Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism


In Revelation 7, there is a list of 12 Israelite tribes with 12,000 people in each, totalling 144,000 in all.[1] These 144,000 are mentioned again in Revelation 14:1-5 where we are told more about them including the fact that they are men (Rev. 14:4). Since the Christian faith is fully inclusive of women, some are troubled that this group consists of only men. What is the 144,000? Who are these men? And are women really excluded from this group?

Revelation 7 and 14 can be read on Bible Gateway here.

For this article, I’ve relied heavily on Ian Paul’s commentary on Revelation, volume 20 of the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, published by IVP Academic in 2018.

The 144,000 Men is a Symbol

The Book of Revelation, much of which is John’s report of a vision, or a series of visions, “is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament”[2] and is steeped in ancient Jewish thinking. The 144,000 men is an image or symbol that first-century Jewish Christians living in Asia Minor, the original audience of Revelation, perhaps grasped more readily than us today.

The 144,000 are described as “servants (literally, slaves) of God” in Revelation 7:3. “Slaves of God” is an expression used of prominent figures in the Hebrew Bible, such as Moses, who were devoted to serving God. In Revelation, the phrase usually refers to the redeemed, to followers of Jesus (Rev. 1:1; 2:20; 19:5; 22:3, 6; etc). The 144,000 are redeemed and sealed with the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads for their protection (Rev. 7:3; 14:1). They are presented as the opposite of those who worship the Beast and have been sealed by its mark.

The Beast is Revelation’s symbol for the Roman imperial cult, and the Beast-worshippers are enemies of the Lamb. The Lamb is Revelation’s symbol for the risen Messiah.

Just as the Beast is a symbol and the Lamb is a symbol―Rome and Jesus are not actually animals, the 144,000 is a symbol. The 144,000 men are not real people themselves, or specific people, but they symbolically represent a larger group of real people. We will see who the 144,000 represent later, but first I look at a few descriptions of these men.

The 144,000 are Israelite Warriors

Numbers are symbolic in Revelation, and this includes the number 144,000. Ian Paul explains the significance of this number.

Because of the distinctive square shape of Hebrew altars in the Old Testament (in contrast with pagan altars which were rectangular or round) and the shape of the Holy of Holies as a cube (1 Kgs 6:20), John consistently uses the square and cubic numbers 144 and 1,000 to designate the things of God, in particular the people of God.[3]

The number 144,000 is written in Revelation with Greek words as hekaton tesserakonta tessares chiliades.[4] Chiliades (“thousand”) can signify completeness, or inclusiveness, but can also represent a large number that cannot be counted. Perhaps John intended it to have both senses. The 144,000 is a vast but complete and inclusive group of people

Furthermore, the list in Revelation 7:3-8 looks like a census. Ian Paul notes that the purpose of censuses in the Old Testament “was often to ascertain the fighting strength of the conscription army, which could consist of all able-bodied adult males. … The enumeration [in Revelation 7] therefore depicts God’s people as a spiritual army, disciplined and ready to engage in holy warfare.”[5] The 144,000 in Revelation appear to be warriors, non-violent warriors.

A Multitude of Ethnically Diverse Priests

John hears about the tribal lists of the 144,000 from an angel (Rev. 7:2-8). But when he looks, he sees “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9).

The countless multitude that John sees is larger than the 144,000 counted men and they are not only Jewish. All ethnicities are included: “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev. 7:9; cf. Rev. 5:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). Many scholars believe the 144,000 Israelite men and the multi-ethnic multitude are two images that figuratively represent the one, same group of real people.

Further in the chapter we read that the multitude are “the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple” (Rev. 7:14-15).

If the 144,000 and the multitude is the same group, or represent the same group, they appear to be serving as priests as well as being warriors (cf. Rev. 5:9-10). They are warrior-priests. According to Jewish thinking, only men could be warriors and priests. This is probably why the 144,000 are all men.

