous; they thought that we had brought the judgments of God upon them, and that if they could rid the earth of us, the plagues would then be stayed. A decree went forth to slay the saints, which caused them to cry day and night for deliverance. This was the time of Jacob’s trouble. EW 36, 37. cf. 5T 451.
Redeemed from among Men
It is evident that the 144,000 must be drawn only from the living at the end of time, because we are told that they “were redeemed from among men” (Rev. 14:4). It does not say they were redeemed from captivity or the grave. Therefore, the sleeping saints that are resurrected, to be part of the harvest at the end of time, are not included in the 144,000. Ellen White calls the 144,000 “the living saints” (EW 15).
The First Fruits unto God and to the Lamb
In the Old Testament service, the first fruits of any harvest were to be dedicated to God and His service. Even the ‘first fruits’ of the womb were dedicated to God (see Ex. 22:29; 34:26; Deut. 18:4). In the same manner, the 144,000, at the end of the world, are the first fruits of the harvest, and they are dedicated to God:
These are they… before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple… Rev. 7:14, 15.
These are they which follow the Lamb
Just like their spiritual ancestor Jacob, the people of God have won great victories. The 144,000’s victory is described as being victorious over the beast (see Rev. 15:2). Having followed Christ spiritually on earth, they are now privileged to follow Christ literally in heaven: “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth” (Rev. 14:4).
The Song of Moses and the Lamb
After the 144,000 have successfully and triumphantly emerged from the time of trouble, they are presented before God, on the sea of glass, to celebrate the victory (see Rev. 15:1-4). This account of the victorious people of God standing on the sea of glass, is yet another repeat and enlargement of the 144,000. In the account of the 144,000 in chapter fourteen, we are introduced to a song that only the 144,000 can sing. The repeat and enlargement in chapter fifteen, tells us that this song is called “the song of Moses and the Lamb.”
The song of Moses and the Lamb is sung because the 144,000 have gone through similar experiences to Moses and Jesus and emerged victorious, just as Moses and Jesus emerged victorious. Just as Moses and the people miraculously escaped the land of Egypt, and just us Jesus miraculously escaped the tomb, so too do the 144,000 escape, the anti-typical Egypt and they escape the death decree issued against them. Both Moses and Jesus had to agonize with the Father for deliverance (Jesus in Gethsemane). The 144,000 are destined to agonize the same way for the same reasons.
The 144,000 go through the time of trouble on earth. At this time the whole world is the equivalent of spiritual Egypt. The people of God are about to escape and cross over from death to life. Going through the time of trouble is the equivalent of going through the Red Sea. It is their baptism of fire. They cross from this world of captivity and sin and enter eternal life. They share the same experience of Moses and Jesus, and they obtain the same victory. Therefore, they sing the same song. Ellen White agrees, commenting on the redeemed on the sea of glass, she calls them the 144,000, and they are unique:
|On the Sea of Glass
|And I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. Rev. 14:2, 3.
|And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb… Rev. 15:2, 3.
|With the Lamb upon Mount Zion, “having the harps of God,” they stand, the hundred and forty and four thousand that were redeemed from among men; and there is heard, as the sound of many waters, and as the sound of a great thunder, “the voice of harpers harping with their harps.” And they sing “a new song” before the throne, a song which no man can learn save the hundred and forty and four thousand. It is the song of Moses and the Lamb – a song of deliverance. None but the hundred and forty-four thousand can learn that song; for it is the song of their experience – an experience such as no other company have ever had. GC 648, 649.
The company on the sea of glass is the 144,000 because Ellen White states that the 144,000 sing the song of Moses and the Lamb and we know that only the 144,000 are able to sing this song. It should however, be possible to recognize this truth from the fact that both companies of people – those that stand on Mount Zion with the Lamb – and those that stand on the sea of glass are the same people. They are both presented as being victorious over the beast and they are both presented as singing songs of victory. Ellen White merely confirms that which we should already know.
These things, such as the 12 tribes, Israel, the song of Moses and the Lamb etc., are all interpreted and understood to be spiritual. Therefore, when everything associated with the 144,000 is understood to be spiritual, it is inconsistent to claim that the 144,000 must be interpreted and understood to be literal.
In a church that is growing, on a worldwide basis, by the thousands each week and in a church, that believes the vast majority of God’s people are outside the church, it is surely anachronistic to believe, that when probation finally closes, the sum total of God’s people, alive and standing on this earth will be 144,000. What a discouraging thought for those who are struggling with their faith. The literal interpretation carries the overtones and implications of ‘no need to apply here, we are already full up.’ What a blessing, it is to know, that there is room for everyone who chooses to be there. Let us not limit the power of God – the harvest of the world is soon to take place – we are limiting our vision and impugning the power of God, if we restrict our expectations to a literal 144,000.
It is vital to understand the 144,000 spiritually, even if it is only for the morale of the Church. The literal understanding is depressingly exclusive. The spiritual understanding is important, because the victory and triumph of the 144,000 is meant to be an encouragement to us. The good news for all those who are struggling with their sins is that they are not struggling in vain – victory is guaranteed – we see it prophetically portrayed in the lives of the 144,000. But this encouragement is snatched away, when it is taught, that this victory will only be available to a literal 144,000.
[Note: in this chapter we have been dealing with the literal verses spiritual issue and some related issues. The next chapters will also be about the 144,000, such as ‘The 144,000 and the Great Multitude’ and ‘The 144,000 and Philadelphia’].