Who and when is the Great Multitude of Revelation 7:9-17?

PURPOSE

This article discusses Revelation 7:9-17 verse-by-verse. Two of the main questions in this passage are:

      • WHO is the Innumerable Multitude? Are they the same as the 144000?
      • WHEN are they described; before or after the return of Christ?

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

REVELATION 7:9

After these things I looked, and behold,
a great multitude which no one could count,

It is not literally true that they cannot be counted. This is a way of saying that this is a very large group.

from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,

Revelation uses such four-fold descriptions of people (e.g., Rev 10:11; 14:6; 17:15) because the number 4 symbolizes worldwide extension.

In contrast, the first 8 verses of Revelation 7 describe the sealing of the 144000 from the 12 tribes of Israel. 

standing before the throne and before the Lamb,

The multitude hiding in the mountains, asked: “Hide us from … Him who sits on the throne … for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:16). Since the Innumerable Multitude stands before the throne, they are the answer to that question. This also implies that this multitude is described as on “the great day of their wrath.

clothed in white robes,
and palm branches were in their hands;

In Revelation, the color white always describes Christ and His people. Since white robes were given to the people who have been martyred “because of the testimony which they had maintained” (Rev 6:9-11), the great multitude includes all who have died for their faith. However, in Revelation, symbolically, all of God’s people die for their faith. In other words, the great multitude includes all of God’s people from all ages.

REVELATION 7:10

and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,

In the fifth seal, God’s martyrs cried for revenge also “with a loud voice” (Rev 6:10). Now, they no longer cry for revenge, which implies that the time of the vision is after that judgment has been executed.

“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

While the hiding multitude acknowledges their doom (Rev 6:16), this great multitude acknowledges that they are not the authors of their salvation; they were saved by God and the Lamb.

REVELATION 7:11-12

and all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures;

This is similar to the scene in Revelation 5 of a multitude of angels, the 24 elders, and the four living creatures in the heavenly throne room (Rev 5:11).

and they fell on their faces
before the throne and worshiped God saying,
“Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

The Greek words translated “fell on their faces” and “worship” have a similar meaning. For is a discussion, see the discussion of Rev 4:10 or 5:8 above, or Worship in God’s presence.

REVELATION 7:13-14

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me,
“These who are clothed in the white robes,
who are they,
and where have they come from?”

I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me,
“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation,

Many translations put “come out” in the past tense (e.g., KJV), but it translates an extremely continuous Greek expression, implying that the multitude is still coming out of the tribulation. In other words, their dwelling in heaven is an eternal reality but not yet visible or experienced.

Tribulation” means oppression and affliction (e.g., Matt 24:9), or simply difficult circumstances (e.g., 2 Cor 8:13). But, in this chapter, it is “the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). It refers to one particular tribulation that the reader already knows about. Given the context, it is the martyrdom of God’s people during the entire church age as emphasized by the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11).

and they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The CrossIt is not literally possible to make clothes white in blood. This is a metaphor: The discussion of the sealed book proposes that Christ’s blood is a symbol for His death. Furthermore, His death does not only refer to His last moment but to His final hours when the tempter inflicted the most severe torment and temptation possible on Him. But the hours of His death were His greatest victory, for He overcame by remaining “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10). Through faith, He subjected Himself to God’s will.

The people with the white robes had to wash their own robes because “God … will render to each person according to his deeds” (Rom 2:6). This is discussed in the next section.

PEOPLE ARE JUDGED BY THEIR DEEDS

White robes are a sign of being right with God (cf. Rev 3:4-5). The people clothed in the white robes had to wash their own robes (Rev 7:14). This principle, that people must work for their salvation, is expressed several times in Revelation (e.g., Rev 3:4-5; 19:7-8; 16:15).

Judged by deeds – This principle consistent with the teaching of the whole Bible that man is judged by his deeds (cf. Rev 20:12). It is sometimes said that Paul taught something different, but he taught the same thing (Rom 2:5-8; 9-13; 8:13).

Works of the law – Sometimes people have difficulty reconciling the principle that man is judged by his deeds with the fact that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom 3:20). However, these “works of the law” refer to the external ceremonies and rituals of the Mosaic Law and are very different from the “deeds” by which people are judged.

Faith – People also struggle to reconcile judgment of deeds with salvation by faith, but these are two ways of saying the same thing. Firstly, salvation by faith does require a judgment of the person’s faith. Secondly, God sees and judges the entire being. The “deeds” by which people are judged include character, words, deeds, thoughts, desires, and faith.

Grace – Another objection which people may offer to judgment by deeds is that we are saved by grace. But that is also not a challenge, for people are judged by their deeds but saved by grace. People DO NOT EARN salvation through their deeds. Judgment by deeds determines WHO must be saved. By grace is HOW those people are saved. For a more detailed discussion, see People are not justified by the works of the law but are judged by their deeds.

REVELATION 7:15

For this reason,

Because they have washed their robes.

they are before the throne of God;
and they serve Him day and night

“Day and night” means continually.

in His temple;

There is no temple in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22). There is no physical temple in heaven either. The temple on earth was a symbolic representation of heavenly realities; of how God deals with sin. John’s visions use things from the Old Testament as symbols. The throne of God, which is in His temple (Rev 16:17), is a symbol of God’s presence. This is what Revelation 21:22 confirms: “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

and He who sits on the throne
will spread His tabernacle over them.

Revelation 21:3, depicting the time after the millennium, when God has come down to earth with the New Jerusalem, describes God’s “tabernacle” as where God lives. 

REVELATION 7:16-17

They will hunger no longer,
nor thirst anymore;
nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat

In this life, being a believer does not guarantee physical comfort. But, in eternity, things will be different.

for the Lamb in the center of the throne

The Lamb is not “around the throne,” like the elders and the angels (Rev 4:4; 5:11), or “before the throne,” like the great multitude (Rev 7:9, 15); He is “in the center of the throne.”  This confirms that He ascended to the throne of God when He took the sealed book (Rev 5:7). He had been “exalted to the right hand of God” (e.g., Acts 2:33).

will be their shepherd,

That “the Lamb” will be “their shepherd” is a bit ironic, but shows the symbolic nature of Revelation.

and will guide them to springs of the water of life;
and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Revelation 21:4 repeats: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The sorrow, which the innumerable multitude suffered during the great tribulation, will end.

If this passage was the end of the Book of Revelation, we would not have noticed anything missing. It describes the glorious reward of the eternal life of the redeemed, as explained in more detail in Revelation chapters 21-22.

WHO ARE THE INNUMERABLE MULTITUDE?

While the 144000 are exactly numbered, from the tribes of Israel, and on earth (Rev 7:1-3), the great multitude cannot be counted, is from every nation, and before the throne of God, which is in heaven (Rev 11:19).

One way to describe the relationship between the innumerable multitude and the 144000 is as a hear/see combination. In Revelation, in these combinations, the prophet first hears about something, but when he looks, he sees something completely different. For example, John hears about a Lion but then sees a Lamb (Rev 5:5-6). What John first hears and then sees is not exactly the same. In this example, both the lion and the lamb represent Jesus but different aspects of His work. Similarly, John hears the number of the 144000 (Rev 7:4-8) but sees a great multitude that no one can number (Rev 7:9). They are not exactly the same but different perspectives of God’s people.

