Summary: Who are the redeemed? How can you tell? Are you or aren't you?
The last time we saw the 144,000 was on Palm Sunday. We were looking at God’s promises to bring all the tribes of Israel back from all the lands to which they had been exiled, all but Dan, that is, who had chosen not to take God up on his promises and had instead struck out for easier pickings up north. Back in chapter 7 John reports that he heard the angel say that
"144,000 would be “sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel: From the tribe of Judah ... from the tribe of Reuben ... from the tribe of Gad ... from the tribe of Asher ... from the tribe of Naphtali ... from the tribe of Manasseh ... from the tribe of Simeon ...from the tribe of Levi ... from the tribe of Issachar from the tribe of Zebulun..." [Rev 7:4-8]
Now, because of this parallelism, some people think that this 144,000 must all be Jewish Christians, that none of the Gentiles who responded to the Gospel message would belong to this elite army. Others believe that both the old and the new Israel - faithful Jews under the old covenant, joined by both Jewish and Gentile Christians - are included, especially since so much of the book of Revelation emphasizes that Gentile Christians are the spiritual inheritors of Gods original promises to Israel.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a different interpretation, adding a second baptism to consecrate an elite few who will actually make it into heaven. Since there are over 3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses by now, that leaves over 2,800,000 who are going to have to be content with a purified earth.
Most mainstream Christians believe that this 144,000 should not be taken literally, since in prophetic literature numbers are more often used symbolically. If that is true, it stands for 12, the number of God’s people, squared, times 10, cubed. It means absolutely everybody .... everybody who is in fact a true member of Israel, both the old and the new.
Whenever we have this many opposing interpretations of a passage, it’s a pretty reliable clue that we don’t really know exactly who those 144,000 people will be - that is, we don’t have a guest list that will make it possible for us to screen out potential crashers to God’s great gathering.
The deliberate ambiguity is also a clue that what God does want us to focus on is what is clear. And in this passage what is absolutely clear is what these 144,000 people are like.
A lot of things are said about these 144,000. First, they have “the name [of the Lamb] and his Father's name written on their foreheads.” [v. 1] As we saw a couple of weeks ago, the marks that the followers of the beast wear on their heads and hands stands for the fact that their thoughts and their actions both serve the enemy of God. In just the same way, those who belong to the Lamb serve him with their thoughts and their actions. These 144,000 belong to God. That point is emphasized twice more: “they have been redeemed from the earth”
[v. 3] and again in verse 4: “they have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb... [v. 4]
The fact that they are “first fruits” lends credence to the interpretation that they represent the whole of the gathered people of God, since the first fruits were an offering which acknowledged that God was the actual owner of the entire harvest. It also implies that more is - or should I say are? - more are yet to come. So even if you’re not one of the actual 144,000 present in this scene, it doesn’t mean you won’t be gathered in by the time the harvest is complete.
Another thing that we know about these people is that they are singing. They are singing a new song, one that can only be sung by the redeemed. What is this song? What is this mysterious new song that only the redeemed can sing? This theme of singing a new song is not new to Revelation. Listen to the Psalms: “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” [Ps 40:3] And again, O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.“ [Ps 96:1] “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” [Ps 98:1] “I will sing a new song to you, O God.” [Ps 144:9]
Only the redeemed can truly sing praises to God from their hearts, and God’s mercies are new every morning. Ancient Israel had been redeemed; does anyone doubt that the songs David sang were fully acceptable to God? Each time God reveals more of himself, each time we experience the grace of God, each time we are touched by the love of Christ, we are given a glimpse of the complete freedom and joy which will be ours one day the song which springs forth from our hearts is new. This song can only be sung by the redeemed, because only the redeemed know and love our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Praise is always new. Redemption is always new. You can be bored with church or tired of