In Revelation 14, we meet 144,000 people, who “had the name of Jesus and the Father on their foreheads.” And this is an interesting picture here. Who are these 144,000 people?
Well, one thing that's helpful to remember in Revelation, is that numbers mean things, sometimes in a different way than they do in historical narratives because Revelation is an “apocalyptic work” that shows this thing by pictures. It seems to represent all of God's people, from the Old Testament and the New Testament.
The 12 Tribes of Israel… times the 12 apostles and those that they represent… times a very great number: 1,000. And so 12 x 12 x 1,000 is 144,000. And these are marked with the Seal of God on their foreheads. This shows us that they bow to the Lamb and to His Father, and we can contrast this with the Mark of the Beast that appears on those who do not belong to the Lamb.
And so instead of being sealed, they merely have the Mark of the Beast, which indicates being owned not by the Lamb, but by the Beast. And that they follow his ways. And so there's a contrast between the 144,000 in Revelation 14 and those who are sealed with the Name of the Lamb and His Father and those that do not have that” seal” on them.
The Lamb and the 144,000
Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father's name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless.
The Messages of the Three Angels
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water." Another angel, a second, followed, saying, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality." And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Blessed indeed," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!"
The Harvest of the Earth
Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, "Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe." So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over the fire, and he called with a loud voice to the one who had the sharp sickle, "Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse's bridle, for 1,600 stadia.
Evidence of the 144,000 Being in Heaven
vidence in favor of the heavenly Zion is as follows:1
- If the 144,000 are the ones singing the new song (Rev. 14:3+), they are said to be “before the four living creatures, and the elders” (Rev. 14:3+). In every other mention of the living creatures and elders within the book of Revelation, they are in heaven (Rev. 5:6+, Rev. 5:8+, Rev. 5:11+, Rev. 5:14+; Rev. 7:11+; Rev. 19:4+).
- It appears that the scene takes place “before the throne of God” (Rev. 14:3+, Rev. 14:5+). The natural conclusion is that this is the throne of the Father in heaven (Rev. 4:2-3+; Rev. 5:1+, Rev. 5:7+; Rev. 19:4+).
- The Lamb is standing , as it was previously seen in heaven in the midst of the throne (Rev. 5:6+; Rev. 7:17+), but in the Millennium the Lamb would more likely be seated on His throne, the throne of David (Rev. 3:21+).
- The 144,000 are said to be redeemed from the earth (Rev. 4:3+). They were redeemed from among men (Rev. 4:4+). The implication is that they are no longer on the earth among men.
The problem with taking this as a heavenly scene (the heavenly Mount Zion) is how to explain the failure of the sealing of the 144,000 for protection (Rev. 7:1-3+) which has now apparently resulted in their death? Perhaps this is not as large of a problem as it first appears.
A close study of Revelation Rev. 12:1+ suggests that the faithful remnant which shall be protected throughout the Tribulation and find entry into the Millennial Kingdom are those who flee to the wilderness—the woman who has a place prepared for her by God (Rev. 12:6+). We saw that the 144,000 of Israel, who appear to have an evangelistic role, could not be a part of those kept in the wilderness. Because of their evangelistic mission, they will not be in Judea when the signal comes to flee to the mountains and subsequently the wilderness. Furthermore, if they did participate in the flight and subsequent hiding, how could they perform their evangelistic task among the Gentiles and Jews of the Diaspora?
Nowhere is it said that the seal which these receive is to protect them against death throughout the Tribulation and from all causes. Scripture only tells us they are to be protected from the direct effects of God’s judgments poured upon the earth. This is why the four winds of the earth are held back until they are sealed (Rev. 7:1-3+). Judgments upon the earth, the sea, and the trees may not proceed until they are protected. Moreover, they are said to be protected from the demonic locust judgment (Rev. 9:4+). All of these dangers come directly from God and represent His wrath upon the earth dwellers. They are to be protected from this “friendly fire” during their evangelistic mission. Does this necessarily mean that they are completely invincible for the entire duration of the Tribulation? If the example of the two powerful witnesses of God is any example, then perhaps not.
The sealing they received protects them only from the wrath of God, not from the wrath of the dragon and the beast (Rev. 12:12+). These are the same 144,000 as in Revelation Rev. 7:1+, but they are also the same as the rest of the woman’s seed in Rev. 12:17+, the witnesses to whom the dragon has access because of their refusal to worship the beast (Rev. 13:15+). . . . They are the vanguard who bear the brunt of the struggle against the beast and pay the price of their own lives.
(*excerpt from A Testimony of Jesus, a commentary on the Book of Revelation by Dr. Tony Garland)
Evidence of The 144,000 are both in Heaven and on Earth
The scene before us can also be interpreted in a different way which splits the participants between both a heavenly and an earthly location. Such an interpretation understands the 144,000 to be upon the earth having survived the Tribulation due to God’s special protection (Rev. 7:1-3+). John is given a preview of the Lamb and the 144,000 on the earthly Mount Zion at the introduction of the Millennial Kingdom to come. They are accompanied by thunderous praise from heaven. This interpretation understands the singers to be the harpists in heaven, rather than the 144,000 on the earth. They who sing a new song before the throne, the four living creatures, and the elders (Rev. 14:3+), refers to the nearest antecedent, the harpists, not the 144,000 who stand with the Lamb. (However, there is a significant textual variation at this verse which see.) “The text does not say that the 144,000 are in the same place as the singers, only that they hear the singers.” It is the heavenly chorus playing harps which sing the song in heaven commemorating God’s special preservation of the 144,000 throughout the entire Tribulation and the accomplishment of their unique evangelistic task (see commentary on Revelation 7:3). The heavenly harpists sing the new song and the 144,000 are the only ones who can learn the song from among those on earth.
