Who are the 144,000 in Revelation?

lees hierdie in Afrikaans

“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. And I heard a sound from heaven like the roar of rushing waters and like a loud peal of thunder. The sound I heard was like that of harpists playing their harps. And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among men and offered as first-fruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.” (Revelation 14:1-5)

The fourteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation contains a vision of a hundred and forty-four thousand companions of the glorified Messiah. These are they who were redeemed from the earth, who did not defile themselves with women and are virgins.[1] In chapter seven, we see that the same hundred and forty-four thousand are sealed, spared from the wrath of God, and joined with “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,” before God’s throne in heaven.[2]


The writers of the New Testament often allude to events and practices recorded in the Old Testament. The few verses cited above contain at least ten references of this nature, including the first-fruits of God (Jer. 2:3), redemption (Ex. 6:6), Mount Zion (Isa. 35:10), the census of Israel (Num. 1:17 and following), and a name or mark applied to the forehead (Ezek. 9:4). Knowledge of the Old Testament is thus required to interpret the New.

The New Testament claims moreover to be the perfection or fulfilment of that contained in the Law as types and shadows.[3] References to Old Testament events and practices may thus be intended to mean the New Testament realities that now overshadow them – and this possibility should always be considered.

Prophecy is moreover written in allegoric and symbolic language, and a crass literal interpretation is usually inappropriate. “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned”.[4]

These principles are thus applied in relation to the hundred and forty-four thousand.

The purpose of Revelation

The Revelation to the apostle John was apparently given to comfort and encourage faithful Christians at a time of almost unbearable persecution. While persecution continued from the time of the Crucifixion, onward, it was executed with extraordinary zeal and cruelty during the times of Nero and Domitian,[5] and in Palestine believing Jews who refused to follow the false messiah, Bar Kohba, appointed by Rabbi Akiva and his school, were executed for high treason.[6]

John is shown visions of God’s impending judgments against an unbelieving world, deliberately set against  Him and His children. From the viewpoint of eternity, the martyrs are sealed, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb and secure in God’s presence – while wave upon wave of God’s wrath is poured out upon the earth, until its final consummation.

The Psalmist confessed:

“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked …
Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;  in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued;  I have been punished every morning … When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Surely you place them on slippery ground;  you cast them down to ruin.”  [7]

It is this exact conclusion that the Book of Revelation makes inevitable for the faithful. While it seems from the temporal perspective that the enemies of God vanquish His servants, their suffering is but momentary when viewed from eternity. Not even death conquers them, for “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence”.[8]

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.[9]

The Lord encourages the faithful: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”.[10]

Israel the first-fruits

God’s purpose from the origins of creation was to gain, for His own glory, a portion of mankind, to unite these with Himself, and then in the culmination and fulfilment of His purpose, to live with them in eternity.

The Lord’s plan is implemented in stages. First the descendants of Abraham are brought near to God under the Sinai covenant. Subsequently, Messiah and his gospel are revealed as the fulfilment of the Law, and God’s ministry of reconciliation spreads out to all nations.

Israel as constituted under the Sinai covenant is consequently described as the first-fruits of God:

“ Israel was holy to the LORD, the first-fruits of his harvest”.[11]

The faithful of Israel is then appointed as God’s ‘servant’, “a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”.[12] This task was eventually accomplished by the Jewish apostles of Messiah, soon after his coming. After the vision of the hundred and forty-four thousand, the apostle John sees, “another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people…”.[13]  This reveals the means by which the “great multitude which no-one could count” that appears with the hundred and forty four thousand before the throne in heaven, is gathered.


In the provision to each Jewish household of a Passover lamb, and the application of the blood, Israel was redeemed from Egypt in a manner that prefigured the final redemption. The nation then existed for a thousand years under the Law of Moses, until the ‘Lamb of God’ appeared.

The redemption from Egypt nurtured the expectation of a future, final redemption,[14] but this redemption did not amount to a further release from Gentile oppression, as generally understood, but rather as a release from the bondage to sin which avoids reconciliation with God and prevents the perfect society in which God’s will alone, be done.

The ultimate redemption that Jesus wrought on the cross applied retrospectively as much as it did prospectively. Jesus died also for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and those of their posterity who lived in obedience to God in Old Testament times, in anticipation of their Saviour. Jesus is described as the ‘once for all’ sacrifice[15] who by the manner of his death was also ‘accursed under the Law,’ in order to redeem those who had sinned against Moses, from the curse of the Law.[16]

At the time of Jesus’ death, “the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people”.[17]  These self-same righteous souls are no doubt among the number that appears before the heavenly throne in Revelation fourteen, as “first-fruits to God and the Lamb”.

The full number

Chapter seven of Revelation reveals the composition of the hundred and forty four thousand as twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel:

“Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: (3) “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.” (4) Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (5) 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, (7) from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, (8) from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,  from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.”

