Monday, April 15, 2024

Judeo-Christian Tension, Mystery, and the 144,000

Note: I was working on this post when CBS News broke into the Masters on Saturday, April 13 and announced Iran had launched an attack on Israel- interesting days for sure!

Part of what makes Scripture so powerful is its unique ability to stretch the imagination and stay elusive enough to keep our theology just a hair or two from being buttoned up. I'm not referring to essentials at all, just the edges.

I often quote Calvin here: “God limits our knowledge: First, that we should be kept humble and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellows.”

The last few weeks in the Book of Revelation have been that way once again. Particularly when the pages hit chapter 6 and everything that follows.

Revelation puts me in a strange disposition where everything I read or see while I am studying the book feels 'apocalyptic' or maybe a better word is 'mystical'.

An example would be this week as I was reading (and watching a lot of YouTube videos) about the 144,000 we find in Rev. 7 and again in Rev. 14.

My guess is that hypotheses and heresies generated by this section has birthed more cults than almost any other passage of Scripture in history. This week I observed evolving views of Jehovah's Witnesses as well as a multitude of 'church' theories dissecting everything from aliens to secret societies.

Personally, I still marvel at these sections as they remain a mystery. I, respectfully, can't be fully persuaded by dispensational narratives of this being a battalion of Jewish Great-Tribulation super troops who labor and produce a multitude of converts before the final day of judgement. Maybe they are right, but it doesn't resonate with me on multiple levels.

This week, I was reading and praying through these passages while on the news there is so much tension happening within our own country regarding this latest conflict in Gaza. And then of all things, I happened to watch an old documentary about Bob Dylan and his Jesus years in which he professed to be born again and produced three overtly Christian albums from 1979- 1981.

Back in the day, I owned and listened to the vinyl records "Slow Train Coming" and "Saved".

In the documentary, the reactions to Dylan's born again message was so interesting to me. He had long time followers boo him and walk out of concerts in San Francisco and was treated severely by music critics. But then again, he won a grammy for Slow Train Coming.

Where Dylan is spiritually today is also much of a mystery. But I found this time in his life and his lyrics quite fascinating!

The documentary served as a perfect backdrop from what I was seeing on the MSM news cycles as well as the pages of Scripture.

I also wanted to mention that when I start teaching on Revelation 7 and 14, I am often surprised that this section evokes a lot of passionate pushback. Originally, I presented my material to a Sunday School group in Nashville, TN (Christ Presbyterian Church- PCA) around 2009 and I had a lady in the audience stay after the class and she went after me about as hard as anyone ever has after a session. She said that I was hurting a lot of people, was anti-semitic, and was pedaling a 'replacement theology' that was going to bring God's wrath on me unless I corrected it in the future.

I was too new in the material at the time to have much to say other that to try and be empathetic, listen intently to her, and apologizing to her if I offended her in any way along with a prayer that we both would continue to search out the Scriptures in a way that would always honor the Lord and the truth of His Word.

In the documentary this week on Dylan, I observed a lot of that same passion.

Another complicating factor I learned this week was that there are Christian churches in Gaza that are suffering from the conflict going on from both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side. I had no clue that was happening!

In my readings this week, looking back over old notes, and peeking at the current headlines- I am more convinced than ever that this Book of Revelation needs to stay close to us. I tend to drift from it, because there is so much mystery here- but reading Paul has the same impact. Do you remember what Peter wrote?

 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. [15] And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, [16] as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14–16 ESV)

So in an effort to till the soil once again, let's look at some of these issues using Romans 11, Revelation 7, and Revelation 14 as a foundation for observation and analysis.

There is a sense in which the entire New Testament, the early days of gospel expansion after the ascension of Jesus is a wrestling match and questions about what to make of this new event in history after 400 years of silence.

I felt the tension this week and it occurred to me that we have
-the wrestling over the relationship of Jews and Christians
-the conflict of the City of Man (Babylon) and the City of God (Jerusalem)
-the war between the unholy trinity (dragon, the beast, the false prophet) and the Holy Trinity (Father. Son, Spirit).

I see it in Acts and especially in the writings of Paul. Think of Paul's amazing conversion.... he formerly was hunting down and persecuting the very people he is now supporting!

His dramatic questions likely vocalize this turmoil:

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:3 

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? (Romans 2:26 ESV)

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? (Romans 3:1 ESV)

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, (Romans 3:9 ESV)

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, (Romans 3:29 ESV)

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? [2] By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1–2 ESV)

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:15 ESV)

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7 ESV)

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31 ESV)

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! (Romans 9:14 ESV)

The Lord Himself expresses this turmoil of the ages.....

But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21 ESV)

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. (Romans 11:1 ESV)

Throughout the entire Book Of Romans, Paul takes great care in outlining his case in light of the gospel. Chapter 1 NO ONE is justified, Chapter 2 even the Jews with the Law and the Promise... as he begins to introduce this glorious gospel message.

