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Will the Real 144,000 Please Step Forward?

Posted by Matt Postiff May 2, 2017 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Theology  Interpretation  Dispensationalism  Eschatology 

Kevin DeYoung has written on the identity of the 144,000 servants of God in Revelation 7:3-8. He starts this way:

The 144,000 are not an ethnic Jewish remnant, and certainly not an Anointed Class of saints who became Jehovah’s Witnesses before 1935. The 144,000 “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev. 7:4) represent the entire community of the redeemed. Let me give you several reasons for making this claim.

I have no argument with Pastor DeYoung's second denial--that the 144,000 are "certainly not...Jehovah's Witnesses." But I have to take issue with his assertion that these are not an ethnic Jewish remnant.

Let us suppose for a moment that God will in fact seal a certain number of ethnic Jews for a particular purpose or mission during the Tribulation period. Just how could God express this fact in writing through John if He could not convince the modern reader with the words that He used in Revelation 7:4? Perhaps something like this would have been sufficient:

Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. I. Mean. Jews! And. I. Mean. One. Hundred. Forty. Four. Thousand! (hypothetical Rev. 7:4)

The hermeneutical contortions that DeYoung forces upon the text are just too much. The text is clear as it is written. If God means what DeYoung says, why did He not simply say it plainly that way?

Now for a brief critique each of DeYoung's supporting arguments.

First, whether or not it "makes sense" that God would seal all of His followers, the text only mentions these 144,000 Jewish ones being sealed. Satan's action in chapter 13 is irrelevant.

Second, using a text from Ezekiel 9 to support a seemingly "similar distinction based on who worships God" and denying any Jewish connection is tenuous. This is particularly so since those who were sealed in Ezekiel were Jews.

Third, DeYoung says, "the 144,000 are called the servants of our God…There is no reason to make the 144,000 any more restricted than that." What he means is that the only descriptive phrase that is allowed to be taken literally is "servants of God." The number and the ethnicity are not allowed to be taken literally. When John heard the number, what he heard was not significant, DeYoung implies. So why didn't John just say, "Then I heard that those servants were sealed," and dispense with the remainder of verses 4-8? In fact, the phrase servants of God, the number, and the ethnicity all contribute to the meaning of the text.

Fourth, DeYoung argues from the descriptions "redeemed from the earth" and "purchased from among men" that this language is generic, applying to everyone. Again the question must be asked—why didn't God just leave out the extra descriptions, and make explicit that this was all the redeemed that were on the earth at that time in the prophecy? He asserts that the number is symbolic of the redeemed "drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews." He adds that it must be symbolic, because "not defiled with women" (14:4) cannot mean celibate Jewish men…in spite of the fact that the text affirms that they are virgins.

Fifth, DeYoung states that the tribe list and their numbers are highly stylized, so they are not to be taken literally. This reminds me of the framework hypothesis of the creation account, which argues in part that the account is highly stylized, so it cannot be understood as a literal narrative of the events of the creation week. To the contrary, though both passages display wonderful literary quality, this does not mean that it cannot be understood literally.

In sum, the bottom line of DeYoung's argument is that he cannot make sense of the text literally within his theological framework, so it makes more sense to take it to mean something other than what it says. Granted, there is much symbolic language in Revelation. But, for example, an angel whose "face is like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire" is quite a bit different than a number and a list of tribes of Israel. There is a distinction between symbolic language and plain language, and Revelation 7:3-8 is definitely on the plain side of that divide.

I would add one more argument in favor of taking the text literally to refer to Jews. Read on to verse 9:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev. 7:9 NIV)

John refers to tribes of Jews in 7:3-8, and then immediately mentions "every nation, tribe, people, and language." This strengthens our understanding that the 144,000 are in fact ethnic Jews whom God sets apart for special protection and service during the Tribulation. Why would God refer to "all the redeemed" as 144,000 of the Jewish tribes, and then immediately repeat Himself but using the broader language of "every nation"? It makes more sense that Scripture means Jews when it says Jews, and it means "every nation" when it says every nation.

Ultimately what is at stake in this debate is how we read the Bible. Someone like DeYoung reads the exact same passages I do; but he reads at least this one a whole lot differently than I do and, I would argue, he reads it incorrectly.

Clint Archer also defends a literal reading of the 144,000. He follows up with a good article on why the 1000 years of Revelation 20 is to be taken literally.

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