A guest post by Brian Godawa:
All my life I’ve heard debate about “the 144,000” of the book of Revelation. The typical Evangelical “Left Behind” interpretation is that they are a literal number of 144,000 Jews, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, who are sealed by God for protection during a Great Tribulation of God’s judgments upon the earth. This Tribulation is a seven-year period in our near future that begins usually after the rapture of Christians from the earth. But it supposedly consummates God’s plan for the nation of Israel. These 144,000 become believers in Jesus as Messiah and preach the gospel so that a multitude are saved before Christ returns.
There’s only one problem with this interpretation. It’s wrong.
The solution to the dilemma is found in the context of the Apocalypse. Here are the two passages in Revelation that speak of the 144,000:
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, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel (Revelation 7:2–4).
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. . . . It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb (Revelation 14:1, 4).
Actually, the basic “Left Behind” interpretation mentioned above is not completely wrong. It gets some things right. Yes, the 144,000 are sealed by God for protection during the Tribulation, and yes, they are Jewish believers in Jesus. But that is where fact leaves off and fiction begins with the “Left Behind” view.
Timing is Everything
The biggest failure of this view is in the timing. This “Left Behind” view is also called “futurism” because it believes that this Tribulation is in our future. Jesus had foretold this Tribulation would occur when he said, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt 24:21). But here’s the problem with futurism. The apostle John wrote very explicitly that the Tribulation was occurring in the first-century at the time of his writing of Revelation.
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos (Revelation 1:9).
You can’t get any more biblical than that. The Apostle John saying that he was going through “the Tribulation” as he wrote the book of Revelation! The Tribulation is not in our future. It was in John’s day.
It so happens, that during that time that John was writing, approximately AD 65, the Neronic persecution of Christians was in full tilt, which was followed by the Roman invasion and destruction of the land of Israel, and its holy city Jerusalem and temple in AD 70.
Wait a second. Didn’t Jesus say the Tribulation was “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be”? How could John have been referring to the first century if that was not the greatest of all historical tribulations?
The answer is quite simple. The phrase is common ancient Hebrew hyperbole that was used to describe the spiritual ramifications of an historical event. Daniel used the same exact phrase when he described the first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BC.
For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem (Daniel 9:12).
Ezekiel used the same hyperbole when describing the same destruction of city and temple:
And because of all [Israel’s] abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again (Ezekiel 5:9).
Does God contradict himself? Was the first destruction of the city and temple any greater than the destruction of the city and temple in AD 70? Of course not. It was a way of describing the same kind of spiritual devastation that occurred in both time periods. This is akin to our saying, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” when in fact, we have. There is nothing more serious in its spiritual ramifications than the destruction of the incarnation of God’s covenant with Israel.
Flee to the Mountains
But that’s not all. Jesus said something important right before he warned about the great tribulation that was coming within the lifetime of his hearers (Matt 23:36; 24:34). He told the Jewish Christians who lived in Judea to flee to the mountains.
then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath (Matthew 24:16–20).
Fleeing to the mountains would be of no effect in our modern world. There is no geographical “safe space” in Israel. But in the first century, when the Romans were surrounding Jerusalem with their armies, there was. It would make sense for Christians to get out of the city and flee to the mountains to avoid the wrath about to come.
And that’s exactly what they did. The ancient Church historian Eusebius tells us:
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.1
This all fits with a “preterist” interpretation of the book of Revelation: that its prophecies were fulfilled in our past. They were not for our future, but the future of that original first-century audience, now long since in our past. Revelation’s main purpose is not to speak of the end of time or end of the world, but rather to declare the final judgment upon the Jews for rejecting and murdering their Messiah (Rev 1:7), and to affirm the divorce of Old Covenant Israel with God’s marriage to the New Covenant bride of Christ (Rev 21). This was achieved through the desolation of Jerusalem and the temple by the Roman armies of Titus in AD 70. By destroying the earthly elements of the Old Covenant, God was dissolving that Old Covenant and replacing it with the New Covenant in real historical time.
The 144,000, therefore, were those Jewish Christians in first-century Israel, and more particularly in the city of Jerusalem, who were protected from God’s wrath by leaving the city and fleeing to the mountains before it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Were there exactly 144,000, or was that number merely symbolic? It doesn’t really matter. Although, the biblical usage of numbers like 12 tribes multiplied by 12 apostles multiplied by 1000, the number of perfect completion, is a little too obvious to deny.
If you are have been taught the “futurist” that Revelation is about our future, you may at first find it difficult to accept this fulfillment in the past. Your paradigm is so different, you cannot picture how this story plays out.
That’s why I’ve done it for you. I am writing a novel series called Chronicles of the Apocalypse, that tells the story of the book of Revelation in the first century through the eyes and experience of first century Jews, Christians, and Romans. It shows how all the imagery and language of Revelation is fulfilled in that AD 70 judgment upon the land of Israel, with its holy city and temple. I tell the story of the Great Tribulation in the first-century and the 144,000 Jewish Christians fleeing to the mountains. But I do so through historical yet entertaining fiction. The first two novels, Tyrant: Rise of the Beast, and Remnant: Rescue of the Elect, are already available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook format at Amazon.com.
Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), and an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim).
- Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 138.(↩)