The Symbolical Numbers of the Book of Revelation

With Particular Reference to the '1,000 years' (Rev. 20) and to the '144,000' (Rev. 7:4 and Rev. 14:1).

A Few Questions to Consider:
How Many Times Does the Word 'Millenium' Occur in the Scriptures?
WHO Are The 144,000? And WHY 144,000 Anyway?
Find Out Here! But Be Prepared to Be Challenged!



W e should all occasionally stop and ask ourselves whether we are viewing Scriptures in the way that our Lord intended them to be viewed, or whether we have fallen into a theological deep rut of only being able to view Scriptures in a certain way because of our own particular past religious experience of being exposed to a certain teaching slant over, perhaps, many years. But can we be bold enough to admit that our own religious background may not always be correct? Ah, now that is a very hard thing for many people to contemplate.

This question is especially applicable when dealing with the Book of Revelation because, without any doubt, this has become the most abused book in the New Testament. Countless thousands have been led astray by influential and persuasive teachers who proclaimed themselves as Bible prophecy experts even though operating from a theological base of little more than shifting sand.

Few things in the Book of Revelation have caused more confusion - and even division and conflict - than this great apocalyptic book's use of numbers. Revelation is an apocalyptic book. Every single number used therein is symbolic; these are not literal numbers, and, when the apostle John wrote them, he never intended them to be regarded as literal, he did, however, expect his readers to see the meaning behind the particular use of numbers. To take 144,000, it is a multiple of 12, as in the twelve tribes or the twelve apostles. As such, it symbolizes the entire called people of God redeemed from the earth, however many their literal numbers may prove to be. Much more on the 144,000 later, including an explanation of exactly how one arrives at that figure, but it may prove advantageous to commence this short study with some discussion of Revelation's symbolic use of '1,000' before we get to the '144,000.'

The '1,000 years'

Some will agree that most all of Revelation's numbers are symbolic, but then - for doctrinal reasons, not purely biblical reasons - they will suddenly insist on strict literalism when '1,000' is used; this is a very odd approach indeed! Interestingly, '1,000' is never used literally in the Bible, it is used either symbolically, poetically or as a 'round-up' figure for several hundred. Despite this, some groups build quite complex theologies around the concepts of a 'millenium' and also a 'rapture,' two words which never occur in Scripture! Indeed, in the case of 'millenium' the teachings are based on the belief that just one chapter in Revelation is literal (chapter 20), even when these undoubtedly very sincere people will usually freely admit that a large percentage of what one finds in that book is symbolical, rather than literal. Moreover, most millenialists will admit that the concept of a 'millenium' is completely absent from the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul.

But why 1,000 in the case of Revelation? Well it should be noted that 1,000 is a number of ideal completion, as it is the multiple of 10x10x10. In Revelation 20, '1,000 years' is symbolic of two things:

a. The entire time which the church needs to fulfil her mission upon earth; the mission achieves perfect completion in the symbolic '1,000 years.' (During this period, although dangerous, Satan cannot prevent the elect of God from responding to their calling, please carefully notice Rev. 20:1-3 and compare that with Luke 10:17-20!).

b. The '1,000 years' also refers to the rule of the deceased souls of Christians in Heaven. Since Christ's victory over death, the souls of all who die in Christ go to Heaven to be comforted, prior to the full resurrection of body and soul. See Revelation 20:4-5. This is described as 'the first resurrection' in Revelation 20:5-6. Please note that these are 'souls' (verse 4, NIV throughout), confirming that the resurrection is yet future. These are '...The souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony...' (verse 4), again, confirming that these were true believers while upon earth and that their souls are in heaven at the time which John sees them in this vision. Verse 5 then confirms for us that this 'first resurrection' of the soul in Heaven only applies to those who were elect believers upon the earth and are now saved,

'(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.)...' (verse 5).

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

John Nelson Darby who, in the 19th century, established an entirely new theological approach towards the Scriptures through 'Dispensationalism.' Part of his schema involved introducing an approach towards prophecy and towards the apocalyptic books which had previously only been successful among the sects. In Dispensationalism, the Bible becomes divided up into seven different 'dispensations' and specific teachings on a "rapture" and a "millenium" become important even though neither word even occurs in any bone-fide English translation of Scripture. But Darby's new approach may well have remained almost unknown but for Cyrus Scofield (an American lawyer, not a Bible expert), who popularized it through his Scofield Reference Bible.

Incidentally, much (but not all) of established Christian theology has usually believed that this first group are the only group which can be saved, but Scripture strongly infers that salvation is also possible for a larger group later on, as we shall soon note.
So those who are not in this 'first resurrection' group do not rise until Judgment Day and that Day occurs at the completion of the mission of the Church, the time of the parousia (Second Coming) of Christ. Of course, this 'first resurrection' of the soul is not the same thing as the Great Resurrection of body and soul which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15, when all will rise (Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 1 Cor. 15:15-28; Rev. 20:11-15). It is true that Paul mainly focuses on the resurrection of Christians in 1 Cor. 15, and they will rise in complete confidence and joy following the prior joyous experience of many of them in heaven. But Rev. 20:5 again, confirms that the inspired text is speaking of those true believers, recipients of God's grace, who die before and during this age of the Church.
[By the way, Matthew 25:31-46 also does not show any long time lapse between the judgment of believers and unbelievers and depicts one resurrection and judgment period following Christ's return to earth].

It is very odd that some groups insist that Rev. 20 refers to a 1,000 year age which is yet future - beyond the resurrection of the saints - when the text could hardly make it plainer that this speaks of what theologians call 'the intermediate state' (between death and resurrection). Also, notice that the body and soul resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15 is plainly not being discussed since we are simply told that those martyred for the testimony of Jesus, "came to life" as souls ('souls'=Greek word 5590 in Strong's Concordance, transliterated as 'psuche.' See inset article, 'Souls in the New Testament' here). As further evidence that it is the souls of believers who are in Heaven which is under discussion here, please note the strong similarity of the language between Rev. 20:4-5 and Rev. 6:9-11. So the evidence seems strong that 'first resurrection' is a term for entering Heaven at death (but we cannot deny that some have made a strong case for stating that 'first resurrection' refers to being 'born again' at Christian conversion; an even third possibility which a few have suggested is that 'first resurrection' refers to the resurrection of Christ in which all believers participate when entering Heaven at death, and beyond that of course).

Then verse 6 confirms for us that these are the souls of true believers when it tells us that, 'Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them...' (Rev 20:6a). In other words, those believers who enter Heaven at death cannot fail to inherit Eternal Life (again, for those who believe that 'first resurrection' refers to being 'born again' it remains true that those genuinely 'born again' will not fail to go on and achieve everlasting life).

Verse 7 then tells us of the final tribulation just prior to Christ's return to earth which occurs 'When the thousand years are over...' In other words, when the mission of the Church upon earth is completed. This refers to a final time of great trouble and specific persecution of the church at the conclusion of the mission of the 'Two Witnesses' (that is, at the conclusion of the mission of the church who are to witness for Christ 'two by two' ; Luke 10:1 and Revelation 11:7). But this is only allowed to happen when the Church has fulfilled its mission upon earth, and is just prior to the Second Coming of our Lord.

Regarding resurrection, a few may wonder why the resurrection Scriptures in 1 Cor. 15 and also 1 Thess. 4, only mention believers rising from the dust of the earth without reference to their souls already having spent time in Heaven, but the answer is really very simple; God is very aware of the safety of their souls but the full resurrection of body - as well as soul - is deemed very important in Christian theology and the Resurrection of the Dead naturally focuses on that in the scriptural account; indeed, even believers in Heaven - while in a state of joy and closeness to God - appear to long for the full resurrection to life in Rev. 6:9-11.

I am very aware that a large group of American Christians who may be reading this will be finding it somewhat strange, this is largely because of the huge influence of Darby's 'dispensationalism' - an influence largely engineered by the dispensationalist-influenced Scofield Reference Bible which has become very popular among American Christians during the last 100 years (even though almost unknown among British Christians).

The '144,000'

144 is the multiple of 12x12. As there were 12 tribes of Israel, so in the New Testament you have reference to the 12 apostles, which is a reference to the New Testament church which, in the writings of Paul and elsewhere, is described as the new Israel or the Israel of God. In view of this, the reference to 144,000 is quite clearly a reference to the total number of believers who will be saved: 12x12x1,000. So, the number of the tribes of Israel is multiplied by the number of the Apostles and that number, in turn, is multiplied by 1,000 which is the number of perfect completion. This brings us to 144,000 which is the grand total of the work of the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles and the completion of God's work upon the earth.

