144,000

Who are the 144,000 in Revelation? That question has been debated for centuries. Dispensationalists typically hold to a literal number: 144,000 Jewish converts who come through the tribulation period. Amillennialists and postmillennialists typically consider the number symbolic. Symbolic of what, though? Some say it is symbolic of the Church—all redeemed Jews and Gentiles. Others say it is symbolic of Jewish converts in the latter-day glory. One postmillennialist suggested they were Jewish converts who lived in Israel prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. What does John Gill say? 

Gill’s Eschatological Timeline

John Gill is a partial preterist in this sense: He believes seals 1-6, which were designed to destroy Rome Pagan, had already occurred by Constantine’s rise (around 306 A.D.). For instance, the 1st seal corresponds with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The 6th seal corresponds with the dismantling of pagan worship just prior to Emperor Constantine’s sweeping Christian reforms. The time between the 6th and 7th seals, then, is the period between Constantine’s reign and Theodosius’ reign. All of this is laid out in his comments on Revelation 7:1.

Gill & the 144,000

Gill suggests 144,000 is symbolic: “[A] certain and determinate number for an uncertain and indeterminate one” (see his comments on Rev. 7:4). He suggests it refers to “all true believers,” Jew or Gentile (see his comments on Rev. 7:5), and he further suggests it “refers to the times of Constantine . . . and particularly the council of Nice” (see his comments on Rev. 14:1). He is quick to note this is not referring to the mass conversion of the Jews, which will come later. Rather, these 144,000 are “the first-fruits of the far greater outpouring of the spirit [sic] in the latter day, which will begin, and usher in the kingdom of Christ” (see his comments on Rev. 14:4). 

For Gill, the number represents a long-standing principle consistent in the Old & New Testaments: God always preserves a remnant. Therefore, the nice round number, 144,000, is not an exact number for him. Rather, it represents a small, elect group God has chosen out of a massive non-Christian population.

Curiously, he states some are Gentiles, passing over the fact that 12 Jewish tribes are specified. This is not unique to him. Many others pass over such details. For instance, amillennialist Kevin DeYoung states:

“[T]he 144,000 are called the servants of our God (Rev. 7:3). There is no reason to make the 144,000 more restricted than that.”

Kevin DeYoung, “Who are the 144,000 in Revelation?” January 17, 2012, accessed online

Yet, there is an obvious, glaring reason to restrict them: the text does. The text specifies they come from Jewish (not Gentile) tribes, and the text names the specific tribes. Where else in Scripture do we find non-Jews counted as constituents of Jewish tribes? For his part, Gill leap-frogs off of the Hebrew meaning of Judah—i.e., “praise God”—and suggests these sealed ones are “all true believers” who praise God between the 6th and 7th seals (see his comments on Rev. 7:5). Even Gill’s most ardent admirers must admit: This sounds more like word associations than serious exegesis. 

Concluding Thoughts

This is a flaw we detect in amillennialism, postmillennialism, and certain aspects of historic premillennialism: a spiritualizing of problematic texts. Dispensationalists address this text literally, true enough, but they have their own set of issues on other matters.1For instance: (1) dispensationalism is predicated upon a distinction of Israel and the church; (2) believers never have been exempted from tribulation; why now?; (3) glorified and non-glorified … Continue reading We remain unconvinced the answer is found in abstracting difficult texts which don’t fit our preferred eschatological view. All eschatological views do it—even dispensationalists—whether they will admit it or not. 

All eschatological views do it—even dispensationalists—whether they will admit it or not.

It certainly makes us feel better that all tension has been resolved, and that we have all the answers; but we wonder what impact this has on authorial intent.

What’s worse, we wonder what impact this has on proper hermeneutics. If we can abstract this to fit our tastes, what else are we willing to abstract?

Worst of all, we wonder what impact this has on preaching. Eschatological views tend to work their way back into our pre-understandings . . . and thus into our exegesis of particular texts . . . and thus into our preaching. Should our eschatological view drive our exegesis . . . or should the biblical author’s single intent? Too often, it is the former. Who hasn’t heard preachers who (rather predictably) worm their way from each preaching-text to a dire warning concerning the rapture?

Should our eschatological view drive our exegesis . . . or should the biblical author’s single intent? Too often, it is the former.

In the end, why isn’t anyone willing to say with open honesty, “I don’t know who the 144,000 are?” 

I am. Indeed, I am willing to trust—as Gill states—that, no matter how bad it gets, God always preserves a remnant. I am satisfied in knowing that and nothing more. 

References

References
1 For instance: (1) dispensationalism is predicated upon a distinction of Israel and the church; (2) believers never have been exempted from tribulation; why now?; (3) glorified and non-glorified people inhabit earth at the same time (and procreate); (4) 1 Thess. 4:17 has the rapture and 2ndcoming at the same time (not 2 separate returns of Christ) and, (5) the reinstitution of animal sacrifices during the millennial reign.
Author 144,000

Chip Thornton

Pastor of FBC Springville, Alabama. Chip is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his Ph.D. in expository preaching. He enjoys spending time with his family, has a passion for discipleship, and is committed to biblical exposition.