While the 144000 symbolizes His end-time people, based on the following, the innumerable multitude includes all of God’s people of all time:

The fifth seal divides God’s people into those that have already died and those who still must die. In that seal, those that have already died receive white robes. By implication, the people who must still die will also receive white robes. The innumerable multitude, since they are dressed in white robes, includes both groups. On the other hand, the article on the Sealing shows that the point in time in the fifth seal is when the seal comes down out of heaven. This implies that those in the fifth seal who must still die, are the 144000; God’s end-time people.

The innumerable multitude has come through “the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). Since both groups of people in the fifth seal are martyred, both came out of “the great tribulation.

WHEN – AT WHAT TIME ARE THEY DESCRIBED?

AFTER HIS RETURN

Does Revelation 7:9-17 describe the time before or after Christ’s return? The following seems to indicate that it describes the time AFTER His Return:

    • They stand before the throne, which is in heaven (Rev 11:19 & 16:17).
    • Revelation 6:17 asks, “who is able to stand” on “the great day of their wrath?” Since the Innumerable Multitude stands before the throne, they are the answer to this question. This implies that the time is “the great day of their wrath,” namely Christ’s return.
    • The palm branches in their hands foreshadow the bliss of eternity.
    • The souls under the altar cried out for revenge. The multitude does not. This implies that they have had their revenge.

BEFORE HIS RETURN

However, the New Testament sometimes describes things that are an eternal reality, but not yet visibly realized, as if they already happened (e.g., John 5:24). Revelation, similarly, often depicts God’s people on earth as if they are in heaven (Rev 13:6-7; 14:1-5; 15:2). This may also apply to Revelation 7:9-17.

An important aspect of Revelation 7:9-17 is the verb tenses. Verses 15 to 17, describing what God will do for His people, are in the future tense. For example: “God will wipe every tear.” In contrast, the activities of the great multitude are in the present tense. For example, they “come out of the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). This implies that Revelation 7:9-17 describes the time BEFORE the return of Christ.

PROPOSAL

Revelation 7:1-8 jumps back in time to describe the sealing of the 144000. It is proposed that verse 9 continues exactly where Revelation 6 left off. In other words, the hiding multitude (Rev 6:15-17) and the great multitude describe the same point in history; immediately BEFORE the return of Christ.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

REVELATION 7:9

After these things I looked, and behold,
a great multitude which no one could count,
from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
clothed in white robes,
and palm branches were in their hands;

After these things – This phrase often signals a new section in Revelation. The previous verses described what John heard. The current verse and the remainder of the chapter describe what he saw.

Great multitude – In Revelation 5:11, John saw another great multitude, numbering millions and millions, but that was a multitude of angels. The multitude in this verse is people.

Which no one could count – Jesus said: “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt 22:14). Still, the image of the Innumerable Multitude assures us that God’s people are vast and diversified.

In reality, this multitude can be counted.  This is symbolic language to say that this group is without limit. In contrast to the 144000, who are a specific subset of God’s people, the Innumerable Multitude comes from all times and places.

From every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues – This four-fold grouping signifies that the redeemed will come from all over the world; from all nations (cf. Rev 10:11; 14:6). The number 4 in Revelation symbolizes ‘worldwide’ (cf. Rev 7:1).

STANDING BEFORE THE THRONE
AND BEFORE THE LAMB

Revelation 7:1-8 described things on earth. Standing before the throne shifts the focus from earth to heaven. To stand before the throne implies two things.

      1. This is the highest possible position. The ultimate goal of every intelligent creature is to be as close as possible to the One who exists without cause and who created all things.
      2. Standing before the throne also implies readiness to serve, as stated in Revelation 7:15: “They are before the throne of God; and they serve Him day and night.” Or, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you” (Luke 1:19). The redeemed will not be idle. They will be very busy people. “They will reign upon the earth” (Rev 5:10).

WHAT TIME IS IN VIEW?

Since this great multitude is before the throne, which is in heaven (Rev 11:19 & 16:17), this scene seems to be AFTER the Second Coming of Christ. However, it is also possible to take this as a symbolic description of God’s people BEFORE His return:

      • Throughout the book of Revelation, “those who live on the earth” (Rev 14:6; cf. 1:7; 3:10; 6:10) are the people who rebel against God.
      • By contrast, God’s people on earth are often depicted as in heaven (Rev 13:6-7; 14:1-5; 15:2).

So, it is possible to understand the Innumerable Multitude as standing before the throne as a permanent and eternal reality, but not yet visibly realized. The New Testament sometimes presents things are ‘already, but not yet’. For example:

I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

AT HIS RETURN

On the other hand, the great multitude, hiding in the mountains, asked:

Hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:16).

Since the Innumerable Multitude stands before the throne, they are the answer to the question of the hiding multitude. This implies that this is “the great day of their wrath,” to which the hiding multitude refers, which is the return of Christ.

To stand “before the throne” is what Jesus promised in Revelation 3:21 when He said, “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.”

DRESSED IN WHITE ROBES

They are “clothed in white robes” because they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7:14). Similarly, the overcomers in Sardis have been promised that they will “be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:5). And, Laodicea is also advised to buy from Christ “white garments” to cover their nakedness (Rev 3:18). As shown in the discussion of the white horse of the first seal, the color white in the book of Revelation always refers to Christ and His people.

Since white robes were given to the people who have been martyred for their faith (fifth seal – Rev 6:11) and since the great multitude has come through “great tribulation” (Rev 7:14), the great multitude is or includes all people who have died for their faith (Rev 6:9). As discussed, these “souls underneath the altar” represent all of God’s people; including those who have not literally died for their faith (cf. Rev 20:4). In Revelation, all of God’s people have symbolically died for their faith. In other words, the Innumerable Multitude includes God’s people of all ages.

HAVING PALM BRANCHES IN THEIR HANDS

Palm branches are associated with “the Feast of Booths” (Lev 23:33, 40; Neh 8:14-15). This was the last feast of the year; starting 5 days after “the day of atonement” (Yom Kippur—the great judgment day):

You shall take … palm branches … and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days” (Lev 23:40).

The Feast of Booths, therefore, foreshadowed the bliss of eternity. Consequently, the palm branches in the hands of the Innumerable Multitude imply that that great destiny has been reached; the wonderful new world.

REVELATION 7:10

and they cry out with a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

CRY OUT

Cry out” is in the present tense, which implies that this is an ongoing activity; not just a single event.  They continually thank God and the Lamb who “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13).

In the fifth seal, God’s martyrs also “cried out with a loud voice,” but there they cried for revenge (Rev 6:10). Now, they have had their revenge, which implies that the time of the vision is after the return of Christ.

SALVATION TO OUR GOD
WHO SITS ON THE THRONE,
AND TO THE LAMB

Most translations interpret the grammar as implying salvation “belongs to” our God. The hiding multitude acknowledges their doom (6:16) but this great multitude acknowledges that they are not the authors of their salvation; they were saved by God and the Lamb.

These people “come out of the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). They have been saved from sin and its consequences. But, in particular, they have been delivered from the murderous intentions of the beast, the image of the beast, and Babylon (Rev 13:15; 17:6; 18:24).

In this verse, only God and the Lamb are praised for this salvation. Although “the seven spirits before the throne” are included in the heavenly trio (Rev 1:4-5), nowhere in Revelation is the Spirit praised.

REVELATION 7:11

and all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God

ALL THE ANGELS … ELDERS … FOUR LIVING CREATURES

This refers to the scene in Revelation 5 of a multitude of angels, the 24 elders, and the four living creatures in the heavenly throne room (Rev 5:11). The current verse (Rev 7:11), therefore, depicts two vast groups – an innumerable multitude of people and millions of angels.

