144,000: Literal or symbolic?

"Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel" (Revelation 7:4 NIV).

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I visited Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Fiji recently. In all three countries, I encountered the same question: is the 144,000 a real number of living saints at the end of time or is it symbolic? Will there be only 144,000 Seventh-day Adventists saved when Jesus returns?

The text in Revelation 7:4 was written by the apostle John. It is prophetic, yet not typical prophecy. The context is apocalyptic. The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation”, “disclosure” or “unveiling”.

The “revelation” about the 144,000 is exciting yet mingled with hesitance because the “unveiling” has not been entirely completed. Therefore, we should avoid speculation or an attempt to make the 144,000 an exclusive club.

In Revelation 6:12-16, John describes the apocalyptic events that precede the advent of Jesus Christ. In verse 17 the question is raised, “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (NKJV).

The responding “disclosure” is in Revelation 7. John “unveils” the 144,000 as saints who will stand triumphant, undeterred, undefiled and victorious when Jesus returns to earth.

As an apocalyptic prophecy, Revelation 7 is full of symbols. We do not see four angels holding back the literal winds of strife, do we? (7:1). Nor do we see an angel placing a literal mark on the foreheads of God’s children (7:2, 3). Just imagine what people would think if they saw us following an actual lamb or not getting married as a sign of our loyalty to God (14:4). The figures of speech in Revelation 7 are symbolic. So why would we interpret the 144,000 differently? We must be consistent in our interpretation.

"There is room for everyone who accepts Jesus Christ today as Lord and Saviour."

The 144,000 is an all-inclusive group of faithful followers who love Jesus and are obedient to His commandments (14:4, 5). They conquer the image of the beast, endure persecution (7:1-3; cf. 14:9-11; 13:15-18), stand victorious with Jesus Christ and sing the triumphant song of their experience with God (14:3). The number is therefore symbolic of God’s end-time universal church who make up spiritual Israel (7:4-8). They are the remnants who survive the shifting in Laodicea (3:14-22) and include those who respond to the loud cry of the third angel’s message when the image of the beast becomes law (15:2).

As “first fruits” of the final harvest, the 144,000 are part of a much more abundant harvest of people from the earth, beginning with Adam and Eve and including every soul who accepts Jesus Christ before the close of human probation. Individuals will be gathered before God from all nations of the earth. Those redeemed will be an enormous multitude of people no-one can count (7:9). They will celebrate before God and the throne day and night (7:10-12).

We should not worry ourselves with numbers. Space is not a problem for God. The 144,000 is only symbolic of saints portrayed in the Bible as faithful to God and ready to meet Jesus face-to-face at the end of time. There is room for everyone who accepts Jesus Christ today as Lord and Saviour.

Let’s break down denominational barriers. The 144,000 are faithful followers of Jesus Christ who make up the end-time universal church of God. The focus will not be on denominational distinction but instead on faith and loyalty to the reign of God in our lives.

Our responsibility then is not to worry about who makes up the 144,000. It only leads to a spirit of judgement and criticism. Instead, let’s strive to be among the 144,000 saints who will live to witness the return of Jesus Christ. We must be faithful to the daily reign of God in our lives in anticipation of His eternal kingdom.

Wow! What an awesome privilege to follow Jesus Christ.

Lord, what a fantastic promise that awaits each one of us. Please help us to be ready for Jesus to come. Should we be alive when Jesus returns, we pray that we too will be among the 144,000 living saints. May blessings, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour, power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen (Revelation 7:12).


Lomani Manu O’uiha is a pastor in the North New Zealand Conference.