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Are the 144,000 literal or symbolic in number?

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

Hi guys this is Phil Evangelinos and this a series of videos where I scrutinise all major teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses under the lens of correct Bible interpretation.This is the second part on the 144,000, I strongly recommend you go back and watch the first part, so today I'm exploring another aspect of the 144,000 one for which you will find countless videos on YouTube and that is : Is the number 144,000 literal or symbolic?

One of the denominations that treats this number as a central doctrine are the Jehovah's Witnesses and that is because their founder spend some years with the Seventh Day Adventists who too also fixate with this number and so was their founder Elen G. White. They too encountered the same problem when their membership surpassed this number so there was a change in understanding, they started treating the number as symbolic whereas Jehovah's Witnesses doubled down and instead created two classes of Christians one of a definite number of Christians of 144,000 with a heavenly hope and one of an earthly hope, the great crowd or great multitude as others translations render the passage in Revrlation 7.

So today I consider 3 lines of reasoning which I believe demonstrare that the number 144,000 is literal which are based in solid Bible interpretation rules unlike preconceived ideas many use to impregnate the text with their own understanding.


The first comes from analysing the structure of the context in Revelation 7:4,9.There we read:"And I heard the number of those who were sealed, 144,000, sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel...After this I saw, and look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes; and there were palm branches in their hands"

After the apostle John was told in vision about this group of 144,000 individuals, he was shown another group. John describes this second group as “a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.” This great crowd refers to those who will survive the coming “great tribulation,” which will destroy the present wicked world.​—Revelation 7:9, 14. Note, however, the contrast that John draws between verses 4 and 9 of Revelation chapter 7. He states that the first group, “those who were sealed,” has a definite number. However, the second group, “a great crowd,” is without a definite number. With that in mind, it is logical to take the number 144,000 to be literal. If the number 144,000 were symbolic and referred to a group that is actually numberless, the force of the contrast between those two verses would be lost. In other words, the context strongly indicates that the number 144,000 must be taken literally. Various Bible scholars, past and present, reached the same conclusion​—that is, the number is literal. For instance, in commenting on Revelation 7:4, 9, British lexicographer Dr. Ethelbert W. Bullinger observed some 100 years ago: “It is the simple statement of fact: a definite number in contrast with the indefinite number in this very chapter.” (The Apocalypse or “The Day of the Lord,” page 282) More recently, Robert L. Thomas, Jr., professor of New Testament at The Master’s Seminary in the United States, wrote: “The case for symbolism is exegetically weak.” He added: “It is a definite number [at 7:4] in contrast with the indefinite number of 7:9. If it is taken symbolically, no number in the book can be taken literally.”​—Revelation: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 1, page 474.

Multitude vs Number

Now another thing is that the words "number' and "multitude" or crowd that have been in used in Scripture a few times before in contrast, so when you see a multitude is not a number and when you see a number it is not a multitude or crowd as Jehovah's Witnesses would like to say.

Let's see a couple of verses to see what I mean:

Genesis 16:10:"Then Jehovah’s angel said: “I will great MULTIPLY your offspring, so that they will be too numerous to count.”

(=so you see a multitude is different from a numbered crowd)

1 Kings 3:7,8:"And now, Jehovah my God, you have made your servant king in the place of David my father, though I am just a youth and I am inexperienced. 8 Your servant is among your people whom you have chosen, a people so vast that they cannot be numbered or counted."(= again a multitude is something that can not be counted or numbered)

I'm reading from the KJV Judges 6:5 because it's easier to see the contrast between multitude and crowd.We read:"For they came up with their cattle and their tents, and they came as grasshoppers for multitude; for both they and their camels were without number: and they entered into the land to destroy it."

2 Chronicles 5:6 again from KJV :"Also king Solomon, and all the congregation of Israel that were assembled unto him before the ark, sacrificed sheep and oxen, which could not be told nor numbered for multitude."

It is clear to see from these 4 verses that in Biblical terms a multitude or crowd is not a number and a number is not a multitude.

Greater Exodus

As we said previously the book of Revelation is filled with echoes from the Old Testament and chapter 7 is an echo of the famous account of the Exodus.In actual fact the book of Revelation is fashioned after the book of Exodus in many ways.

A way to correctly interpret the book of Revelation is by looking in the text for Old Testament imagery or symbols.This method has been tried and tested by many known Bible scholars.One of the hardest parts of reading Revelation is knowing what the images and symbols refer to. Even when we understand what’s happening at the text and vision levels, we may not know what’s going on at the reference level. we usually know what Revelation is saying, but we’re often not sure what it’s talking about. The two places to go for answers are the first-century historical context and the Old Testament.

Although there’s no explicit Old Testament quotation in Revelation, the book is filled with echoes and allusions to the Old Testament. In actual fact, Revelation contains more Old Testament references than any other New Testament book—almost 70 percent of its verses contain Old Testament references. Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel make the most important contributions to Revelation.