But take some time to carefully read Romans 11 (especially in light of Romans 9) and notice the stream of salvation- TRUE Jews as they looked forward to the promise of a Messiah in the shadow and types of the sacrificial system, then the sacrifice of the Lamb of God opening the stream to both Jew and Gentile- and Paul's lament over Israel along with his confidence in God's plan. 

I especially love the image of the grafting in of the wild branches with the warning to the Gentiles, 'Don't get arrogant'....

And the Holy hint that there will be a fulfillment of Gentile converts and then, somehow, a new wave of Jewish converts, remnants... "chosen by grace"!

Read that chapter as a backdrop to this description of the 144,000. (12x12x 1000)

So let's now peek at Revelation- I wanted to start with the LAST verse of Rev 6.

 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, [16] calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17 ESV)

 Revelation 7 seems to answer that question... (notice the FIGURATIVE BEGINNING)

also- I haven't taken time to discuss the 'seal'- protected and owned by the King! We have His stamp on us! And His spirit that seals us until the Day of Redemption!

[1] After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. [2] Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” [4] And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,

12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,

12,000 from the tribe of Gad,

 12,000 from the tribe of Asher,

12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,

12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,

 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,

12,000 from the tribe of Levi,

12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,

 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,

12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,

12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

[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, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” [11] And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

[13] Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

and then more info about the 144,000 in Rev 14, right after the naming of the beast and his number of 666.

Revelation 14:1–5
[1] Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads. [2] And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, [3] and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. [4] It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, [5] and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless. (ESV)

What then is this group?

As I look at it, the vision in Revelation 7 is a picture of the stream of God's salvation throughout history and the fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham.

And there is a hint on WHO is in the 144,000 (which I believe is a symbolic number)

We can grab a clue from how the tribes are listed- 

There are 13 named tribes in Israel, not twelve. Jacob bore twelve sons, but later Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons in place of Joseph after moving to Egypt. Thereafter, the sons of Jacob were:

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin

Secondly, there are at least 19 lists of Jacob's sons given in the Old Testament: Gen. 35:22-26; 46:8-25; 49:3-27; Exod. 1:2-5; Num. 1:5-15; 2:3-31; 13:4-15; 26:4-51; 34:19-28; Deut. 27:12-13; 33:6-25; Josh. 13:7-22; Judg. 5:12-18; 1 Chron. 2:1-8:40; 12:24-37; 27:16-22; Ezek. 48:1-7, 23-28, 31-34

Reviewing these lists, we usually find all thirteen tribes included though sometimes a tribe is left out (usually Levi). For example, in Numbers 1, 2, 13, and 26, the tribe of Levi is left out. In other cases, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim, and Manasseh are combined under just the name Joseph. In one case, multiple tribes are missing (i.e., Judge 5). So, we see that it's not unusual for scripture to leave names out when listing the tribes of Israel.

But then we have the list in Revelation 7. This list is unique in a several ways. First, it is the only list of the tribes of Israel in scripture to exclude Dan. Secondly, it is the only list to include Joseph in place of only one of his sons instead of both sons. Specifically, Joseph and Manasseh appear in the Revelation 7 list but Ephraim does not. Perhaps the exclusions of Dan and Ephraim are related?

Thirdly, the territories originally allotted to the tribes of Ephraim and Dan bordered one another in Canaan, but during the time of Judges Dan rejected its claim and moved north to occupy a part of the territory of Naphtali.

Finally, even though the name Joseph is listed in Revelation 7, no territory or tribe of Joseph actually exists. Joseph didn’t receive a portion in the land. His two sons were adopted by Jacob and received Joseph’s double portion instead. This raises the question how can there be 12,000 men from "Joseph"  when no such tribe of people exists?

Given these clues, we can offer speculation on why Dan and Ephraim are missing from the list.

In Judges 17-21 we're given two stories of apostasy in Israel. Both stories center on the tribes of Dan and Ephraim and on the city of Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, God's choice for king over Israel. The writer of Judges emphasizes in these chapters that these were the days before Israel had a king.

In those chapters of Judges, Dan sinned by viewing the land God allotted to them as unacceptable, so they abandoned it. While passing through Ephraim, they stole idols from a home and recruited a Levite to serve in a false temple in the new territory. As a result, Dan became the first tribe in Israel to embrace idol worship in Israel.

Meanwhile, the tribe of Ephraim, the source of the idols, assumed control over the land originally intended for Dan. They aided and abetted the Danites in bringing idolatry into the land of Israel. 

Furthermore, since the tribe of Manasseh is already included in the list of Revelation 7, then we know that the tribe of Joseph can't represent his two sons, as is usually the case in scripture. Instead, Joseph still represents two tribes, but in this case Joseph replaces Dan and Ephraim, tribes historically and geographically linked by their conspiracy to introduce rebellion and idolatry into Israel. So they were excluded from this list by name with the name Joseph standing in their place.

