As in the style of those who seek the truth in the light of the only Scriptures, without adding or taking away nothing, we shall first compare all the verses of Revelation that contain explicit references to the 144'000.
And I heard the number of those who were sealed, 144'000, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. – Revelation 7:4
Then I saw, and look! the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144'000 who have his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. – Revelation 14:1
And they are singing what seems to be a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders, and no one was able to master that song except the 144'000, who have been bought from the earth. These are the ones who did not defile themselves with women; in fact, they are virgins. These are the ones who keep following the Lamb no matter where he goes. These were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb, and no deceit was found in their mouths; they are without blemish. – Revelation 14:3-5
What are the characteristics of these 144'000? The first thing we notice is the number so specific. Can we say that it is a literal number? It seems so, especially considering what John says about them: "I heard the number", as opposed to what he says immediately afterwards in reference to another group of people, "a great crowd, which no man was able to number” (Revelation 7:4, 9). That said, we can not even be dogmatic about this, because revelation is presented "in signs" (Revelation 1:1). We repeat that the number 144'000 seems literal. But whether it is or not, it does not change the understanding of the most important things.
The seal is, among other things, a sign of property, a mark of belonging. The 144'000 "were sealed" in the sense that they belonged to someone. But to whom? The following scriptures shed light on the subject:
But you also [the saints, recipients of the letter] hoped in him after you heard the word of truth, the good news about your salvation. After you believed, you were sealed by means of him with the promised holy spirit, which is a token in advance of our inheritance, for the purpose of releasing God’s own possession by a ransom, to his glorious praise. – Ephesians 1:13, 14
But the one who guarantees that you and we belong to Christ and the one who anointed us is God. He has also put his seal on us and has given us the token of what is to come, that is, the spirit, in our hearts. – 2 Corinthians 1:21, 22
In the Holy Scriptures, therefore, the only ones who are said to be "sealed" are the saints who belong to Christ and are the possession of God. This point raises a question that is closely related to the identity of the 144'000 and their position in the complete framework of Jehovah's servants: in the first century did all Christians belong to the group of 144'000? Presumably not, but it will be the subject of a future article.
Names on the forehead. Their association
Different figures, human and not, have names written on the forehead in the narrative of Revelation. But only the 144'000 have the names of Jehovah and Jesus together. We want to remember that the Apostle Paul said "we belong to Christ" and defined all saints as "God’s own possession."
To whom the 144'000 are associated? To the lamb, to Jesus Christ, and they follow him "no matter where he goes”. Remember that Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake and keep following me (Matthew 16:24) And the apostle Paul said of himself and of the other saints, speaking of a future time: "we will always be with the Lord”. – 1Thessalonians 4:17
The Mount Zion
Where are the 144'000? "On Mount Zion", with Jesus, says the apostle John. But where is this mount Zion? Is it the Mount Zion of the earthly city of Jerusalem? No. How do we know? For two reasons. Who has given the revelation of all these visions to John? The Scripture clearly says "Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1). At the time of the revelation where Jesus was? In heaven (Matthew 26:29; John 14:2,3; Acts 1:11). The second reason why Zion is not a mount on earth is clearly expressed in these terms: "you have approached a Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and myriads of angels"(Hebrews 12:22). Here Zion is identified as a mount of Jerusalem not earthly but celestial, the abode where all angels also live. For these two reasons (Christ is now in heaven, Zion is the mount of the heavenly Jerusalem) the 144'000 are seen in heaven, and there they remain.
Bought from the earth. Firstfruits
John says that the 144'000 "have been bought from the earth" or "were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb”. These statements are a key to identifying the 144'000. Unlike the "four living creatures" and the "elders", the 144'000 are of terrestrial origin. The apostle Paul says that Christians have been "bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Therefore, those who are "bought" are saved by faith in Christ's redeeming sacrifice and through the undeserved favor of God (Romans 3:23, 24; Ephesians 1:7). But a doubt subsists: all Christians are therefore part of the 144'000? It is hardly possible: If all go to heaven, who remain on earth? What factors might we consider in order to arrive at the correct conclusion? First of all let us consider a song sung by the four creatures and the elders that refers to the purchase: "You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slaughtered and with your blood you bought people for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and you made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are to rule as kings over the earth”. (Revelation 5:9, 10) Here we add a piece to our understanding: the "bought“ 144'000 are individuals of all nations who act as kings and priests in the celestial kingdom.
