Their Identity and Qualifications (14:4-5)

In keeping with his practice of identifying certain figures he has seen by explaining who or what they "are" (1:19-20; 4:5; 5:6, 8; 7:14; 11:4), John now becomes more specific about the 144,000: These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes (v. 4). He defines the phrase redeemed from the earth more carefully by adding, "They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouth no lie was found; they are blameless" (v. 4 NRSV; the NIV has purchased from among men). Such are their qualifications for learning the new song.

The phrase follow the Lamb wherever he goes confirms the impression of chapter 7 that the 144,000 are Christian martyrs, and that the "number" of the martyrs is now "complete" (6:11). The Lamb was first seen as if "slain" or "slaughtered" (5:6), and to follow the Lamb wherever he goes is to be "slain" as he was and for his sake (6:9). The martyrs' death, moreover, is viewed as sacrificial, like the death of the Lamb. For this reason, they are described as blameless (Greek amomos), a term referring to moral purity that also means "unblemished" when applied to an animal chosen for sacrifice (as in 1 Pet 1:19, where Christ is compared to "a lamb without blemish or defect"). Two specific aspects of their moral purity are singled out: the first is that they did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure (v. 4; literally "for they are virgins"); the second is that no lie was found in their moutes (v. 5).

The most problematic feature of the vision for most readers today is that these 144,000 who are redeemed from the earth are male and celibate (Yarbro Collins 1984:129-31). According to one kind of feminist reading, "Women in the Apocalypse are victims—victims of war and patriarchy. The Apocalypse is not a safe space for women" (Pippin 1992:80). But this passage includes something to offend almost everyone, not just feminists and not just those who are "sexually active" (to use the modern euphemism), but women in general, men in general (they, after all, are the martyrs), married men in particular, married clergy of both sexes and all who have not taken vows of lifelong celibacy!

We can avoid such sweeping literalism by keeping two key factors in mind. First, a likely reason why the 144,000 are male is that they were male when first introduced in 7:4 as "sons of Israel" (RSV). The enumeration of twelve thousand from each tribe (7:4-8) sounds very much like the mustering of a male army, and military imagery is common enough in connection with the prospect of martyrdom (see, for example, 1 Pet 5:6-9). Ritual sexual purity was considered a necessary qualification for going into battle (see Deut 23:9-10; 1 Sam 21:5; 2 Sam 11:11). Second, the ideal of sexual purity is thoroughly in keeping with the value system of the book of Revelation as a whole. Negatively, the congregations to which the book is written are warned against sexual immorality as well as idolatry (2:14, 20). The reference here to avoiding defilement with women can be read as an implicit warning (in advance) against "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes" (17:5), who "made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries" (14:8; compare 17:1-6). Certainly this "defilement with women" has nothing to do with marriage, and the text should not be read as commanding literal, lifelong celibacy. Marriage, in fact, is a positive image for salvation in the book of Revelation, for the redeemed become in John's final visions the "bride" or "wife" of the Lamb (19:7-8; 21:2, 9; 22:17). The ideal of virginity or celibacy in a spiritual sense is essential to such imagery. As Paul put it, "I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him" (2 Cor 11:2).

Individually, then, the redeemed are seen here as male because they are martyrs, and in that sense soldiers. To call these men "virgins" is the same as saying that they follow the Lamb wherever he goes, a phrase combining the ideals of martyrdom and military allegiance. The other side of the coin, however, is that corporately they are female precisely because they will be wedded as "bride" or "wife" to Christ the Lamb. They will be seen as "the new Jerusalem . . . prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband" (21:2). All corporate communities, in fact, are personified as women in this book, whether as mother (chap. 12), prostitute (chap. 17) or bride (chap. 21). To personify the redeemed individually as male and corporately as female, while confusing to us, says nothing about their actual gender. In its own strange way, and without conscious intent, the book of Revelation echoes the principle that there is neither "male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

As for the claim that no lie was found in their moutes (v. 5), this too reflects the values of the book as a whole. There is nothing more abhorrent to John than those who pretend to be something they are not, whether Jews (2:9; 3:9), apostles (2:2) or prophets (2:20; also 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Near the end of the book the list of those consigned to the lake of fire ends with "all liars" (21:8), while the list of those excluded from the new Jerusalem ends with "everyone who loves and practices falsehood" (22:15). Possibly John's words are influenced by the early Christian image of Jesus as unblemished Lamb or suffering Servant, who "committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth" (1 Pet 2:22 NRSV; compare Is 53:7-9), implying that Christians are those who follow his example. But the primary characteristic of the 144,000 is their sacrifice, as made explicit in the phrase offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb (v. 4).

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