FELL ON THEIR FACES BEFORE THE THRONE
AND WORSHIPED GOD

The Greek words translated “fell on their faces” and “worship” have a similar meaning. This doubled language of worship also appears in Rev 4:8-10 and 5:14. For a discussion, see worship in God’s presence.

In the previous verse, the Innumerable Multitude gave praise to both God and the Lamb but now these heavenly beings only worship God.

REVELATION 7:12

saying, “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

The first song in this chapter was sung by the great multitude of redeemed humanity (Rev 7:10). This second song in the current verse is sung by angels and the twenty-four elders.

The song begins and ends with “Amen.” The origin of the term is in the Hebrew Bible (âmên). The LXX translated âmên with “may it be.” “Amen,” therefore, strongly affirms the truth of something that has been said previously. So, this song begins by affirming the truth of the song of the great multitude in verse ten.

The heavenly host offers a seven-fold praise to God that is very similar to the one in Rev 5:12, with four differences:

      • In Rev 5:12, the seven nouns are all introduced with a single article. In Rev 7:12, each noun has its own article.
      • The nouns are listed in a different order.
      • Riches” (Rev 5:12) is replaced by “thanks” (Rev 7:12).
      • The seven-fold praise in Rev 5:12 is directed to the Lamb. Here it is directed to “our God”.

In Revelation, the number 7 signifies completeness in time. The fact that the praise is seven-fold indicates that this praise is for all time.

REVELATION 7:13

Then one of the elders answered, saying to me,
“These who are clothed in the white robes,
who are they,
and where have they come from?”

This is one of the twenty-four elders introduced in Revelation 4.

The word “answered” seems odd because John has not asked a question. But the elder discerns that the previous vision does not make sense to John and moves in to provide additional information.

The reference to white robes identifies this as the great multitude of verse nine. Therefore, this passage explains to John the vision of the great multitude in Rev 7:9-10, rather than the worship of the heavenly host in Rev 7:11-12. The elder’s explanation continues to the end of the chapter.

By commencing his explanation with a question, the elder provides dramatic vividness which will make the explanation easier to follow.

REVELATION 7:14

I said to him, “My lord, you know.”
And he said to me,

“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation,
and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

In verse 13, the elder asked two questions:

      • Who are these dressed in white robes, and
      • From where have they come?

the current verse answers these two questions:

      • They are the ones who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.
      • They have come out of the Great Tribulation.

MY LORD

My Lord” (Greek: kurie mou) is a typical term of respect in the ancient world. It is usually directed to a superior by one who is inferior in rank or age. In John 4:11, the woman at the well addressed Jesus using the same term. In that instance, the NASB translates it as “Sir.” Similarly, some Greeks said to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21).

John addresses the elder respectfully as “my lord” because he saw the elders around the throne of God and he knows that that suggests a very high status in the universal order of things.

WHO COME OUT OF

Many translations put this phrase in the past tense, for example, “came out of” (KJV) or “have come out” (NIV), but it translates an extremely continuous Greek expression. In other words, they don’t come out of the Great Tribulation all at once, but over time. The focus is more on the process than on the conclusion.

The tense supports the idea that the great multitude is still coming out of the tribulation. In other words, their dwelling in heaven is an eternal reality but not yet visibly and experientially realized. They are counted as already being “raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6) and “having already passed from death to life” (John 5:24), even while in the midst of suffering. This is very compatible with the “already, not yet” perspective of the New Testament.

THE GREAT TRIBULATION

To readers of Revelation who are still in the midst of “tribulation,” it is encouraging to know that those who endure with patience (Rev 13:7; 14:12) will be triumphant at the end.

The word “tribulation,” in general, means oppression and affliction (Matt 24:9; Acts 11:19; Col 1:24), or in some instances, simply difficult circumstances (2 Cor 8:13; James 1:27). In other words, it is not limited to religious persecution. But, in the current verse (Rev 7:14), where it is “the great tribulation,” it refers to one particular tribulation that readers already know about. Given the context, “the great tribulation” refers to the martyrdom of God’s people in the seals; as emphasized in the fifth seal (Rev 6:9-11).

This is the only time that the phrase “the great tribulation” occurs in Revelation. Rev 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world,” but that is not limited to God’s people and might refer to the seven last plagues.

The angel in Daniel 12 referred to similar events when he said: “There will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time” (Dan 12:1). That verse is followed by the resurrection of God’s people (Dan 12:2). This, therefore, also seems to refer to the end-time catastrophic events, symbolized in Revelation by the seven last plagues and the Sixth Seal.

In Matthew 24:21, Jesus spoke of “great tribulation” (without the article). In that case, it seems to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (compare Luke with 21:20).

Great tribulation” without the article (the) in Acts 7:11 refers to the slavery in Egypt before the Exodus. This phrase also appears in Revelation 2:22, but that is a tribulation specifically on “those who commit adultery.

THEY HAVE WASHED THEIR ROBES AND
MADE THEM WHITE IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB.

The Greek word for “washed” is in the past tense, compared to the “come out” earlier in this verse, which is in the present tense. This implies that the washing was completed before they come out of the great tribulation.

METAPHOR

It is not possible to make clothes white in blood. This is a metaphor:

      1. Christ’s blood is a symbol of His death.
      2. His death symbolizes His entire life.
        If Jesus submitted to Satan’s temptations anywhere during His life, His death would have had no value. The hours of His death was the most severe temptation He had to resist His entire life on earth but, through faith, He continued to subject Himself to God’s will. For that reason, His death, understood as the last hours of His life on earth, symbolizes His entire life.

PEOPLE ARE JUDGED BY THEIR DEEDS

White robes are a sign of being right with God (or justified, if one prefers Latin-sounding words). For example:

He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life” (Rev 3:4-5).

IN REVELATION, PEOPLE WASH THEIR OWN ROBES.

The people clothed in white robes had to wash their own robes (Rev 7:14). White robes or garments are mentioned a number of times in Revelation and consistently indicate that people must work for their salvation. For example:

      • He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments” (Rev 3:4-5).
      • His bride has made herself ready.
        The fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints” (Rev 19:7-8). (Robes symbolize character.)
      • Blessed is the one who … keeps his clothes” (Rev 16:15).

BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE JUDGED BY THEIR DEEDS.

The principle that people must clean their own robes is consistent with the principle argued above that Christ will refute Satan’s accusations through the deeds of His people. It is also consistent with the teaching of the whole Bible that man is judged by his deeds (cf. Rev 20:12). It is sometimes said that Paul taught something different, but he taught the same. For example:

God … will render to each person according to his deeds: To those who by perseverance in DOING GOOD … eternal life; but to those who … OBEY UNRIGHTEOUSNESS, wrath and indignation” (Rom 2:5-8; cf. 2:9-13)

If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:13; See Smashing Idols for a more complete list of examples.).

NOBODY WILL BE SAVED BY THE “WORKS OF THE LAW.”

Paul also taught that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom 3:20). This does not contradict the principle that people will be judged by their deeds. Paul’s references to the “works of the law” must be read in their historical context. In his day, some Pharisees who became Christians argued:

Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

It is necessary to circumcise them (the Gentile Christians) and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).

