Did you know that you’re in the Bible? Sometimes we might wish that there were Bible stories about us, but in fact there are stories that talk about God’s people from all nations. Revelation 7:9-17 is one of these passages.
The scene before it, however, talks about the 144,000, twelve thousand from each tribe (Rev 7:1-8). Who are they?
If we take the number literally, we should also take the other details literally: Jewish male virgins (using Rev 14:1-5 also). For this reason, the interpretation offered by Jehovah’s Witnesses is inconsistent and cannot be correct.
Some scholars take the details as literally as possible. They argue that John envisions a literal 144,000 Jewish men from twelve tribes in the end-time. After all, many Jewish people expected the restoration of the lost tribes, and there is biblical reason to expect a special movement among the Jewish people near the end (Rom 11:25-27). This is a respectable scholarly interpretation, although most of the twelve tribes are no longer known.
Other scholars, by contrast, believe that Revelation intends the details here as figurative, communicating a different inspired point. They offer several reasons:
1. This is the number of God’s “servants” (Rev 7:3). Elsewhere in Revelation this title often includes all Jesus’s followers (1:1; 2:20; 22:3, 6).
2. They are those who follow Jesus and have been redeemed (14:3).
3. Revelation often uses symbols. After all, no one takes literally the woman clothed with the sun (12:1). Further, Revelation sometimes explains details as symbolic (1:20). A symbolic reading is actually more consistent with Revelation as a whole.
4. The numbers connect with a later passage in Revelation. The New Jerusalem is said to be 12,000 stadia (about 1400 miles, or 2200 kilometers!) wide, long, and high, with a wall of 144 cubits (about 200 feet or 65 meters). Through this narrative connection, Revelation portrays them as the people of God for the city of God—they are new Jerusalemites.
5. That’s why 14:1 portrays them “standing on Mount Zion” with Jesus. Zion was the temple or, more generally, Jerusalem.
6. Why might they be described in terms of the twelve tribes? This listing of the tribes is unusual, and even leaves out the tribe of Dan. But elsewhere in Revelation all believers are described as spiritually Jewish (cf. Rev 2:9; 3:9)—what Paul would call grafted into the heritage of God’s people. The churches appear as lampstands (1:20)—the standard symbol in the ancient Mediterranean world for Jewish communities.
7. The next vision speaks of a numberless multitude from all nations. We could read this as a contrast instead of as a parallel, but we should note the description of this multitude …
8. They serve him day and night in his temple (7:15)—just like priests in ancient Israel (Ps 134:1). That they will never hunger, thirst, or suffer heat (Rev 7:16), and that the Lord will lead them to springs of water, echoes promises to Israel in the time of restoration (Isa 49:10). That God will wipe away all tears from their eyes (Rev 7:17) likewise echoes a promise probably especially to God’s people (Isa 25:8). In other words, they are portrayed as God’s people just as the 144,000 are. The passages thus appear to be parallel, with the second further explaining the first.
For these reasons, I believe that the case for reading them as representative of all God’s people is stronger than the case for reading them as a literal 144,000. Thus, the 144,000 may stand for all those who will someday be in the New Jerusalem—all New Jerusalemites, all of God’s people.
Another possible view is compatible with this one, although I am less certain about it. Many scholars see the people in the second passage as martyrs. Some see the 144,000 in the first passage as God’s end-time army, because they are portrayed as consecrated men numbered like a military census in the Old Testament. These views are debated, but if they are correct, then God’s church is portrayed as an “army” of nonviolent martyrs.
If this is correct, a parallel would then emerge. In Revelation 5:5-6, John heard about the lion from the tribe of Judah—the conquering, warlike Messiah. When he turned, however, what he saw was instead a slaughtered lamb. That is, Jesus conquered not in the expected way, but through laying down his life. Here in chapter 7 Revelation might portray the end-time army that some expected as instead a movement of martyrs—of people who laid down their lives to announce Jesus and his purposes in the world. What price are we willing to pay to follow Jesus’s truth and depend on him?
The “army of martyrs” interpretation may be correct. I am less certain about it than about these being God’s people, because some of the supporting evidence is less than certain. I do believe that the evidence is strong, however, that this multitude represents God’s people.
Who are the 144,000? You are, if you trust Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Together we have a mission to honor Jesus, no matter what the cost.
Craig Keener is author of The NIV Application Commentary on Revelation (Zondervan, 2000).