We only have one objective for investigating this very important Watchtower teaching – and that is to reach out in a caring way to many sincere, devoted believers, who love the Truth and deserve every opportunity to find it.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that a literal 144,000 believers will go to heaven and become immortal to rule over the other unnumbered class who are considered the ‘subjects’ of the Kingdom Age. These subjects, according to the Watchtower, live on earth and do not receive immortality but eventually over time, attain to ‘human perfection.’ This belief is based on a handful of passages that we will consider in this investigation, such as John 10:16; Luke 12:32; Matthew 11:11; Revelation 7:1-10.
The Watchtower freely admits that this teaching of the 144,000 is not taught anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jehovah’s Witnesses say this teaching was first realised by Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. The disciples were still expecting Jesus to reign on earth in Acts chapter 1:6. Therefore anyone who died prior to Pentecost would have no idea of what is termed the ‘Heavenly Hope.’ Up until the Pentecost of Acts 2, the hope of every believer was to live on earth forever.
The official position many years ago was that the calling of this ‘little flock of 144,000’ began at Pentecost and ended in 1935 – which is when the full number had been chosen. The only way for someone else to be part of the 144,000 would be if one of the chosen became unfaithful and then someone else would have to take their place.
In the 1950’s the Watchtower taught that there was about 12,000 of the 144,000 left. We are now in the year 2019. No doubt changes to this number have been made to accommodate this unexpected passage of time.
Special Terms Applying Only to the 144,000
In Watchtower theology only the 144,000 have these scriptural terms applied to them:
- born again,
- born of God,
- born from above,
- spiritual Israel,
- born of the spirit,
- and Christ is only a mediator for the 144,000.
The Watchtower teaches that only the 144,000 are ‘Abraham’s seed’ (Galatians 3:29 – ‘heirs with reference to a promise’). Only the 144,000 have this ‘heavenly hope’ and prior to Pentecost in Acts 2, it was an unknown belief for anyone except for Christ. Therefore, the ‘new covenant’ is only for the 144,000, which is why they are the only Witnesses who can partake of the bread and wine.
Can this complex teaching withstand a series of Biblical passages that would indicate otherwise? Additionally, are the passages used to support this teaching clear enough to teach it in the first place?
We will consider the actual number 144,000 last, because it stands as a literal number on the basis of two things:
- Is 144,000 supported as a literal number by the rest of Scripture?
- Is a literal 144,000 supported by the description recorded in the book of Revelation itself?
Hebrews 11:6 – the ‘Heavenly’ Homeland
There are several Scriptures which demonstrate there are not two separate classes of believers. Hebrews 11:16, describes the hope of many faithful men and women who died prior to Pentecost in Acts 2. According to Watchtower teaching, the O.T. faithful had no idea that there would be a ‘Heavenly Kingdom’ as they lived before the revelation of the ‘Heavenly Hope’ at Pentecost.
Here are the various ways Hebrews 11:16 is translated:
“…but in fact they were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland…” Jerusalem Bible
“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one…” NRSV
“But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland…” NLT
“But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly…” KJV
“Instead they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one…” NIV
These versions make it very clear that all the faithful prior to Pentecost were hoping for a ‘heavenly’ country or homeland.
This same passage in the Watchtower’s NWT reads,
“But now they are reaching out for a better place, that is, one belonging to heaven.”
The NWT is the only Bible translation that chooses to paraphrase the Greek word ‘epouranious’ as ‘one belonging to heaven’ – as opposed to simply translating it as ‘heavenly.’ Why would they do so, especially in light of the introduction to the 1984 Large Print Edition of the NWT? This introduction says,
“Paraphrases of the Scriptures are not offered. Rather, an effort has been made to give as literal a translation as possible where the modern-English idiom allows and where a literal rendition does not, by any awkwardness, hide the thought… Uniformity of rendering has been maintained by assigning one meaning to each major word and by holding to that meaning as far as the context permits.”(Page 7, paragraph 3 and 4)
Is there a reason to ‘hide the thought’ in Hebrews 11:16?
The thought is certainly not hidden in the Watchtower’s Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures. The word-for-word English found under the Greek text for Hebrews 11:16 reads, “now but of better (one) they are reaching out for, this is of heavenly (one)…”
In the very next chapter – Hebrews 12:22 – the NWT translates the same word ‘epouranious’ as ‘heavenly.’ “But you have approached Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem.”
