Today’s Scripture: Revelation 7
144,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of people.
Many people today recognize this number as having to do with the end times. It comes from the vision-experience that John had sometime between 68 and 95 BC.* This is the vision that he wrote about in a letter to seven churches, the one that we now call the book of Revelation. In Revelation 7 John recollects the part where he was told about a group of 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel who are “sealed” so they won’t be harmed.
But 144,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of people.
Not from a modern perspective, with a world population of 7.125 billion, and an estimated Jewish population of 13.9 million. It feels like the 1960s Dr. Evil asking for a laughable 1 million dollars in 1997. 144,000? Is that all?
In John’s world this number would have felt different. Obviously the world population would have been much smaller; the Jewish population inferred by these twelve tribes would have been about 5% of the Roman Empire at this time. On top of that, these letters were sent to congregations that were made up of just handfuls of people.* 144,000 feels differently in that context.
Maybe more importantly, 144,000 means more than just 144,000. It’s a symbolic number. The math goes like this:
12 tribes of Israel
x 12 disciples
144,000 would have communicated large-scale completeness to John’s churches.
But they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet.
After John tells how he heard about this 144,000, he then describes another crowd that he sees with his own eyes:
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language…” (7:9, NIV).
These tiny congregations
hear about a large group of 144,000 that will be saved…
and then they receive a vision of a crowd so big it can’t be numbered.
This is like seeing a child’s bag of Halloween candy…
and then seeing the almost 3,000 pieces of candy our church gave away…
and then learning that Americans bought about 600 million pounds of Halloween candy in 2013.
This is the vision that John receives, a vision of what is to come and what the Church triumphant will look like.
It’s the end of the promise that God made to Abraham: “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5).
It’s the realization of the Pharisees’ fear about Jesus: “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:19).
This is a vision and a promise for us, too: that there is room for us, all of us, in this great, innumerable multitude.
This morning, like many churches, we lit candles to remember those who have died. This All Saints Sunday tradition is a way to remember John’s vision and God’s promise.
We started with seven candles to remember those who died this year.
Then we added many more lit candles to remember all our loved ones who have passed away.
But imagine how many more there are in John’s great multitude – our great multitude – the complete gathering of the Church Triumphant.
* According to the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.