In their view, sins are washed away by these ceremonies and rituals. It was to oppose this erroneous view that Paul stated that NOBODY is “justified” by the “works of the law.These works of the law” refer to the external ceremonies and rituals of the Mosaic Law, of which circumcision is the leading example, by which the Jews attempted to justify themselves before God and are very different from the “deeds” by which people are judged.

TO BE SAVED THROUGH FAITH
IS TO BE JUDGED BY OUR DEEDS.

By grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8).

To be saved “saved through faith” is the same as to be judged by our deeds:

Firstly, to be saved “through faith” does require a judgment of the person. God assesses or judges the person’s faith.

Secondly, God does not judge only our external deeds. He also sees and judges the “inner man.” That God judges our deeds means that He judges the entire being, including his words, deeds, thoughts, and desires. These things are summarized by the word “faith.”

WE ARE JUDGED BY OUR DEEDS BUT SAVED BY GRACE.

People are judged by their deeds but saved by grace, for all have sinned. We are all doomed if we are to be judged by our deeds alone, for all have sinned. God’s people DO NOT EARN salvation through their deeds. This is also indicated in Revelation:

      • They wash their clothes “in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
      • They must “buy” white garments from Christ (Rev 3:18).
      • Christ “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev 1:5).

Similarly, when “Joshua was clothed with filthy garments and standing before the angel,” the angel (Jesus?) gave instructions that the filthy garments be removed from him and said to Joshua: “See, I have taken your iniquity away” (Zech 3:3).

Judgment by deeds determines WHO must be saved. By grace is HOW those people are saved.

CONCLUSION

The Jewish system of salvation can be compared as follows with Paul’s proposed system:

    • The same moral principles apply in both systems.
    • The difference is in how our sins are forgiven, for the Jews agreed with Paul that we have all sinned:
        • In the Jewish system, sins are washed away by the rituals of the law. In other words, people are saved by the “works of the law.
        • For Paul, sins are forgiven by grace.

People dislike the idea of being judged by their deeds because they know that their deeds are evil.  But that fear must be replaced by faith. To have faith in God does not simply mean to know that He exists, it also means to trust Him. We must be concerned about our sins but then we must put our trust in God. We must know that He loves us and we must trust His promises (e.g., John 3:16).

This is a subject about which confusion reigns in the Christian world.  For a more detailed discussion, see People are not justified by the works of the law but are judged by their deeds.

ATONEMENT

They cleaned their own robes, but without the sacrifice (blood) of the Lamb, that would not have been possible. He “released us from our sins by His blood” (Rev 1:5), but the question is, HOW did His death do that? This matter is highly disputed.

Compare the phrase, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” to the following statement:

Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:25-27).

Note the similarities:

      • Gave Himself up for her” is equivalent to His blood (His death).
      • Sanctify her,” “cleansed her” and “that she would be holy and blameless” are symbolized in Revelation 7 by clean robes.
      • Both verses refer to washing, but in Ephesians, it is not a mysterious washing with blood; simply “sanctify her … by the washing of water with the word.

Several articles are available on this website on the Atonement and on the question, Why did Jesus have to die?

REVELATION 7:15

For this reason,
they are before the throne of God;
and they serve Him day and night in His temple;
and He who sits on the throne will spread His tabernacle over them.

For this reason – This points back to the previous verse where the great multitude have washed their robes. That gave them the right to stand before the throne.

Before the throne of God – See the discussion of Rev 7:9.

And they serve Him – Since the throne of God is the governing center of the universe, to serve Him is to rule with Him.

Day and night – This phrase occurs five times in the book of Revelation (Rev 4:8; 7:15; 12:10; 14:11; 20:10). It means “constantly” or “continually.” Day and night together constitute the whole of time. On earth, daily toil is suspended so people can rest during the night. But in heaven, there will be no weariness or a need for rest.

In his templeThis is the heavenly temple (Greek: naô), which is mentioned frequently in the book of Revelation (Rev 8:3-5; 11:19; 15:5-8, etc.).

While there is a temple in heaven in this verse, there is no temple in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22): “I saw no temple in it.” I would like to explain this as follows:

There is no physical temple in heaven. The temple on earth was a symbolic representation of heavenly realities; of how God deals with sin. For an example of the symbolism, “he who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple“ (Rev 3:12).

John’s visions use things from the Old Testament as symbols. This also applies to the temple. The throne of God, which is in His temple (Rev 16:17), is a symbol of God’s presence. This is what Revelation 21:22 confirms: “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

HE WHO SITS ON THE THRONE
WILL SPREAD HIS TABERNACLE OVER THEM.

Revelation 21:3, describing the time after the millennium, when God has come down to earth with the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2-3), also refers to God’s “tabernacle:”

Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men,
and He will dwell among them
.”

The similarity of the two phrases implies that, to “spread His tabernacle over them,” means to “dwell among them.

The word “will” perhaps implies that Revelation 7:15 describes the time BEFORE the return of Christ.

The “tabernacle” is another connection to the Feast of Tabernacles (or “booths”). 

REVELATION 7:16

They will hunger no longer,
nor thirst anymore;
nor will the sun beat down on them,
nor any heat

This verse is a series of four negatives. It tells us what the life of eternity will not be, in sharp contrast to the experience of the wicked in the fourth bowl-plague (Rev 16:8):

The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire.  Men were scorched with fierce heat” (Rev 16:8-9).

In this life, being a believer is no guarantee of adequate food and drink and certainly does not guarantee physical comfort. But, in eternity, things will be different.

In the New Jerusalem, the sun won’t even be needed “for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:23).

This whole verse is one of the strongest verbal parallels to the Old Testament in the whole book of Revelation for Isaiah 49:10 promised that, after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, “they will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them“ (NIV). This promise was never literally fulfilled to Old Testament Israel, but here Revelation re-activates it and applies it spiritually to New Earth and the New Jerusalem.

REVELATION 7:17

for the Lamb in the center of the throne
will be their shepherd,
and will guide them to springs of the water of life;
and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

If this was the end of the Book of Revelation, we would not have noticed anything missing. Although it is still fairly early in the narrative of Revelation, this passage describes the glorious reward of the eternal life of the redeemed. This is explained in more detail in Revelation 21-22.

IN THE CENTER OF THE THRONE

The Lamb is not “around the throne,” like the elders and the angels (Rev 4:4; 5:11). He is also not “before the throne,” like the Great Multitude (Rev 7:9, 15). He is “in the center of the throne.” This confirms that He ascended to the throne of God when He moved from “between the throne … and the elders” (Rev 5:6) to take the sealed book (Rev 5:7). He had been “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33; 7:55; Rom 8:34; etc.)

THEIR SHEPHERD

That “the Lamb” will be “their shepherd” is a bit ironic, but it shows the symbolic nature of Revelation.

SPRINGS OF THE WATER OF LIFE

Revelation 22:17 also mentions the “water of life.” This “water” is still another allusion to the Feast of Booths. Zechariah 14 predicts the return of Christ and the new world. Notice how that passage connects the “living waters” to “the Feast of Booths:”

A day is coming” (Rev 14:1) when “the LORD will … fight against those nations” (Rev 14:3). “Then the LORD, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him” (Rev 14:5; cf. 19:11-14). “In that day there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle” (14:6). 

In that day living waters will flow out of Jerusalem” (Rev 14:8) “and the LORD will be king over all the earth” (Rev 14:9). “Any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (Rev 14:16).