The author of “Truth in Translation,” Jason David BeDuhn, speaks very highly of the NWT saying it is the most reliable of the nine Bible translations he compared. BeDuhn is a competent Scholar and his conclusions are generally accepted. However, BeDuhn also concluded that all the translations he examined were bias toward their theological views, with the NWT being less inconsistent than the other eight. For BeDuhn, “inconsistency in translation is often an indicator of bias,” (Pg 108).
As seen in Hebrews 11:16, the NWT has been inconsistent in translating this verse. Due to their unique ‘Two Class’ belief, a literal translation would be very confusing to their members.
MATTHEW 8:11 – the O.T. Faithful in the ‘Kingdom of the Heavens’
The next passage, is Matthew 8:11, which reads, “But I tell you that many from east and west will come and recline at the table with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of the heavens.”
For the Watchtower it is not possible that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will be in the ‘Kingdom of the heavens’ as they believe the patriarchs have an ‘Earthly Hope.’ Thus Jesus’ statement here, presents for them a major problem. The Watchtower explanation of Matthew 8:11 is that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are ‘symbolic’ of ‘Jehovah God, Jesus Christ and the 144,000.’ Yet the parallel statement in Luke 13:28, 29, referenced in the NWT margin, adds ‘all the prophets’. “There is where your weeping and the gnashing of your teeth will be, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown outside. Furthermore, people will come from east and west…”
The Watchtower’s own cross-reference to Luke 13:28, 29 shows that they accept it as a parallel statement. If Matthew 8:11 is symbolic – then Luke 13:28 must be as well. So then, ‘all the prophets’ must be symbolic. Who does the prophet Jeremiah symbolise? Or Ezekiel? Or Elisha? This becomes quite complicated and is not explained in Watchtower writings. However, if Luke 13:28 is literal, then it proves Matthew’s account to be literal as well.
Reading Matthew 8:11 and Luke 13:28 literally, we have the simple, clear teaching that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the prophets will be together in the heavenly Kingdom, with all other believers – one hope – one class.
One class of believers is very clearly endorsed in the book of Galatians. Paul makes this statement in Galatians 3:29, “Moreover, if you belong to Christ, you are really Abraham’s offspring, heirs with reference to a promise.” Yet, according to Watchtower teaching, the Christians in Galatia are going to heaven to be part of the ‘Heavenly Kingdom’, of which only the literal number of 144,000 will partake. These 144,000 have been chosen ‘from Pentecost and onward.’ They believe that NO ONE prior to Pentecost in Acts 2 has the ‘hope’ of ‘going to heaven.’ All the faithful who died prior to this event, receive what they term ‘the Earthly Hope’, thus separating believers into two ‘classes’ with two separate ‘hopes’ – the Heavenly Hope and the Earthly Hope.
GALATIANS 4:28 – Children of the Promise
Notice Paul’s words to the Galatian believers in Galatians 4:28. “Now you, brothers, are children of the promise the same as Isaac was.”
According to Paul, Isaac receives the same promise as the believers in Galatia. Isaac is not separated into another class who receives a hope different from the Galatian believers.
Consider also Paul’s words in Galatians 3:9, “So those who adhere to faith are being blessed together with Abraham, who had faith.” The Gentile Galatians are viewed as Abraham’s seed due to their faith. They are blessed WITH Abraham, not as a separate class with a different destiny. It doesn’t make sense that Abraham’s descendants would receive a greater promise than their father.
Notice the consistency of the three passages we have considered in Galatians 4 and Hebrews 11, with Jesus’ words in Matthew 8:11. These passages are very clear; there are not two classes of believers and there is only one hope. However, in all fairness, let’s take a look at the most oft-quoted passages the Watchtower uses in support of their teaching. We’ll begin with John 10:16.
JOHN 10:16 – The Other Sheep
“And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; those too I must bring in, and they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that since Jesus references ‘other sheep’ there must be two classes of believers, with two separate hopes.
However, when Jesus spoke about these ‘other sheep’, the Gentiles had not yet been included into the Jewish fold. In Ephesians 2:15-16, Paul talks about the inclusion of the Gentiles and the union of the two groups INTO ONE. “By means of his flesh he abolished the enmity, the Law of commandments consisting in decrees, in order to make the two groups in union with himself into one new man and to make peace, and to reconcile fully both peoples in one body to God through the torture stake, because he had killed off the enmity by means of himself.” This is a perfect explanation for John 10:16 because it accurately describes what Jesus said – they will become ‘one flock.’
