Have you ever had a Jehovah Witness come to your door? I have. A couple of summers ago, a carload of JWs would visit from time to time. They would always bring a Watchtower magazine with them to start the conversation. Most of the stuff in the Watchtower magazine has to do with end-time prophecy. I didn’t realize that JWs were as focused on end-time prophecy as any TV preacher. She would always point out how bad the world is getting. She would note specific events and try to point to prophecies in the Bible that ‘proved’ we were now living in the last days. She tried to scare me into belief.
On one visit, my ‘guest’ pointed out the passage we have for today’s reading. She explained that only 144,000 ‘true believers’ would be saved. She went on to claim that the ‘true believers’ were the Jehovah Witness. I never let on that I was a professor of theology. I asked a lot of questions. I have problems with how many TV preachers and other Christian groups interpret the Book of Revelation and end-time prophecy. I was not convinced by her claims. I decided to have a little fun. I asked her, “How many JWs are there?” She told me that there were several million JWs worldwide. I then asked her a perplexing question, “If there are millions of JWs in the world already and only 144,000 of them would be saved, aren’t you just ruining your chances of making it by going around trying to make more converts?” She didn’t know what to say. She left quickly. I haven’t seen the JWs since.
I tell that story to point out how foolish it is to take everything in the Book of Revelation literally. Evangelicals sometimes get nervous about not taking the Bible literally. Many people do not realize that the Bible is full of figurative language. The Bible is made up of story, law, poetry, song, parable, prophecy, letters, and apocalyptic literature. Jesus himself employs lots of figures of speech in his teaching. The Book of Revelation is loaded with figures, symbols, allusions to the OT, and all kinds of metaphorical speech. Our passage today is a case in point. The number 144,000 is said to be the 12 tribes of Israel with 12,000 in each tribe. The 12 tribes of Israel symbolize the New Israel or the Christian Church. Each person is marked with a seal on the forehead. Kings in the ancient world would wear signet rings to mark their personal property. It would authenticate that documents and other items came from and belong to the king. What is being said in this part of Revelation, then, is that the Church belongs to God the true King. The church undergoing persecution and suffering were under the personal protection of God the King. Now that does not mean physical protection. Obviously many believers were being killed. The number 144,000 symbolizes completeness, meaning that not one of those redeemed will be found missing when the Lamb of God comes for His people. To those losing their lives for the sake of Christ, this was a hopeful symbol. Let us also take hope in it. We will not live forever, but each believer is marked as God’s personal property.