IT IS IMPORTANT TO understand and compare the meaning of the 144,000 identified in Revelation 7:4 and the “great multitude” in 7:9 before moving on to the opening of the seventh seal. Not surprisingly, there has been much confusion and debate over what this number signifies. Is it an exact number or a representation of a certain group of people? Some take the number to be symbolic, representing the church. Others insist the number 144,000 is literal, representing the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The false doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim that 144,000 states the limited number of people who will reign with Christ in heaven and spend eternity with God, has also led to confusion over this topic. To be clear, 12 times 12 multiplied by 1,000 symbolizes completeness—all God’s followers.
“I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to damage earth and sea, saying, ‘Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal on their foreheads.’ And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel” (Rev. 7:2-4).
There is an interlude between the sixth and seventh seals consisting of two distinct visions that provide assurance of divine protection for those who were faithful during the time of tribulation (vv. 1-8) and assurance of ultimate salvation (vv. 9-17). The seal on the forehead symbolizes protection granted to those who belong to God. A footnote in The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) says, “The symbolic number 144,000, which is the square of 12 multiplied by 1,000, has been interpreted variously as a reference to the faithful remnant of Israel.”1 John breaks down the number to 12,000 from each of the 12 represented tribes of Israel (vv. 5-8). This seal is the antithesis of the mark of the beast explained in 13:16.
Thomas R. Schreiner writes, “The list of tribes doesn’t match any rendition of the tribes in the OT. Judah may be first since Jesus the Messiah, head of the people of God, comes from Judah. What is also striking is that Dan is omitted, perhaps because of the evil associated with that tribe [see Judges 18]. Instead, we have Joseph and Manasseh. This is curious, as Manasseh descended from Joseph, and thus we would expect Ephraim and Manasseh. These peculiarities in the listing suggest a symbolic reading.”2
You might wonder if all believers in Jesus Christ are members of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Scripture tells us that those who are not literal descendants are “adopted.” The moment we believed in Christ as our Savior, we were positioned as adult sons and daughters in the family of God. Paul uses the Greek word huiosthesia (υἱοθεσία) in Galatians 3:26-27, meaning “to place as a son.” Because we have all been adopted, and are no longer “of the world,” God expects us to behave accordingly. Paul wrote, “…not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Rom. 9:7-8).
In Revelation 7:2 the Greek word for “having” (echonta, ἔχοντα) means, “to be closely joined to a person or a thing.” This word also means “comprised of,” “involved in,” or “regarded as beholden to or held by someone.” During the great tribulation, faithful followers of Christ have the “seal” (sphragis, σφραγίς) of God on their foreheads (7:3). The seal in Ezekiel 9:4 is used to identify those who mourn over all the abominations against God that are committed in the city. Ezekiel wrote, “…go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (9:4). Then he said, “Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall show no pity… but touch no one who has the mark [of God]” (9:5-6). Those who mourn for sins against God, and those who refuse to renounce God and serve the beast in the midst of tribulation, are marked as God’s faithful.
A Great Multitude Which No One Could Count
“And after this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).
Revelation 7:9-17 reveals a vast multitude of people from all over the world who are saved during the tribulation. John MacArthur writes, “This could include those of Israel who are saved during the preaching of the 144,000. There is nothing in the terminology of [this] passage that excludes Jews.”3 The churches throughout Asia Minor were rather small and subjected to a great amount of persecution throughout their history, so when John saw this “vast multitude” he was no doubt shocked by its size. MacArthur writes, “[This] must surely have renewed his joy and hope, as he realized that the church would survive and, in the end, people from the nations would be saved in great numbers.”4 In any event, the 144,000 and the great multitude are beyond the reach of further persecution because they are already in heaven. Verse 14 says they have “come out of the great ordeal.”
Remnants of the basilica of the apostle John still exist today on the slopes of Ayasuluk Hill in the center of Selçuk, İzmir Province, Turkey about 3.5 km (2.2 mi) from Ephesus. John was exiled to Patmos for 8 years by Emperor Domitian, during which time he received the Revelation. He returned to Ephesus and continued writing his gospel account. He was martyred at the age of 98 and is buried near the remains of the basilica.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references herein are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The NRSV, completed in 1989, follows a formal-equivalence principle that its translators identify with the words “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” It is considered the best now available in English, especially for in-depth study (exegesis).
Steven Barto, B.S. Psych., M.A. Theology
1 The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, 5th. ed., Michael D. Coogan, editor (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1815.
2 Thomas R. Schreiner, “Who Are the 144,000? (Revelation 7),” Crossway.org, June 11, 2022. accessed Jan. 27, 2023, https://www.crossway.org/articles/who-are-the-144000-revelation-7
3 John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, Inc., 2007), 143.
4 Ibid., 144.