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]