But there are a few more questions about this grand total of 144,000 which it is reasonable to ask:

1. Why such a large number?

Okay, we have figured out the mathematics of 12x12x1,000, but it is still reasonable to ask why such a huge number, almost (with the exception of the number quoted in Revelation 9:16), the largest number appearing in all of Scripture? Would it not be reasonable to conclude that - despite what some think - an imagination-defying amount of people will finally be redeemed from this earth? As we will shortly see, these same people are soon described in Heaven as 'A great multitude which no-one could count...' But another reason for such a huge symbolic number is to assure true believers that final victory is assured for those in Christ; we must understand that a vital part of the apocalyptic approach was to encourage and assure an afflicted and persecuted people of final triumph.

2. Are the 'great multitude' (Rev. 7:9), a different group?

So, are the 'great multitude' a different group? No. Its the same people. The difference is that in Rev. 7:1-8 we are looking at these people from the viewpoint of this world, but from verse 9 the action switches to Heaven! Notice verses 9-17 and see how the action has now definitely switched to Heaven:

The group must be in Heaven in view of the 'white robes' (9 and 13), and they are plainly stated to be 'standing before the throne' (9 and 15). But also carefully read the next point for confirmation that the two groups mentioned in Rev. 7 are really the same.

3. Why are the 144,000 only from the 12 tribes?

Because God has actually chosen to work with His human creation through the 12 tribes of Israel, the number of those redeemed from the earth are counted through those tribes. However, Christian believers become numbered with Israel: we become spiritual Israelites and are grafted into that number; therefore Rev. 7:1-8 (which, don't forget, is looking at human redemption from the perspective of this world), only counts the '12 tribes' - however, when the action switches to Heaven (9-17), we discover the true identity of these people and learn that they are, in fact, 'a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language...' (verse 9). So these people are all concluded as spiritual Israelites! To see how God willingly adds non-physical Israelites to the '12 tribes' carefully read Matthew 22:2-10, but especially verses 8-10, and also Romans 11:15-20.

4. Can still others be saved - even beyond the 144,000?

The fascinating thing is that when the 144,000 are again mentioned in Revelation 14:1 we learn a little more:

a. It is confirmed that these people are redeemed from the earth.

b. They are described as "virgins" (spiritually), which shows that they had come through 'the heat of the kitchen' as believers upon the earth and had remained faithful as believers (verse 4).

c. They are described as 'firstfruits to God and the Lamb' (verse 4), which means that these people are counted as 'the pick of the crop' in God's eyes.

The firstfruits are the first and best quality crop, but - intriguingly - the presence of a 'firstfruits' always suggests a later and larger crop! As the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible puts it,

"The first fruits, as a foretaste of more to come, were offered to God in thanksgiving for his goodness in providing them."
(Article: 'First Fruits,' p 791, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Baker Books, 1997).

The 'firstfruits' is a title of honour in itself for the redeemed but that title also undoubtedly raises a question mark about the possibility of 'latter-fruits.' Truth is: there never was a 'firstfruits' of the crop without a larger group of less overall quality to follow!

Interestingly, Paul appears to speak of the Church as 'the first to hope in Christ' in Ephesians 1:12, again, suggesting that the Church in this present age is not the be-all and end-all of salvation (I have never found alternative explanations for Paul's expression convincing).

But here we must admit that the Holy Bible tells us a little less than we would like to know; but, intriguingly, much later in the Book of Revelation, we come upon another group of people who are apparently not condemned but still in need of 'healing' - see Rev. 22:1-2. Since the 144,000 have already been satisfactorily dealt with, who are these people? May we allow ourselves to speculate that these are those who are not strictly numbered with the Church but who are saved (only through Christ, of course), through receiving a positive outcome on the Day of Judgment? Such people - possibly millions - could be saved as the large 'latter fruits' crop. Genuinely saved, of course, but apparently still in need of 'healing.' These people are described as 'nations' in the KJV, NKJV and the NIV. Greek: 'ethnos' meaning: foreigners of all nations. Yes, we would like to know much more about this final earlier unaccounted-for group of people. But one day we will know for sure...

Robin A. Brace, 2007.

You may also wish to read:
THE SEVEN PARALLEL SECTIONS OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION

UK APOLOGETICS