The 144,000

Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #8)

When last we left our studies in Bible prophecy, Jesus had broken four of the seven seals on a scroll that serves as the title deed to the earth. The breaking of these four seals had produced the first four of the so-called Seal Judgments that will strike the earth in the opening half of the tribulation period. In these first four judgments, we were introduced to four symbolic riders on horses, riders known as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” These riders had brought the Antichrist, warfare, famine, and death to the earth, and in their wake had left one-fourth of the world’s entire population dead.

Simple reasoning, then, tells us there are still three seals left on that scroll, and Jesus isn’t about to leave those unbroken. However, before I move on to the opening of those remaining three seals, I need to devote a post to a group of men known as “The 144,000.”  This has to be done because the events of the fifth seal simply cannot be understood apart from this group.

The question is often asked, “Will people get saved during the tribulation period?” The Bible’s answer is a clear and emphatic, YES. As a matter of fact, multiplied millions of people will accept Christ as their Savior during the tribulation period, enough so that the period is often described as the greatest time of revival the world will ever know.

But how will all of these people hear about Jesus? I mean, if the true church is gone because every Christian has been raptured away, who will preach the gospel following the Rapture? I’ll tell you who. It will be 144,000 specially chosen Jews – 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. These Jewish evangelists have been called “144,000 apostle Pauls.”

It’s a shame that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and some other religious groups have laid claim to being the 144,000 evangelists of Revelation chapter 7. While the Bible does teach that, in a sense, Abraham is the (spiritual) father of “all those who believe” (Romans 4:9-12, Galatians 3:6-9), this in no way gives anyone the right to spiritualize the meaning of Revelation 7:1-8 and thus do away with its distinctly Jewish flavor. To do so is to imply that God has completely written off literal Israel for all time, an assertion that simply cannot be supported by scripture. To the contrary, Romans 11:1-36 explains that Israel’s current rejection of Jesus is not final and that God isn’t finished with Israel. So, as Harry Ironside says in his commentary notes on Revelation 7:1-8: “Whenever I meet people who tell me they belong to the 144,000, I always ask them, ‘Which tribe, please?’ They are invariably confused for lack of an answer.”

One of the best ways to understand how God gets His evangelistic work done in the world is to analogize Jews and Gentiles as two trains. Throughout the centuries of Genesis chapters 1-11, God got His evangelistic work done by means of the Gentile train as He worked through Gentiles such as Adam, Enoch, and Noah to teach others about Himself. The Jews, after all, weren’t even in existence yet during those centuries.

Things changed, though, in Genesis chapter 12 as God called the Gentile Abram (Abraham) to leave his home in Ur and head out to a land that God would show him. Not only did God promise to grant Abram (Abraham) and his wife Sarai (Sarah) a son, He promised to make Abraham into a great nation through which the entire world would be blessed. That calling was the beginning of the Jewish people – the Jewish train we might say – as Abraham became the first Jew and the father of the Jewish nation.

Beginning with Abraham, then, and going all the way up through Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, God primarily worked through the Jewish train to get His evangelistic work done in the world. The Jews had God’s mark of circumcision upon their males. The Jews had God’s law. The Jews had God’s chosen land of Canaan. The Jews had God’s prophets, priests, and kings. The Jews had God’s tabernacle and temple. The Jews had God’s sacrificial system. The Jews had God’s holy scriptures. The Jews had God’s promise of a Messiah who was to come. You talk about a well-equipped train! And God wanted the Jews to take all of those spiritual advantages and blessings and use them to be a spiritual light unto the world and to teach the Gentiles about Him.

By in large, though, the Jewish nation failed at the task assigned to them, and that failure reached its climax when the nation’s religious leaders rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah and got Him crucified instead. Therefore, in the aftermath of that rejection, there came a time when God, to use our analogy, pulled the Jewish train off onto a sidetrack and began working primarily through the Gentile train to get His evangelism done. The beginning of this change is found in Acts chapter 9 as God called Saul of Tarus, who would become better known as the apostle Paul, to bear His name before Gentiles (Acts 9:15). The change then continued as Peter evangelized a group of Gentiles led by a man named Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), and Paul and Barnabas headed out on their first missionary journey to Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3). What was happening? God was easing the Jewish train over onto a sidetrack so that the Gentile train could become His primary means of getting His evangelistic work done in the world.

Nowadays, the Gentile train continues to roll on as God’s primary vessel for evangelism. The vast majority of Christians are Gentile. The vast majority of churches are Gentile. The vast majority of preachers, pastors, and Bible teachers are Gentile. The vast majority of missionaries are Gentile.

As for the unsaved Jews, they exist as a spiritually blinded people (Romans 11:1-7) whom God simply cannot use for His work of saving souls. This is a sad but true reality, and this status quo will continue until the moment of the Rapture. Immediately following the Rapture, however, it’s the Gentile train that gets pulled over onto the sidetrack as the Jewish train begins to roll once again as God’s main means of evangelizing the world. And who will be the ones conducting that Jewish train? The 144,000 Jewish evangelists.

