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The 144,000

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If you've ever wondered who the 144,000 are in the Bible, here's the answer-finally.

When I was a student at Pacific Union College, each spring the alumni would arrive in the city of Angwin, California, for what they called Homecoming. We'd see a line of cars driving up through the Napa Valley, turning right in St. Helena, and climbing onto Howell Mountain where Angwin and Pacific Union College are located.

Most largely Adventist towns have nicknames, and Angwin is no exception. Non-Adventists in the valley referred to it as "Holy Hill," and "Cracker Hill" (for the vegetarians). But once a year during Homecoming it was almost inevitable that one or the other reference would come out. And when cars turned that last corner and saw the sign welcoming them into the City of Angwin, below it would be the added phrase, "Population 144,000."

The reference would be lost on those unfamiliar with the Bible, especially Revelation.

For many Christians around the world, the number 144,000 is both significant and mysterious. Jehovah's Witnesses say that it's the number of living saints who will go to heaven to be with all the believers who are occupying Paradise who died here on earth.

Some who believe in the rapture say it's the number of those who will be taken to heaven who escape the tribulation that falls on the rest of the world before Christ comes again.

Many others believe that the 144,000 are Jews who'll be converted to Christianity and will testify in the last days for God.

Probably the safest and most appropriate place to look at this issue is in Scripture. Revelation 7 is where we find reference to the 144,000. Revelation 7:2-4 says: "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: '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.' Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel."

The next verses go on to list each of the 12 tribes and notes that 12,000 come from each tribe. Verse 9 then refers to the 144,000 as "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."

When asked who these people are, one of the elders there in heaven explains that "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" (verse 14).

I don't know if you caught it, but the first inconsistency I saw in all this was the difference between verses 4 and 9. The group is first referred to as the 144,000, an obvious, specific number. Later scripture talks about "a great multitude that no one could count." Is this the same group, and if so, how can this difference be explained? After all, 144,000 is a real, literal number. Or is it?

Here's the very question that Bible scholars have argued over for thousands of years. Is the 144,000 a literal or a symbolic number?

When one considers that Revelation is filled with symbolism-strange-looking beasts, angels pouring out vials onto the earth, etc.-it's pretty easy to accept the fact that the number is figurative rather than literal. But why 144,000, or as I like to call it, a thousand dozen dozen?

Well, funny as it sounds, that's exactly why. Twelve is a special number in the Bible. There were a dozen tribes in Old Testament Israel. There were a dozen disciples, and later, a dozen apostles. And we are told there will be twelve gates into New Jerusalem in heaven. Twelve gives a sense of completeness, showing that all the tribes-everyone-is included.

So we have 12 (tribes) times 12 (completeness). Where does the thousand come in? The Hebrew word eleph, or "thousand," can refer to either a tribal subdivision or a military unit of a thousand soldiers (Numbers 31:5). In time of war Israel was organized into military units, and 1,000 was the basic military unit size in Israel.

Because of the great conflict awaiting those in this group of a thousand dozen dozen, it's possible that John used military terms to describe the group that was going to stand on the side of God.

But if we're talking about the 12 tribes of Israel, does that mean that only Jews are part of the 144,000? No. Look at verse 9. It talks about a "great multitude . . . from every nation, tribe, people and language." Even if a Jew were separated by thousands of miles and had grown up speaking a different language, one would still refer to him as a Jew. Obviously, the reference is to all of humankind, or at least those who are faithful followers of God.

It's easy to get caught up in the symbolism of Revelation and decide that there are secrets there that no one else knows about. However, Revelation is an important book of the Bible whose name means "to reveal." Jesus through John, who wrote the book, is actually trying to tell us what we need to know for the last years of earth's history.

Yet when we get caught up in the idea that specific racial, denominational, or other kinds of groups are selected for special treatment in the last days, we're headed down the wrong path. When we argue about interpretations on scriptural passages like this, we get away from what God wants for us.

Ellen White writes that "it is not His [God's] will that they [His people] shall get into controversy over questions which will not help them spiritually, such as, Who is to compose the hundred and forty-four thousand? This those who are the elect of God will in a short time know without question."1

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary states: "There are differences of opinion as to precisely who from the last generation of the saints will constitute the 144,000. Lack of more definite information such as would be needed to arrive at dogmatic conclusions on certain points has led many to give emphasis, not to who the 144,000 are, but what they are-that is, the kind of character God expects them to possess-and to the importance of preparing to belong to that guileless throng."2

What we do need to know is that a group of people will be sealed by God and called to stand and testify to the world on His behalf. They'll represent every race, every nationality, every language. And there will be more of them than you can count. That's the nature of the 144,000, but it is also the nature of all those Christians who will remain faithful in the last days and will end up in heaven.

In that sense, maybe writing "Population 144,000" on your city limit sign isn't such a joke after all.

1Ellen White, Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 174, 175.

2Francis D. Nichol, et. al., The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary,

vol. 7 , p. 783.

Dr. Glen Robinson is associate professor of communication at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, where his goal is to develop new Christian writers. His latest book, Not My Son, Lord, was published by Pacific Press in 2005.


Want to Know More About the144,000?

by Glen Robinson, Ph.D.

You can read more about the 144,000 in Scripture, the Spirit of Prophecy, and The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary.


Revelation 7-This is where the Bible talks about the 144,000.

Acts 1; Ephesians 2:20; Numbers 1:16; 10:4; 31:5; Joshua 22:14,

21; 1 Samuel 10:19; 23:23-

These are references to the numbers 12, 1,000, and other numbers in Scripture.

Spirit of Prophecy:

Ellen White, Selected Messages, book 1, pp. 174, 175-Read about the danger of arguing about the identity of the 144,000.

Ellen White, The Great Controversy, "The Final Warning," pp. 603-612-This chapter explains how the 144,000 become the 144,000, and what they'll do on earth before the

time of trouble.

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary:

The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, pp. 783-785-Here's what Adventist theologians have to say about the 144,000.

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