Will there only be 144,000 people in heaven as Revelation says?

Q. Please help me understand how to interpret the book of Revelation. I’ve heard you say that we must understand Revelation in a figurative way, and then I hear another preacher say that we must understand everything in God’s word literally. In fact, some say that only those who understand God’s word literally actually believe God’s word. If this is true, will there only be 144,000 people in heaven as Revelation says? Any help you can offer will be greatly appreciated.

Revelation 7:4 gives us the number of 144,000 and then the context has something interesting to consider.

Rev 7:4-8
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:
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.

The 12 tribes of Israel are mentioned, 12,000 members from each tribe. Careful Bible students will notice that while the twelve tribes are mentioned, the tribes of Dan and Epharim are omitted and replaced with Levi and Joseph. This has significance.

In the first place, if we accept the literal figure of 144,000 then to be consistent we should also accept the literal tribes of Israel mentioned. Since all tribal distinctions have been obliterated after the Dispersion in A.D. 70, it is no longer possible to distinguish separate tribes in the original sense. Nor were the descendants of Joseph and Levi numbered among the inheritance of Israel’s twelve tribes, although they are found here as substitutes for Dan and Ephraim. Keep these things in mind.

We also have the 144,000 described in Revelation 14

Rev. 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.
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.

The literal interpretation of this Scripture would demand the elimination of all married men and the exclusion of all women. The men must be “celibates.” A further stipulation requires the Father’s name in their foreheads and the ability to sing the new song which only the redeemed could master.

So we have 144,000 people of Jewish ancestry selected equally from twelve specified tribes that no longer exist due to assimilation, and all of them celibates. This is literally what it says, and for those who claim to believe the Bible literally, this is what they must accept as conditions required.

It seems to me there must be a much more Scriptural interpretation of this portion of God’s Word. First let us ask why Dan and Ephraim were eliminated and why Levi and Joseph were substituted to occupy their places, despite the fact that the “tribe” of Joseph never did exist as such. This greatly complicates the problem of being literal.

The real solution lies in observing the meaning of the names of Jacob’s sons. You will recall that when Jacob blessed his sons while on his deathbed, he also blessed both the sons of Joseph. By doing so, he maintained the twelve tribes of Israel and still left the tribe of Levi free for the office of the priesthood. The meaning of those names furnish us a clue as to why these specific tribes constituted the 144,000.

Reuben, the firstborn, means excellence of dignity and power. Judah means praise. Gad means overcomer. Joseph means a fruitful bough by a well. Manasses means forgetting, with emphasis on forgetting the harsh past which Joseph experienced in Egypt. Levi is chosen more because of his office of the priesthood, signifying the priesthood of believers. You will notice that all these names have meanings characterizing Christian graces, such as praise, victory, fruitfulness,
and so forth.

The name Dan, on the contrary, means “A serpent by the way, an adder in the path…” There is nothing redemptive or consistent with this characteristic in God’s church. Consequently the tribe of Joseph, the fruitful bough, is substituted for Dan.

The omission of Ephraim is not so clear because his name means “double fruitful.” Levi, who had no land inheritance takes the place of Ephraim.

When we examine the further limitations of membership among the 144,000, it seems preposterous to exclude all women and all married men. But this absurdity immediately dissolves when we relate the interpretation to its proper Scriptural place.

We must remember that the church is the Bride of Christ. It is espoused to Christ. To be espoused means to be given under a solemn vow to marriage. Mary was espoused to Joseph and when Mary was discovered to be with child, Joseph was lenient in planning to offer her a bill of divorcement for the law permitted stoning. Mary made a sacred commitment to be the bride of Joseph, and only the divine intervention of the angel convinced Joseph that he should honor his espousal.

Christ regards His Bride, the church, in the same light; and any flirtation, compromise or assimilation with the world is compared with adultery. That is why the 144,000 are said to be celibates. They are undefiled. They have not defiled themselves
by committing adultery with the world (James 4:4). They are all redeemed ones. They all sing the new song of deliverance and victory. They follow Christ wherever He goes. What a glorious portrayal of the church this affords!

Twelve is the Biblical number that signifies completeness. Twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles were chosen to introduce both the Old and New Testaments. The 144,000 is the square of twelve multiplied a thousandfold. Therefore 144,000 represents all the redeemed from both the Old and New Testament times. They represent the true church, undefiled by the world, separate from evil and joined in holy wedlock to Christ.

