Revelation 7 – The 144,000 & The Innumerable Multitude

Revelation 7


Revelation 7 is a continuation of what happens when Christ the Lamb opens the 6th seal. The great day of the Lamb’s wrath has come and the question is, “Who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17). John will be shown two groups in this chapter who will: 1) The 144,000 and, 2) The Innumerable Multitude.

First, John sees four angels holding back the four winds, and before they are allowed to harm the earth, the sea, and the trees, the servants of God must be sealed on their foreheads. John then hears the number of those who are sealed, “One hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel” (Rev. 7:4). After this sealing of twelve-thousand from the twelve tribes, John looks, “and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…” (Rev. 7:9). This innumerable multitude cries out with praises to God and the angelic host joins in worship. John is then asked by one of the elders who this vast multitude is? John responds by saying, “Sir, you know.” And the elder tells him, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb…” (Rev. 7:14). The 6th seal comes to an end as the elder describes the blessed state this multitude will enjoy, “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:16-17).

There are three questions that I want to answer from this chapter and they are:

  1. What does it mean to be “sealed?”
  2. Who are the 144,000?
  3. Who are the Innumerable Multitude?

Q1. What does it mean to be sealed?

There are two primary background passages for this “sealing” of God’s servants. The first is the Passover event in Exodus, where those who have blood smeared on their doorposts are spared from God’s wrath. The second background text is Ezekiel 9 which says:

And the Lord said to him, “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.” To the others He said in my hearing, “Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the temple. Then He said to them, “Defile the temple, and fill the courts with the slain. Go out!” And they went out and killed in the city.

In both the Passover of Exodus and this marking in Ezekiel, God’s servants are protected from His righteous wrath. The seal is a mark of distinction that allows the one who is sealed to pass through the fire of God’s judgment without being consumed. Instead of experiencing destruction alongside the unfaithful, the sealed survive and come out purified. Although many commentators see this seal as merely the preservation of one’s faith through martyrdom, I believe this seal also physically protected these saints through the Great Tribulation. Whichever position you go with will be affect how you identify the 144,000 (and vice versa), so let’s start to work on the identity of this group.

Q2. Who are the 144,000?

I’ll start by giving you a few of the more common interpretations and then explain my own view.

  1. The Universal Church View: A common view in church history (Alcuin) and in the present day amongst idealists (Beale) and preterists (Wilson, Chilton) takes the 144,000 as a strictly symbolic number that represents the full number of the elect, or what we might call the Universal Church. They take this 144,000 to be identical to the innumerable multitude that John sees afterward.
  2. The Futurist View(s): Amongst futurists (those who believe Revelation 7 will take place in our future), some take the 144,000 as literal and descriptive of ethnic Jews who are converted to Christianity during the (future to us) Great Tribulation. Other futurists take the 144,000 as symbolic of ethnic Israel coming to faith at Christ’s second coming.
  3. The Symbolic Jewish View: This view sees the 144,000 as a different group from the innumerable multitude. These are Jewish Christians who are a symbolic “all Israel” taken from each tribe. In other words, they are a faithful remnant of ethnic Jews that are brought into the kingdom.
  4. My View: My view is that the 144,000 is symbolic but also probably literal, and refers to a group of 1st century Jewish Christians who were sealed and thus saved from death in the Great Tribulation. In the Old Testament, a census was a military act that mustered God’s holy army, so this is a group of 144,000 Jewish warriors who relaunch the church after the tribulation. When we get to Revelation 14 (which also has a 144,000), we will discuss whether or not that is the same group as this one. But until then I’ll summarize my view by saying, I do not believe the 144,00 is describing all the elect, but rather a subgroup within the elect who lived in the 1st century and hailed from each tribe. I think it is also possibly that there were exactly and literally 144,000 of these saints who were physically saved from persecution.

Q3. Who are the Innumerable Multitude?

We are told explicitly that “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). One of the reasons I think the Universal Church View of the 144,000 is wrong is because the Great Tribulation is a limited amount of time that was cut short in the 1st century for the sake of the elect (Matt. 24:22). If this innumerable multitude from “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” is coming out of that Great Tribulation, then this group must be limited to those Christians who were martyred within that time frame.

My view is that this innumerable multitude includes all those Christians from every nation under heaven who died in the Great Tribulation. Jesus said that prior to this tribulation and within one generation, the gospel would first go to all the nations. In this sense, there was an initial fulfillment of the Great Commission in the 1st century prior to AD 66 and the New Testament itself confirms this. I should note here that this does not mean the church no longer has the task of obeying the Great Commission, but simply that there was a global witness to the gospel in the 1st century. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 16:25-26 and Colossians 1:3-5 that the gospel had already been “made known to all nations” and was “bearing fruit in all the world.” It might seem impossible that the gospel could spread so rapidly, but remember that at Pentecost it says, “there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.” And then these Jews are given the supernatural gift of speaking in tongues. So in less than 40 years, the gospel of the kingdom was preached to the entire world such that Paul could apply Psalm 19 to the preaching of the word in Romans 10:18 when he says, “But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world.”

