he 144,000. It’s a favorite topic of “parlor conversation”—particularly on Sabbath afternoons—among Adventists, but it’s by no means an amusement.
It focuses on a mystic number that captures the imagination, but it’s not a number we take lightly.
It emerges from a close study of Scripture, but the conversation inevitably includes the thought and commentary of Adventism’s prophetic messenger, Ellen White.
Glancing through Ellen White’s writings on this subject may discourage any attempt to understand what the number 144,000 really means to believers. In 1901 she wrote: “It is not His [God’s] will that they shall get into controversy over questions which will not help them spiritually, such as, Who is to compose the hundred and forty-four thousand? This those who are the elect of God will in a short time know without question.”1 The word “controversy” gives us a hint of what she was arguing against.
To understand the meaning and significance of the 144,000, it is best to carefully consider the web of words in which it is used. We usually call this the context. After all, meaning is inseparable from relations or relationships.
The number 144,000 occurs only twice in Scripture—both times in the book of Revelation, and in significant contexts. We find it first between the sixth and the seventh seals, prior to the Second Coming envisaged as the day of wrath, which is the demise of those who have opposed God (Rev. 7:4). The second occurrence in Revelation 14 is prior to the message of the three angels and the second coming of Christ. Consequently, it does make sense to suppose that the number designates an end-time entity—God’s people during the last phase of world history.
The issue is this: Are the 144,000 a special subgroup of God’s people, or is this number a symbolic representation of the totality of God’s people? Lurking beneath these questions are the concepts of the accessibility of sealing and salvation after the number 144,000 is reached, and the deeper issue of the arbitrariness of God’s decrees or even the moral nature of His character.
Interpreters who consider the number to be a literal one—especially in the Evangelical world—usually assert that it refers to Jews who accept the gospel and will contribute to the sharing of the gospel with other Jews. They suggest that the agricultural rhythm of the firstfruits—well known in ancient Israel—supports this view.
However, there are several indications that it is a symbolic number not meant to be interpreted literally. The nature of the number itself hints at its symbolism: 144,000 is 12 x 12 x 1,000. But to grasp its meaning, we must explore the network of words, themes, and motifs associated with it in context.
1. The 144,000 are associated with the idea of standing.
The first occurrence of the number 144,000 is a response to one of four questions found in the series of seals. Terrified people are crying to the mountains and rocks: “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:16, 17).*
But there are more questions to answer. First, who is worthy? (Rev. 5:2); until when? (Rev. 6:10); and finally, who are these, and where do they come from? (Rev. 7:13).
The 144,000 are able to stand because they worship the Lamb. Notwithstanding the angels who stand in the book of Revelation, humans are able to stand because the Lamb is standing. Revelation 5 tells us that the Lamb was slain but is standing. This refers to Christ’s death and resurrection in apocalyptic language. The concept of victory is central to the entire message of chapter 5. Without the Lamb’s victory, there is no other victory.
It is no accident that Revelation 14, in referring to the 144,000, describes them as standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion and that they follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Rev. 14:1-5). Within the context of the first seven chapters, those who are standing are those who came forth victorious over the diverse situations described in the letters sent to the seven churches. The Spirit invited believers to be converted, and to persevere in faith and allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus in order to remain able to stand, one must hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
2. The 144,000 are spared and sealed.
In the Old Testament the faithful spared from judgment, specifically from the coming of the day of Yahweh, are described in several ways. A relevant background scene is recorded in Ezekiel 9 where those sealed and spared are referred to as the ones who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are being committed in the midst of Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 14:12-23 the righteous remnant of Israel are saved from judgment. Their attitude, which is far from self-righteous, is significant. What we know of this righteous remnant is that they have an attitude of deep contrition because of the apostasy among God’s people.
Being sealed or marked could refer to several ideas such as ownership, but the most natural fit in the context of Revelation 7 is protection from the wrath of God and the Lamb. Expand-
ing on the 144,000’s commitment to God, Ellen White wrote: “Those who have in their foreheads the seal of the infinite God will regard the world and its attractions as subordinate to eternal interests.”2
3. The 144,000 are called servants.
In Revelation 7 the 144,000 are referred to as servants. The word “servant” in the book of Revelation has a worship connotation. Their service to God is not in relation to socio-economic realities, but rather highlights a religious or cultic reality.
The worship connotation of this term brings us back to God’s main objective as revealed in this book: to make men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation priests who may enter the eschatological temple and eternally adore God, the Creator and Redeemer. It is understood that these servants live exclusively for God and for His reign.
More detailed information about the functions of the end-time group can be found in Revelation 14. The name of the Lamb and of the Father is written on their foreheads. The idea of belonging is signified by the writing of names. These people have been redeemed and have the qualifications to learn a song of redemption. We may legitimately infer from the context of Revelation 12–15 that the 144,000 are victorious over the beast, his image, and his mark.3
Their loyalty and dedication to God are signified by several images. These believers are virgins—undefiled. These symbolic images are a way of expressing that God’s end-time people are wholeheartedly dedicated to God as a bride to her bridegroom. In other words, they are faithful spouses, following the Lamb wherever He goes.
An agricultural image is also used to signify their value to God as firstfruits. Moreover, a consideration of the contextual network of those on God’s side shows their adherence to the values designated as God’s commandments and to the testimony and faith of Jesus.
So What Does It All Mean?
The number 144,000 is a symbolic number that refers to the totality of God’s people living through the great tribulations and deceptions of the end-time. They come out victorious over the end-time challenges orchestrated by the antitrinity described in Revelation 12 and 13—the dragon that mimics God the Father, the antichrist, and the counterfeit Holy Spirit.
Ellen White, far from discouraging any attempt to understand the characteristics and functions of the 144,000, gave the following admonition: “Those whom the Lamb shall lead by the fountains of living waters, and from whose eyes He shall wipe away all tears, will be those now receiving the knowledge and understanding revealed in the Bible, the Word of God.”4
Furthermore, she states: “We are to copy no human being. There is no human being wise enough to be our criterion. We are to look to the man Christ Jesus, who is complete in the perfection of righteousness and holiness. He is the author and finisher of our faith. He is the pattern man. His experience is the measure of the experience that we are to gain. His character is our model. Let us, then, take our minds off the perplexities and the difficulties of this life, and fix them on Him, that by beholding we may be changed into His likeness. We may behold Christ to good purpose. We may safely look to Him; for He is all-wise. As we look to Him and think of Him, He will be formed within, the hope of glory.”5
But the last exhortation in context is all the more meaningful: “Let us strive with all the power that God has given us to be among the hundred and forty-four thousand.”6
In essence, adherence to Scripture as the infallible guide in a world of competing ideologies, philosophies, and religions; emulation of Christ; and a determination to be loyal to Him no matter the cost are the hallmarks of God’s end-time people. They are sealed for an eternal life of worship and fellowship with the God of love—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The 144,000 have an organic connection with the remnant of chapter 12. Their devotion to Christ is reminiscent of the fact that they bear the characteristics of the remnant in keeping God’s commandments and the faith of Jesus (Rev. 12:17). They worship Christ totally and completely. Revelation 12:11 says they overcame the dragon “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony.” Every end-time believer can be part of this number.
The same God who wants all people to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Tim. 2:3, 4) is not capriciously limiting the number of the redeemed. End-time sealing and salvation are open to all.
*Scripture quotations in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 174.
2White, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 13, 1897.
3White, The Great Controversy, pp. 648, 649.
4White, The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Mar. 9, 1905, as quoted in The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 970.
Ganoune Diop, Ph.D., is director of the Centers for the Study of World Religions and Philosophies for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This article was published October 22, 2009.