In the church are manifest all the Christian graces, and through it Christ spreads His blessings. If you are redeemed and can sing the new song of deliverance from sin, then you can have assurance of being included in this perfect number of completeness that signifies all the redeemed.

In Revelation 7 we are told that each one of the 144,000 is sealed. This may be a reference to the seal of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 1:13, “you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise…”

Ephesians 4:30

30* Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

2 Corinthians 1:22

22* who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.

Those who are saved receive the seal of the Holy Spirit, which corresponds with the seal of the 144,000.

Notice that the location of the 144,000 is on Mount Zion in the presence of the Lamb. This is significant. Mount Zion is the church, the dwelling place of God in the New Testament.

Ps 87
1* His foundation is in the holy mountains.
2* The LORD loves the gates of Zion More than all the other dwelling places of Jacob.
3* Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God. Selah.
4* ¶ “I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me; Behold, Philistia and Tyre with Ethiopia: ‘This one was born there.’”
5* But of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; And the Most High Himself will establish her.
6* The LORD will count when He registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” Selah.
7* Then those who sing as well as those who play the flutes shall say, “All my springs of joy are in you.”

God is the census taker and He wants to know where you were born. If you were born (born again) in Zion, it makes you a citizen of the Kingdom of God , a member of the church which is the Body of Christ. You accept all the responsibility of a follower of Christ, and you receive all the privileges and protection afforded through citizenship in Zion, both in this world and in the world to come. Your birth certificate will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and this is your passport to heaven. No wonder the recipients sing a new song which only the redeemed could learn. This seal, citizenship and song separates this group from all other people on earth. This seal is the evidence of membership in this select number. It is the exclusive mark of the redeemed.

There is something else interesting in Revelation 14:4:

Rev. 14:4

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.

In the Old Testament the firstfruits were regarded as belonging to the Lord. In some cases it was the earliest portion of the harvest, but it could also be first in the sense that it is the principal or best quality fruit. This was an acknowledgement that all life and produce was a gift from God over which the worshipper was a steward.

In James 1:18 we have this:

James 1:18
18* In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.

Romans 8:23

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

The church of christ constitute those bearing their firstfruits to God in accordance with Revelation 14. Look carefully at the sentence which says, “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” Does this not remind you of Jesus’s words recorded in John 110:27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” To truly follow Christ implies much more than being a nominal church member. It means total surrender and complete obedience to His will. This is another hallmark of the redeemed.

Something else is interesting in verse one:

Rev. 14:1
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.

Evidently these people are branded. A brand signifies ownership. They belong to God because they have been redeemed by His Son. We are told in Genesis that God created Adam in His own image. In Romans 1:23 we are told
that fallen man :

Rom. 1:23

“exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

It is not possible for fallen man to reflect the likeness of God. But in Romans 8:29 we read:

Rom. 8:29

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;”

Here firstborn refers to the highest, or first in rank, rather than first in genealogy. But it also implies that the image of God which was lost through Adam’s fall into sin is restored through redemption. It is evident in the believers. This image, or likeness, characterizes every child of God regardless of race, color, creed, language or social status.

They all bear the image of family-likeness of Him who has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” (1 Peter 1:3). The Father’s name is written in our foreheads when, as Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:16). Only redemption can perform this kind of transformation.

You see, the number 144,000 is not to be understood as a literal number, but a number symbolizing the complete totality and fundamental unity of all the redeemed for all time.

The Bride, which is the church of Christ, is “celibate” in that it is espoused to Christ and is not defiled by any illicit love affair with the world. They all sing the song of the redeemed, which none can learn until delivered from the bondage of sin. They follow the Lamb wherever He goes, a characteristic which only the redeemed can fulfill. The number if not limited to mathematical exactness, but it symbolizes completeness, which the tribal compositions indicate by their meanings that they produce the fruit of the Spirit. Only such a group could be called the “firstfruits.” Only the redeemed could be said to be without guile and without fault before God, as the passage asserts. Truth in symbol is just as valid as truth in any other attire. Truth is found in its meaning and its intent. The words are meant to communicate the idea. The majestic beauty of the church revealed through these symbols is beyond controversy, for they glorify our Redeemer as Saviour and Lord throughout endless ages.

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