I believe in a certain story that informs the book of Revelation and which is expanded upon in its twenty two chapters. It is a story about Israel being renewed and a multitude from the nations joining them in welcoming the rule of God to the earth. The story is told in various pieces by the prophets of Israel, beginning with Moses. In Revelation the story grows in detail and especially in a closer view of that multitude from the nations, the ones who carry the news of Messiah and the attestation of his coming into the world.
There are a number of surprising details filled in as the visions of John on Patmos unfold.
As I prepared to teach my congregation about Revelation 14:1-5, I didn’t expect a surprise. The first dozen times I read these five verses, I came up blank. What scene was being described here? How did this scene fit into the larger story? How did these details fit together?
The passage raised a number of questions:
Then I looked, and here was the Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with him were one hundred and forty-four thousand, who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.
I also heard a sound coming out of heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. Now the sound I heard was like that made by harpists playing their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one was able to learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth.
These are the ones who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These were redeemed from humanity as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb, and no lie was found on their lips; they are blameless.
Why is the Lamb standing on Mt. Zion? Why are the only ones with him the 144,000? Does the song make sense: waters, thunder, harps? Why were these the only ones who could learn the song? What does “redeemed from the earth” mean exactly? What makes these 144,000 from the tribes of Israel first fruits? What is the note about not being defiled with women all about?
When I pondered each individual question and the relation of each to the whole, I came up with a story for this scene that astonished me. This was a few minutes into the great resurrection at the end of the age. Messiah the Lamb was standing in Jerusalem about to begin his reign. The 144,000 were chosen as first fruits of the resurrection, before the rest of the faithful dead and the faithful living.
In this moment, pregnant with possibility, the seer captured a scene of stunning beauty. Just the Lamb and his first fruits stood there. The rest were soon to come and there would be a brief but bloody war against the nations launching themselves against Jerusalem. Is Messiah enjoying a quiet moment just before the painful task of conquering warfare and evil?
Several things persuaded that this is how Revelation 14:1-5 fits into the larger story. These 144,000 from the tribes of Israel are first fruits. They are also a sort of last fruits, part of the last fruits of faith on the earth. What sense could they be first in?
Combine this with the idea that they have been “redeemed from the earth.” Is this simply a description of some spiritual transaction, they have been made alive spiritually from the earth? It could be more, that they died and have have been redeemed body and spirit, resurrected. This would make them first fruits, like Yeshua is the first fruits of those who sleep (1 Cor. 15:20).
What an uncommon scene. One can only imagine the mixture of joy and sadness as our Messiah waits there on Jerusalem, enjoying the presence first of the 144,000, and soon after the faithful dead from all the ages who will join him and then all the faithful who are alive and will be caught up with him in the air. It is a moment of joy before the sadness of war, a judgment that must come on those who have chosen death and evil as their gods. It is proleptic scene of tranquility before the storm and then there will be tranquility again, as the rule of God brings peace at last to the earth.