Regular readers of the blog know I write occasionally on subjects related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses due to my background. This continues an earlier article which discusses the Witness teaching that only 144,000 people will go to heaven to be with Christ. The earlier article presents a couple of questions that can be asked to show the inconsistency of the JW interpretation about the 144,000. Still, what if the Witness you are discussing with wants to know what the 144,000 in the book of Revelation refers to?
I suggest these thoughts by James Kallas in Revelation: God & Satan in the Apocalypse:
To take the number [144,000] literally is to come to the exact opposite conclusion that John the author is trying to get across.
How many tribes in ancient Israel? Twelve. And how many disciples did Jesus choose as the basis of the new Israel, the Church? Twelve. And what is 12 x 12? 144! Now, before we go any further we must remind ourselves of how the ancient Jews thought, of a characteristic of their mental patterns, for John was a Jew. How did the Jew express infinity, a large and endless number? By simply multiplying the number by ten! When Peter asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother, seven times?”, Jesus answers him “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22). What does Jesus mean? Is he to be taken literally? Is Peter to walk about with a pad of papyrus and a pen in his hand, marking down the number or times he forgives his fellow man, and when he arrives at 490 times he can stop forgiving? Of course not! Jesus is not to be taken literally here. He is speaking concretely, as a good Jew would. He is simply trying to get across the idea of infinity, of an endless series, of a continuing never ending act of forgiveness, by multiplying by ten.
And that is what Rev. 14:1 and 14:3 are attempting to say. How many will be saved? A specific limited number confined to a mere and literally understood 144,000? Not at all! What John is saying, to a discouraged and persecuted people, on the brink of despair, tempted to believe that all is lost and God will not be able to deliver his people, is that not a one shall be lost. That God’s power is sufficient to deliver all who call on his name. That all the sons of the old covenant, the remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel, and all the followers of the new Israel, adherents to the teachings of the twelve apostles, that all of them, 12 x 12 = 144 x 10 x 10 x 10 [which would equal 144,000], that all of them shall be rescued by the redemptive power of God! To take the number literally, to limit it, is to come to exactly the opposite conclusion intended by John. He is speaking of the unlimited power of God.
Witnesses will sometimes counter that the number 144,000 must be literal because in Revelation chapter 7 they are mentioned before a vision of a “great crowd” or “great multitude” which could not be numbered. To understand the relationship of the 144,000 and the “great multitude” in Revelation, chapter 7, it’s necessary to look at the text. At Revelation 7:1-9, John says:
1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
5 From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,
[12,000 are sealed from each tribe]
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (pp. 60-61)
John says he heard the number of those sealed: 144,000. What he saw after he heard the number was the “great multitude” in heaven. He heard about this group before he saw them. John elsewhere in Revelation uses the same method when he describes Christ in an earlier chapter. First he is told about the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and next he sees “a Lamb as if it had been slain” (Rev. 5:5-6). John Francis Coffey explains that
the great multitude “which no man could number” is not a group distinct from the 144,000, but rather, it is the same group. John is explaining one group by the other. “After this”, that is, after John “heard” the number of the sealed, he was granted a vision of the whole company of the elect. The definite number of the elect signified completeness:
All the tribes had their required number; none were missing (cf. Jn 17:12). Nor should God’s chosen people be understood as being only a tiny group, for the members were so many that John could not count them himself, he “heard” the number of those sealed – 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1,000). In apocalyptic imagery, the number 12, like the number 7 symbolizes perfection or totality. The second 12 corresponds to the tribes of Israel or the people of God. And the 1,000 indicates an immense number. In other words, the 144,000 symbolizes the great multitude of the elect whose exact number is known only to God. (The Gospel According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, p. 119)
For further reading: