Sealed on their foreheads
In Revelation 7:3-8 and 14:1-5, 144,000 servants of God “out of every tribe of the people of Israel” are sealed on their foreheads with the name of the Lamb and of the Father. The “seal” refers to baptism (2 Cor 1:22; Ep 1:13, 4:30). “Faithful Christians are marked and are able to endure the eschatological woes.” (Harrelson, 2104) Alternatively, the wicked are marked with the name and number of the beast (Rev 13:16-17).
Though the servants are said to come from the 12 tribes of Israel, they are not unbaptized Jews who live in the latter days (Brown, 1005). The reference to the tribes of Israel refers to the spiritual Israel, i.e., the people of God (Attridge, 2096-97).
A limited but great number
The 144,000 number is not a literal number, but is meant to show that God’s saints are a limited group, not all people, not even all Christians, yet it is also a very large number. “The number sealed - 144,000 or 12,000 from each tribe - should be understood symbolically: perfection or fullness (12), multiplied by fullness (12), multiplied again by a number too great to count (1,000).” (Durken, 851)
The number presents a paradox; it is both limited and “includes ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.’” (Aguilar Chiu, 1588 citing Rev 7:9) The faithful “belong to something big: the people of God that spans the centuries, cultures, and continents.” (Harrelson, 2225) Yet, only “a remnant survives, a minority is loyal.” (Brown, 1005)
Perhaps the paradox of the servants who are both limited and great in number can be resolved by grouping the “144,000” as those who are the faithful Christians of the end times and “the multitude” as including the 144,000, plus all of the other loyal Christians from all previous ages.
Holy spiritual warriors
These 144,000 servants sing a new song before the throne of God (Rev 14:3). “It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless.” (Rev 14:4-5)
The servants are also not literal “virgins,” but chaste holy warriors like the ancient holy warriors and priests of Israel who remained ritually chaste in carrying out their duties, i.e., the chaste “virgins” separate their holy duties from the mysterious power of life (Dt 20:1-9, 23:9-14; 1 Sm 21:5-6). (Attridge, 2104) This reminds us that those who follow Christ are engaged in a spiritual war.
Like most of Revelation, the 144,000 are symbolic. They are servants of God who are both limited and great number. They are loyal Christians who follow Christ. They are holy spiritual warriors, marked by their baptism, indicating to the angels and demons that they belong to God rather than Satan. Most importantly, they are redeemed, i.e., saved, by the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
Aguilar Chiu, Jose Enrique, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, eds. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2018.
Attridge, Harold W. ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible, Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Durken, Daniel, ed. New Collegeville Bible Commentary: New Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.
Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.