The Watchtower teaching is contradictory within itself. Within the organisation there are still TWO CLASSES – they have not been made into one. That is why only the 144,000 partake of bread and wine. Yet, Jesus said they would all become ‘ONE FLOCK,” one shepherd.’ If Jesus’ words are taken verbatim as he said, all Jehovah’s Witnesses would partake of the bread and wine. Instead we see that the ‘other sheep’ which Jesus referenced, are simply the Gentiles, who are now included in the one flock.
LUKE 12:32 – The ‘Little Flock’
In Luke 12:32, Jesus assured his disciples, “Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has approved of giving you the Kingdom.”
The emphasis that the Watchtower places here is on the term, ‘little flock,’ in contrast to the “great crowd’ in Revelation 7:9. The inference is that the ‘little flock’ is fewer in number than the ‘great crowd.’ It would appear from these terms that the Watchtower has a relatively sound argument. But context and an overall knowledge of Scripture has to be the final arbitrator in understanding each statement.
The overall teaching of Scripture is that very few will be saved, in contrast to the many who are not. For example, in Israel as a nation, very few were faithful in comparison to the unfaithful. Jesus himself, talked about two roads – one leading to life and one to destruction. The one leading to life had very few that found it, the one leading to destruction had many. (Matthew 7:13-14). When taken in context, the ‘little flock’ of Luke 12 is consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture, that very few find the road to eternal life.
However, depending on the context, a different emphasis may be used. Context is vital. We can see this from Acts 6:7 where we read, “and a GREAT CROWD of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (NWT 1984 Large-Print Edition) How many priests were converted? Was a ‘great crowd’ considered hundreds of priests, or hundreds of thousands?
It is very interesting that the 2013 Revised Edition of the NWT translates this verse as ‘large crowd’ as opposed to ‘great crowd.’ This is done despite the fact that the Greek word in Acts 6:7 and Revelation 7:9 is the same (‘polus’). It is doubtful that the Watchtower would have changed this word, creating inconsistency, had they not been sufficiently challenged on this very point. The term ‘great crowd’ is one of the most common terms in Witness vocabulary.
Once again the Watchtower has gone against their own policy – “an effort has been made to give as literal a translation as possible where the modern-English idiom allows and where a literal rendition does not, by any awkwardness, hide the thought… Uniformity of rendering has been maintained by assigning one meaning to each major word and by holding to that meaning as far as the context permits.” (NWT 1984 Large-Print Edition, page 7, paragraph 3 and 4) The change to ‘large crowd’ from ‘great crowd’ only confirms that this is one of the most challenged doctrines within the organisation, enough so as to warrant a resort to inconsistency.
Luke 12:32 then provides no proof that there are two classes, based upon the terms ‘little flock’ and ‘great crowd.’ If it did, were there more than 144,000 priests who converted in Acts 6:7?
MATTHEW 11:11 – A Lesser Person
Matthew 11:11 reads, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has not been raised up anyone greater than John the Baptist, but a lesser person in the Kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.”
Watchtower teaching is that only those with the ‘Heavenly Hope’ receive immortality in the ‘Kingdom of the heavens’, while those with the ‘Earthly Hope’ remain on earth and receive ‘human perfection’- a state which they liken to Adam and Eve before the fall – very good – but not immortal. Therefore, they say, those who receive immortality are ‘greater’ than those who remain on earth. Matthew 11:11 then, for Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a contrast between the two ‘hopes.’ Matthew 11:11 certainly does teach a contrast, but what is the contrast between? Is it between two different ‘hopes’ of believers, or between our mortal life now compared to immortal life in the world to come?
Luke 20:34-36 describes the superior state of immortality, saying, “The children of this system of things marry and are given in marriage, but those who have been counted worthy of gaining that system of things and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. In fact, neither can they die anymore, for they are like the angels, and they are God’s children by being children of the resurrection.”
Jesus himself was “made a little lower than angels…” Hebrews 2:7. This all changed of course when he was raised from the dead and given immortality.
The question then, is what is the contrast, described in Matthew 11:11, in regards to John the Baptist? Is it a contrast between an alleged ‘earthly hope’ and a ‘heavenly hope’, or is it a contrast between life in our present age and life in the future when the ‘Kingdom of the heavens’ is established as described by Christ in Luke 20:34-36?
Jesus states that “among those born of women,” there are none that are “greater than John.” Was it necessary for Jesus to state that John was born of a woman? We know from Job, the outcome of everyone that is born from woman:
“Man, born of a woman, is short-lived and filled with trouble. He comes up like a blossom and then withers away;” Job 14:1-2
Regardless of who we are, we are all in need of redemption – just as John the Baptist was. Jesus’ statement about John was referring to his present state. “But a lesser person in the Kingdom of the heavens is greater than he is.” This statement is in the PRESENT TENSE. The ‘Kingdom of the heavens’ was still future at this time – even the Watchtower wouldn’t claim it was established until 1914. If the Watchtower’s understanding of this verse is correct, then that would be indicated by the tenses in the Scripture. Jesus would have referred to John in the future tense, saying, “But a lesser person in the Kingdom of the heavens is greater than HE WILL BE.”
