The meaning of the hundred and 144,000 in the book of Revelation has been debated since the church began. References to that number are found in three places in Scripture.
- Revelation 7:4, "And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel."
- Revelation 14:1, "Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads."
- Revelation 14:3, " And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth."
But what does that number mean? Who are the 144,000? Some believe it is a representation of the church, that it is a symbolic number which represents all of the Christians. This has problems because the number is derived from the 12 tribes of Israel, not the Gentiles (Rev. 7:4-8). Another interpretation is that it will be a literal number of Jews who are going to be specifically commissioned by God in the last days to teach the truth to the world. Whichever the case, we must understand that numbers have spiritual significance in Scripture.
The best thing we can do is look at the context of each verse and seek to derive meaning to that number.
Revelation 7:1-8, "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2 And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.
It would appear from the context that the 144,000 are literally people taken from the 12 tribes of Israel. Revelation 7 goes on to talk about a great multitude of people taken from every nation and tribe who are praising God and who are saved. so, we can say that the 144,000 are contextually related to the redeemed.
Revelation 14:1-8, "Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. 2 And I heard a voice from heaven, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder, and the voice which I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. 3 And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. 4 These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. 5 And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless. Vision of the Angel with the Gospel 6 And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7 and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.” 8 And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.”
We can see from the context that the 144,000 are with Jesus (v. 1). They are the saved. There is a voice from heaven (v. 2) who sing a song before the throne which only the hundred 44,000 know (v. 3). These are the ones who are virgins in that they have not had relations with women and who have been purchased as firstfruits to God (v. 4). They have not lied (v. 5). Then there's a vision of an angel that has the gospel (vv. 6 - 8).
So, we see that the hundred 44,000 have the mark of God on their foreheads (Revelation 7:3-4) which means they are saved. They are on earth during a time of judgment and calamity upon the world (Revelation 7:1-8). The issue of their virginity might relate back to Old Testament references that speak of those involved in holy war how they would abstain from sexual relations (Deuteronomy 20:1-9; 23:9-14; first Samuel 21:4-5; second Samuel 11:6-13).1 So, we could conclude that the 144,000 are believers taken from the 12 tribes of Israel who, in the last days, appear to be commissioned by God to preach and teach the gospel message, the song which they know (Revelation 14:3).
- 1. ref. Carson, D. A., R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, eds. New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.