The 144,000 are Virgins

In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are described in various ways as set apart and we learn that they had not defiled themselves with women. They were virgins (Greek: parthenoi). Parthenoi is typically a feminine word and not used for men in ancient Greek pagan literature.[6] John, and perhaps other Greek-speaking Jews also,[7] seems to have coopted the usually feminine word for his purposes.[8]

The word “defile” (Greek: molynō) is sometimes used in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) to refer to anyone or anything that is ritually unclean. Note that its use in Revelation 14:4 does not mean that women themselves are somehow defiling. Rather, according to the Hebrew Bible, having sex made both partners ritually unclean for a short period of time. (See Leviticus 15:18). The Bible, in fact, speaks positively about marriage and sex (e.g., Heb. 13:4a). It also speaks positively about women. (See here.)

There are a few verses in the Hebrew Bible where men abstained from sex when fighting a holy war (Lev. 15:16, Deut. 23:9-10) or when about to encounter God in a profound way (Exod. 19:10-15; cf. 1 Sam. 21:4-5). They kept themselves ritually clean in preparation for special, sanctified service.

On the other hand, the virginity of the 144,000 may simply signify dedication and faithfulness to God in the face of idolatry (cf. 2 Cor. 11:2).[9]

“Since in the rhetorical context and sign system of Revelation sexual language is used metaphorically, the phrase ‘they have not soiled themselves with women’ refers to the idolatry of the imperial cult.”[10]

The 144,000 are Offered as First Fruits

The 144,000 are redeemed, or purchased, from humanity and offered as first fruits to God and the Lamb (Rev. 14:5). The Hebrew Bible tells us that first fruits was an offering to God made at the beginning of the harvest. This offering was of the first and best animal of a flock, or the first harvested sheaf of a crop, the first basket of fruit or nuts, or the first portion of products such as wine, oil, honey, or fleeces. The first fruits belonged to God.

There are several verses in the Hebrew Bible that speak about redeeming firstborn sons, as well as male animals, as a consecrated first fruits offering. For example, Exodus 34:19-20 states, “The firstborn male from every womb belongs to me, including all your male livestock, the firstborn of cattle or sheep…. You must redeem all the firstborn of your sons.” (See also Exodus 13:13; 22:29-30; 23:16; etc.) So, as with the imagery of male warriors and male priests, the 144,000 being men fits with the imagery of first fruits and redeeming sons.

Some people believe the 144,000 were martyrs who had refused to worship the Beast and take its mark. The multitude had come through the tribulation (Rev. 7:14); however, the verses in Revelation that mention martyrdom do not directly refer to the 144,000 or to the multitude. (See Rev. 6:9; 10:4; 12:11; 13:15; 14:13.)


“Revelation is a thoroughly symbolic text.”[11] As already stated, just as Rome is not actually a beast and Jesus is not actually a lamb, the 144,000 in John’s visions are not real, or specific, people even though this group symbolises or stands for a much larger group of real people.

The 144,000 are symbolised as priestly warriors, and according to the Hebrew Bible and ancient Jewish mindset, only men can be priests and warriors. However, the 144,000 signify all redeemed humanity, including women and girls, who remain faithful to the Messiah despite tribulations and despite temptations to follow false gods.

Ian Paul states that the 144,000 “must refer to the whole people of God, and not a remnant or elite within them … and [they] constitute the total number who are protected from coming judgment.”[12]

Women and girls, and people of all nationalities and ethnicities, are just as much a part of this real community as any male Jewish virgin. This is true of everyone who faithfully follows the Lamb, the Messiah Jesus.

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[1] Ancient Jews had a hope that the tribal structure of Israel would be restored (cf. Rev. 21:12). Ian Paul notes, “There are eighteen different listings of the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament – and this list matches none of them! Perhaps most surprising is that this list does not match the list in Ezekiel 48, which is an eschatological rather than a historical listing.” Paul, Revelation, 159

[2] Paul, Revelation, 6.