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Revelation 21:4 repeats this statement. The sorrow which the Innumerable Multitude suffered during the Tribulation will come to an end. Eternal life will be a mixture of joyous things added to human existence and unhappy things that will be removed.

WHO IS THE INNUMERABLE MULTITUDE?

As stated at the beginning of this article, one of the questions that must be answered is whether the Innumerable Multitude is the same as the 144000.

Hear/see combinations

One of the arguments used to show that these two groups are the same is the hear/see combinations in Revelation. We will, therefore, start by discussing these combinations: 

In the sixth seal, at the end of Revelation 6, after the cataclysmic events preceding the Second Coming of Christ, the rebellious portion of the human race acknowledges that it is doomed and cries out:

The great day of his wrath has come,
and who is able to stand?
” (Rev 6:17)

In other words, who is able to stand when Christ returns? Revelation 7 answers that question by describing two groups of people:

      • 144000 from the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:1-8) and
      • An Innumerable Multitude from all the nations, “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-17).

OPPOSITES

At first glance, these two groups are complete opposites:

144000 INNUMERABLE MULTITUDE
Exactly numbered (Rev 7:4) Cannot be counted (Rev 7:9)
From the tribes of Israel (Rev 7:4) From every nation (Rev 7:9)
On earth (Rev 7:1-3) Before the throne of God (Rev 7:9)
Before the four winds are released (Rev 7:1-3) After the Great Tribulation (Rev 7:14)
Seal of God on their foreheads Clothed in white robes

HEAR/SEE-COMBINATIONS

However, they are not opposites. Revelation uses hear/see combinations in which the prophet first hears about something, but when he looks, he sees something completely different. Nevertheless, the two things are different symbols or perspectives for the same or similar realities.

Revelation 7 is one of these hear/see combinations. John never sees the 144000. He hears their number (Rev 7:4). But when he looks, he sees a great multitude that no one can number (Rev 7:9). Does that mean that the 144000 are the same as the innumerable multitude? Consider other hear/see combinations:

      • John hears about a Lion but then sees a Lamb (Rev 5:5-6). Both represent Jesus, namely different aspects or phases of His work.
      • John hears that the harlot sits on “many waters” but then sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast with seven heads (Rev 17:1, 3). The waters represent the multitudes of people of the world (Rev 17:15). The beast symbolizes the “kings” of the world (Rev 17:9), which is the political powers into which the people are divided (Rev 17:18). The “many waters” and the scarlet beast, therefore, are different parts of the (population of) world. The harlot’s influence on the two groups is also different:

CONCLUSION

Based on these two examples, when John hears one thing and sees something completely different, what John hears and sees are NOT exactly the same. Rather, they are different perspectives or aspects of the same reality. They are different enough for us to conclude that the 144000 and the Innumerable Multitude are different parts or perspectives of God’s people.

Opposites

Secondly, the differences in the descriptions of the 144000 and the Innumerable Multitude (e.g., from Israel – from all nations) indicate that they are not exactly the same. From time to time, Revelation gives different names to the same thing or group, but never describes the same thing in such contradictory terms.

White Robes

Thirdly, the fifth seal refers to a specific point in history when white robes are given to God’s martyred people. But the fifth seal also mentions people who must still be “killed even as they had been” (Rev 6:11).  By implication, the people who must still be killed will also receive white robes. The Innumerable Multitude is clothed in white robes. They, presumable, therefore include all people in white robes; both groups of people in the fifth seal.

Further evidence of this is that the Innumerable Multitude has come through “the great tribulation” (Rev 7:14). This confirms that this group includes both groups of people in the fifth seal.

Now comes the important point: The discussion of the Sealing has concluded that the 144000 are the same as the people in the fifth seal who must still be killed. Therefore, the Innumerable Multitude includes both the martyred souls that receive white robes in the fifth seal and the 144000.

Conclusion

It is, therefore, fairly clear that:

      • The 144000 are God’s end-time people in the time of restraint before the winds are loosed (Rev 7:1-3).
      • The Innumerable Multitude represents all of God’s people.

WHAT POINT IN TIME IS IN VIEW?

Another question is, what time is described in Rev 7:9-17? Does this passage describe the Innumerable Multitude before or after the return of Christ? 

After Christ’s Return

Factors to consider include the following:

      • They stand before the throne, which is in heaven (Rev 11:19 & 16:17).
      • Revelation 6:17 asks, “who is able to stand” on “the great day of their wrath?” Since we see the Innumerable Multitude standing before the throne, this, presumably, is the answer to the question and “the great day of their wrath,” which is the return of Christ.
      • The palm branches in their hands are associated with “the Feast of Booths,” which foreshadowed the bliss of eternity.
      • Like the souls under the altar, they are clothed in white robes, but unlike the souls under the altar, they do not cry for revenge. This implies that they have had their revenge.

These factors seem to indicate that the point in time is AFTER the Return of Christ. However, as explained above, the New Testament sometimes describes things that are a permanent and eternal reality, but not yet visibly realized, as if it already happened. This may also apply to Revelation 7:9-17.

Before Christ’s Return

Prophets normally describe visions as in the past tense because the vision was a past experience for the prophet. So, the prophet may even describe events that lie in the prophet’s future in the past tense.  However, Revelation sometimes switches to the present and future tenses.  That must be significant. In Rev 7:9-17:

      • Rev 7:11 and 12, describing the song of the heavenly beings, are in the past tense.
      • Rev 7:15 to 17, describing what God will do for His people, are in the future tense, for example, “God will wipe every tear.
      • On the other hand, the activities of the Innumerable Multitude are described in the present tense:

        • standing before the throne (Rev 7:9);
        • clothed in white robes (Rev 7:9);
        • cry out with a loud voice (Rev 7:10)
        • come out of the great tribulation (Rev 7:14);
        • are before the throne of God (Rev 7:15);
        • serve Him day and night (Rev 7:15).

There are two exceptions to this, but both can be explained:

      • Palm branches were in their hands” (Rev 7:9) (past tense) but this is not something which the multitude does. This is the normal way of relating a vision.
      • They have washed their robes” (Rev 7:14) is also in the past tense, but this is because they washed their robes before they “come out of the great tribulation.”

This present tense, when describing the Innumerable Multitude, therefore, seems to be intentional. Combined with the future tense of verses 15-17, the implication seems to be that Revelation 7:9-17 describes the time before the return of Christ.

Proposal

It is proposed that Revelation 7:1-8 jumps back in time to describe the sealing of the 144000. The description of the Innumerable Multitude then continues where the sixth seal left off. In other words, the hiding multitude (Rev 6:15-17) and the Innumerable Multitude describe the same point in time; namely immediately before the return of Christ. That would make the seventh seal the Return of Christ.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

      • The great tribulation refers to the martyrdom of God’s people in the seals.
      • Christ’s blood is a symbol of His death.
      • His death symbolizes His entire life.
      • God will render to each person according to his deeds
      • The 144000 and the Innumerable Multitude are not the same.
      • The Innumerable Multitude includes God’s people of all ages.
      • The Innumerable Multitude describes the same point in time as the hiding multitude in the sixth seal (Rev 6:15-17), namely immediately before the return of Christ.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

For further reading on Revelation, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

144000 are sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel (Rev 7:4-8)

SUMMARY

  • In Rev 7:1-3, an angel comes down from heaven with “the seal of the living God.” He commands four other angels to hold back the four winds of destruction “until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev 7:1-3). Then John heard that 144000 were “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4).

