This week I was engaged in two unrelated tasks—appearing on a US podcast about the Book of Revelation, and writing some Bible reading notes—but their juxtaposition suddenly pressed a question about Revelation in a fresh way. One of the key questions for the podcast was ‘So how is Revelation relevant today?’ and I was considering this whilst writing the Bible notes about Revelation 14. What struck me with fresh force was the intense relevance of this text for pastoral ministry and discipleship!
Philip Long sets out quite nicely some of the objections to a theological reading of Rev 14 in his post on the passage. The first question, whether this scene is situated ‘in heaven’ or ‘on earth’, seems to me to treat the two realms literalistically as separate geographical locations. This ignores a major theological perspective of the whole NT, that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ has come to earth in the ministry of Jesus, and also ignores Revelation’s own use of language in the previous chapter that the followers of the lamb are ‘those who dwell in heaven’ (Rev 13.6) in the present.
The second group of comments, about chronology, are dogged either by the temporal schematisation of dispensationalism, or suffer from the idea that Revelation has a kind of linear, chronological procession that needs to be teased out. Again, I think these kinds of approaches fail to do justice to the simplicity of NT chronology (the move from this age to the age to come, without complex schedules) and the way that Revelation itself handles the question of time, in particular the way that John locates himself and his readers in the ‘tribulation’ which sits alongside the ‘kingdom’ (= ‘age to come’) that are ours in Jesus (Rev 1.9), a perspective of ‘partially realised eschatology’ that the rest of the NT shares (see, for example, Acts 14.22).
I therefore offer for you, dear reader, the section of my IVP commentary on Revelation on chapter 14, in pre-publication form, and with additional notes added arising from further reflection on some issues in the text. If you want to see how this works out in an applied way, see the write-up of the sermon I preached on this in 2019.
In this section of Revelation we are offered another form of interlude between the account of conflict in Rev. 13 and the introduction to the next judgement sequence that follows in Rev. 15. The images here are especially evocative, with the ideas of clouds, harps and both sickles and ‘grapes of wrath’ as signs of judgement in the popular imagination.
This continues John’s typical sense of narrative discontinuity and sudden changes of scene, and also undermines any neat sense of cosmic geography, where heaven and earth are separated or act as a kind of mirror to one another as they do in Greco-Roman mythology. The shift in scene and the introduction of a new set of symbolic vocabulary has the effect of keeping the plot moving, as have the sudden changes previously at the beginnings of chapters 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10. Together, chapters 13 and 14 offer a contrast between the outward reality and the inner truth, a dynamic set up at the start of Rev. 11 in the contrast between the trampling of the outer court and the holy preservation of the inner sanctuary. It is the dynamic that John himself experienced in the tension between ‘suffering’ and ‘kingdom’ in Jesus (1:9).
Vision of the lamb and 144,000 on Mount Zion (14:1–5)
1. After the change in style of Rev. 12–13, John reverts to the earlier vision report format with And I looked adding, in its emphatic form behold. This has previously marked significant new elements of his vision in 4:1 and 7:9, and will recur later in v. 14 and (in a revised form) at 19:11. This episode in his vision report has significant connections with Rev. 4–5; he sees a lamb standing as he had in 5:6, along with the heavenly entourage of the living creatures and elders (v. 3). As had happened previously, John continues to add further detail to the scene, which is now located on Mount Zion which, like previous mentions of the temple and its furniture, must be taken as the spiritual equivalent to the earthly reality. Throughout the Old Testament, Zion (as a metonym for Jerusalem) is understood to be God’s dwelling place (Ps. 74:2) and its restoration formed a key part of the hope of God’s people at the coming of the anointed one (messiah) (Ps. 102:13–17; Isa. 62:11). For John, this is fulfilled in the presence of the lamb and the presence of those he has redeemed.
There are also clear connections with the interlude in Rev. 7, most obviously in the mention of 144,000. John does not use the definite article, as he usually does when returning to something he has previously mentioned, but there are several reasons why this must be the same group as the one in 7:4. Both groups are marked on their foreheads, in Rev. 7 with the ‘seal of the living God’ (7:2–3) and here with the name of the lamb and his Father’s name. The participle written is singular, indicating that John treats these two names as one object, just as he treats ‘God and the lamb’ as well as their names as a single entity in 22:3–4. This reflects Paul’s language in Phil 2:9 where God gives Jesus ‘the name which is above every name’ which is the name of God (cf. Isa. 45:22–23).
