144,000 Literal or Symbolic?
With over fourteen million Seventh-day Adventist world-wide, the question of whether or not the 144,000 is literal or a symbolic number takes on broad implications. The standard teaching is that the number is symbolic, implying that it represents millions. Some even suggest that it is symbolic of all the saved.
If the 144,000 is symbolic of millions, then it would mean that it is not so exclusive. It would suggest that much of the church would more than likely be saved. If it is literal, then it would indicate that only144,000 living saints from the church (not including the world and the church faithful who have been or will be laid asleep) will be saved. That would mean that the majority of Seventh-day Adventists now living will be lost.
The question of the whether the 144,000 is a literal or symbolic number is certainly controversial, but should it be? With the majority of the church members and leaders believing that it is symbolic, the Rod’s position, that the number is literal, is in the minority and is shared only by a small group of conservative church constituents. But the weight of evidence, as we will see, is clear—the 144,000 is 144,000—no more no less!
Before moving on, one point of clarification is needed here. Although the Rod's message contends that the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy supports a literal144,000, it does not mean that the literal number does not have symbolic meaning. That is say, numbers can and do have symbolic meanings. This will be explained in more detail later on in this chapter. But it is important that the reader keep this in mind as we go along.
John Heard the Number
And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” Revelation 7:4
We note that John clearly stated that he heard the number In other words, he was specific. Note, the difference with the second group in verse 9.
After this I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne. . .”
Did you get the point? John clearly heard an exact number in reference to the 144,000. But speaking of the great multitude, he said that “no man could number them. This tells us that the first group, 144,000, was countable while the second, the great multitude, was not! Thus, by this comparison we see that the number is indeed literal.
Furthermore, according to the consistent pattern of the Scriptures, when God counts people you will notice that it is generally literal. When Jesus fed the five thousand men (Matthew 14:21) and the four thousand men (Matthew 15:38) it was exactly that. But there is more.
Ellen White Saw the Number
In addition to John's record in the book of Revelation, we have Ellen White’s testimony as recorded in her first vision in the book, Early Writings. There she described the “advent people” of God traveling up a narrow pathway toward the Holy City. As time went on, many became weary, then stumbled and fell into the dark wicked world below. Who was left? She wrote:
Soon we heard the voice of God like many waters, which gave us the day and hour of Jesus’ coming. The living saints, 144,000 in number knew and understood the voice. . . .”
John heard the number, Ellen White under Inspiration saw the number. Thus we have the testimony of the Scriptures and the Spirit of Prophecy declaring that the 144,000 is a literal number—no more, no less. Furthermore, a thorough study of Ellen White’s writings reveal that the servant of the Lord never, ever, suggests that the number of the144,000 is symbolical of more. Then we remember that Seventh-day Adventists up until the1950's still held, generally, that there would literally be only 144,000 living righteous taken up to glory at the second return of Christ. Thus, when Ellen White wrote about the 144,000 between the time of her first vision in1844 and her death in 1915, she like practically all her fellow church members, was thinking of the 144,000 as a 144,000 not millions. In other words, when she commented on the 144,000, she meant it as a literal group because that was understanding of her day. Besides, if God had shown her to the contrary, surely he would have told us.. In fact, instead of writing that it was symbolic, she wrote, “144,000 in number.
Clear it is, the idea of a literal 144,000 is substantiated by the Scriptures and by the Inspired commentaries of Ellen White.
Some have argued that since Revelation is a highly symbolic book, then the 144,000 must also be symbolic. For example, they would say, the Holy City walls are said to be measured at a 144 cubits. (Revelation 21:17). To them this could bolster the idea of a symbolic number. The question is a good one—if the 144,000 is a literal number, how does that relate to the symbolic nature of the book of Revelation?
Although it is true that Revelation is highly figurative, it does not mean that everything in the apocalyptic book is exclusively symbolic. For example, the 1000 years or millennium referred to in Revelation 20:2, 3,6 is certainly literal. The seven last plagues in Revelation 16:1 - 17 are real or literal. The new earth, even the Holy City are literal places and buildings! The rule of interpretation is: “. . .the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed.” If there is no clear evidence that it is symbolic, then it should be taken as it reads. So, even in Revelation you will have literal places, events, and numbers—such as the new earth, the seven last plagues or the millennium.
However, let us keep in mind that although something may be literal in the Scriptures, and especially Revelation, it does not preclude it having a deeper or symbolic meaning. For example, we know that the twelve apostles were real and there number—twelve—was literal. Yet, we also know that the number twelve is symbolical of God’s government (see Matthew 19:28)—twelve patriarchs, twelve tribes, twelve apostles, twelve gates to the Holy City, twelve months of the year, and so on. So a literal number, event, or place, does not indicate that it has to be literally or symbolically exclusive. It can be both. Another example is the Holy City which is a literal building and its walls literally measure 144 cubits. Yet, we know that 144 is divisible by twelve a number symbolizing God’s government. In other words, everything our Heavenly Father does seems to have meaning. So something can be literal and yet have symbolic meaning.
Well, this being the case, the 144,000 is no different. They obviously represent God’s last day Israel, government and church, because to get their number you have to multiply twelve times twelve. They will comprise the last day purified leadership of the house of God. But they are not the only ones to be saved from among the living. Remember, there is the great multitude of Revelation 7:9, which no man could number.
In short, it means that although Revelation may be a highly symbolic book, it does not nullify the fact that the 144,000 is a literal number. In fact, it supports it.