Today I will lay out some principles of good biblical exegesis that we will need if we are to comprehend and interpret the mystery of the 144,000. These principles will provide guidelines for us to follow and a filter with which we can purify and shape our understanding. There are five principles I’m going to share, which are actually questions to ask when approaching this or any Biblical passage. These principles, or questions, will help enormously to lay a reliable framework in which to make our conclusions. Without them, as we shall see, it would be easy to derail from a sound interpretation. So let’s get started.
The first principle (or question) is this: What does the scripture actually say in the plain sense meaning of the text? The second principle (or question) follows this by asking the opposite, that is: What doesn’t the passage say? Then third, we ask: Are there any other scriptures which shed further light and understanding on the text? Our fourth principle asks: What is the context into which the Bible verses are placed? And last. but not least, our fifth principle asks: Should we apply a literal or metaphorical meaning to the text?
Okay, let’s now apply these principles to the passages we find in Revelation 7:1-8 and Revelation 14:1-5 which describe a group of people known as the 144,000. After reading the verses in Revelation 7, let’s apply our first principle and ask, what does this passage actually say in its plain sense meaning? Well, at first glance, this would seem easily answered, because John hears quite clearly, these 144,000 are numbered as 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, if we went no further in our analysis, we could come to no other opinion than these are all Israelites. To take any other view would require a solid biblical reason in which to deviate. Now, whether such justification exists or not, I shall come to later in this series. But, for now, let’s anchor this point in place: that without further scrutiny, these 144,000 are as simply stated, they are all Israelites.
Okay, now for our second principle or question: What doesn’t this passage say? Well for a start, it doesn’t say that they are the church, the angel speaking with John goes into great detail, verse after verse to list all the tribes in turn with 12,000 from each, as though to underline and emphasise their identity in no uncertain terms. To simply disregard this account and replace Israel for the church would be a gross deviation away from the plain sense meaning of the text, and whether in this passage, or indeed any biblical passage we must tread very carefully when tempted to deviate away from the simplest interpretation. I’m not saying we can’t explore alternate meaning, indeed we should always explore beyond that which is presented to us at face value, but we must have very good reasons to do so.
Now, what else doesn’t this passage say about these 144,000? Nowhere in Revelation 7:1-8 or its sister passage in Revelation 14:1-5 is there any mention of these people being evangelists! This is a key point, and is the popular pre-tribulation view, which in my opinion arises from really bad exegesis and is a great example of eisegesis. To clarify what I mean, let me explain the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is the process of taking the original intended meaning out of scripture, whereas eisegesis is the process of reading into the scripture something that isn’t there, normally because of our own preconceptions and beliefs. We can all do this, especially when we prioritise existing beliefs over scriptural texts. In other words, eisegesis can happen when we read a text with a presumption or preferred viewpoint and seek to apply that opinion or belief into the text. For example, the reason many see the 144,000 as evangelists is because of the second group of people listed in Revelation 7:9-17, the great multitude, which no one could number, from every tribe and nation, people and tongue who come out of the great tribulation. Now since the pre-tribulation view presupposes the saved are raptured before the great tribulation, this great multitude must be saved after the rapture, which would necessitate an army of evangelists still present upon the earth during this time. The theory proposes the only candidates for this army are the 144,000, although, I must add, how this would immediately raise other problems. Since any messianic Jew would be raptured, who would lead the unsaved tribes of Israel to the Lord? In my humble opinion, the pre-tribulation view of the 144,000, is a clear example of eisegesis. To explain the great multitude from every nation, it identifies the 144,000 as evangelists, even though there is no suggestion, zero indication within the text that this is the case.
In fact, nowhere in Revelation 7 is there any other description of this crowd except their number and their descendancy. For further description we must look at Revelation 14:1-5 which does give more detail on their actions and identity, which brings us to our third principle: Are their any other passages which shed further light? The answer is of course yes, Revelation 14:1-5 does shed further light, and describes this number as being redeemed, as those who follow the Lamb, the Lamb of course, a picture of Jesus Christ as the Saviour. This answers our fourth principle about context. The context here, in Revelation 14 is about redemption, about salvation and purity. The bible describes them as first fruits. Surely if they were in any way commissioned as evangelists here is an opportunity to say so. The truth is, it’s not about the salvation of others, but their own, about their redemption, and about them following the Lamb wherever He goes. Unlike Jesus first coming, when He sent out the apostles to evangelise, here Jesus is not sending, but He’s gathering and He’s leading. He’s on the move and the 144,000 are following, they aren’t being sent out, but they have followed the Lamb to Mount Zion. Now where have we heard that before?
If you followed my teaching on the Second Exodus, (and if not, then I encourage you to do) you may remember how the tribes of Israel will be gathered into the wilderness of the peoples Ezekiel 20:33-38, where they will be brought into the bond of the covenant, into the wedding covenant. There they will be purged and as Isaiah 51:11 reads, “therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with signing unto Zion and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.” This is another great example of our third principle let scripture interpret scripture. So at this stage in our quest to identify the 144,000 it would seem unquestionable they are indeed Israelites. We have applied the first four principles, of what the passage says and what it doesn’t say, what is the context and a brief look at other scripture to shed further light.
Their identity as from the twelve tribes of Israel has stood up to our examination, which leads us to our fifth and final principle which asks the question: Does this passage have a literal of symbolic meaning? If we take the literal approach, and there is good reason to do so, then our study is complete, we can close our notebooks and move on, having satisfied ourselves that these 144,000 are Israelites, they are not evangelists, but are those who have been redeemed in the wilderness and have now followed Jesus back to Mount Zion. But is it really that simple? Because the literal approach does present some challenges, which you may not be aware of. For example, if we adopt the literal approach, then does that mean the Lamb is a literal lamb? Clearly not! But if we accept the Lamb as a metaphor for Jesus, then we have from the outset already treated this passage as partly symbolic. And once we open the door to symbolism, we suddenly increase the complexity of our challenge to understand the passage. Where do we draw the line between that which is metaphor from that which is literal? If the Lamb is a metaphor, what else is a metaphor? For example, the Revelation 14 passage describes them as all male virgins, but in Jeremiah 31:12,13 we read that women are included among their number, suggesting this is another metaphor, and so you can see how we have quickly moved from being in a position to make our decision, and suddenly entered into a whole new dilemma. But what if there were some other clue to help us unravel this mystery? What if there were another perspective with which we could view this 144,000, a lens to see something we haven’t seen before? I believe there is, and the answer has been right in front of us all this time.