Last Generation Theology, Part 3: Biblical Perspectives: Who are the 144,000?

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Last Generation Theology, Part 3: Biblical Perspectives: Who are the 144,000?

Note from Author: All Ellen White references in the article are referenced from the book: God’s Character and the Last Generation, and not directly quoted from the original sources.

As we have seen in the previous articles, Last Generation Theology adherents believe that the last generation alive on earth before Christ’s Second Coming will be a special group of people who will achieve sinless perfection as a demonstration before the universe that God’s laws are not arbitrary and that they can be kept. We have looked at the historical development of this theology and seen that it is based primarily on a few quotes from Ellen White and a few Bible passages.

In the next three articles, I will provide a refutation of this theology from the perspective of a few different topics tackled by Andrews scholars primarily in “God’s Character and the Last Generation.”[1] Specifically, we will zoom in on the 144,000 in Revelation, try to understand what the Bible teaches about the last generation alive on earth before Christ’s return, look at how the Bible describes sin (particularly in Romans), as well as justification and sanctification, and seek to grasp the meaning of Ellen White’s quotes in the context of her writings.

The first question I will address is: Who are the 144,000? LGT holds that the 144,000 will be a special group of people who will be sinless and will live through the end times without the help of the Holy Spirit and without the intercessory ministry of Christ. Ranko Stefanovic, a New Testament professor at Andrews University who has been teaching and writing on this topic for many years, offers, on Scriptural grounds, a different interpretation. Here are some of the biblical clues that this number does not represent a special group, but the entire multitude of the redeemed.

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Symbolism in Revelation 7

Revelation 7 speaks of four angles positioned at “four corners of the earth,” (v. 1)–a symbolic expression indicating that what follows concerns the entire earth. These angles hold “four winds,” a phrase used in the Old Testament to indicate God’s judgment on the wicked.[2] Here, the expression is a symbolic reference to the seven last plagues through which God will pour His wrath upon the wicked just prior to His Second Coming. The winds are held back while God’s saints are sealed on their forehead. This seal has two purposes: (1) to be a distinctive mark of God’s people, in contrast with those who receive the mark of the beast, and (2) to protect God’s people from the seven last plagues.

 

As you can see, this passage abounds in symbolism with metaphors like “four corners of the earth, “four winds of the earth,” “the earth, “the sea, “the trees,” “the seal of the living God,” “foreheads.”  If the gist of the passage is symbolic, it would be an error to assume that the number 144,000 is literal. Rather, the context of the passage compels us to interpret the number symbolically as well.

 

Another argument that the number 144,000 is symbolic arises from the fact that it is the sum of 12,000 times twelve–twelve being the number of the tribes of Israel. Yet those tribes are no longer in existence, nor does the list correspond entirely with the OT order (for example, it excludes Dan and Ephraim, the idolatrous tribes). Since the list is not historical, we must interpret it in its theological meaning to indicate a symbolic number.

 

The question, of course, is: what does it symbolize? The key to this question is in the immediate context.

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Who Can Stand?

Chapter 6 in Revelation describes the wicked running from the face of God, and concludes with a question:

 

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains,  calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17 ESV, emphases added).

 

Chapter 7 provides the answer to this question: the sealed 144,000 will be able to stand. Keep in mind that the division of the biblical text in chapters and verses occurred subsequent to its writing and is, to some extent, arbitrary. Of course, this division does not necessarily prevent us from seeing the continuity in the writer’s exposition, but it can slightly obscure it.

 

Stefanovic argues that, while in the first part of the passage the group of the redeemed is referred to with the symbolic number 144,000, in the second part of the chapter the same group is described as a “great multitude.” How do we know that these two descriptions represent the same group of people?

 

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What John Heard and Saw

The 144,000 is the number John hears, while the great multitude is the group John saw.

And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. …. After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands (Revelation 7:4, 9).

 

These are simply two different perspectives on the same group. Such an interpretation is consistent with other passages in Revelation where John hears and sees something and describes his experience in different terms. For example, he hears that the Lion overcame in Revelation 5:5, but in the following verse[3] describes what he sees as a Lamb. Both the Lion and the Lamb describe Jesus from two different perspectives: the victory of Christ through His sacrifice. Similarly, John hears that Babylon, the great prostitute, is sitting on many waters,[4] but what he sees is a woman on a scarlet beast.[5] Other examples can be seen in Revelation 1:10-12; 9:16,17; 21:9,10.

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Blamelessness Does Not Equal Sinlessness

Another claim that appears to support LGT is the description of the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-5:

It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are blameless (ESV).

In regards to the first characteristic–not having defiled themselves with women–Stefanovic argues that, symbolically, the woman in the Bible represents the church, and therefore the description as “virgins” should not be taken literally to indicate to mean that the 144,000 are believers who never had sexual relations. Instead, the symbolic language suggests that this is a people dedicated and faithful to Christ.

 

This interpretation is consistent with Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 11:2, likewise a symbolic expression of loyalty to Christ:

For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ (ESV).

 

The broader context of Revelation 14:1-5, which depicts the work of the spiritual harlot Babylon “and her daughters–apostate churches–seducing the governing world powers into illicit relationships with them (Revelation 17:1-5; 18:3, 9),”[6] also supports this interpretation. This imagery, suggests Stefanovic, recalls an Old Testament practice where soldiers refrained from sexual relationships before going to war.

 

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The second characteristic–having been purchased as the first fruit of God–must be interpreted in light of the fact that this expression is used in Scripture to describe the people of God in contrast with the rest of the world. This is the case in Jeremiah 2:3 and James 1:18:

 

Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 2:3).

 

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:18).

 

Thus, the expression does not represent a distinct group of believers, but the multitude of the saints.

 

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Lastly, “blamelessness” in Revelation 5:5 is not a synonym of sinlessness, but of faithfulness. This also derives from the usage of the word in Scripture. For example, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica:

 

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 5:23).

 

To the church Ephesians, Paul writes:

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:3-4).

 

Peter likewise advises the believers to be blameless:

 

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Peter 3:14).

 

In the Old Testament, the term is used in reference to Abraham and Job:

 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless,’ (Genesis 17:1).

 

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1).

 

In Ephesians 5:27, Philippians 2:15, Colossians 1:22 and Jude 24, the term has also been used to describe the church during the end time. As we can see, the consistent use of this word throughout Scripture points to its best interpretation as faithfulness, not sinlessness.

 

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Stefanovic concludes that blamelessness in Revelation 5:5 “is not an exclusive characteristic of the last generation of saints because all these admonitions applied equally to the original recipients of these letters two thousand years ago, not just to those who will live at the time before the second coming. Thus, the blamelessness of the 144,000 does not refer to an absolute sinless perfection, but rather it refers to their fidelity and total commitment to Christ.”[7]

 

While the loyalty of the last generation of believers alive at Christ’s Second Coming will be tested in a way distinct from the testing of believers at any other time in history, “their victory will be achieved on the same grounds as the redeemed of all ages. Salvation is a result of the saving grace of God rather than one’s own holiness and works.”[8]

Read the rest of Adelina’s series on Last Generation Theology

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Notes.

[1] Jiri Moskala and John Peckham, eds. God’s Character and the Last Generation (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018).

[2] See Isaiah 66:15-16, Jeremiah 23:19-20, and Hosea 13:15

[3] Revelation 5:6.

[4] Revelation 17:1.

[5] Revelation 17:3

[6] Ranko Stefanovic, “What is the State of the Last Generation,” in God’s Character and the Last Generation, edited by John Peckham and Jiri Moskala (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2018), p. 225.

[7] Ibid., p. 226.

[8] Ibid., p. 227.

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.