Matthew 11:11, then, is a contrast Jesus is making between the superior state of those enjoying the future hope of immortality, as opposed to the mortal state that we all share in this life – however great we may be.
ROMANS 8:16 – to be ‘Born Again’
So what is the Biblical criteria to be one of the 144,000? Within Watchtower theology only the 144,000 know that they are of the Heavenly class. It is often stated that if you have to question if you are one of the Heavenly Class, then you are not one of them. For the Watchtower, the criteria is a personal ‘experience’. The standard passage quoted to support this view, is Romans 8:16, “The spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are God’s children.” This statement is taken to show that there is a direct communication from God to the individual.
Has the Watchtower accurately presented the Biblical criteria for someone to be part of this Heavenly class? The criteria that God has revealed is seen in 1 John 5:1:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God, and everyone who loves the one who caused to be born loves him who has been born from that one.”
The criteria according to John is ‘belief’ and not an experience. It’s available for ‘everyone.’ To demonstrate that it is truly for ‘everyone’ consider Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus.
The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is in John 3:1-10. In verse 3, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Most truly I say to you, unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus had no idea of what Jesus is speaking about – but how could he, if the ‘heavenly hope’ had not yet been revealed? Despite this, Jesus goes on to rebuke Nicodemus, saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not know these things?”
Why would Jesus rebuke anyone for something that is impossible for them to know? This exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus contradicts any idea that there was a future revelation with regard to those who are born again, because this exchange took place about 3 years before the Pentecost of Acts 2. If it wasn’t until Pentecost that the new ‘revelation’ was given to them, then why would Jesus have rebuked Nicodemus 3 years earlier, for not understanding what it meant to be ‘born again’?
What is the ‘born again’ experience that is spoken of in the Scriptures? It is the experience that we read about in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God.” That Nicodemus could be rightfully rebuked by Jesus is seen in Acts 2:29-31, “Men, brothers, it is permissible to speak with freeness of speech to you about the family head David, that he died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Because he was a prophet and knew that God had sworn to him with an oath that he would seat one of his offspring on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that neither was he forsaken in the Grave nor did his flesh see corruption.”
Very simply, David believed in the coming Messiah and even predicted his death and resurrection. David predicted this through the Holy Spirit. He was a man after God’s own heart, born of the spirit. The criteria of ‘belief’ is clearly provided in the Hebrew Scriptures itself.
Consider another example, Moses, who chose “to be mistreated with the people of God rather than to have the temporary enjoyment of sin, because he considered the reproach of THE CHRIST to be riches greater than the treasures of Egypt…” (Hebrews 11:24-26)
In John 8:56, Jesus states, “Abraham your father rejoiced greatly at the prospect of seeing my day, and he saw it and rejoiced.” With the eye of faith, Abraham looked forward to the coming of Messiah because the ‘good news’ was preached to him (Galatians 3:8-9). His faith or belief was such, that he could be termed “the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16)
Jeremiah, the prophet, speaking to wayward Israel, in Jeremiah 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to Jehovah, and remove the foreskins of your hearts, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that my wrath may not blaze up like a fire and burn with no one to extinguish it, because of your evil deeds.” Jeremiah is telling them that they have to be spiritually-minded, instead of minding the flesh… the same concept as in Romans chapter 8, where the Watchtower has plucked verse 16 out of context. Paul’s whole argument in Romans 8 is about our conduct:
Verse 5-7, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit, on the things of the spirit. For setting the mind on the flesh means death, but setting the mind on the spirit means life and peace; because setting the mind on the flesh means enmity with God, for it is not in subjection to the law of God, nor, in fact, can it be.”
“For if you LIVE according to the flesh you are sure to die; but if you put the practices of the body to death by the spirit, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)
Romans 8:16, then, is not about an ‘experience.’ It has everything to do with an individual putting aside his fleshly desires in order for his thinking to correspond with the thinking of God. “Therefore, become imitators of God, as beloved children, and go on walking in love, just as the Christ also loved us and gave himself for us… ” (Ephesians 5:1) The subject matter in Ephesians 5:1-6 is very similar to Romans 8.
