Features, Highlights

Should we take numbers in Revelation literally?

Are there only 144,000 saints?

Introduction

COVID-19, for all its menace, serendipitously uncovered the presence of South Korean cult Shincheonji in Singapore.i Shincheonji proclaims its founder Lee Man-hee has donned the mantle of Jesus Christ and will take 144,000 people with him to heaven on the day of judgement. Rather ironically, it reached a point when Shincheonji members exceeded the available places. As a result, members are made to vie for a slot and pursue converts to earn their rightful place among the 144,000.ii

If only Shincheonji’s members knew that the 144,000 in Revelation is not to be taken literally and being counted among the number is not the main purpose of John’s Revelation.

Revelation 7:4

To see why we cannot read the numbers in Revelation literally, let us look at Rev 7:4 and its immediate context.

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.  Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

Verses 5–8 then list 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes (Judah, Reuben, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin) to total 144,000.

Firstly, if the passage is to be taken literally, may I humbly enquire where the four corners of the earth are located? Sure, I acknowledge the discovery that the earth is a sphere was long after God’s revelation to John but surely a God who knows all could well have revealed a different reality to John? Rather—and this is how I believe God worked in inspiring Scripture—I believe God chose to work with John’s understanding of a flat earth and the “four corners” was never meant to be understood literally.

Secondly, if taken literally, the 12 tribes include only the sons of Israel. That means you and I are NOT included. And neither are the adherents of Shincheonji.

Revelation 14

Our hope of being included as God’s redeemed people is not the driving force behind why we cannot read the 144,000 literally. Let’s look at Revelation 14, where there is another mention of the 144,000:

Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. (Rev 14:1–5)

Putting aside the scholarly dispute whether the 144,000 here are the same as the 144,000 listed in 7:4, we must not miss the difficulty presented here. If the 144,000 is taken literally, only men who are virgins are included! Oops, a thousand apologies to women and married men (including those among Shincheonji adherents)!

Genre of Revelation—Apocalyptic literature

Since rightly interpreting Scripture is of utmost importance, every believer needs to understand that sound biblical interpretation begins with identifying and respecting the genre of the book.

According to renowned New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, Revelation contains three genres of literature—apocalyptic, prophecy and letter.iii

Since the verses that mention 144,000 occur in what scholars regard to be the apocalyptic sections of Revelation, we will concern ourselves here primarily with apocalyptic literature, a genre most of us are unfamiliar with. Symbolic language is the chief characteristic of apocalyptic literature.

The Use of Symbols

One helpful way to understand how symbols are important and point towards a larger reality is to imagine yourself in a foreign country where you have absolutely no way to communicate with the locals except by signs and symbols. How would you communicate that you want to eat, for instance? Most of us would put our fingers together and bring our hand to our mouth, right? This simple hand-to-mouth action is a symbol of our desire for food. In a similar—but far more complex way, because God is completely otherworldly—God communicates His intentions and desires to us using symbols familiar to us humans. (Unfortunately, while the symbols in Revelation are familiar to John and his original readers, they are largely lost to modern readers. This huge gap of time, culture, and context is why Revelation is so difficult for many of us!)

Another helpful way to understand the reason for apocalyptic literature is to imagine yourself in a war context. How would you communicate to your own troops without revealing your game plan to your enemies? I recall learning several hand signals during my National Service days. Raising my hand in a closed fist position, for example, signalled stopping in our tracks and dropping down on one knee to prepare to engage enemy fire.

Revelation has both these dimensions of pointing towards a larger reality without being too explicit. For example, in chapter 17, John shares his vision of a woman. At first glance, she might seem to be a goddess of Rome, in all her glory, a stunning personification of the civilisation of Rome, as she was worshipped in many a temple in the cities of Asia. But as John sees her from God’s point of view, she is a Roman prostitute, a seductive whore and a scheming witch. For good measure there are biblical overtones of the harlot queen Jezebel to reinforce the impression. In this way, John’s readers are able to perceive something of Rome’s true character—her moral corruption behind the enticing propagandist illusions of Rome which they constantly encountered in their cities.iv Yet, the word “Rome” is never used in the entire Book of Revelation.

Returning to Revelation 7:4 and 14:1

How then should the symbolic figure of 144,000 be interpreted?

While some have tried to resolve the literal problem by seeing the 144,000 as a special class of God’s people, I believe a far likelier interpretation is that 144,000 means a combination of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples.  This number encompasses both Old and New Testament believers. After all, 12 x 12 = 144. The number 1000 signifies a large number of completeness.v This is confirmed by Rev 7:9–10 which describes a great multitude that no one could number (not only 144,000) from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

The 144,000, then, points towards the fullness of God’s people—after all, we are all God’s sons (and daughters) as the spiritual and eternal Israel.

Symbols demand a response

What I wish to emphasise from Rev 7:4 and 14:1–5, however, is not the 144,000 but the descriptions of these believers. Knowing a symbol does not mean one would naturally obey it. I may see my platoon sergeant raise a closed fist but may choose to keep walking on (to my own detriment of course). The true test of one’s correct understanding of a symbol is an appropriate response.

In the case of 144,000, as Rev 14:4 reveals, these believers are described as those who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.

Question: Where did the Lamb go?

Answer: The Lamb of God went to the cross.

Consequently, to “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” marks (pun intended) a Christian’s willingness to suffer and die as a consequence of faithfulness to God and the Lamb. Christians who have given their allegiance to God and are consequently symbolically and indelibly marked on their foreheads with the name of God and of the Lamb. Just as Jesus was “blameless” and yet crucified, so too being “blameless” really means the sacrificial death of all faithful followers of the Lamb.vi

Seen in that light, the virginity of the 144,000 is a symbolic metaphor for absolute faithfulness to God. It does not mean literal sexual asceticism, but points towards purity of heart to be willing to die for Jesus our Lord.

John is inviting his readers to be numbered amongst the 144,000 who represent all God’s faithful people—past and present—who respond rightly through sacrificial obedience—even death on a cross (Phil 2:8), completely single-minded and unafraid because they are confident of a far greater reality.

Conclusion

As Richard Bauckham rightly asserts, Revelation offers not so much an esoteric and encoded forecast of future events but rather a theocentric vision of the coming of God’s universal kingdom, contextualised in the late first-century world dominated by Roman power and ideology. The 144,000 symbolically refers to all faithful believers, past and present, who accept God’s call to confront the political idolatries of the time and to participate in God’s purpose of gathering all the nations into His kingdom by being completely resolute.vii

The views expressed in this article are personal and may not reflect the official position of The Methodist Church in Singapore. This version of the article has been edited for

brevity. The full article can be found at http://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/index.php/resources/bible-matters?layout=edit&id=265.


i https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/shincheonji-south-korea-singapore-covid19-investigate-mha-12480918

ii https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/02/27/shincheonji-the-secretive-sect-in-south-korean-virus-outbreak.html

iii Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, New Testament Theology, ed. D. G. Dunn (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: UK, 1993), 2.

iv Ibid., 17–18.

v David E. Aune, Apocalyptism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids: MI, 2008), 72.

vi Ibid., 77.

vii Bauckham, 2.

The Rev Anthony Lee has been a TRAC pastor since 2009 and is currently serving as as Pastor-in charge at Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church. Pastor Anthony loves wrestling with God in the pages of Scripture, with the help of other saints of course.

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