WHY THE NUMBER 144,000?

PMT 2014-011 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

144 000A blog reader responded to my January 1, 2014 article (PMT 2014-001) regarding the 144,000. He asked: “Can you unravel how/why 12 squared times 1000 is significant to the original readers? What about that number to the original readers would lead them to think, ‘Oh that’s a number signifying a perfect amount of Jewish converts?’”

1. The Nature of Revelation

In the first place, no one would suggest Revelation is an easy book whose images leap out at you. John himself is left wondering about things within it from time to time (Rev 7:13, 14; 17:6-7).

In fact, in his opening sentence he informs his readers that the book is symbolic. Symbolism obviouislyi requires some thought. His introductory sentence is: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John.”  The word “communicated” is esemanen which could be translated “sign-ified,” i.e., symbolized.


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2.The Fact of the Number

Secondly, whatever the answer to your question is, the mysterious number 144,000 must mean something. John does specifically mention it. In Revelation John often — but not always —  informs us what the symbols mean.

In his very first vision (1:13–18), for instance, we might well imagine that the Son of Man is merely walking around a room with candlesticks in it, for John states: “I saw seven golden lampstands; and in the middle of the lampstands I saw one like a son of man” (1:12–13). But John tells us very clearly that this image speaks of Christ’s presence among the seven churches. “The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches” (1:20).

In Rev 17 an interpretive angel informs John that the seven heads of the beast do not really picture a grotesque polycephalic creature. Rather we read: “Here is the mind which has wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings” (17:9–10a).

Other samples appear elsewhere: the seven lamps are the “seven Spirits of God” (4:5); the seven eyes of the Lamb are “the seven Spirits of God” (5:6); the incense bowls are “the prayers of the saints” (5:8; 8:3–4); the dragon is “Satan’ (12:9); the “tabernacle” represents “those who dwell in heaven” (13:6); the frogs from the mouth of the dragon, beast, and false prophet are “unclean spirits” (16:13–14); the ten horns on the beast are “ten kings” (17:12); the waters of the harlot are “peoples and multitudes” (17:15); the fine linen is “the righteous acts of the saints” (19:8).

3. The Error in the Question

Finally, you are looking at the number wrongly, I believe. The number 144,000 does not stand alone, but derives from other expressly mentioned numbers in the context. John specifically lists 12 tribes, so we have the number 12 directly given to us by the historic fact of the 12 tribes of Israel.

But then the 144,000 results from the fact that each of the 12 tribes is multiplied by 1000. Hence, we have 12,000 from each of the 12 tribe times, which gives us the 144,000. So 12 is not randomly squared. Thus, the question ultimately is: Why is the number 1000 significant?

The number 1000 derives from 10 cubed. In Scripture 10 represents quantitative perfection — apparently based on the number of fingers on a man’s hand. Regarding the number ten in antiquity, its significance “no doubt derives from simple calculations on the fingers” (ISBE2 3:560). The Jewish Philosopher Philo speaks of “the perfect number ten” (Spec. 2:11 §41).

Therefore 10 speaks of completeness — as we see in there being ten commandments (Ex 34:28), ten plagues (Ex 7:8–11:10), a tithe (Ge 14:20; Nu 18:21), ten righteous men would have saved Sodom (Ge 18:32), Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins (Mt 25:1), and so forth (cp 12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 12, 16).

And the cube of 10 does not appear out of the blue in Revelation — in fact the color blue is not found in Revelation :). We find the number 1000 used throughout Scripture as designating completeness. Scripture often uses the value of 1000 symbolically.

For instance, God shows his mercy to a 1000 generations (Ex 20:6) — which suggests the perfect fullness of his grace (10 x 10 x 10). The Lord promises to make Israel a 1000 times more numerous than they are in Moses’ day (Dt 1:11) — bringing them to numerical fullness as a people. The Lord even claims the cattle on 1000 hills (Ps 50:10) — showing that he owns all the cattle of the earth. None of these statements should be interpreted literally.

Thus, the figure of 1000 more often than not expresses complete fullness, not an exact numerical accounting of 999 + 1.

So then, the 144,000 represents the fullness of Israel as found in the new covenant Church.


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14 thoughts on “WHY THE NUMBER 144,000?

  1. H Brown January 24, 2014 at 9:13 am

    What about: 144,000 = 120 squared and there were 120 in the upper room when the Holy Spirit baptised them. Perhaps this could symbolise the end of fleshly striving, given that the covenant of grace had just superceded the covenant of the law.

  2. Kenneth Gentry January 24, 2014 at 9:21 am

    This seems to me quite a stretch. But the 120 in Acts 2 is built on the same underlying numerical scheme as the 144,000. Both involve the number of the 12 tribes and multiplication based on an early value of 10. So rather than seeing John using Acts 2, I see Acts 2 and John using the same basic imagery.

  3. Nathan Chilton January 24, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Gentry, for an excellent explanation of the SIGNificance of the number 144,000, as used in the book of Revelation. I also think you answered the question regarding “the end of fleshly striving” very well.

  4. Blaine K. Newton January 24, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    H Brown: 120 squared actually equals 14,400, not 144,000…

    KG: Your interpretation of the number ‘1,000’ does seem convincing to me, so, no issues there for me on the notion of it referring to quantitative completeness…

    Now,in “12 x 12 x 1000 =, 144,000” could you have the first “12” representing the 12 tribes of Israel, like you mentioned, and the second 12 representing the 12 apostles? The two groups are defined to be the foundational pillars of the church, as in Ephesians 2:20, so could the message be that God preserved ALL Christians, Jew and Gentile alike, who were welled up in the city during the Roman siege?