Such a substitution allowed the Lord to retain the symmetry of twelve tribes while drawing attention to these tribes' joint contribution to idolatry in Israel. Since there is no literal tribe of Joseph, in a sense, we could say that Dan and Ephraim were “hidden” in Joseph. If so, then the 12,000 men of the tribe of Joseph will actually be Danites and Ephraimites.

I believe this is why they are mentioned as "VIRGINS" in Rev. 14

No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth. [4] It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. 

There is a GREAT chance that the reference to virgins here is figurative- the one thing that pushes back is that it has a qualifying phrase attached to it (It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins). 

If it is literal, I have joked then maybe the number isn't as small as it seems and hearkens to Christ's reference to eunuchs after his teaching on divorce in Matthew 19

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” [11] But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. [12] For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:10–12 ESV) 

and we can also remember the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 as a cross reference.

Why do I lean towards figurative virgins? Again, it is more of a default mode as I read the Book itself and its highly apocalyptic imagery. The beginning of Revelation 7 speaks of 4 corners of the earth and holding back 4 winds. It all has cubic symmetry as well as the 144,00 number itself. 

In the Old Testament, Israel's idolatry was symbolized quite frequently as adultery and sexual immorality.
It even had it's own sexually transmitted disease (STD) resulting in "Sensory Organ Malfunction" 

‘Sensory Organ Malfunction Imagery’ is the Biblical language for idolatry. We become callous and hardened toward God because we are worshiping other things. As a result, we grow less sensitive to our God and His ways. He is foreign to us and He begins to fade. We do not hear Him, we do not see Him, and we do not speak of Him. When we do think of Him, it is often as an expedient. We feel the need to tag Him as a superstitious ritual in solving a mess. But there is no sense of His Lordship and no heart desire to seek Him.

Sadly, culture tries to teach us us how to live without God. In our media-model culture, God is seldom referred to as a part of everyday life.

In stark contrast to men and women of the Scriptures, we sense only weakly the presence of the Creator.

 The saints of old had a daily awareness, but we are so immersed into the media view of world that we compartmentalize Him and allow Him to speak only on Sundays or in a Bible Study. We live with little or no sensitivity to God working in our life.

 It has been said that worldliness is what any culture does to make sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange. We go into life as blind as the idol makers of the Old Testament days. The gods we serve are empty of power and we curse the heavens because God won’t show Himself. Who moved?


When we abandon the Lord to chase idols- we become like them: mute, blind, deaf, and powerless.

Psalm 115

4 Their idols are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

5 They have mouths, but do not speak;

eyes, but do not see.

6 They have ears, but do not hear;

noses, but do not smell.

7 They have hands, but do not feel;

feet, but do not walk;

and they do not make a sound in their throat.

8 Those who make them become like them;

so do all who trust in them.

So I have laid out my reasons for believing the 144,000 is a symbolic number of those who will be found in heaven, a remnant with God's seal from the nation of Israel according to the original promise to Abraham. 

There is a mystery surrounding it- but even Paul seemed to be wrestling with it in Romans, especially chapter 11.

There is a clue or hint to his understanding here- notice some of the similar parallels to the description of the 144,000.

God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? [3] “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” [4] But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” [5] So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. [6] But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:2–6)

I also want to say AGAIN that I greatly respect others who will say these a tribulation saints who labor for God during the great tribulation. And I do not support replacement theology, I support expansion theology.

And I do want to support the current Nation of Israel and the Jewish people- I AM NOT an anti-semite... but I also believe that any Jewish person needs to carefully consider the Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise of a Messiah and salvation is through His NAME alone.

(note: There are harsh rebukes toward Jews in the New testament and the early church Fathers- even the Book of Revelation says "synagogue of Satan"- tough words! But God is TOUGH on His people ((severity and kindness in Roman 11)) as well as Jesus was in John 8:39-48!)

In the end, THIS MYSTERY does not hinder my ability to trust and worship God. I LOVE how Paul finally writes, under the direction of God's Spirit about all of this- it is OK to NOT understand some things...

This struggle ultimately has to be left in the depths of God's plan, will, and wisdom... Paul cries out at the end of Chapter 11

 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

[34] “For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
[35] “Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
[36] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
 (Romans 11:33–36 ESV)

And as Romans 11 comes to a close- we see the end of the theological beauty and immediately go into the application of this new light.... the glorious gospel of Christ that allows all men to be saved by grace through faith!

As we move forward into some hard passages in Revelation I tend to keep going back to this beautiful picture of people who have been REDEEMED in Rev. 7 and then I skip ahead to the amazing picture of paradise in Revelation 22.

If I keep these two Chapters in full view, I can struggle with understanding stuff in between! 

How about you?

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