As for the description of these Jews, first we’re told they are “redeemed from the earth” and “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:3-4). This means that these Jews will place their belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and thus become Christians (Galatians 3:13, Ephesians 1:7, Titus 2:14). Since they miss out on the Rapture, their salvation experiences must occur immediately following it in the earliest days of the tribulation period.

Second, these Jews are called “servants” of God (Revelation 7:3). The Greek word used for “servants” is doulos, which is a word that Paul and others used to describe the most dedicated relationship with Jesus. Some translations translate the word as “bond-servants.” Others go with “slaves.” As you can tell, these 144,000 Jewish evangelists will be far from “casual Christians.”

Third, these Jews will be “virgins” “who were not defiled with women” (Revelation 14:4). While marriage is God’s plan for most lives, and God certainly uses married people in His service, both Jesus (Matthew 19:12) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) spoke words of praise for individuals who, in God’s will, remain unmarried so they can devote themselves completely to the things of the Lord. The world is saturated with illicit sex now, and we can only assume this saturation will grow worse as human history marches forward. We can imagine, then, how bad it will be in the tribulation period after the world’s Christians have been raptured away. In spite of it all, though, these 144,000 will remain virgins and keep themselves from defilement. This will prove them as worthy candidates for their divine calling.

Fourth, these Jews will be “firstfruits to God and to the Lamb” (Revelation 14:4). This phrase can be understood in various ways. It can mean these 144,000 will literally be the first people to get saved in the tribulation period. Or, it can mean they will be the first of the remnant of Jews who will accept Christ as their Messiah in the tribulation period. Then again, it can also mean that, like the Old Testament law’s firstfruits offerings, they will be set apart especially for God (Leviticus 23:9-14, Deuteronomy 26:1-11).

Fifth, these Jews will carry “the seal of the living God” upon their foreheads (Revelation 7:1-4). Will this seal be a visible mark? It’s possible. Historically speaking, God’s mark upon Jewish males was circumcision, and that was certainly a visible mark (Genesis 17:1-27). But, on the other hand, it’s also possible that this special seal won’t be visible. The New Testament teaches that the indwelling Holy Spirit serves as the seal for each Christian (Ephesians 4:30), but others can’t see this seal.

About all we can say for sure about the seal the 144,000 Jews will carry is that it will be a seal of protection. We know this because we’re told that in the tribulation period no harm will be allowed to come to the sea or the trees of planet earth until each of the 144,000 receives his seal (Revelation 7:1-3). This means that no matter what happens upon the earth during the events of the tribulation period, these 144,000 Jews will be protected from harm until they have fulfilled their ministry.

And how long will that ministry be? It will last for the first three-and-a-half years of the tribulation period. But that will be long enough for them to evangelize the entire world. Have you ever heard Christ’s words from Matthew 24:14? “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come”? If you’ve heard those words, do you know the specific context in which Jesus spoke them? He spoke them as a part of The Olivet Discourse, His greatest teaching on the tribulation period.

You see, the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s promise about the gospel being preached in all the world and the end coming has nothing to do with current internet sites or the satellite ministries of televangelists, as helpful in evangelistic work as these might be. No, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise will take place in the tribulation period after the Rapture, and it will happen by way of the 144,000 sealed and protected Jewish evangelists who take the gospel into the whole world of human civilization.

And how many people will these Jews win to Christ? The Bible doesn’t give us an exact number, but it does describe the group as “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9, 13-14). Prophecy expert David Reagan tells the story of how he once called Zola Levitt, a Jewish Christian, and asked his thoughts on the ministry of the 144,000. Levitt told him, “Before the tribulation is over, we (Jews) are going to convert more people to Jesus than you Gentiles have done in the past 2,000 years.” He’s probably right.

Still, on this subject, there is one last thing that I should probably mention. Many students of prophecy take 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 to mean that no one who hears a clear presentation of the gospel and has a chance to get saved before the Rapture will get saved after the Rapture. According to the popular interpretation of the passage, because these people “did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved” God will “send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie (the Antichrist),” and that delusion will keep them from believing in Jesus as Savior.

Even if this popular interpretation is accurate (and I tend to believe it is), it still leaves open the matter of just how much pre-Rapture rejection it will take to condemn a person. As noted prophecy teacher Charles Ryrie writes, “Is listening to a gospel message in church or on the radio or TV and not receiving the message sufficient?” Ryrie then goes on to point out that indifference to the gospel might not be the same as outright hardness in rejecting it.

In the end, Ryrie admits that the question is a very difficult one to answer, and I agree with him. That’s why I would strongly encourage anyone who hears the gospel in this pre-Rapture time to act upon it and believe in Jesus as Savior. Counting on one of the 144,000 Jewish evangelists to win you to Christ in the tribulation period is way too dicey. You just never know what kind of state you will be in during those strange days, and it might just be that the message that will sound more appealing to you at that time will be the message (the lie) of the Antichrist rather than the message of Jesus Christ.

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