Having that in mind let's consider the only other account in the Bible where we find again two similar groups,a great crowd and a special number of Jews in the same storyline.

All we have to do is to go back to the 12th chapter of the book of Exodus and we will see the exact same setting. Before we read this chapter we need to first consider the background of these verses. At the end of the 10 plagues of Egypt, the Egyptians had suffered terrible loses, not only their land had suffered terrible calamity in the hands of God, but they had also lost their livestock and finally, they had lost their firstborns. These plagues had demonstrated beyond any shred of doubt that the gods of Egypt were no match for Yahweh the God of the Israelites, the God of the slaves. A choice was presented to the nation of Egypt. Follow the true God Jehovah or ignore what just happened and stay behind carry on living life as you did before. In the future, the same choice will be presented to the disobedient mankind when they will experience calamities in the hands of God that ignore and disrespect. So we read what happened in the aftermath of the 10th plague in Exodus 12:33-36: “And the Egyptians urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” 34 So the people took their dough before it was leavened, having their kneading bowls bound up in their clothes on their shoulders. 35 Now the children of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, and they had asked from the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing. 36 And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that they granted them what they requested. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. “So the majority of the Egyptians just wanted the Israelites to go away but some Egyptians along with other slaves or people of other nationalities residing in Egypt at the time went along with the Israelites. We read in Exodus 12:37,38: “Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. 38 A mixed multitude(=or a great crowd) went up with them also, and flocks and herds—a great deal of livestock.” So, on one hand, we have 600,000 literal Jews with their families,wives and children, and on the other hand we have a great crowd of non-Jews exiting Egypt. This is similar to Revelation 7, in the future, in the same way, 144,000 spiritual Israelites will escape the cities of this world along with a great multitude of people who will follow them in what has been termed from many scholars the “Greater Exodus”.

Anyone who is trying to make a case that the 144,000 are a symbolic number they do not present any verse as a basis for their argument but here we do have an account that does just that. All you have to do is to consider the parallel account of Exodus where 600,000 literal Israelites made their way out of Egypt.

The Symbolic Explanation


There are those who believe the number 144,000 is a symbolic number.Let's consider some of these explanations and notice how they are not based in strong interpretive foundations.

The first comes from James Coffman's commentary, where in reference to the 144,000 has this to say: “12 is multiplied by itself and then again by a thousand, indicating completeness and perfection to the ultimate degree" because as we know twelve” as a number is utilized to symbolize completeness, perfection, and God’s power throughout the Bible, i.e. 12 tribes of Israel and 12 disciples of Jesus.So they use numerology to explain the number 144,000 for which you have to engage in mental gymnastics multiplying 12 x 12 and then that with 1,000 in order to end up with the correct number which sounds a bit of a stretch and is something that is not implied in the Revelation context in anyway.

Equal Standing

In his sermon entitled "The Believer's Glad Prospects," Charles Spurgeon gave an explanation of Revelation 7:4-9.

The 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes with Judah and Benjamin joined together stand in equal position. Spurgeon declared "the day shall come when first and last shall rejoin together in the equal blessing of the Most High."

Again Spurgeon begins from a preconceived idea that we will one day in the future stand as equals in front of God and somehow he impregnates the verses about the 12 tribes of the 144,000 with this understanding.Again I'm not convinced.

Same group different numbers

Now another interpretation is that what we see in Revelation 7 is the same group of believers described from 2 different viewpoint, In his article, Hank Hanegraaff said an American Bible author had this to say, " "The 144,000 and the great multitude are not two different peoples but two different ways of describing the same purified bride. From one vantage point the purified bride is numbered; from another, she is innumerable—a great multitude that no one can count."

Hanegraaff also points out other instances in the Bible where whole numbers are used symbolically.

"The figurative use of the whole number 1,000 is common in Old Testament usage," he said. "God increased the number of the Israelites 1,000 times (Deuteronomy 1:11).

Again, this sounds great but where is the evidence? There is no internal testimony in the chapter 7 of Revelation to prove this claim.I find most attempts to ascribe symbolic meaning to the 144,00 poor theology and wanting.

So if the 144,000 are a literal number of end time Christians,who are the "great crowd"?Are they a secondary class of Christians that will go to heaven as Russell believed? Or are they Christians with an earthly hope that will turn the earth into paradise as Jehovah's Witnesses teach as Ruthrford preached? The answer will surprise you, so tune in next Sunday morning UK time as I consider this question: WHO ARE THE GREAT CROWD?

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Also if you're interested in Bible prophesy please buy my first book "5:Planetary Disasters of the End" currently on Amazon.

Thanks for listening to me guys ,have a lovely say and I shall speak to you soon.

Bye for now

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