Some want to identify the singers as the redeemed ones themselves. The reasons for assigning this identity are the inability of anyone else to learn the song (Rev. 14:3+) (Kiddle) and the analogy of Rev. 15:2+ where the overcomers have harps (Beasley-Murray). This cannot be, however, because the song is sung in heaven and the 144,000 redeemed ones are on the earthly Mount Zion (Alford, Beckwith). The song is intelligible to the 144,000, but they are not the singers (Moffatt).
The association of the song with the harpists has the advantage of coupling the pronoun (they) more closely to the antecedent (harpists). It also associates the singing with those who initiate the music and play the harps. It also explains who the 144,000 would learn the song from. “Who then are the harpers? They are the martyred company seen in connection with the fifth seal and they also include now their brethren which were slain during the great tribulation.” If John sees a preview of the 144,000 standing on Mount Zion at the end of the Tribulation, then their appearance follows upon the events of the Tribulation. Interestingly, a group of singing harpists in heaven is mentioned in the very next chapter, although they sing a different song (the song of Moses and of the Lamb). They are those who “have victory over the Beast, over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name” (Rev. 15:2+). The harpists here, although singing a different song, are probably also from among the redeemed. The weaknesses of this view include:
- The new song originates in the mouths of the harpists, who lack the firsthand experience of the redemption and preservation of the 144,000. In other passages, those who initiate songs are the ones who experienced redemption ( Rev. 5:9-10+; Rev. 15:2+).
- The statement mentioning the faultlessness of the 144,000 before the throne of God (Rev. 14:5+) must be understood to describe their salvific position rather than their physical location in heaven. (However, this phrase does not even appear in the NU or MT texts, but only the TR text. See commentary on Revelation 14:5.)
- The need to make a distinction between singing the song and learning the song. If the 144,000 are said to be the only ones who can learn the song, how do we account for the harpists who initially learn in order to sing? A possible solution is that the 144,000 are the only ones from among those on the earth who can learn it because the song, originated by the harpists in heaven, commemorates their personal experience. It is uniquely their special privilege to sing it. See commentary on Revelation 14:3.
- The emphasis placed on the uniqueness of the song and its association with redemption ( Rev. 14:3+) argues against its origin with any but the 144,000 themselves.
- The majority of manuscripts (NU and MT texts) indicate that the voice or sound was like harpists playing on their harps. If this describes a voice (rather than the sound of a multitude), then they which sing in Rev. 14:3+ cannot refer to the voice. See commentary on Revelation 14:2.
A variation of this view understands the harpists playing their harps from heaven and the 144,000 singing the new song in response from the earth. This view takes they (singers) of verse 3, these (virgins) of verse 4, and their (faultless ones) of verse 5 as all referring to the 144,000 of verse 1. The main weakness of this view is accounting for how the new song they sing can be said to be “before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders” (Rev. 14:3+) when the singers are themselves on earth. Mills suggests another variation: that the 144,000 are seen first on earth (Rev. Rev. 14:1+), but then raptured to heaven to sing before the throne thereafter (Rev. 14:3+).5 While such an event is possible, there is little within the context of the passage itself to support such a notion. The main advantage all of these variations have over a completely heavenly scene is that they interpret God’s seal of the 144,000 to have provided for their full safety for the duration of the Tribulation so that they are not only spiritual firstfruits, but also among the first Jews which enter the Millennial Kingdom to form its initial population. If John is shown a prophetic scene with the 144,000 and the Lamb on the earthly Mount Zion in the Millennial Kingdom and the rest of the scene is the heavenly reaction above, then the sealed of Israel would have avoided death to enter the kingdom and now stand as evidence of God’s promise to protect a faithful remnant:
The first verse presents what appears to be a millennial scene, . . . with the 144,000 Jews standing on Mount Zion with the protective seal on their foreheads prominently displayed. This shows that Satan’s attempt at total Jewish destruction will fail.6
They are the “firstfruits” of the millennial reign. They connect the dispensations—somewhat as Noah did, who passed through the judgment of the flood into a new order of things.7
In chapter fourteen the same group [the 144,000 from Revelation Rev. 7:1+] is pictured at the termination of the tribulation, when the kingdom is established. The returning King is on Mount Zion, as was predicted of Him (Zec. Zec. 14:4. At His return the faithful witnesses gather to Him, having been redeemed (Rev. Rev. 14:4+) and having faithfully witnessed in the midst of apostasy (Rev. Rev. 14:4-5+).8
(*excerpt from A Testimony of Jesus, a commentary on the Book of Revelation by Dr. Tony Garland)
Learn more about whether the 144,000 number is symbolic or literal in the Bible and explore the Book of Revelation's summary, purpose, and interpretation.