Hermeneutics and Presuppositions: The 144,000 In Revelation

June 20, 2013

A popular Reformed preacher has recently taught through Revelation (an amillennial view), and several of his fans have shared  excerpts from his teaching, agreeing with and saying how great his teaching is.  Looking at the specific “points” made by this preacher, though, I am reminded of S. Lewis Johnson’s observations nearly twenty years ago, that in our day so few people really know their Bibles and are thus more easily led astray.

Now for a look at one excerpt, what has been said with reference to the 144,000 in Revelation 7 (and Revelation 14):

If the 144,000 spoken of in Revelation is an actual number then, we have a problem, because the Bible says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, rather the 144,000 is a symbolic number of ALL the Elect (saved and sealed by Jesus Christ) of both Jews and Gentiles and are found spotless in the Lamb Jesus Christ His Perfect Bride….if we take the 144,000 literally then one must conclude that there are actually 144,000 who are virgins, and as the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned.

Right away several problems can be noted in these two statements.  First is the “root problem” presupposition, that the description of 144,00 in Revelation 7 must be about soteriology and specifically saying something concerning the doctrine of election.  But let the text speak for itself, and Revelation 7 reads as a (future) narrative event, describing the calling of a specific group of saved individuals, during a future event.  (Thus it belongs in the category of eschatology, the doctrine of last things — not soteriology.)  Nothing in the Revelation 7 and 14 texts says: a) that these 144,000 are the only people ever saved; b) that these 144,000 are the only Elect; or even c) that they are supposed to be representative of the elect.

The passage itself, in Revelation 7:13-14, explains the meaning of this scene (the 144,000 followed by the multitude):    Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.

Revelation 7 and 14 are describing narrative events that occur during the Great Tribulation, a particular time period (yet future to our day) often described by the prophets in the Old Testament by several terms: the time of Jacob’s Trouble (Jeremiah 30:7), the Day of the Lord, Daniel’s 70th week, the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24; also reference Deuteronomy 4:30).  Here we note also that Revelation is a book that relies heavily on Old Testament understanding, with many, many allusions to Old Testament texts.  So we look at all of scripture and what it has to say concerning a certain future time period (and there are many such texts especially in the Old Testament but also references to it in the New Testament), and see that Revelation is also describing this future time period.  Revelation is a narrative text that sometimes uses symbolic language, not a book explaining soteriology through the use of symbols.

Now to the second statement:  “if we take the 144,000 literally then one must conclude that there are actually 144,000 who are virgins, and as the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned.”  In the first place, what is so difficult to understand about the idea that 144,000 individuals are virgins?  Even in Jesus’ day there were eunuchs (Matthew 19:12), some of whom had made themselves so “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

But moving on to the next phrase:  the text says they are blameless, which is a serious problem because we have all sinned. Here again familiarity with the Bible and its usage of the term “blameless” must be considered.  A brief search through an online Bible reveals that the following individuals (all humans, who sinned) were described as “blameless”:

Clearly the Bible uses the term “blameless” in a different way than supposed by the teacher who thought of “blameless” as meaning sinless perfection.  Yet the Bible consistently uses the term blameless as meaning something else: our conduct and righteous living as redeemed sinners, the elect of God.  Other passages attest that God looks for and supports “those whose heart is blameless toward Him.” (2 Chron. 16:9).  Several of the Psalms speak of the righteous one, the saved sinner, as blameless, indicating that – even though indeed all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – God does look upon His saints as blameless; see, for instance, Psalm 15:2; Psalm 19:13; Psalm 37:18,37. Psalms 101 and 119 consider the “way that is blameless” and those whose way is blameless.”  This pattern continues in the New Testament, where again we are exhorted to righteous living and conduct, to be blameless.  The apostles were blameless in their conduct toward the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:10), and one of the tests for deacons in the church is that they be blameless (1 Timothy 3:10).

How appropriate S. Lewis Johnson’s statement (from his 1 Corinthians series) regarding the state of the church today, as seen in so many examples such as this one:

In evangelicalism, it’s much easier today for evangelicals to be led astray by false doctrine.  I personally believe that the reason is that evangelicals are not reading the Bible much these days.  They are not really studying the Bible much.  Sometimes they are reading books about the Bible, but a lot of times they are just attending evangelical services.  And therefore they are not themselves involved in the study of the Scriptures and pondering the words that are found in the Scriptures.