[3] Paul, Revelation, 36-37. The New Jerusalem is also a cube and is described with the symbolic numbers 12,000, 144, and 12 (Rev. 21:16-21). Craig Keener suggests the figurative 144,000 are  “the new Jerusalemites”; they are “the people of God for the city of God.” (Source)
In Revelation, the “bride” (nymphē) or the “wife” (gynē) of the Lamb is the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 19:7 “wife”; Rev 21:2 “bride”; Rev 21:9-10 “bride” and “wife”; Rev. 22:17 “bride”; cf. Rev 3:12). Does this have anything to do with why the 144,000 are virgins?

[4] Hekaton means 100, tesserakonta, 40, tessares, 4, and chiliades, 1000.

[5] Paul, Revelation, 159. See Numbers 1:1-16 (cf. Num. 31:1-6; 2 Sam. 24:1-9).

[6] The masculine language used in the Greek of Revelation 14:4 (a masculine article, pronouns, and a participle) might indicate that the virgins are men, or both men and women. However, since it is stated that these virgins have not been defiled with women, we can safely assume the symbolic 144,000 were all male.

[7] In Joseph and Asenath, an ancient historical novel, Joseph is referred to as a parthenos (“virgin”) twice (Jos. Asen. 4:7; 8:1). This Jewish work was written in Greek sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. As far as I can work out, this work and Revelation are the two earliest ancient Greek texts where men are called parthenoi. 

[8] LSJ and BDAG (Bauer and Danker’s lexicon) have parthenos as a masculine noun in definition III and b. respectively. Elsewhere in the New Testament, parthenoi (“virgins”) are young women (Matt. 1:23; 25:1; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 7:34).

[9] Lynn R. Huber adds another layer and argues that the male virgins make an anti-Rome statement. Male virginity went against the marriage reforms that Caesar Augustus had initiated and that Domitian actively supported. (Domitian is believed by many to have been the emperor when Revelation was written.) Huber states that, according to Augustus, “The failure to marry and reproduce was a failure to fulfill one’s masculine role and, in essence, one’s political, social, and religious duties.” Huber, “Sexually Explicit? Re‐reading Revelation’s 144,000 Virgins as a Response to Roman Discourses” in Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 2.1 (January 2008): 3‐28, 10.

[10] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Proclamation Commentaries; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), 88.

[11] Paul, Revelation, 37.

[12] Paul, Revelation, 158.

© Margaret Mowczko 2021
All Rights Reserved.

Image Credit

Gerd Altmann via Pixabay, based on “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24) from the predella (lowest part) of the altarpiece made for the high altar of San Domenico, Fiesole. (National Gallery, London).

Further Reading

Ian Paul blogs at Psephizo and has several blog posts on passages in Revelation here.
George Athas explains the genre of Revelation by comparing it with the genre of political cartoons here. (His aim is to explain why the COVID vaccine is not the mark of the beast.)
Phillip Long writes about the descriptions of the 144,000 in Revelation 14 here.

Related Articles

All my articles on virginity and celibacy in the early church are here.
Gender Division Divides the Church (Rev. 5:9-10)
The Status of Christian Women: We Are All Sons of God
The Kingdom of Heaven in the Here and Now and Future
Is Jesus Waiting for Us?

19 thoughts on “Who are the 144,000 and why are they all men?

  1. The 144,000 is a representative number for the whole body of Christ, the redeemed people of God, the Holy city. These are all pictures in John’s vision, given to him by Christ. It is a real vision and given to us for our comfort in these last days. We need it…

    1. Yes, The intention of Revelation was to bring comfort to persecuted Christians, not to scare comfortable Christians.

    2. The 144,000 “First-fruits” of Revelation’s 14:4 were the Matthew 27:52-53 saints raised along with Christ, who was ALSO called “the First-fruits of them that slept” in I Cor. 15:20&23. This group shared the same title as Christ because they shared the same resurrection event.

      They were called “virgins” for a couple of reasons: one, because there is no marriage nor giving in marriage in the resurrected state, whether male or female. For another reason, these glorified, resurrected saints could not succumb to the prevalent doctrine of Balaam that was circulating in the church in those days. This was a sensual doctrine that combined a veneer of Christianity with licentious behavior. It was originated by Simon Magus and his consort Helen, who originally came from a brothel in Tyre. Helen was the one church leader prophetess nicknamed “Jezebel”, who was teaching that fornication and idolatry was acceptable as part of the church’s “worship” practices (Rev. 2:20). The 144,000 resurrected Matthew 27 saints did not “defile” themselves with following this corrupt doctrine in the early church.

      They stood together with the risen Lamb on Mount Zion in Jerusalem because both Christ and the Matthew 27:52-53 saints raised with Him went into the city of Jerusalem, where they were “seen by many”. Christ also went into Jerusalem and revealed Himself to the disciples that first day at evening.

      The 144,000 were “redeemed from the earth” (tes ges – the land of Israel’s ground) because they were resurrected from graves around Jerusalem that were opened with the earthquake at Christ’s death.

      They were descendants from all those particular listed Jewish tribes because it was only graves of Jewish saints around Jerusalem that were opened by the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion.

      They had “no guile in their mouth” and were “without fault” because glorified resurrected saints are incapable of sinning.

      They are the only ones who could learn that unique “song” because their experience was a unique one that had never and would never again be duplicated in history. Their task as the resurrected “First-fruits” was to remain on earth as “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” They were actually the “gifts” that the ascended Christ gave to men in Ephesians 4:8-12. And there is nothing in scripture that says these resurrected individuals were all males serving in these roles.

      They are totally different from the other resurrected group in Revelation 7:9 that could NOT be counted, and that came from EVERY nation and kindred, people and tongues.

      The 144,000 are the same “REMNANT of the dead which came to life” after the thousand years were finished. This gave them the title of being “the FIRST resurrection “ in Revelation 20:5, which took place in AD 33.

      And we know that these resurrected 144,000 “First-fruits” we’re remaining on earth in those first-century days, because Paul said of the church that “ourselves also…HAVE the First-fruits” in Romans 8:23.

      1. You know, this is an interesting take. I always wondered, hearing those Matthew verses as a kid, what happened to those other “extra” people who got resurrected on Easter Sunday! I have to wonder, though, how there could possibly have been so many of those people (even if 144,000 is just a figure of speech for “a really big number.”) How many recently deceased believers could there really have been in the neighborhood at the time?

        I have not heard before that the 144,000 are connected to those people from Matt 27:52. Is there backing for this, beyond the fact of the same metaphor being used in Revelation that is used elsewhere by a different writer to describe the risen Jesus? On the face of it, the verses you mentioned (1 Cor 15:20, Rom 8:23) seem to be using the same, probably pretty standard, 1st century Jewish metaphor to describe completely different things that are “first” and special in different ways. Also, the bit about gifts in Eph 4:8-12 doesn’t seem to be talking about this concept at all; v7 says it is about the “grace [that] was given to each one of us” – the gifts seem to be the work of God in each of us, not a unique group of extra-holy resurrected saints.

        This is a new idea for me, so I am just curious. If nothing else, it would be rather satisfying to have a story for those randomly resurrected people! I have always wondered what life was like afterward for people who experienced a miracle in the NT. And that one must have been a doozy…

        1. Hi CMT,

          After studying this fascinating group during the last nine years, I know exactly what happened to those Matthew 27 saints and when they left this earth. And yes, there is plenty of scripture backing to identify the 144,000 “First-fruits” saints as the Matthew 27:52-53 resurrected saints.

          Personally in my study, I have noted some couple dozen references which speak of the activity and identifying marks of the Matthew 27:52-53 saints, and have submitted many of these texts on a couple other Christian forum websites, if you would like the links. There is absolutely no reason why these Matthew 27 saints HAD to be recently resurrected in those days. They could have been Jewish tribal members from ancient times, buried near Jerusalem, who had turned to crumbled bones lying in a cave. Perhaps even Rachel, or King David, or John the Baptist – any of these is possible. Once resurrected, these saints never died again, since this is an impossibility for a saint raised by the power of the Holy Spirit.

          The 144,000 / Matthew 27 saints’ title of the “First-fruits” is not just any kind of generic reference. It is very specific, and harks back to the Leviticus 23:10-12 type of the “First-fruits” barley offering in the Temple – a sheaf handful of the best, first-ripened barley harvest, offered in the temple along with a single he-lamb that was free of blemish.

          The “First-fruits” sheaf handful of barley – a small representative sample – was a symbol fulfilled by the resurrected “harvest” of bodies coming out of those graves around Jerusalem in Matthew 27. The single he-lamb offered along with that First-fruits handful was the symbol of “Christ the First-fruits”, resurrected along with the 144,000 First-fruits

          1. To clarify: Actually, I do know that the term“firstfruits” is a reference to OT sacrifices. That’s what I meant when I said it is a metaphor. Given that 1st century Jews would have been familiar with that literal meaning, it seems like a leap to assume it suddenly became a specific title for something else. To me, the most natural reading of it in the NT is as a metaphor for something belonging specially to God on account of its being “first” chronologically or in quality. That would account for its being used by different authors to refer to what are clearly different things -eg Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the 144,000.

            I have some other thoughts but, since this is turning into a tangential debate, I will leave it at that.

  2. Katherine Bushnell thought the 144,000 may be the male child of the Rev. 12 woman. Some people view this woman as the church, Israel, or the Virgin Mary. Bushnell suggested the woman is a body of real women or a woman led movement by the female preachers “who are an army of women who preach the word of the Lord” in the last days ( Psalms 68: 11). Jeremiah 31: 22 may also allude to these women. An army of women will preach the good news and raise and protect the 144, 000 young male warriors until they are translated as saints. I also believe Rev. 12 is the final fulfillment of Gen. 3: 15.

    1. Hi Shoshana,

      The 144,000 First-fruits were not the male child (which was “thy holy child Jesus” – the ascended Christ), but they WERE the “REMNANT of her seed” – speaking of the woman who was faithful Israel, from which Christ had genealogical descent on His mother’s side.

      In great wrath, Satan waged war for a “short time” against that resurrected remnant of 144,000 First-fruits, who had been left on the earth as gifts to the early church, and as examples of what the believers could expect their own resurrected bodies to resemble.

      Although the Revelation 12 woman is not the women in Psalms 68:11, that verse you mentioned is one of my favorites, and makes me secretly rejoice anytime I listen to Handel’s Messiah sing this verse in chorus. I believe the women of the first century last days were active participants of preaching the word of the Lord in those days. Paul would not have imprisoned women if they had not been doing this. They were the ones who, like Mary at the tomb, went and would “tell good tidings to Zion”, who were told to “fear not”, and were encouraged to “lift up thy voice with strength, be not afraid. Say unto the cities of Judah ‘Behold your God!’ “. I was told that the verb in this Isaiah 40:9 verse is in the feminine gender in the original language, meaning it would be women told to perform this evangelism to Zion in Jerusalem and the cities of Judah in those days of the early church.

      1. I disagree. I looked at this from different perspectives, and I agree with Bushnell.

  3. Shoshana, I would be interested in how you (or Bushnell) would be able to prove that any group, (including the “144,000 young male warriors” as you propose above), is supposed to be “translated as saints”.
    That would clearly contradict the statement in Hebrews 9:27-28, since “it is appointed unto men ONCE TO DIE, and after that the judgment”. There will be no mass group of anybody who escapes this sentence of physical death of the body, passed upon all men since the Fall. Hebrews 9:27-28 forbids that view.

    1. This group will be part of the raptured saints of 1 Thessalonians 4: 15. Not everyone will dies. Those who are alive as I believe the 144, 000 will be will be raptured without experiencing physical death. I am speaking end times here. You don’t agree? You are entitled to your opinion as am I. Maybe you don’t like that, but I am giving my perspective on this like you or anyone. I’m not looking for a debate. Been there done that.

    2. Yes, This really isn’t the place for people to discuss or debate their own ideas. It’s not a public forum or message board as such. But I’ll add a few points of my own since it’s my blog.

      Katharine Bushnell presents her ideas in the book Heaven on Earth and How It Will Come: A Study of the Revelation.
      Relevant sections are here: https://godswordtowomen.org/heaven12.htm
      And here: https://godswordtowomen.org/heavenappendixe.htm

      I personally don’t buy Bushnell’s idea.

      As I say in the article, I see the 144,000 virgin Jewish men as an image or symbol, not as real people. I don’t believe we see these virgin males, in any guise, elsewhere in the Bible. But I don’t want to be pedantic about this.

      It’s important to understand the symbolism of the 144,000 that John presents in Revelation. We can lose some of its significance if we conflate the 144,000 with other people, symbolic or real, that John doesn’t explicitly connect with them.

      1. “We can lose some of its significance if we conflate the 144,000 with other people, symbolic or real, that John doesn’t explicitly connect with them.”

        The point is well taken. I’ve noticed that many “creative” interpretations seem to get their steam from making connections the writers never make, and that the original readers likely wouldn’t have seen. I read the piece you linked to about revelation as a political cartoon and found it very interesting. I don’t know if that analogy is right, but it is at least making the effort to understand the work on its own terms. Surely that has to be the basis of any viable interpretation, otherwise we are just speculating.

        1. Thanks, CMT. 🙂
          I found the political cartoon analogy interesting too. The aim is simply to point out that the two genres, political cartoons and Jewish apocalyptic literature, assume the readers already know the context and understand how the genre works.

  4. Shoshana, it is not my intention to be combative on this subject. Apologies if you are getting that impression. But scripture’s definition of the “First-fruits” for these 144,000, as well as “Christ… the First-fruits of them that slept”, included a resurrection of the physical body from the grave, which is why this group of 144,000 was said to be “redeemed from the earth”. This meant that their dead physical bodies were raised from out of the earth in a bodily-resurrection experience. So there is no indication that they would be “translated” so that they would not see death, (like Enoch, who was the one, isolated case of a translation in all of human history).

    I do agree with you that the 144,000 were part of the raptured saints of 1 Thessalonians 4:15. They were the group of “alive” and “remaining” saints that would be caught up together with the rest of the newly-resurrected believers, to meet the Lord together in the air in the rapture. They were “alive” because they had been MADE alive by a resurrection, like Tabitha / Dorcas the seamstress raised by Peter who “presented her alive” .

    However, there is no promise of a translation change for ordinary living believers in 1 Thess. 4 (or any other scripture text either). That idea would contradict the Hebrews 9:27 verse, which states conclusively that ALL men are appointed to DIE ONCE. Everyone will die once according to this verse. The rapture was to include only bodily-resurrected saints – no living believers who had not died yet. The doctrine of the “rapture” as it is typically taught needs a little revision for it to align with scripture.

    That word “remaining” is significant in 1 Thess. 4:15. It indicates a sort of RESERVED STATUS for this group (as it is used in the Hebrews 4:9 verse, “There remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God”). These “alive” and “remaining” saints had been set apart for a particular intended purpose. For the 144,000 First-fruits saints, this meant that those resurrected individuals were to serve as those “gifts” which were given by God’s grace to edify the early church – “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers” in Ephesians 4:8-12.

  5. No problem. I would need to look more into it, but I’m not saying I’m right and everyone else is wrong. I very well could be wrong. I can agree to disagree, but I am always open to look at other perspective s as well.

    1. I have a similar attitude, Shoshana. 🙂

  6. “The book of Revelation … is saturated with allusions to the Old Testament”

    Michael Wilcock in his commentary on Revelation (The Bible Speaks Today) says that one of the best commentaries on Revelation is the cross references in the RSV.

    The RSV has very extensive cross references which cover every parallel passage and just about every allusion to the OT. One of my favourate cross references is on Jn 7:52 “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee”: the RSV references 2 Kings 14:25 “according to the word of the LORD the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher”. Gath-hepher is in Galilee.

    1. Thanks, Martin. To read Revelation in a Bible that has extensive cross references is excellent advice.

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