About once a month, I have a student from some university call looking to interview me on my religious views, what Presbyterians believe, or some such questions. Do you all get these calls too?
A recent call went something like this: This well-meaning student launched right off with his first question, “Do you believe the church you pastor is the one referred to in Revelation as being sealed (i.e. the 144,000)?” Maybe it was a question from his professor. Perhaps he is just on the prowl for a certain answer, to explore certain church traditions. But I felt like the question itself was already 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….”
It is a fantastical vision. And I’m not saying it can’t happen. The question is why would I think it is not full of symbol and hidden meaning, much like the rest of the Bible? (I didn’t take Jesus literally when he said “take up this mountain and fling it into the sea” or “pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin”. Not many pirates among us. We really do need to look with better eyes than that.)
I remember many years ago some Jehovah Witnesses came knocking on my door. One of their first statements to be was, “Do you want to be one of the 144,000 that are saved?” These days you don’t hear them ask this question, now that their numbers have exceeded 144,000. Their biblical ethic seemed inadequate, so they ditched that emphasis in favor of another ethic. To complicate matters for those who want to revise the number, but still take the rest of the passage literally: There will be no women in this number saved. And of the men, none of them have ever had sex. These are the unmarried and completely chaste. Leave anyone out? I probably left most of my readers out.
So what are we to make of this? How are we to read Revelation? First, we need to give ourselves permission to not always take the Bible literally, but to read it for its deeper meanings. (I hardly think that the kingdom of heaven is JUST like Jesus said – an actual mustard seed. Of course there are metaphors!)
Next, we need to explore the images and metaphors of this passage. How are we to take these dramatic pictures of the throne, and visions of salvation of the world? What is behind these images that represent the faithful picture of salvation?
Additionally, we need to understand that in Revelation, numerology is important. 7 is a holy number. 7 times 77, something that Jesus used in reference to “how many times one should forgive,” is considered not 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 “unfathomable amount of 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 speaking literally. 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 funerals and dark times. They are reassurance of God’s sovereignty, and our desire to be allegiant to the Lamb and bow before the throne.