This number is described as being “redeemed from the earth”. In the writings of the Prophets, “the earth” is often a reference to the land of Israel, while Gentile nations are often referred to as “the sea” or “islands”.[18] This distinction persists throughout the Book of Revelation – for the apparent reason that God fulfils his purposes in judgment and salvation first for Israel as constituted under the old covenant. “There will be trouble and distress for every person who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 2:9-10).

God’s unique judgment for the Jew is accomplished in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, forty years after the Crucifixion. The same event prevents the nation from obtaining any further atonement by means of blood sacrifices on the altar, and renders preservation through obedience to the Law impossible.

All the Prophets warned of this day.[19] John the Baptist asked the Pharisees and Sadducees, “who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”[20]

The Lord Jesus warned the Jews who refused him, “Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.”[21]

The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the events in Jerusalem forty years later:

“Now this vast multitude [trapped in Jerusalem] is indeed collected out of remote places [since the Roman siege closed in at the time of the Passover, when all Jews were required at the temple to offer their lambs], but the entire nation was now shut up by fate as in prison, and the Roman army encompassed the city when it was crowded with inhabitants. Accordingly, the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world.”[22]

By the time of these events, the full number of the redeemed of old covenant Israel was however secured. Twelve thousand from each tribe is probably symbolic. Israel is complete in her twelve tribes, and each tribe is symbolically complete in its twelve thousand members. The hundred and forty four thousand is a perfect number in which the hundred and forty four is the square of twelve, and the thousand is ten to the third power.[23] The principle conveyed in this manner is the very assurance that the Lord Jesus will not lose one of all that the Father has given him.[24]

Since not only the punishment, but also the “glory, honour and peace” would be for the Jew first, the hundred and forty-four thousand is distinguished in Revelation chapters seven and fourteen.

The faithful sealed

The judgment of AD 70 was foreshadowed by an earlier event. The first conquest ofJerusalem and destruction of the Temple occurred during the reign of Zedekiah at the time of the Babylonian captivity. Also at that time the Lord encouraged his faithful with prophetic visions. Ezekiel, for example, was shown an angel marking the Lord’s chosen ones on the forehead, protecting them from God’s wrath ahead of the siege:

“… Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.’  As I listened, he said to the others, ‘Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter old men, young men and maidens, women and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.’ So they began with the elders who were in front of the temple.” (Ezekiel 9:3-6)

The deliberate parallel between Ezekiel’s vision and that of Revelation chapter seven suggests that the principle communicated through Ezekiel applies to all generations of God’s people, namely that He draws a distinction between the faithful and unfaithful among those that seem to be His church or people; that not all who say, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom, but rather that judgment “begins in the household of God”.[25] “Even so, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are His”.[26]

Harvest of souls through the gospel

As we have already noted, the vision of the hundred and forty four thousand is followed in Revelation fourteen by the dissemination of the ‘eternal gospel’, and in Revelation seven by the fruits of this activity.

“Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth and to every nation, tribe, language and people…” (Rev. 14:6)

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9-10)

A greater harvest is gathered in the new covenant period. This includes descendants of the Jews also, as the Lord extends His grace during this period to all who call upon the name of Jesus and find forgiveness of sins in him. The ‘eternal gospel’ is thus proclaimed both to those “who live on the earth and to every nation, tribe, language and people”.[27] Before the Lord executes His judgment upon old covenant Israel, He pours out His Spirit on the faithful remnant, thus equipping and empowering them to accomplish His plan for the further salvation of their own people and then also for every other nation, tribe, people and language. This was predicted by the prophet Joel:

“Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls.” (Joel 2:29-32)

The seal of the new covenant is the Holy Spirit:

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:13-14)

While there will be a full number of those also,[28] redeemed under the new covenant, that number is yet undetermined as the end of the new covenant period is not revealed to any man, or angel, or even to Christ Jesus himself.[29]

Undefiled and pure in the presence of God

“And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. (4) These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they are virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” (Rev. 14: 3-4).”

The marriage of a believing man and a believing woman is sanctified and considered holy throughout Scripture.[30] The only prohibition on intimacy between wedded couples was at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the whole community of Israel was called into readiness for God’s appearing. This is a temporary abstinence which only endured for that season.

Nonetheless, everything between birth and death, in man’s alienation from God, defiles him. The clear conclusion from the purification rites of the Mosaic Law is that there is no basis for lasting purity in man’s fallen condition, apart from the redemption that is in Christ.

“When a man has an emission of semen, he must bathe his whole body with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Any clothing or leather that has semen on it must be washed with water, and it will be unclean till evening. When a man lies with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening. If a man lies with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean.

When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. Any bed she lies on while her discharge continues will be unclean, as is her bed during her monthly period, and anything she sits on will be unclean, as during her period. Whoever touches them will be unclean; he must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening.