The Witness of Church History

Eusebius (260-339 AD) On The Church After Pentecost:
Tiberius, therefore, in whose time the name of Christian came into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated it to the Senate, and made it plain to them that he favoured the doctrine, but the Senate, because it had not itself tested it, rejected it; but he continued in his own opinion and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians.” For heavenly providence had designed putting this in his mind in order that the word of the Gospel might have an unimpeded beginning, and traverse the earth in all directions. Thus by the power and assistance of Heaven the saving word began to flood the whole world with light like the rays of the sun. At once, in accordance with the divine Scriptures, the voice of its inspired evangelists and Apostles “went forth to the whole earth and their words to the end of the world. In every city and village arose churches crowded with thousands of men, like a teeming threshing-floor.
(Eus., Hist. eccl. 2.2.6–3.2)

Eusebius (260-339 AD) Makes Distinction Between Roman Empire and Whole World:
The same writer has a still more remarkable account in which he alleges that an oracle was found in “sacred script” to the effect that at that time one from their country should rule the world and he himself considered that this was fulfilled by Vespasian. Yet he did not reign over the whole world, but only such part as was subject to the Romans, and it would be more justly referred to Christ, to whom it was said by the Father, “Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the ends of the earth for thy possession.” And it was of his holy apostles at that very time that “the sound went forth into all the earth and their words unto the end of the earth.”
(Eus., Hist. eccl. 3.8.10–11)

Phillip Doddridge summarizes the evidence saying:
It appears from the most credible records, that the gospel was preached in Idumea, Syria, and Mesopotamia, by Jude; in Egypt, Marmorica, Mauritania, and other parts of Africa, by Mark, Simon, and Jude; in Ethiopia, by Candace’s Eunuch, and Matthias; in Pontus, Galatia, and the neighbouring parts of Asia, by Peter; in the territories of the Seven Asiatic Churches by John; in Parthia, by Matthew; in Scythia, by Philip and Andrew; in the northern and western parts of Asia, by Bartholomew; in Persia, by Simon and Jude; in Media, Carmania, and several eastern parts, by Thomas; through the vast tract of Jerusalem round about unto Illyricum, by Paul; as also in Italy, and probably in Spain, Gaul, and Britain; in most of which places Christian churches were planted in less than thirty years after the death of Christ, which was before the destruction of Jerusalem.

So the gospel explodes and reaches all the nations in less than 40 years in fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in Mathew 24:14 and Mark 13:10. But remember that Jesus also said, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matt. 24:21). So whatever tribulation occurred in the 1st century had to have been worse than whatever genocides and persecution against Christians that have happened since. I believe that John is seeing what amounts to almost the entirety of the 1st century church being put to death. This innumerable multitude of martyrs are those who remained faithful even unto death and thus received the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).

Biblical Basis for a 1st Century Initial Fulfillment of The Great Commission

Matthew 24:14
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
*Note: Matthew 24:34 necessitates that this take place within one generation. “The end” referred to here is not the end of human history but of the Old Creation.

Mark 13:10
And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations.
*Note: Mark 13:30 necessitates that this take place within one generation.

Acts 2:5, 9-11
And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation (εθνους) under heaven…Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
*Note: The category of “Jew” is covenantal and not identical or limited to the category of ethnicity. The Pentecost event tells us that someone could be both a Jew and yet retain their national language and place of origin.

Romans 1:8
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world.
*Note: I believe Romans was written around AD 56/57 from Corinth (Acts 20:2).

Romans 16:25-26
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God.

Colossians 1:3-6
We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of your love for all the saints; because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as it has also in all the world and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth.
*Note: I believe Colossians was written in AD 60 while Paul was imprisoned in Rome.

Colossians 1:23
If indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.

All of these verses were spoken or written prior to AD 66. Too often we read the Great Commission passages (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15) and apply them directly to us living in the 21st century. But those were Jesus’ specific commands to the eleven disciples (as leaders of the church) which they literally obeyed. We can certainly reason by analogy and apply them to the church today, but we must not pretend that every Christian is called to be an apostolic missionary to the farthest reaches of the earth. That was a unique commission that Jesus personally assigned to his disciples (and those that joined them, like the Apostle Paul) and one which they carried out. At the same time, we should be greatly encouraged and motivated for foreign missions when we look back and see what is possible when God’s Spirit is on the church. If the entire globe was reached with the gospel in less than 40 years in the 1st century, why can’t God do the same thing in our generation? To that end we pray and labor. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.