  1. June 20, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Great job, Lynda

  2. willeng2surv
    June 20, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Several of the reformed pastors are espousing an amillennial view. I agree 100% with Johnson’s statement, people read and watch TV mini-series about the Bible but do not read their Bible. So many people asked me what I thought of the Bible series on TV… I just told them – “you really, really don’t want to know.” Great job Lynda.

  3. June 20, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks, bography and willeng2surv. Yes, if people really knew their Bibles they wouldn’t fall for the “exposition” done by Reformed preachers on the book of Revelation (or a lot of other scriptures).

  4. Neil Schoch
    June 20, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Hi Lynda,
    Just about every Bible teacher that I have read on the 144,000 Jewish believers comes with a presupposition that they are not only Jewish, which is correct, but that they are also :”evangelists.” Where does the Bible tell us this? Nowhere.
    We can assume that they may, but to state that they are evangelists is surely adding to the book, which is expressly forbidden.
    The two “witnesses” of 11:3 prophesy, and an angel preaches the “everlasting gospel” (14:6-7), and we know from ch 7:9-17:that a great multitude will be saved, but no mention is made of Jewish evangelists.
    Maybe I am being too fussy but we are instructed to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

    • June 20, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      Yes, interesting point. I see more people mentioning the popular Reformed preacher, because he’s been doing his Revelation series in the last few months, and a need to address that greater error in their overall interpretation of Revelation as being soteriology instead of eschatology.

      The idea that the 144,000 are evangelists is implied, in a type of cause-effect, that the first set of 144,000 cause / bring about the conversion of the (second group) uncounted multitude from all over the world. As S. Lewis Johnson observed cautiously, recognizing that we cannot prove it:

      “Now, I’m going to suggest something I cannot prove, so I’m warning you ahead of time. I suggest that it is implied by the way in which these two visions are put together, the one hundred and forty four thousand and then the innumerable multitude, that since they are servants of God and the judgments are withheld and restrained until other events take place, that we should think that there is implied in this that the innumerable multitude are the result of the evangelistic activity of the one hundred and forty four thousand. In other words, the one hundred and forty four thousand servants of God who are sealed are those by whom the innumerable multitude find their salvation. Now, you cannot prove that. The connection of the sections in the book and in the chapter, suggest that to me.”

  5. Neil Schoch
    June 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    There are simply some things we will never really know for sure. The good news is that we have all of eternity to find out about them, assuming that we will be able to look back on past events.
    I wrote the following article many years ago on this subject. I hope it is not too long and I post it for the enjoyment of your readers, and you are all very welcome to disagree with me. Much can be learnt and enjoyed by sharing aspects of God’s Word even though scholars (i’m an amateur) are not always in total agreement.
    I enjoyed your previous post and added a few comments, albeit a bit late. Keep up the good work and God bless.

    The 144,000 Jews Sealed
    Many teach that the 144,000 Jewish believers that are sealed in Chapter Seven lose their lives and are seen in heaven as martyrs in Ch 14. Here are some reasons why I do not believe this to be the case.

    Revelation 7:1-8
    What does a seal in the Scriptures speak of? A seal speaks of (1) a finished transaction. (2) Ownership.
    (3) Security, as in Ephesians 4:30:- “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
    For the believer in the day of grace, the “finished transaction” is the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary, in which the believer is saved when they believe in and put there trust in Him by faith. This means that we are owned by the Lord and secured for the day of redemption, which refers to Christ’s return for His saints, whether they are asleep in Christ, or alive at that blessed time.

    That those who are to be “sealed” in Revelation Ch7 are to be protected and secure is clearly indicated in verses
    1-3. It would surely indicate that they will go through the Great Tribulation alive and enter into Christ’s millennial reign on earth.
    V1:- Four angels holding the four winds of the earth as protection.
    V2:- The angel having the seal of the living God.
    V3:- The angel with the seal instructs that no harm is to come until God’s people are sealed. Why would God do this if they were to lose their lives, very shortly?
    Satan will not be able to break God’s seal of ownership and protection.

    The fact that the next group of people seen in Vs 9-17 are those who lost their lives for their faith in Christ, in no way implies that the preceding group did too.
    I believe it is also a mistake to label them all as Gentiles. Many more than 144,000 Jews will come to faith in Christ in that period. Notice the word “tribes” in V9. Surely that includes the remainder of the 12 tribes of Israel that are not sealed to go through the tribulation alive.

    Revelation 14:1-5
    Ch 14, as is Ch 7, is a “parenthesis” and therefore there is no time scale involved.
    V1. If the scene is earthly, as I believe it is, could so many people fit on Mount Zion? It is important that we remember that there will be some great changes in the topography of the land when the Saviours’ feet touch the Mount of Olives at His return to earth (See Zechariah 14:4-5).
    V2-3. The apostle John, in his vision, states that he (John) hears the sound of the harpists and the singing of a new song in heaven.
    It most definitely does not say that the 144,000 heard it. It only states that they were the only ones who could learn it.
    When would they learn it? When the Saviour returns to Mount Zion, with His bride to establish His kingdom on earth.
    V3. The ending of this verse is speaking of the fact that the 144,000 “were redeemed from the earth.” That may sound as if they were in heaven but in fact it doesn’t say that. It has the sense of being redeemed “out of the people” on earth ie those who are sealed. It speaks of being set apart or sealed for a purpose. This is even more clearly seen in V4 where it speaks of them as being “redeemed from among men,” ie the wicked unbelievers in the Tribulation Period.
    We, as believers today are to be similarly separated from evil mankind around us, but not to another place.

    I believe the teaching is clear – the 144,000 will be divinely protected through all the Tribulation Period and will enter into the millennial reign of Christ with us, without seeing death.

  6. Pauline
    June 20, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    Lynda, who is doing the series on Revelation ? An excellent post Lynda.

  7. June 21, 2013 at 1:57 am

    Good job.

  8. June 21, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Yes indeed, willeng2surv. Only of course they can’t handle biblical eschatology and so are actually teaching it as idealism and soteriology — false teaching, and those who don’t know their Bible that well listen to it and don’t really think through it that deeply.

  9. willeng2surv
    June 21, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    You are so right. Hey – I might have something going that you might be interested in… I would love you to get your take on it if you get some time. http://willeng2surv.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/john-calvin-vs-the-world-introduction/

  10. Pam S.
    June 22, 2013 at 6:07 am

    Hey Linda, I am going to mention a person who has some controversy attached to some of his teachings but I wonder if you have ever read Bullinger’s Commentary on Revelation? It is very interesting, especially the chapters on the 7 churches. He really makes the most sense of any that I have read. He sees the Book of Rev. as all in the future. He says it is for our learning but that it all still waits for that future time. And that it seems to be particularly Jewish.
    I would love your opinion if you care to read it.

    • June 22, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Hi Pam. I’ve heard of Bullinger, that he was ultra-dispensational, but don’t know that much about him. But Revelation 2-3 seems quite straightforward as referring to then present-day churches, especially with such textual indicators as Rev. 4:1, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this,” after Revelation 1:11 explaining ““Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” Clearly John’s writing (the book of Revelation) was sent to those churches — which would have been a problem if those churches did not exist in his time. I agree that Revelation has much Jewish emphasis, especially the many allusions to Old Testament scriptures, but would say that Revelation 1-3 refers to the apostle John’s time period. Was Bullinger saying that the seven churches themselves did not then exist but were future? Or that the letters (to those 7 churches) had reference both to those churches as well as to future events?

  11. Pam S.
    June 22, 2013 at 7:51 am

    The problem he struggled with seemed to be how to place those assemblies anywhere but the future due to the fact that the members had to “do” certain things to be overcomers. He seemed to feel that it, the whole Book of Rev. seems to be prophetic of a time to come. There seemed to be no grace etc.
    I tell ya, I struggle to make sense of it but if you read his explanation it does seem to fit. Of course he says that we can learn from it because all Scripture is for our learning.
    I know you study a lot and I know you can read this online, so if you do, I would love to hear your comments. There is a website that allows you to read his commentary.
    Thanks so much! Really respect your opinions.

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