Who are the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation? When are they chosen? Do they represent the Church today? Is salvation limited to this special group?
The book of Revelation has three references to a group of people numbering 144,000. Revelation 7:4 says, “One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel were sealed.” Of this group, 12,000 came from each tribe with the exception of the tribe of Dan (verses 5-8). Why Dan is not included is a matter of conjecture.
Revelation 14:1 speaks of “one hundred and forty-four thousand” standing with a Lamb on Mount Zion and having the name of God “written on their foreheads.” The third reference describes this group singing before God and states that “no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth” (verse 3).
To understand who these people are, we need to answer a few basic questions.
When are the 144,000 sealed?
The first reference to this group of people in the book of Revelation comes after six seals have been opened, each bringing misery and destruction to earth’s inhabitants. These include four horses (representing false prophets, war, famine and pestilence) followed by a religious inquisition, resulting in the deaths of faithful Christians, and heavenly signs. (For further study on the seals of the book of Revelation, read our article on the “Seven Seals.”)
These events, which will come because of mankind’s misrule and Satan’s efforts to destroy humanity, were prophesied by Christ during His Olivet Prophecy. In this teaching about the future, Jesus described this time as one of “great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21-22).
After this time of Great Tribulation orchestrated by Satan and misguided humans comes the punishment of God called “the wrath of the Lamb” and “the great day of His wrath” (Revelation 6:16-17). The sealing of the 144,000 takes place after the Tribulation and prior to the wrath of God. As the following chapter explains, the four angels that are poised to bring punishment to the earth from God are told not to harm the earth until this group of people has been sealed (Revelation 7:1-3).
These passages show that the 144,000 will be people who survive the Great Tribulation. They are not faithful saints who have lived and died throughout the ages.
What is the spiritual state of the 144,000?
The 144,000 will be people who have been faithful to God. They are called “the servants of our God” (Revelation 7:3), ones “who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins [meaning, they are spiritually pure]. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4).
The book of Revelation identifies those faithful to God as people who “keep the commandments of God” (Revelation 12:17; Revelation 14:12). The last chapter notes: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22:14). Unfortunately, many who claim to be Christians today do not keep all of God’s commandments. For additional study, see our articles on “Are the 10 Commandments Upheld in the New Testament?” and “Was the Sabbath Changed to Sunday?”
Are Church members today included in the 144,000?
Various churches and groups have claimed that their members or portions of their membership comprise the 144,000. Laying aside human claims, consider what the Bible says about when members of God’s Church are sealed compared to when the 144,000 will be sealed.
In Revelation 7:3 we previously noted that the angels were told not to harm the earth until the servants of God—the 144,000—had been sealed on their foreheads. A seal has the meaning of closing or sealing something up, such as a letter or a book. It also identifies or marks something as being genuine or approved. In Ezekiel 9:4 God told Ezekiel to put a mark on the foreheads of those who sighed and cried over the abominations committed within the city of Jerusalem. Whether this was a literal mark or symbolic because of the way these people thought, they were thus identified for God.
The New Testament also contains examples of people being marked or identified by God as genuine or the future recipients of a special blessing. John 6:27 speaks of Jesus, on whom “God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
Members of the Church are also sealed. Paul described members in Ephesus as people who, “having believed, … were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13). Later, he tells them, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). Writing to members at Corinth, Paul spoke of Jesus Christ “who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22).
Those who are led by God’s Holy Spirit are thus sealed, marked or identified as being genuine Christians, children of God and heirs who will receive eternal life (Romans 8:14-16). This sealing takes place at baptism when one receives the Holy Spirit following repentance of his or her sins and immersion in water (Acts 2:38; Acts 19:6).
An important distinction to note is that members of God’s true Church are sealed by God for eternal life when they receive and are led by the Holy Spirit. It thus seems that the 144,000 will be people who, during the Tribulation, repent of their sins and dedicate their lives to God through faith and obedience in order to be sealed for salvation.
Also note that the vision of the 144,000 singing before God’s throne in Revelation 14:1-3 occurs after these people have come through the Great Tribulation preceding Christ’s return and after they have been sealed and changed into spirit. It is not a vision of people currently in heaven as some mistakenly suppose.
Is salvation limited to only the 144,000?
Revelation 7 identifies the 144,000 as being 12,000 from each tribe of Israel with the exception of the tribe of Dan. Two significant points to note here include the fact that the descendants of the ancient nation of Israel are still important to God and that salvation is not limited to this group. In addition to the 144,000, another innumerable multitude will likewise stand before God in “white robes” (Revelation 7:9, 13), symbolizing righteous living (Revelation 3:4-5).
This great multitude will include people from “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues [languages]” (Revelation 7:9). As they stand before the Lamb (Christ), a question is asked about who these people are and where they came from. The answer is: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (verse 14). Because of their response to God, they will serve “before the throne of God” (verse 15).
What is going to be the cause of so many people turning to God during the Tribulation? The Bible reveals that two representatives of God called the “two witnesses” will prophesy on God’s behalf for three and a half years (Revelation 11:3). During all the turmoil and difficult circumstances that will accompany the Tribulation, the ministry of these servants of God will bring about the addition of many sons and daughters to God’s eternal family. These people will come from both the 144,000 and the innumerable multitude.