THE NUMBER 144000 IS NOT LITERAL.
IT SYMBOLIZES FAITHFULNESS.

For the following reasons, the 144000 Israelites cannot be interpreted literally:

    • Ten of the twelve tribes have disappeared long ago.
    • This is not a valid list of tribes.
    • 144000 is too exact to be literal.
    • Literally interpreted, they are all men and without sin.

Rather, the number 144000 is symbolic. Revelation is a symbolic book and all numbers in Revelation are symbols. Revelation frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols and the number 144000 is Old Testament military language converted into a symbol.

As indicated by the following, the number 144000 symbolizes that they will remain faithful until death:

    • As argued. the sealing of “the bond-servants of our God” (Rev 7:3) is equivalent to the ‘completion’ of “their fellow servants” in the fifth seal (6:11) and that is qualitative completion.
    • Revelation 14 describes the 144000 as spiritually mature.

REVELATION MERGES THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL.

Israel in exileFurthermore, as discussed under Rev 4:4, Revelation merges the church into Israel. For example:

    • The seven churches are promised the things that previously belonged to Israel.
    • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the Church.
    • “Those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song” of both Moses and the Lamb; the main characters in the Old and New Testaments.
    • The New Jerusalem” symbolizes God’s people and has the names of the 12 apostles on its foundations but the names of the 12 tribes its gates.
    • John hears about the 144000 Jews but then sees the innumerable multitude from all nations. Such hear-see combinations, in Revelation, actually are different perspectives OF THE SAME THING.
    • In the seven letters, there are people “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” In this context, to claim to be a Jew is a claim to be a true Christian.

THE ENTIRE NEW TESTAMENT MERGES THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL.

The entire New Testament merges the church into Israel. This is a huge study by itself. The following are a few examples:

    • In Romans 11, Gentiles are grafted into Israel’s olive tree.
    • The study of Romans 9 and 11 concluded that God elected a remnant from Israel to inherit Israel’s promises and covenants, but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant.
    • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).
    • By choosing twelve disciples and not eleven or thirteen, Jesus signaled His intention to re-shape Israel.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

1. THE 144000 ARE NOT LITERAL.

This first section shows that a literal interpretation of the 144000 Jews is not appropriate.

TEN OF THE TRIBES HAVE DISAPPEARED.

Firstly, the twelve tribes of ancient Israel no longer exist in any literal sense. There are Jews today who can trace their descent back to Judah, Benjamin, and Levi but the ten northern tribes have disappeared. These ten tribes broke away from the rest after the death of Solomon and formed the independent kingdom of Israel, with Jeroboam as the first king. In 723-722 BC, they were later taken into captivity by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:5-23), were assimilated into the peoples of the Middle East (2 Kings 17:34), and essentially disappeared from history.

Furthermore, a substantial portion of the Jews in the world today do not come from the 12 tribes but descended from converts over the centuries. Therefore, it would not be possible to define 12000 people from the twelve tribes in any literal sense.

THIS IS NOT A VALID LIST OF TRIBES.

THE TRIBES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

old testament prophetsThe “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4), in the original sense, were the twelve sons of Jacob. After his wrestling with the angel, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “prince with God” (Gen 32:27-28).

The original list of the twelve tribes, based on the sons of Jacob, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his twelve sons, but after he had already given special attention to the two sons of Joseph; Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:8-22). So, Joseph’s two sons also become ancestors of recognized tribes, taking the place of Joseph. Therefore, right from the beginning, the tribes actually numbered 13; not 12.

The number returned to 12 after Levi was withdrawn for the priesthood, and given no distinct territorial inheritance (Joshua 13:14; 14:3-4; 18:7; Num 18:20-24). Consequently, in Numbers and Joshua, the tribes were listed consistently as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. (Both Joseph and Levi were left out).

THE TRIBES IN REVELATION 7

The list of tribes in Revelation 7:5-8 is Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. This list excludes Dan and Ephraim; probably because of their sin:

      • Dan was the first tribe to fall into idolatry. Jeroboam placed one of his two golden calves in Dan (1 Kings 12:29-30). These calves served as substitutes for the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem (cf. Gen 49:17; Judges 18:27-31).
      • Ephraim is joined to idols; Let him alone” (Hosea 4:17; cf. 8:11).

To restore the number 12, the list in Revelation 7 adds Joseph and Levi. In doing so, it includes both Joseph and his son Manasseh; which is effectively a double count. And, by including Levi, it deviates from the Old Testament lists.

The order in which the tribes were listed in the Old Testament was never fixed. The order of the tribes in Revelation, with Judah first and Reuben second, is not unusual. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son (Gen 29:35). In Revelation 7, he is in the pre-eminent (first) place here because he is the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is “from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5).  For that reason, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, is no longer listed as first.

CONCLUSION

The list in Revelation 7 is not a valid list. It excludes two tribes that were connected to idol worship. To retain the number 12 (tribes), it has to double count Joseph and Manassah and add Levi, who was not counted as a tribe in the Old Testament. Furthermore, it puts Judah first because Jesus descended from that tribe.

144000 is TOO EXACT TO LITERAL

The number 12,000 is too exact to be taken literally. To say that God will select exactly 12,000 from each of 12 physical tribes simply does not make any Biblical sense and is inconsistent with the freedom in God’s kingdom.

LITERALLY, THE 144000 ARE ALL MEN AND NEVER COMMITTED A SIN.

If the 144000 Israelites are interpreted literally, then their description in Revelation 14 must also be literal. There it says they have not been defiled with women, which would imply that all of them are men.  It also says they have never “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5). But we know that all people are sinners (Rom 3:23) and that God’s people consist of both men and women.

2. THE 144000 ARE SYMBOLIC.

This section provides evidence to show that the 144,000 Jews must be interpreted symbolically.

REVELATION IS A SYMBOLIC BOOK.

Firstly, Rev 1:1 tells us that Jesus Christ received this revelation from God and He “signified” (Literal Standard Version) it and handed it on to John to write down for the churches. Strong defines the word “signified” (sémainó) as “to give a sign.” This means that the overall context of the book is symbolic. A study of this book will confirm that symbols are pervasive.

While the normal way to read any work is to assume straightforward language unless it becomes evident that a symbol is intended, in Revelation you take everything as symbolic unless it is compelling that the author intended something to be taken literally.

For a further discussion, see Is a consistently literal interpretation of Revelation appropriate?

144000 SYMBOLIZES ISRAEL’S ARMY.

Secondly, the number 144000 converts Old Testament military language into a symbol. The number 144000 is modeled after Israel’s army. Numbers 31 describes the preparation for the invasion of the promised land as follows:

3 Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian … 4 A thousand from each tribe of all the tribes of Israel you shall send to the war.’

5 So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel, a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed for war. (Num 31:3-5)

The thousands of Israel” in verse 5 describe Israel’s army. Each tribe had an army of between 30,000 and 75,000 (Num 1:17-43).

A “thousand” was a military unit; equivalent to what we today may call a regiment or a platoon. The Hebrew word for “thousand” (eleph) can also mean a military unit. Out of the “thousands of Israel,” Moses chose “a thousand from each tribe” (a military unit from each tribe) to fight the Midianites (Num 31:5). Therefore, the “twelve thousand” in verse 5 can be understood as twelve thousands or 12 military units.

APPLICATION TO REVELATION 7

This is the background to the 144000 in Revelation 7. The tribes of Israel were divided into clans or families. For example:

      • Gideon said, “my family is the least in Manasseh” (Judges 6:15)
      • Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2).