Can we support this conclusion with another source? We read that the 144'000 are called "firstfruits". The disciple James wrote: “[God brought] us forth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:18). In what sense, along with others, had he been brought forth? The following reference explains: “Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for according to his great mercy he gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … For you have been given a new birth, not by corruptible, but by incorruptible seed, through the word of the living and enduring God” (1 Peter 3:3, 23).
Only two pieces are missing for our understanding to be complete. The next reference to the "firstfruits" will tell us that there are two groups, so to speak, of people saved by God. Let us read carefully the whole passage of Romans:
The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children. If, then, we are children, we are also heirs—heirs indeed of God, but joint heirs with Christ—provided we suffer together so that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of the present time do not amount to anything in comparison with the glory that is going to be revealed in us. For the creation is waiting with eager expectation for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but through the one who subjected it, on the basis of hope that the creation itself will also be set free from enslavement to corruption and have the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that all creation keeps on groaning together and being in pain together until now. Not only that, but we ourselves also who have the firstfruits, namely, the spirit, yes, we ourselves groan within ourselves while we are earnestly waiting for adoption as sons, the release from our bodies by ransom … We know that God makes all his works cooperate together for the good of those who love God, those who are the ones called according to his purpose; because those whom he gave his first recognition he also foreordained to be patterned after the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Moreover, those whom he foreordained are the ones he also called; and those whom he called are the ones he also declared to be righteous. Finally those whom he declared righteous are the ones he also glorified. – Romans 8:16-23, 28-30
We note some fundamental elements. Here Paul distinguishes two groups: the "sons of God" and the "creation", that is to say, persons who will be considered at a second time as "sons of God”. We note that the sons of God are connected to the “firstfruits"; in fact, they are the ones to whom God "gave his first recognition”. Recognition in relation to what? The Messianic Kingdom! We note that God's children are also called "heirs" and are "patterned after the image of his Son”, in other words, they receive a glorious spiritual body like the King Jesus Christ. In fact, we compare these words: "Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has approved of giving you the Kingdom … However, you are the ones who have stuck with me in my trials; and I make a covenant with you, just as my Father has made a covenant with me, for a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom, and sit on thrones to judge the 12 tribes of Israel” (Luke 12:32; 22:28-30) Let us recall that the 144'000 "keep following the Lamb no matter where he goes” and are seen in his company on the celestial Mount Zion.
The last piece of the puzzle is given by a very small but very significant portion of text. We read: “144'000, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel”. We note that the 144'000 are not the sons of Israel, but they come from the sons of Israel. That is very clear. The present understanding of Jehovah's Witnesses on this subject does not take into account what we have just read: the 144'000 are only a part of what the apostle Paul calls “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). We note that Jesus says that those who will reign with him will have “thrones to judge the 12 tribes of Israel”. And even: “Then Peter said in reply: “Look! We have left all things and followed you; what, then, will there be for us?” Jesus said to them: “Truly I say to you, in the re-creation [Literally "regeneration, rebirth"; let us recall that the regenerated ones, born again, are called "firstfruits," and that they are the 144'000], when the Son of man sits down on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”” (Matthew 19:27, 28). All Israel can judge all Israel? No, God's provision is that a small number of components taken from "Israel" judge all "Israel". We have seen it before: Paul distinguishes the "sons of God" from the "creation", namely those who are not yet, but who will be under the messianic kingdom "the children of God." The 144'000, constituted sons of God, are "bought from among mankind”, or creation.
At the end of the discussion, we can say this: the 144'000 are a group of chosen men, called by God to reign with Jesus Christ in heaven. They do not represent the Israel of God, but only a part.
Questions remain: In the first century, were all Christians among the 144'000? What is the relationship between the "little flock", the "other sheep" and the "great crowd"? (Luke 12:32; John 10:16; Revelation 7:9) Today, are there any members of the 144'000?
The biblical answers to these questions will be presented in a future article.
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