2–3. As elsewhere, having seen something John then heard something else, and these two things mutually interpret each other (as in 1:12; 7:9, and elsewhere). The sound of many waters had earlier described the voice of Jesus in 1:15, using the language of the voice of God from Ezek. 1:24. But the same phrase is used, along with the sounds of loud peals of thunder (literally ‘the sound of mighty thunder’) in 19:6 of the heavenly celebration of the fall of Babylon and the coming of the wedding of the lamb. These sounds are therefore not God’s prelude to the praise of the harpists but describe its sound. The harp (the kithara rather than the modern instrument) was a common musical instrument and a favourite of David (1 Sam 16:23) but was particularly used by the Levitical priests in their temple worship (1 Chron. 15:16; 16:5). The sound is of the 144,000 as the priestly people of God singing his praise, joining with the elders who have previously had this representative role (see comment on 5:8).
(Note: David is variously described as playing the ‘harp’ or ‘lyre’, and different Hebrew terms for these closely related instruments are translated variously by different Greek terms in the Old Testament.)
As I comment in my application of this passage:
We have a song—and what a song we have to sing! We, who were lost in our woundedness and our sin and our pride—we have been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven! We who were far off have been brought near! We who had no hope in the world have had the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, and filled with hope! What a song we have to sing!
And as we sing this song (literally or metaphorically) something remarkable happens. The sound of our singing actually becomes the voice of God speaking to others—that is the meaning of the phrase ‘the rushing of waters and the peal of thunder’. God’s presence is made real as we sing this song together; God is ‘enthroned on the praiseas of Israel’ (Ps 22.3). As we ‘declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2.9) others here the invitation to join the song. But it is a song that can only be sung by those who know this experience for themselves.
When we singing in tune with the work of God in our lives, it appears as though we are singing from the same hymn sheet as Jesus.
The new song they sing is mentioned only here and at 5:9, using a phrase that comes several times in the psalms (Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; see also Isa. 42:10). The paradoxical sense is that the singer has a fresh experience of God’s power, particularly his power to save, but this is an experience of the salvation that God has always effected in the past – hence the same group, described in different terms, sing the ‘song of Moses and of the lamb’ in 15:3. This amazing new thing that God has done in Jesus is essentially the same amazing new thing that God has always been doing, but only those who have experienced this redemption for themselves can truly sing of it. Their singing before the four living creatures and the elders connects this scene with Rev. 5, while their being redeemed from the earth recalls the language of 7:9 of the multitude ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’. The sense here is not of being removed from the earth, but being distinguished from the ‘inhabitants of the earth’ as those who ‘dwell in heaven’ (13:6) even as the beast attacks them on the earth.
There is a kind of triangulation here with other texts in Revelation.
No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth (Rev 14.3).
With your blood you redeemed for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5.9).
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel…After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Rev 7.9).
The 144,000 are the Israel of God who have been redeemed by the death of Jesus, and are from every nation, tribe, people and language.
Note: The elders and living creatures are paired together seven times in the text, at 5:6, 8, 11; 5:14; 7:11; 14:3; 19:4 but, as is typical of Revelation, the pairing is never described in the same way twice:
|1||5.6||ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ τῶν τεσσάρων ζῴων καὶ ἐν μέσῳ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων||four LC and in the midst of the elders|
|2||5.8||τὰ τέσσαρα ζῷα καὶ οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες πρεσβύτεροι||four LC and 24 elders|
|3||5.11||τῶν ζῴων καὶ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων||the LC and the elders|
|4||5.14||τὰ τέσσαρα ζῷα ἔλεγον· ἀμήν. καὶ οἱπρεσβύτεροι ἔπεσαν||the LC said and the elders fell down|
|5||7.11||τῶν πρεσβυτέρων καὶ τῶν τεσσάρων ζῴων||the elders and the four LC|
|6||14.3||ἐνώπιον τῶν τεσσάρων ζῴων καὶ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων||the four LC and the elders|
|7||19.4||οἱ πρεσβύτεροι οἱ εἴκοσι τέσσαρες καὶ τὰτέσσαρα ζῷα||the elders 24 and the four LC|
4–5. John now offers a seven-fold description of the 144,000, whose importance in this scene is emphasised by the repeated ‘these ones’ (houtoi three times in v. 4) which are not evident in English translations.
First, they did not defile themselves with women, which is often read by feminist commentators as an androcentric and patriarchal concern that depicts the redeemed as male only. This can hardly be the case, unless Revelation alone within the New Testament thinks that salvation is for men only, and it contradicts the inclusive vision of salvation expressed in the four-fold phrase of 7:9 (‘every nation, tribe, people and language’).