The 144000 is equal to 12 x 12 x 1000. It means 12 military units (12 thousands) from each of the 12 tribes; in total 144 military units. Just as Revelation 7 divides the number 144000 into exactly 12 tribes, it symbolically divides each tribe is into exactly 12 clans. So, the core symbolism of the 144000 is the totality of Israel’s army.

REVELATION FREQUENTLY USES OLD TESTAMENT THINGS AS SYMBOLS.

Revelation very frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols. Above it was already shown that the 144000 convert literal military language into a symbol and that Jerusalem becomes “the New Jerusalem.” Further examples are:

    • The fifth seal converts an Old Testament sacrificial ritual, in which the blood of animals was “poured out” at the base of the altar, into a symbol of God’s slain people, screaming for revenge.
    • Babylon was the main enemy of God’s people in the Old Testament. In Revelation, Babylon becomes a symbol for the enemies of God’s New Testament people (Rev 17:5).
    • The Euphrates was the river that flowed through ancient Babylon. In Revelation, it becomes a symbol for “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” (Rev 17:15).

ALL NUMBERS ARE SYMBOLS

Thirdly, all numbers in Revelation are symbols:

TWO

Two is the number of the gospel (e.g., Rev 12:17; 14:12 or the two witnesses). Most often, it appears in a hidden form, for example, “the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2). It is based on the Old Testament principle that at least two witnesses are required to confirm evidence (e.g., 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).

FOUR

Four signifies “the whole earth” or ‘worldwide’ (e.g., Rev 7:1). The number four is also often hidden in phrases such as “You must prophesy again concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings” (Rev 10:11; cf. 7:9; 11:9; 14:6; 17:15).

SEVEN

Seven is the number most often found in Revelation (seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.).

The number seven is derived from the seven days of the week. Similar to the days of the week, many of the sevens in Revelation imply a chronological sequence, namely, the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh being the last or the end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12.

The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as completion or perfection of time—the full period. For example, God has seven Spirits (Rev 4:5; 5:6), but God does not literally have seven Spirits. It should be understood symbolically, namely that His Spirit will ALWAYS be with us.

TWELVE

The number twelve, which is the foundation of the number 144000, appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents the people of God. For example:

Israel consisted of twelve tribes (Gen 35:22; 49:28) for Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8). The lists of the tribes in the Old Testament differ, but there are always 12 in the list. The number 12, therefore, was regarded as important. Consequently, there were:

      • Twelve spies of Israel (Deut 1:23),
      • Twelve stones of the Jordan River (Josh 4:2-9),
      • Twelve cities of the Levites (Josh 21:40),
      • Twelve governors for Solomon (1 Kings 4:7),
      • Twelve bronze oxen that held up the bronze sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:44; 2 Chr 4:2-4; Jer 52:20),
      • Twelve lions in front of Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Chr 9:17-19),
      • Elijah’s twelve stones (1 Kings 18:31), and the
      • Twenty-four courses of priests, each with twelve trained musicians (1 Chr 25:1-31).

Similarly, Jesus chose exactly 12 disciples; not 11 or 13. Judas fell away, but still, Revelation refers to “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). Again, the principle is that the number 12 is connected to the people of God.

TWELVE IN REVELATION

The pure woman, who first gave birth to Christ (Rev 12:5) but afterward had other “children” (Rev 12:17), has a crown of “twelve stars” (Rev 12:1).

The New Jerusalem, where “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” will live (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (Rev 21:12). It also has 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (Rev 21:14).

The wall of the New Jerusalem “was 144 cubits thick” (Rev 21:17; NIV). Therefore, both the wall and the 144000 sealed Jews:

    • Are military concepts. The 144000 represents Israel’s army and the walls symbolize the New Jerusalem’s protection against invading armies.
    • Include the number 144, which divides the 12 tribes into 12 military clans.

There are 24 elders in Revelation 4 and 24 is equal to 12 + 12. The number 24 could be drawn from the fact that the Old Testament priests were organized into 24 divisions.

3. REVELATION MERGES
THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL

This is the third part of this article. The first two parts showed that (1) the 144000 cannot be interpreted literally and (2) must be interpreted symbolically.  This third part shows that the Book of Revelation merges the church into Israel.  The following are specific indications that the references to the things of Israel must be interpreted as references to the church:

SEVEN CHURCHES

Firstly, the entire book of Revelation was written to the seven churches (Rev 22:16). These seven churches, therefore, represent the Church. Revelation uses one of the elements of the Jewish temple—the seven-fold lampstands, to symbolize the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Furthermore, the seven churches are promised the things that previously belonged to Israel, such as the:

      • Tree of Life (Rev 2:7),
      • Manna (Rev 2:17),
      • Book of Life (Rev 3:5),
      • Temple (Rev 3:11) and
      • Jerusalem (Rev 3:12).

THE WOMAN OF REVELATION 12

Secondly, as discussed in the articles on Revelation 12, the woman in that chapter represents Israel when she expects the Christ, but after Christ ascended to heaven, she remains on earth and represents the Church (cf. Rev 12:5, 17). In other words, Revelation uses the same symbol for both Israel and the Church. She has a crown of 12 stars (Rev 12:1). In her Old Testament existence, this represents the 12 tribes. After Christ, the 12 stars represent the 12 apostles. As discussed below, Jesus declared the 12 apostles to be the new leaders of the 12 tribes (Matt 19:28).

THE SONG OF MOSES AND OF THE LAMB

Thirdly, “those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:2-3). This combines the main characters in the Old and New Testaments into a single song.

THE NEW JERUSALEM

The bride, the wife of the Lamb” is associated with “the holy city, Jerusalem” (Rev 21:9-10), also called “the New Jerusalem” (Rev 3:12). Just as the first Israel had its capital in ancient Jerusalem, so God’s people in Revelation have the New Jerusalem as their capital (Rev 21:12-14).

As already stated, on the foundations of the New Jerusalem are written the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). This implies that it is built on the gospel as preached by the 12 apostles.

But, on its gates are written: “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” (Rev 21:12). In other words, only Israelites are allowed into the New Jerusalem. This, by itself, is sufficient proof that Revelation regards Israel and the Church to be a single entity.

He measured its wall, an hundred forty-four cubits” (Rev 21:17; Young’s Literal Translation). So the imagery of 12 x 12 is solidly established in the book of Revelation.

THE INNUMERABLE MULTITUDE

While the 144000 in the first part of Revelation 7 are on earth, only from Israel, and precisely numbered, the multitude in the second part of Revelation 7 is before God’s throne in heaven, from every nation, and innumerable (Rev 7:9). Read literally, these two groups are opposite but it does NOT mean that they are two completely different groups. In a number of instances, John hears about one thing, but when he looks, he sees something completely different, but the two things are different perspectives of the same thing. For example:

    • In Rev 5:5, John hears of a Lion that overcame, but when he looks, he sees a Lamb as if slain (Rev 5:6).  The lion and the lamb are opposites in the animal kingdom but both are symbols for Jesus—representing two different aspects of His work.  He was a lamb when He was slaughtered, but as the “Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev 5:5) “to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49:10). “He will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev 19:15).
    • In Rev 17:1, John hears about a woman sitting on many waters but when he looks, he sees her sitting on a seven-headed beast (Rev 17:3).  The water is explained as the peoples of the world (Rev 17:15). The beast with its heads and horns represents those same people organized into the kingdoms of the world (Rev 17:9-12 – see the article on The Seven-Headed Beasts of Revelation).
    • Later, an angel says to John that He will show him the other woman in Revelation—the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:9) but then John sees a city—the New Jerusalem—descending from heaven (Rev 21:10).  A city is a collection of people; not just a collection of buildings. The New Jerusalem is the collection of God’s people, just like Babylon is also both a city and a woman (Rev 17:18), representing the enemy of God’s people.

