Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The 144,000 - An army of truth-testifying, victorious martyrs

Chapter 7:4-14 uses the same device as was used in 5:5-6: that of contrasting what John hears (7:4) and what he sees (7:9). The 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (7:4-8) contrast with the innumerable multitude from all nations (7:9), but the two images depict the same reality. They are parallel to the two contrasting images of Christ in 5:5-6: the 144,000 Israelites are the followers of the Davidic Messiah, the Lion ofJudah (note that the tribe ofJudah is listed first), while the innumerable multitude are the people of the slaughtered Lamb, ransomed from all the nations (5:9). Just as the expectation of the Davidic Messiah was reinterpreted by means of the scriptural image of the Passover lamb, so the purely nationalistic image of his followers is reinterpreted by an image drawn from the scriptural promises to the patriarchs. According to these, the descendants of the patriarchs would be innumerable (Gen. 13:16; 15:5; 32:12). Thus, not because Christians in the late first century were actually innumerable, but because of John's faith in the fulfilment of all the promises of God through Christ, the church is depicted as an innumerable company drawn from all nations. 

However, there is a further contrast between the 144,000 Israelites and the innumerable multitude which makes the parallel with 5:5-6 exact. The 144,ooo are an army. This is implicit in the fact that 7:4-8 is a census of the tribes of Israel. In the Old Testament a census was always a reckoning of the military strength of the nation, in which only males of military age were counted. The twelve equal contingents from the twelve tribes are the army of all Israel, reunited in the last days according to the traditional eschatological hope, mustered under the leadership of the Lion of Judah to defeat the Gentile oppressors of Israel. But the multitude who celebrate their victory in heaven, ascribing it to God and the Lamb (7:9-10), `have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb' (7:14) . This means that they are martyrs, who have triumphed by participating, through their own deaths, in the sacrificial death of the Lamb. Admittedly, most commentators have understood 7:14 to refer to the Lamb's redemption of Christians from sin, but we have already seen that the reference to the blood of the Lamb in 12:11 must refer to martyrdom. Since 7:14 refers to an action of which the followers of the Lamb are subjects, it is parallel to 12:11, whereas in references to the redemption of Christians by Christ's blood, they are the objects of his action 1:5; 5:9) 

Thus, just as 5:5-6 depicts Jesus Christ as the Messiah who has won a victory, but has done so by sacrificial death, not by military might, so 7:4-14 depicts his followers as the people of the Messiah who share in his victory, but do so similarly, by sacrificial death rather than by military violence. This interpretation is confirmed by 14:1-5, in which the 144,000 reappear. Chapters 12-14 portray the combatants in the messianic war. In chapters 12-13 the dragon, the beast and the second beast have been depicted successfully prosecuting war against the people of God (12:17; 13:7). But in 14:1 the Lamb and his army stand to oppose them on Mount Zion, the place of the messianic king's triumph over the hostile nations (Ps. 2:6). The much misunderstood reference to the virginity of the 144,000 (14:4a) belongs to the image of an army. The followers of Christ are symbolized as an army of adult males who, following the ancient requirement of ritual purity for those who fight in holy war (Deut. 23:9-14; 1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 11:9-13; 1 QM 7:3-6), must avoid the cultic defilement incurred through sexual intercourse. This ritual purity belongs to the image of an army: its literal equivalent in John's ideal of the church is not sexual asceticism, but moral purity. But, just like the combination of the militaristic and sacrificial imagery for Christ in 5:5-6, so the image of an army changes to that of sacrifice in 14:4b-5, and with it the image of the ritual purity of the Lord's army changes to that of the perfection required in a sacrificial offering. The word which the NRSV translates `blameless' (amomoi) is cultic terminology for the physical perfection required in an animal acceptable for sacrifice (Exod. 29:38; Lev. 1:3; 3:1) . 

The cultic image is then translated into its literal equivalent: `in their mouth no lie was found' (14:5). This relates to the theme of truth and falsehood, which is so important in Revelation, and evokes the third of the motifs which dominate Revelation's account of the work of Christ: that of faithful witness to the truth. But in using the words, `in their mouth no lie was found', John is also echoing significant Old Testament texts: Zephaniah 3:13, which says of the eschatological people of God that `a deceitful tongue shall not be found in their mouths', and Isaiah 53:9, which says of the Suffering Servant, who was `led like a lamb to the slaughter' (53:7), that `no lie was found in his mouth'. John exploits (in the manner of Jewish exegesis) the coincidence between these texts. The followers of the Lamb resemble the one they `follow wherever he goes' (14:4). This following means imitating both his truthfulness, as `the faithful witness', and the sacrificial death to which this led. Thus the victory of the Lamb's army is the victory of truthful witness maintained as far as sacrificial death. As in 12:1 I, the three images of messianic warfare, paschal sacrifice and faithful witness come together and mutually interpret one another.

Richard Bauckham. The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology) (Kindle Locations 959-991). Kindle Edition.

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