Therefore, to be ‘born from above’ or ‘born of the spirit’ is nothing more than to allow God’s Word to transform us to be spiritually-minded, as opposed to ‘fleshly-minded.’ Every true believer is required to become spiritually-minded. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, in John 3:6, “What has been born from the flesh is flesh, and what has been born from the spirit is spirit.” We are all born from flesh naturally. To have any hope of changing from the natural way of thinking, we must be born of the spirit. Jesus also tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only–begotten Son, so that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”
Salvation for anyone, regardless of the time-period in which they lived is based upon their exercising faith in the Messiah, whether they looked forward in faith as Abraham, David, Moses, etc, or whether they lived in Jesus’ own day, or whether like today, we look back in belief through the Biblical record.
REVELATION 7:1-9 – The 144,000
Is 144,000 a literal number? Thus far, Scripture has provided no evidence that there are two classes of believers, one ruling over the other. Can it be demonstrated from Revelation itself, that the number 144,000 is not a literal number, but symbolic?
The whole nature of Revelation is one of symbolism. If the 144,000 was a literal number, then the 12 tribes of Israel referred to in chapter 7 would have to be literal as well. How can we take the number 144,000 as literal when every other aspect of this description from verse one to verse eight, is symbolic?
The fact that Revelation 7:1-8 describes John hearing the number 144,000 and then after that, John sees a ‘great crowd,’ does not necessarily mean that they are two separate groups of people, but viewed from a different perspective. The symbolic 144,000 are more likely the ‘great crowd’ – which no man can literally number.
For example, the Watchtower themselves teach that the 24 elders in Revelation 4:4, are representative of the 144,000. The 24 elders they do not take as a literal number at all. So, in like manner, the 144,000 could very well represent the ‘great crowd’ out of all tribes, peoples and nations. (Revelation 5:9-10)
This very point can be seen in the description of the ‘great crowd’ of verse 9, who come from ‘all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues.’ This exact description is given of the 144,000 in Revelation 5:9-10. “And they sing a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slaughtered and with your blood you bought people for God out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and you made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are to rule as kings over the earth.”
The Watchtower teaches that this group in Revelation 5, is the 144,000 because they are made ‘to be a kingdom.’ According to the Watchtower’s beliefs, the 144,000 in Revelation 5, comes from ‘every tribe and tongue and people and nation’, which is exactly where the ‘great crowd’ of Revelation 7:9 is drawn from.
In Galatians 6:15-16, the Gentiles are referred to as the “Israel of God”:
“For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision, but a new creation is. As for all those who walk orderly by this rule of conduct, peace and mercy be upon them, yes, upon the Israel of God.”
There is far more evidence to suggest that the 144,000 is a symbolic number to represent the vast number of all believers from every ‘tribe and tongue and people and nation’ and all those from ‘east and west’ who ‘will come and recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of the heavens.’ (Matthew 8:11)
It can be demonstrated from the Bible and by using the Watchtower’s own beliefs, that it is impossible for the 144,000 to be a literal number.
According to Watchtower teaching, ‘Abraham’s offspring’ in Galatians 3:29 is the 144,000. They become Abraham’s ‘offspring’ by virtue of their ‘belonging to Christ’ (vs. 29). In Galatians 3:16 we read that the primary seed or offspring of Abraham is Christ – “‘and to your offspring,’ in the sense of one, who is Christ.”
Gentile believers become Abraham’s seed by being ‘baptised into Christ’ (vs. 27). The key point here is that Paul is not providing some new revelation but quoting from Genesis. Galatians 3:16 is a quote from Genesis 13:15 which is actually cross-referenced in the NWT Bible. Notice a detail provided in Genesis 13:16, about Abraham’s seed – a detail which cannot be explained by the Watchtower. “And I will make your offspring like the dust particles of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust particles of the earth, then your offspring could be counted.”
Anyone can count to 144,000. The seed of Genesis 13:16 cannot be counted, thus corresponding to the ‘great crowd’ ‘which no man can number’ of Revelation 7:9, and demonstrating that 144,000 is a symbolic number.
If anyone wishes to speak with me I would be delighted to do so.
One thought on “The 144,000 – literal or symbolic?”
That was an excellent article. Thank you.
To add a thought, I also believe Galatians 4:27 could demonstrate how the number 144,000 is likely to be symbolic. What do you say?
Also, what are your thoughts on Acts 2:34, and the point made that ‘David did not ascend to heaven’; is this more to do with the timing of the resurrection? I’d appreciate your input, when you have the time.
I’m about to explore the rest of your blog.
Once again, thanks for the above article and Scriptures.