When she is cleansed from her discharge, she must count off seven days, and after that she will be ceremonially clean. On the eighth day she must take two doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The priest is to sacrifice one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. In this way he will make atonement for her before the LORD for the uncleanness of her discharge.” (Leviticus 15:16-30)

The Law of Moses provides in its sanctification rites only a temporary preserve for man in his fallen state – not an antidote to his condition. That Messiah was the intended cure is apparent from an account in the Gospels, of a woman who bled for twelve years and was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. Where the provisions of the Law would render her touch defiling, nothing can defile the Sinless One. Instead, the reverse consequence ensues, namely that Jesus’ sinless purity restores the woman to wholeness and purity.

It is also apparent from Jesus’ accusation against the Pharisees – “the tax-collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom ahead of you”[31] – that it is not those who, out of self-righteousness, withhold themselves from obvious sins, but rather those touched by the Redeemer, who are considered pure in God’s eyes. Thus Paul’s concern regarding the church, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.”[32]  The virginal purity of the Christian is thus not a condition of original innocence, but rather the completed work of the Holy Spirit, which results in a new creation.

The distinction between the hundred and forty-four thousand from Israel under the old covenant, and the great multitude of the gospel age, extends also to the basis on which their purity is founded: for the former group on the principle of abstinence,[33] while the later group is made pure with white garments from the Lamb.

Either way, the impure cannot enter the presence of the Holy God.[34]

Mount Zion 

In Israel’s history, Mount Zion stands at the triumphal end of her conquest of the Promised Land. After King David won the stronghold, Jerusalem became the capital city of the united tribes of Israel and later also home to the Temple.[35]

Mount Sinai, on the contrary, is the point of departure in Israel’s pilgrimage. Diverse barriers and obstacles between YHVH and Israel at the foot of the Mount emphasised their separation at that time.[36] Similarly through the Temple worship and design, access to God was restricted by barriers to its courts and offices. Ultimately the heavy curtain between the Holy of Holies and the inner court allowed no-one but the High Priest access into God’s presence, and that only once a year on the Day of Atonement, while bearing the blood of the sacrifice.[37]

At the Lord’s death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.”[38] It is thus the Saviour himself who breaches the gap between man and God, providing in his blood the means by which sins are forgiven and by the Holy Spirit, the cleansing and renewal of the soul.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, Zion is thus contrasted with Sinai:

“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:18-24)

The faithful have reached the foot of Mount Zion and live in expectation of the final Judgement, at which time the new heaven and the new earth become their possession.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’” (Rev. 21:3-5)

It is thus the triumphal end of the pilgrimage, the final destination of the faithful of all generations that is shown to John in an instant on the Island of Patmos, and conveyed to us in chapters seven and fourteen, etc., of the Book of Revelation;  the creation brought to perfection, and the culminating glory of God’s relationship with man.

A New Song – as the term is used in Psalms[39] – is the spontaneous rejoicing of God’s people in response to a mighty victory wrought by His Hand. The victory of the Cross is tragically “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved … the power of God.”[40]  Only those who have already shared in the blessedness of the redemption are thus able to learn the song.

“And a highway will be there;  it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 35:8-10).

[1] Rev. 7:9.
[2] Rev. 7:1-17.
[3] Col. 2:16-17.
[4] 1 Cor. 2:14
[5] International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ‘Roman Empire and Christianity’.
[6] Daniel Gruber, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, Elijah Publishing, HanoverNH, 1999.
[7] Verses 1-3, 13, 14, 16-18.
[8] 2 Cor. 4:14.
[9] Rom. 8:35-39.
[10] Mat. 10:28.
[11] Jer. 2:3. See also Ex. 4:24.
[12] Isaiah 49:6, Acts 13:47.
[13] “… Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” Compare Acts 17:24-31.
[14] Exodus Rabba, 15:11.
[15] Heb.10:10, 11:39-40.
[16] Gal. 3:13.
[17] Mat. 27:52-53.
[18] See among others, Is. 9:19, 13:9, 24:15, 49:1. Ezek. 26:16, Dan. 7:3.
[19] Deut. 4:6, Joel 1-2, Amos 5, Zephaniah 1-2, etc.
[20] Mat. 3:7.
[21] Mat 23:34-36.
[22] War of the Jews, Book 6, ch. 9, para. 4.
[23] For the symbolism of the various numbers, see the ISBE, under “numbers”.
[24] John 6:39.
[25] 1 Pet. 4:17.
[26] 2 Tim. 2:19.
[27] The destruction of the Temple marks the end of Israel under the old covenant, after which faith in Jesus, only, can bring about reconciliation with God – whether for Jew or Gentile.
[28] Romans 11:25.
[29] Mat. 24:36.
[30] Devotees who refrain from marriage are an ideal which is only realised through an extraordinary grace. See 1 Cor. 7. 
[31] Mat. 21:31.
[32] 2 Cor. 11:2.
[33] Unless this is symbolic, neither Abraham, nor Isaac, Jacob, Moses, or King David are members of the group of 144,000.
[34] Rev. 21:27.
[35] 2 Samuel 5:6-7.
[36] Ex. 19:12-18.
[37] Heb. 9:7-8.
[38] Mat. 27:51-52. See also Hebrews 10:19-22.
[39] Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98, 144 and 149.
[40] 1 Cor. 1:18.