There’s a human tendency to want to be considered part of a special group. To be seen as set apart. To be part of a group that’s better or holier than another group. Paul faced that in Corinth, arguing in his first letter to the Corinthians against those who thought they were better because they had a particular gift that other Christians didn’t. In Acts, those Christians who had been Jews first felt themselves to be better than those who had been Gentiles. In the earliest dispute in Acts, it was the Hebrew-speaking Jewish converts who thought themselves better than the Greek-speaking Jewish converts.
And so when many read the book of Revelation, they think that the 144,000 are a better, higher, holier group than the “great multitude.” Dispensationalists say the 144,000 are Jews who go through the “Great Tribulation.” Some other Christians say it is a symbolic number of Christians who go through the final crisis. Some say it is just members of their church. Or people who have become sinlessly holy.
I think the answer to the question of the identity of the 144,000 lies in the text itself.
In Revelation 5, we see a scroll in the right hand of the one who sits on the throne. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
And elder says, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Having heard that declaration, he turns and sees something else, “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.”
He hears one thing, and sees something radically different. He hears a conquering Lion, and sees a sacrificed Lamb. And they are the same thing.
There is a similar literary device in Revelation 7. Angels hold back the winds of the final strife. John hears, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” He says, “I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”
But then, verse 9,
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”
He hears one thing, and sees something radically different. He hears of 144,000 Jews, and sees a numberless great multitude from every nation.
And they are the same thing.
In both situations, he hears what had been the expectation of Israel–that their nation would make it through, that a conquering Davidic king would bring victory. In both situations, he sees the Gospel revelation–that Jesus is a sacrificial lamb, whose blood has ransomed people from every nation, kindred, tongue and people.
There’s no room for feeling special because you are part of a select group. There’s no room for expecting that there will be an actual battle fought in Israel, led by a king descended from David. There’s no room for nationalism or for violence in the name of God–Jesus has opened up the doors of the kingdom to all who believe.
That’s the good news of Revelation. The souls under the altar who have been subjected to violence and misery at the hands of earthly political and religious tyrants, who have cried out, “How long, O Lord!” have their prayers answered in the one whose coming overthrows all earthly potentates and liberates all those who are trodden down. God judges the harlot and the beast (the religious entity that units with earthly power, as Jerusalem of old sought protection in political alliances with pagan kings).
The people of God cannot look to political powers for salvation. Salvation comes only from on high. The people of God cannot expect they they will be higher than anyone else. The multitude of the saved includes people who were on no church membership list. Christians hoping to make it through the last days cannot imagine that their nation is better than any other, or has a special arrangement with God–representatives of every nation will counted among the people of God.