Should we interpret the famous 144,000 physically or spiritually? As examined in Insight #137, a literal view would mean that the 144,000 are all male virgins (Rev. 14:4). However, it seems more in harmony with Scripture to view the celibacy of the 144,000 as spiritual in nature. Paul told the Corinthian Christians: “that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). Revelation itself tells of the “marriage of the Lamb… and His wife” (19:7). Christ is the groom. Christians are the bride. We must be chaste virgins, spiritually, to marry Him.
There are other reasons for interpreting the 144,000 in a spiritual sense. The 144,000 follow “the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). We all agree the “Lamb” is not a literal four-footed mammal. Rather, we call to mind John the Baptist’s cry: “Behold! The Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) We know this refers to Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Peter speaks of “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish” (1 Pet. 1:19). Beyond doubt, the Lamb is to be interpreted spiritually.
What do the 144,000 do? “They follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev. 14:4). That sounds like all true Christians. Even if they are Jewish Christians, still they are Christians. They are sealed not because they are physically Jewish but because they are following Jesus. Whoever they are, they are Christians.
The number 144,000 is arrived at because 12,000 are sealed out of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. A literal interpretation of exactly 12,000 from each tribe seems too forced and unreal when you consider that the tribes varied widely in population and that Jews today in general have no idea what tribe they belong to. As Albert Barnes well said: “the number is too exact and artificial to suppose that it is literal.”
Not only that, but the names of the twelve tribes is not normal. Neither Ephraim nor Dan is listed. Joseph, Manasseh, and Levi are listed. Either Joseph should be listed without his sons Ephraim and Manasseh, or the latter two should be listed without their father. The list is neither a correct listing of the twelve sons nor of the twelve tribes. It is not a correct listing of Israel’s twelve sons because his grandson Manasseh is listed in the place of his son Dan. But neither is it a correct listing of the twelve tribes by inheritance, because Levi, who had no land inheritance, is listed instead of Dan, and Joseph is listed instead of his son Ephraim. Many of us conclude the best way to explain all this is to take it as a clue that a literal interpretation is not expected.
As with much of Revelation, there are multiple reasons for rejecting a literal interpretation of the 144,000 but rather searching for Scriptural spiritual significance. (More next time.)