  5. Kenneth Gentry January 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm

    Blaine:
    Your observation is the majority view. However, I don’t believe it is correct. John specifically names the 12 tribes in Rev 7 and does not mention the Apostles. However, in Rev 21 he does mention the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles. These two observations lead me to believe that if he had intended to be referring to the tribes and the apostles, he would have said so.

    Furthermore, the function of Rev 7 in Revelation narrative suggests that this refers to the “mother church” (e.g., Acts 15) at Jerusalem, which becomes the seed of the full church of Jew and Gentile.

  6. CJ February 3, 2014 at 11:15 pm

    Thanks for answering that.

  7. Blaine K. Newton February 4, 2014 at 11:06 am

    KG (not to be confused with Kevin Garnett) 🙂

    Regarding the number 144,000, I’m with you on the “1,000” representing quantitative completeness, and the first “12” representing the 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, most, if not all, preterists would agree on this part of it, I’m sure.

    I’m still not seeing how the additional “12” gets in there under your interpretation, though. If John is referring ONLY to the 12 tribes of Israel in this particular passage, why would he need to square the 12, given that the fullness of protection of the 12 tribes from the Romans is already guaranteed by the application of “1,000” to it? That is, if only the 12 tribes of Israel were in view in this passage, it would seem that John should have just put the number simply at 12,000, rather.than 144,000.

  8. Kenneth Gentry February 4, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    It appears to me that he is doubling his imagery. We might equally wonder why he cubes the number 10 to get 1000. But he does. We must recognize that the 144,000 are all specifically Jewish: each tribe is expressly mentioned. Therefore, it would not seem appropriate to include Gentiles in this picture. I see these as representing the remnant of Israel in Jerusalem, whom God protects as the flee in obedience to Christ (Luke 21:21).

  9. scaldaferri February 4, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Pastor Ken, I had a little doubt about Revelation 7, but you helped me a lot with this extraordinary commentary. I´d had not another better comment than this about this text.Thank you so much!

  10. Blaine K. Newton February 4, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Hmmmm… I just don’t see why it wouldn’t be appropriate… Even though the focus is certainly Jewish, surely there were plenty of Gentile Christians there at the time, and surely these Gentiles Christians would be afforded the same providential protection as Jewish Christians. No one can deny that the 12 tribes are all mentioned and the strong Jewish emphasis in that section of Revelation, but I don’t see why John couldn’t simply be including Gentile believers there as an aside, if you will, to show God’s protection of ALL his people, even though his particular emphasis is on the 12 tribes of Israel? Even though it’s not perfectly analoguous, maybe it could be seen as something like in Rev. 20, where John provides a brief glimpse into the future, even though his main point is not the future.

    I get that the book is primarily focused on the Jews and their fall from national prominence, but it still seems to me that the 144,000 is better explained by the more traditional interpretation.

    As for the 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000 aspect of it, maybe John cubes the number “10” to emphasize the quantitative completeness or fullness to an even greater degree by applying it in spatial terms. That wouldn’t seem to be applicable to “12”, though, since nothing in “12” conveys the quantitative perfection of “10”.

  11. Kenneth Gentry February 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Be aware too: the 12 x 12 is not necessarily a symbolic maneuver in itself. Remember: He speaks of 12,000 people drawn from each of the 12 tribes. So the 12 x 12 comes in “inadvertently,” if you will. That is, each of the 12 tribes has the perfect, symbolic number 1000, which causes the 144,000. You don’t get to the 144,000 by creating the number 12 x 12 = 144. Rather, there happened to be 12 tribes (which is a given), and from each of the 12 tribes are drawn 12 x 1000.

  12. Kenneth Gentry February 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Regarding your idea of a study of Lordship salvation: I may do that as a secondary blog study. I actually have a book on the topic: “Lord of the Saved.” It is available at: http://www.KennethGentry.com. See: http://www.kennethgentry.com/lord-of-the-saved-book-25-off/

  13. Blaine K. Newton February 5, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    The book was very helpful to me; I read it several years ago, and I do recommend it. The second blog might work well, but as a topic for laypeople, it almost seems to be too limited in scope for its own blog. Not that there isn’t much to discuss on this topic, but…I dunno, maybe I’m wrong! I just take the Lordship question for granted, so maybe I’m not seeing the degree of discussion it could bring.

    Although I said earlier that the relationship between Lordship salvation and eschatology is not direct, I do think it is sufficiently indirect to warrant inclusion in discussions on eschatology. The false law/grace dichotomy of earlier dispensationalists comes to mind. Premillennialists, particularly dispensationalists, will often apply the consequences of an ongoing sinful lifestyle with a forfeiture of future millennial kingdom blessings, rather than as an actual indication of a person who was never truly a believer. This situation really makes premillennialism a necessity when it comes to their attempted resolution of the Lordship question, because apart from it, they’d have nowhere else to assign the loss of inheritance of the kingdom spoken of.

  14. Kenneth Gentry February 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    I hope to touch on it in a few weeks, Lord willing — and my mind doesn’t fail me! By the way, by “secondary blog” I did not mean another blog site. I meant I might include it in the secondary (non-eschatological) section of my PostmillennialismToday blog. My main articles are eschatological; my secondary articles touch on other topics.

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