Rev. 14:4 – These are the ones not defiled with women, for they have kept their virginity. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. They were redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb. (HCSB)
They were redeemed … as the firstfruits
We should note that John refers to the 144,000 as people “redeemed from the human race as the firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” In what way are they firstfruits?
In the Old Testament, the first sheaf of ripe grain is to be offered to the Lord, and is waved before Him by the priest, expressing gratitude to God and acknowledging that He – the Owner and Giver of all things – will grant a bountiful harvest. A lamb also is sacrificed as a burnt offering (see Lev. 23:10-14). In addition, the Lord requires the first of the Israelites’ flocks, and even their first-born children, although a redemption price is accepted in their stead. All of this is designed to teach God’s people that He is their sovereign Lord who demands their first and best, yet who watches over them as a gracious landowner, husbandman and shepherd.
In this respect, the word “firstfruits” involves two ideas: 1) that which is first, the beginning, or that which has the priority of time; and 2) that which is part of the whole to follow, and which is the earnest or pledge of the whole. The first sheaf of ripe grain therefore is not only the first in order of time, but is the earnest or pledge of the entire harvest that surely will come in.
Consider the feast of firstfruits, one of seven major Jewish festivals. The first and best of the barley crop is offered to the Lord in thankfulness and in faith that He will grant the rest of the harvest to be bountifully reaped. More importantly, it is a shadow of the coming Messiah.
Christ has been raised
Jesus rises from the dead on the first day after the Passover Sabbath – the day of the feast of firstfruits – and Paul notes, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus is not the first to rise from the dead; Elijah brought the dead back to life, and so did Jesus on at least two occasions. But He is the first to rise from the dead never to die again. In His resurrection, He offers the first and best to the Father – Himself – ensuring that the rest of the harvest, millions of men and women from every people, tongue, kindred and nation, will come into God’s kingdom and one day be raised incorruptible as He is.
So what does this mean regarding the 144,000 as firstfruits? Some say they are the first of the Jewish race to be converted to Christ. Others contend that they are the first in a latter-day harvest of Jewish believers at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation. In other words, the 144,000 are not to be regarded as the whole of the number that is saved, but simply a portion of the redeemed. Others see it from a totally different perspective, arguing that the meaning tends more towards consecration. Just as the Jewish law requires that first-born men and cattle, and the first of fruits and grains, be consecrated to the Lord, so Christians should be consecrated to their Savior.
Another New Testament perspective sees firstfruits as symbolic of God’s promise to redeem our bodies. In Rom. 8:23, Paul says that Christians “have the Spirit as the firstfruits,” meaning that there is more to come in our salvation. “We groan because of our fallen nature. Our new resurrection bodies will conform us to Jesus’ glorified body” (HCSB Study Bible, p. 1940). In 1 Cor. 15:20-23, Paul tells us the resurrected Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In Christ, “all will be made alive,” he continues. “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ.” In the New Testament, references to firstfruits often are tied to resurrection – first Christ’s and then ours. Unbelievers, who will be resurrected but denied glorified bodies, are never referred to as firstfruits.
First and best
Just as the first of harvests and herds belongs to God, the 144,000 stand with Christ on Mount Zion as a common offering to God the Father. The Lamb is the first and best, and His followers have been made like Him. If the 144,000 represent only New Testament believers, it follows that Old Testament saints are not forgotten and will be resurrected and glorified with them. Then, Paul writes, comes the end, “when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death” (1 Cor. 15:24-26).
Jesus is indeed the first in time and priority to rise from the dead never to die again. But He also identifies with all the redeemed who will rise from the dead at some future time. As He adds sinless humanity to His deity in the incarnation; as He who knew no sin becomes sin for us; as He tastes death for every man; He also rises from the dead so that we may partake in His divine nature and wait confidently for the day when we will be like Him in glory. That’s why Paul declares, “Now when this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
Albert Barnes writes, “The first sheaf of the harvest was consecrated to God, and then all the harvest was regarded as consecrated to him. May it not be implied that, by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, all those of whom he speaks are regarded as sacred to God, and as consecrated and accepted by the resurrection and acceptance of Him who was the first-fruits?” (Barnes’ New Testament Notes, 1 Cor. 15:20, www.biblos.com).
Four major views of the Lamb and the 144,000
How do supporters of the four major views of Revelation see the Lamb and the 144,000?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – generally understand the 144,000 to be the first Christian Jews who, by heeding Jesus’ warnings, escape the destruction of Jerusalem and the murder of 1.1 million countrymen in 70 A.D. The vision of the 144,000 is reminiscent of Psalm 2, which speaks of the kings and rulers vainly rebelling against God and the Messiah. The Lord, in response, laughs at their vain efforts to unseat Him from His sovereign position. Just as Yahweh preserves a faithful remnant in Old Testament times, He saves and protects His church from Jewish and Roman persecution in the first century. The virginity of the 144,000 is not a reference to their sexual purity but rather to their refusal to associate with the harlot – Jerusalem or Rome.
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – generally see the 144,000 as the redeemed and faithful church, standing triumphantly with the Lamb on Mount Zion in heaven, although some historicists place the mountain on earth. In any case, the believers’ triumphant position is meant to encourage the saints who undergo persecution under papal Rome. Some historicists argue that the new song is the doctrine of the Reformation. As for being virgins, these redeemed people are not celibate but faithful to their wives and therefore morally pure. As “firstfruits,” they are not the whole number of the redeemed, but representatives.
- Futurists – who say the events in Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – generally hold that the 144,000 in this chapter are the same saints as those sealed in chapter 7. Some futurists believe Mount Zion is the literal mountain in Israel that bears that name; Jesus joins the 144,000 here at the beginning of His millennial reign. Others say Zion is used of the heavenly Jerusalem (see Heb. 12:22) and depicts departed saints before the throne of God. As for their virginity, most futurists understand this symbolically to mean that the 144,000 keep themselves from spiritual fornication. The descriptive term “firstfruits” means they are a token to God and a larger harvest will follow at the end of the tribulation and throughout the millennium.
- Idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – tend to see the 144,000 here as the same redeemed people in Revelation 7, although idealists disagree as to whether Mount Zion is in heaven or on earth. The “new song” they sing is the song of New Testament redemption as contrasted with Moses’ song in Exodus 15 celebrating redemption from Egyptian bondage. The virginity of the 144,000 is spiritual, not physical, meaning they have refused to participate in spiritual fornication. That these are “firstfruits” does not mean there are more redeemed to follow; rather, the term carries a general meaning of an offering to God. The redeemed are set apart for God – all the redeemed of this age – and then the harvest of judgment begins. This vision is meant to encourage first-century saints as they endure persecution in Asia Minor. And by extension the vision encourages all believers who wait expectantly for the Lord’s return.
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