Similarly, in Revelation 7, John does not see the 144000—he only hears their number, but when he looks, he sees the innumerable multitude from every nation (Rev 7:9-12). Literally read, the two groups are opposites, but the hear/see combination implies that the 144000 and the multitude are two perspectives on God’s people. The 144000 represents God’s people on earth living during the end-time conflict.  The next article will identify the innumerable multitude.

SAY THEY ARE JEWS

In the seven letters, we read of people “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; cf. 3:9). A claim to be a literal Jew does not make any sense.  In the context of a Christian church at the end of the first century, after Jerusalem has been destroyed in 70 AD, what benefit would a person derive from claiming to be a literal Jew?  But, to claim to be a Jew, in the context of Paul writing that “he is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29) does make sense. It would mean to be a true believer.

In conclusion, Revelation is a Christian book. The many references in the book to Jewish things must be understood in a Christ-centered spiritual sense as referring to God’s end-time followers of Jesus.

4. THE NEW TESTAMENT MERGES
THE CHURCH INTO ISRAEL

This is a huge study by itself. This section will only make a few key observations to show that the New Testament previously already merged the church into Israel:

OLIVE TREE

One passage that immediately comes to mind to Romans 11, where Israel is described as an “olive tree” from which branches were broken off (the unbelieving Jews). Gentiles are “a wild olive.” Branches from the wild olive were grafted in Israel’s olive tree. Paul warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant: “Remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you” (Rom 11:16-24). The root refers to the covenants, the Law, the temple service, the promises, and the fathers (Rom 9:4-5).

ROMANS 9/11

The article – Israel in Prophecy – is a study of Romans 9 and 11, but the purpose was specifically to determine who Israel in the Book of Revelation is. This article concludes that:

    • In Paul’s day, God elected a remnant from Israel but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant. This is the definition of “Israel” which we should take with us to the book of Revelation, for the interpretation of the Jewish symbols in that book.
    • God did not annul His word. Israel’s promises and covenants remain but now belong to this chosen remnant. Believing Gentiles, therefore, now also share Israel’s promises and covenants (cf. Gal 3:29).
    • The NT did not replace the OT but is built on the foundation of the OT. Everything in the OT remains valid, except to the extent that the NT announces specific changes. The chosen remnant is a continuation of the chosen nation of the Old Testament; not a new entity with new founding principles.

SPECIFIC NEW TESTAMENT VERSES

In the New Testament, the things of Israel are applied to the church, the faithful followers of Jesus. Many texts from the New Testament can be quoted, for example:

      • He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” (Rom 2:28-29)
      • They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; … it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (Rom 9:6-8).
      • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).
      • Neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (Gal 6:15-16)
      • We are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3)

In the following text, James describes the church as the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

      • James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (James 1:1, NIV).

JESUS SELECTED 12

Just as Israel (Jacob) had twelve sons, so Jesus chose twelve disciples (Matt 10:1-5, Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13, John 6:70-71, etc.). They became the twelve apostles—the first church fathers. It is not an accident that Jesus chose twelve and not eleven or thirteen. He was deliberately signaling His intention of re-shaping Israel. This is clear from what He said to them:

I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28, NIV).

In other words, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, since the first leaders of the Church were all Jews and the Church leaders will judge Israel, it is not feasible to distinguish between Israel and the Church. The true followers of Jesus have become a new Israel.

5. MATURE CHRISTIANS

The previous article concluded that the seal in Revelation 7 is something special that only end-time believers will receive to safeguard them during the final catastrophic events before Christ returns. The seal is not a mere identification of the servants of God. Rather, it symbolizes that God will make more of His grace and power available to the last-day church because she must accomplish more than the church of any age has yet accomplished.

Consequently, the number 144000 is a symbolic way of saying that these people will be mature Christians who will not withdraw under persecution. This number 144000 should be understood qualitatively; rather than quantitatively. This is supported by the following:

QUALITATIVE COMPLETION IN THE FIFTH SEAL

The previous article concluded that the sealing of “the bond-servants of our God” (Rev 7:3) is equivalent to the ‘completion’ of their “fellow servants” in the fifth seal. That ‘completion’ has been interpreted as qualitative completion, rather than quantitative (See Fifth Seal). This implies that the sealing of the 144000 must also be interpreted qualitatively and not as a specific number.

SINLESS MEN (REVELATION 14)

Revelation 14 describes the 144000. They have “His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1). This indicates how they think. They “have not been defiled with women” (Rev 14:4). That means their religion is pure (Rev 17:5). “No lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5). We know that all people are sinners. This should, rather, be understood as a description of the nature of the seal: It refers to purity of mind and willingness to follow Jesus wherever He leads (Rev 14:4-5).

To be sealed, therefore, means to be spiritually mature—to love God with your whole heart, your neighbor like yourself, and even to love your enemies.  The extraordinary description of the sealed saints set them apart from their brethren in all earlier ages.

CONCLUSION

So, the text of Revelation 7:4-8 should not be taken literally. The twelve tribes and their twelve subdivisions are grounded in literal realities of Old Testament Israel, but the number itself, the twelve specific tribes, and their subdivisions are not to be taken literally. The 144000 is a figurative description of the totality of God’s army—the people of God—preparing for war in the very final period of earth’s history.

In Old Testament times, God made a covenant with Israel as the literal descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, located in a strip of land at the southeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Israel was understood in both ethnic and geographic terms.

In the New Testament, the meaning of Israel shifted. The covenant was no longer with a literal people located in a specific place; it is between God and Israel’s Messiah (Gal 3:16). So, in the New Testament, the meaning of Israel was expanded from literal Jews to everyone who is in a relationship with Jesus (Gal 3:14).

END-TIME CONTEXT

This passage is best understood within the larger picture of the book of Revelation:

While God’s faithful people proclaim the final message of God to the world (Rev 14:6-12), they and the entire world are under the special protection of God (the four angels hold back the four winds), so that the final work of the gospel can go forth.

At the same time, a counterfeit gospel also goes forth to the world (Rev 16:13-14).

As a result of these two gospels, all people are more and more conformed to the image of the one that they choose to worship. These decisions are confirmed by the seal of God, on the one hand, and the mark of the beast, on the other (Rev 7:1-3; 14:1-3; 13:16-17).

When all have been settled into their respective beliefs and characters (when all people are marked), the four winds (the seven last plagues) are released on the whole world. God permits ‘all hell to break loose’. God’s people are not exempt from that hour of trial (Rev 3:10; 16:15), but they are under the special protection of the Holy Spirit and are brought safely through it.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

In Revelation, numbers are symbolic:

    • Four signifies “the whole earth” or ‘worldwide’.
    • Seven should be understood as completion or perfection of time.
    • Twelve – the basis of the number 144000 – appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents the people of God.
    • The number 144000 is a symbolic way of saying that these people will be mature Christians who will maintain their witness until death.

Revelation and the entire New Testament merges the church into Israel.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

For further reading on Revelation, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.