Who are the 144,000 of Revelation?
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there is a “little flock” of 144,000 (Revelation 7:4) who get to go to heaven and a “great crowd’ (Revelation 7:9) of others who are relegated to earth. What does Revelation really reveal? First, the 144,000 and the great multitude are not two different peoples, but two different ways of describing the same purified bride. As Richard Bauckham explains, literarily, the 144,000 and the great multitude are comparable to the Lion and the Lamb. Just as John is told about a Lion and turns to see a Lamb (Revelation 5:5–6), so he is told about the 144,000 and turns to see a great multitude (Revelation 7). Thus, the 144,000 is to the great multitude what the Lion is to the Lamb, namely, the same entity seen from two different vantage points. From one vantage point the purified bride is numbered; from another, she is innumerable—a great multitude that no one can count.
Furthermore, to suggest that the 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes means exactly 12,000—not 11,999 or 12,001—must surely stretch the credulity of even the most literalistic Jehovah’s Witness beyond the breaking point. To begin with, ten of the twelve tribes lost their national identity almost three thousand years ago in the Assyrian exile. The other two, Judah and Benjamin, were largely decimated two thousand years ago by Roman hordes. Moreover, the pattern of Scripture is to refer to the community of faith, whether Jew or Gentile, with Jewish designations. New Jerusalem itself is figuratively built on the foundation of the twelve apostles and is entered through twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Not only so, but its walls are twelve times twelve or 144 cubits thick (Revelation 21:12–17).
As such, it is far more likely that 144,000 is a number that represents the 12 apostles of the Lamb multiplied by the 12 tribes of Israel, times 1,000. The figurative use of the number 12 and its multiples is well established in biblical history. For example, the tree of life in Paradise restored is said to bear twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month (Revelation 22:2), and the great Presbytery in heaven is surrounded by twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:4; 5:8; 11:16; 19:4). Likewise, the figurative use of the whole number 1,000 is common in Old Testament usage. God increased the number of the Israelites 1,000 times (Deuteronomy 1:11); God keeps his covenant to 1,000 generations (Deuteronomy 7:9); God owns the cattle on 1,000 hills (Psalm 50:10); the least of Zion will become 1,000 and the smallest a mighty nation (Isaiah 60:22); better is a day in God’s courts than 1,000 elsewhere (Psalm 84:10); God shows love to 1,000 generations (Exodus 20:6); “Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lift my hand against the king’s son” (2 Samuel 18:12). A thousand more examples (figuratively speaking) could easily be added to the list.
Finally, the 144,000 represent true Israel as it was intended to be—in perfect symmetry and providentially sealed. Who can help but think back to Ezekiel’s epic depiction of a man clothed in linen etching a mark on the foreheads of those who grieved and lamented over all the detestable things done in Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Babylonians six centuries before Christ (Ezekiel 9:4)? Or fail to realize that those who were marked were the earnest of the 144,000 sealed prior to Jerusalem’s destruction in AD 70? She is the purified bride from every nation, tribe, people, and language that will step over Jordan into the New Jerusalem prepared for her from the very foundations of the world. Indeed, the 144,000 is the limitless great multitude of all whose names are written in the Book of Life and who will inhabit the courts of God for all eternity.
For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff, The Apocalypse Code (Nashville:W Publishing, 2007).
These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).