144,000. Really?

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Ezra 7:(1-10)11-26Rev. 14:1-13Matt. 14:1-12

Occasionally I have a student from some university call looking to interview me about what Presbyterians believe, or some such questions.  Recently I got one of those calls.  And I finally got a ZINGER of a question.  This student wanted to know if I believed that our church was part those referred to in Revelation as being sealed (i.e. the 144,000).

Maybe it was a question from his professor.  Maybe he wanted to see my reaction.  Nevertheless, even the question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the book of Revelation.  And here is what I mean:

Those who believe that every word in the Bible is literally true are in deep trouble today.

144,000 stand with the Lamb on Mount Zion and approach the throne.  The 144,000 sing a new song before the throne, and no one else can learn the song except those.  These are those who have been redeemed from the earth.  “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins….”

I remember many, many years ago some Jehovah Witnesses came knocking on my door.  One of their first statements to me was, “Do you want to be one of the 144,000 that are saved?”  They have realized this question gets them absolutely no where so you don’t hear them ask this question anymore.  But do you know when they really ditched the question?  When their numbers exceeded 144,000!  Their biblical ethic seemed inadequate, so they changed to another ethic.  Oops.  Talk about flawed theology!

To complicate matters, if you are tempted to revise the number, but still take the rest of the passage literally, let me warn you: There will be no women in this number saved.  And of the men saved, none of them have ever had sex.  These are the unmarried and completely chaste among us.  Leave anyone out?  I probably left most of my readers out.

I hope I’ve made my point.  First, we need to give ourselves permission to not always take the Bible literally, but to read it for its deeper truths and meanings.  (I hardly think that the kingdom of heaven is JUST like Jesus said – an actual mustard seed.  Of course there are metaphors!)  We need to come at the Bible and look for DEEP TRUTHS, not surfacey trite statements.

We need to become explorers again.  This is where we Presbyterians have an advantage and can show the way.  We are good at study, and we think a lot (sometimes we over-think and it gets us stuck, but go with me on this).  We need to engage our imaginations and explore these metaphors and the depth of God’s Word for us, and help others get deep into God’s Word too!

What are we to make of these dramatic pictures of the throne, and visions of salvation of the world?

In Revelation, numerology is important too.  7 is a holy number.  7 times 77, something that Jesus used in reference to “how many times one should forgive,” is not considered to be 539, but meaning more along the lines of “forgive a WHOLE LOTTA times”.  It is a number too big to count.  In the same manner, 40 days in the wilderness, or raining for “40 days and 40 nights” is code for “a long, long time.”  40 years in the wilderness is an “unfathomably long time,” so large we all lost track of how long it really was.

And so here, our number 144,000, ties in with the disciples.  The number of disciples grew from 12, to 12 times 12, and that grew 1,000 times!  The writer of Revelation is saying, “The number of those saved is too large to be counted, but it will stem from those who heard and understood the Word.”

Rarely do I see Revelation – or much of the Bible – speaking literally.  It is far too complex for that!  It is a dramatic portrait of God at work to conclude creation.  That which was begun in Genesis, and fell victim to sin, is cleaned up.  Another way to say it is, “In the end, nothing can resist the power of God.”

This ultimately is great reassurance, especially to a readership that was under persecution.  To hear that beyond their daily lives, God was in control and God had a plan, was great reassurance.  The same was true of many of the African slaves, who when the going got tough, their theology and songs focused more on the afterlife, redemption, and freedom from this world’s pain.

It is no wonder that we turn to Revelation at dark times – we come for reassurance of God’s sovereignty, and see our life’s purpose, and that by the end of the story, nothing will be able to resist the power of God.


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