The second description, as virgins, is an unusual clarification, since parthenos is everywhere else in the New Testament a feminine noun which is (in its literal sense) only applied to women (Matt. 1:23; 25:1; 21:9; 1 Cor. 7:34) and in other literature is almost unknown as applying to men until the second century. It needs to be read here in three contexts:
- the use of sexual imagery of adultery as a metaphor for worship of false gods and idolatry elsewhere in Revelation, drawing on customary Old Testament use (see comment on 2:22 and compare 17:2; 18:3; 18:9);
- the prohibition on those involved in (spiritual) warfare to engage in sexual relations during the time of battle (the 144,000 being depicted as an army in Rev. 7; Deut. 23:9–11; 1 Sam 11:8–11);
- the nuptial imagery of the people of God as a bride, which Paul also uses when he describes the mixed community of men and women in Corinth as ‘a pure virgin betrothed to one husband, Christ’ (2 Cor. 11:2).
So God’s people are here described as devoted to God, committed to the spiritual task and purified for union with Christ. Only a wooden literalism, which pulls this verse out of its textual, canonical and theological context, could construe its meaning as androcentric.
The third description, as ones who follow the lamb, uses the common term from the gospels and Jesus’ teaching for discipleship, even though it only occurs here in Revelation. The metaphor implies that disciples emulate the pattern of life of the master that they follow, and accept the master’s fate as their fate.
The fourth description, as purchased from humanity, draws on the metaphor of manumission from the slave market that Paul also uses (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23) and which John has used previously in 5:9. The price is mentioned explicitly there as ‘with your blood’, thus connecting this idea with one of the earliest statements about Jesus in the book, that he has ‘freed us from our sins by his blood’ (1:5).
The fifth description, that they are [offered as] firstfruits to God and the lamb draws on the Old Testament image of the offering of the beginning of the harvest, which occurred in the Firstfruits Festival immediately after Passover (Lev. 23:10), and 50 days later as part of the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost; Lev. 23:15–17). The part of the crop that has ripened first is offered to God in gratitude for the promise it represents of the whole crop eventually being ready to harvest. Paul uses the idea to describe the Spirit as the foretaste of our salvation to come (Rom. 8:23), of those who first came to faith in a region as an anticipation of many more (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:15; 2 Thess. 2:13) and of Jesus as the first to be raised from the dead as an anticipation of the universal resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). But this is only one half of the meaning of ‘firstfruits’, and probably not the meaning here, since this group are not just the first who will be redeemed; they are all of them. The other meaning of ‘firstfruits’ is that they are a sacrificial offering to God, and this is also the sense of the term in Jer. 2:2–3 and Jas. 1:18, and it accords with Paul’s language of the Gentiles who believe becoming an ‘offering to God’ in Rom. 15:16. If they do anticipate something, it is not of others being saved, but of the whole creation being renewed when Jesus returns.
The sixth description is that no lie was found in their mouths, which is an almost exact citation of Isa. 53:9 describing the suffering servant and quoted to describe Jesus in 1 Pet. 2:22. John has substituted the word ‘deceit’ (dolos in the Greek Old Testament) with the word ‘lie’ (pseudos) so that they not only follow the example of the lamb (see also Zeph. 3:13), but are a counterpoint to the ‘false prophet’ (pseudoprophetes) as the beast from the land is called in 16:13 onwards.
The parallel seventh description that they are blameless links this back to the nuptial imagery associated with virginity; the work of the Spirit in sanctifying God’s people will one day be completed (Phil 1:6; 2:15) so that we are presented as a holy, blameless and perfect bride (Eph. 5:27).
It is sometimes argued that this vision of the 144,000 is only of those who have been martyred, that is, who have died for their faith, rather than of the whole people of God. This is on the basis of the small actual number, the language in 13:15 of those who refuse to worship the beast ‘being killed’, and the language in 12:11 of ‘not shrinking from death’. But the language of dying to self and carrying one’s cross is elsewhere assumed to be the universal commitment of those who follow Jesus, and the sevenfold description of the group uses images that apply to all God’s people. The number 144,000 is clearly symbolic, and the strong links with Rev. 7 show that this is another description of the same group, those ‘redeemed’ from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’. They are the saints who praise God around the throne even while they experience the suffering that comes with following the lamb in a world which mostly worships another.