Back in January, we showed that there is no Scriptural basis for our claim that the “little flock” in Luke 12:32 refers only to a group of Christians destined to rule in heaven while the “other sheep” at John 10:16 refers to another group with an earthly hope. (See Who’s Who? (Little Flock/Other Sheep) Of course, this in itself doesn’t disprove the teaching of a two-tier reward system for modern-day Christians, but only that these two terms cannot be used to support that teaching.
Now we come to another element of the teaching. The belief that the 144,000 depicted in Revelation chapters 7 and 14 is a literal number.
If it is literal, then there absolutely must be a two-tier system because there are millions of faithful Christians doing the Lord’s work today, never mind what has been accomplished over the past two millennia by countless others.
It should be noted that proving this number is not literal does not disprove the teaching that some Christians go to heaven while others remain on earth. That is a separate issue, and something for another discussion. All we wish to do in this post is establish the scriptural basis, if there is one, for our belief that the 144,000 pictured in the book of Revelation is a literal number, not a symbolic one.
On what basis do we teach that the number is literal? Is it because the Scriptures state it to be so? No. There is no scriptural declaration that establishes this number as literal. We arrive at this belief based on logical reasoning and deduction. If you would care to peruse our publications, you will learn that the key reason we believe the number should be taken literally is that it is contrasted with the indefinite number of the Great Crowd. (Rev. 7:9, w66 3/15 p. 183; w04 9/1 pp. 30-31) The logic goes like this: If we take the number as symbolic than making the number of the great crowd indefinite makes no sense. Only if the number, 144,000, is literal does it then makes sense to introduce a contrasting group of unknown number.
We are not going to argue that point or come up with an alternate theory here. Another time, perhaps. Our purpose here is only to establish if this teaching can be supported Scripturally.
One way to test the validity of a theory is to carry it forward to its logical conclusion.
Revelation 14:4 says that this literal number is sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel. Now we teach that this literal number is the sum total of the “Israel of God”[i]. (Gal. 6:16) The first question that comes to mind is, How can 144,000 be sealed out of the sons of Israel if the 144,000 comprise the entirety of the sons of Israel? Use of that turn of phrase would indicate a smaller group being selected from a larger one, would it not? Again, a subject for another discussion.
Next, we have a listing of the twelve tribes. Not a listing of the actual tribes because Dan and Ephraim are not listed. The tribe of Levi appears but was never listed with the original twelve and a new tribe of Joseph is added. (it-2 p. 1125) So this would refer in all likelihood to the Israel of God. James actually refers to the Christian Congregation as “the twelve tribes that are scattered about…” (James 1:1)
Now, it follows that if the 144,000 is a literal number, than dividing it into twelve groupings of 12,000 each, must likewise refer to literal numbers. Therefore, the 12,000 sealed out of the tribes of Reuben, of Gad, of Asher, and so forth, comprise literal numbers out of literal tribes. You cannot logically take a literal number out of a symbolic tribe, can you? How do you take a literal number of 12,000 individuals out of a metaphorical tribe of Joseph, for instance?
All this works if the entire thing is a metaphor. If the 144,000 is a symbolic number used as a large multiple of 12 to show that number’s application to a large number of individuals organized in a balanced, divinely constituted governmental arrangement, then the 12,000 likewise extends the metaphor to show that all sub-groups within it are equally represented and balanced.
However, if the 144,000 is literal, then the 12,000 must also be literal, and the tribes must be literal in some way. These tribes are not spiritual, but earthly, because the 12,000 are sealed out of each of them, and we know the sealing is done while these Christians are still in the flesh. Therefore, if we are to accept that the numbers are literal, then there must be some literal division of the Christian congregation into 12 groupings so that out of each grouping a literal number of 12,000 can be taken.
This is where our logical deductions must lead, if we are to hold to them. Or we could just accept that the number is symbolic and all this goes away.
Why all the fuss, you ask? Isn’t this a discussion for academics? A scholarly debate at best, with little real-world impact? Oh, that it were so. The fact is that this teaching forced us in the mid-1930s to create an ideology that pre-appoints one group of Christians as destined for heavenly glory and another for an earthly reward. It also has required the vast majority to ignore Jesus’ command to “keep doing this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) and refrain from partaking the emblems. It has also made this second group believe that Jesus is not their mediator.
Maybe all that is true. We’re not going to argue it here. Perhaps in another post. However, it should now be clear that this entire structure of teaching and subsequent course of worship for Christians today, especially as we approach the Memorial of Christ’s Death, is based solely on an apparently flawed logical deduction about whether a number is literal or not.
If Jehovah wanted some of us to disregard a clearly stated command of this Son, our King, then wouldn’t he have made it clear to us in his Word that we were to do so?
[i] We use the term “spiritual Israel” in our publications, but that doesn’t occur in Scripture. The idea of an Israel of God created by the holy spirit rather than by genetic descent is Scriptural. Therefore, we can call it spiritual Israel in that context. However, that leads to the implication that all such ones become spirit sons of God, with no earthly component. To avoid that coloring, we prefer to restrict ourselves to the Scriptural term, “the Israel of God”.