Q: I understand you hold that the number in the book of Revelation regarding the 144,000 is a literal number. So my question is, if everything else about the 144,000 is figurative, such as the 12 tribes, the 12,000 from each tribe, where these tribes come from, and that they are all males and virgins, how can you draw the conclusion that all those figurative facts = a literal number?

A: Is the number of the 144,000, who are sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel, merely figurative, because much of the book of Revelation is symbolic? (Rev. 7:4; 14:1-3) Who are the 144,000? Not every number that appears in Revelation is obviously figurative. Take for example Christ's letters to the Seven Congregations in Asia Minor. In this case the number seven is not figurative. There actually were seven such congregations; and his reprimand, that he addressed to five of them, is quite literal, not concealed in symbolic language. After all, how else could they heed his warning to repent if they did not understand his message? Is there a greater meaning to his letters? Undoubtedly, for we must allow that his counsel can apply also to all congregations today.

Consider also the numbers, along with other representative language, that appear at
Revelation 21:9-14:

And there came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls which were full of the seven last plagues, and he spoke with me and said: “Come here, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” 10 So he carried me away in [the power of the] spirit to a great and lofty mountain, and he showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God 11 and having the glory of God. Its radiance was like a most precious stone, as a jasper stone shining crystal-clear. 12 It had a great and lofty wall and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names were inscribed which are those of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. 13 On the east were three gates, and on the north three gates, and on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 The wall of the city also had twelve foundation stones, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

How can we sort through the above symbolic language, and make sense of it? First of all it helps to understand that it has to do with the 144,000, the Lamb's wife. "These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb." (Rev. 14:1-4; ESV) What things are figurative, and what is not? Joseph, when presented with a dream to interpret, responded: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (Gen. 40:8; 2 Peter 1:20-21) Jehovah, who has caused these things to be recorded, certainly understands what these things mean; and apart from him we cannot understand any of "the deep things of God." (1 Cor. 2:10, 14; compare Matt. 13:11)

We know, of course, that Jesus is the “Lamb,” but obviously not a literal lamb. The lamb represents Jesus in the role of fulfilling God’s purpose. (John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:19; Rev. 7:10, 14) Likewise, the Lamb’s "wife” is not a literal woman but applies to Jesus' disciples who are closely associated with their "husband," and he promised them that they will rule with him in his heavenly kingdom. (John 3:29; 17:24; 2 Cor. 11:2; Luke 22:28-30; Rev. 14:4; 19:7-8; 20:4, 6) They are “the congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens,” and are seen with their husband standing upon "Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem.” (Heb. 12:22,23, 28; Rev. 14:1) The “holy city Jerusalem” belongs to God, just as it was said of ancient Jerusalem
. (Psalms 48:1,2, 8; 135:21; Isaiah 24:23; Jer. 3:17; Rev. 22:3) The city, that is the Lamb's wife, comes down out of heaven from God because it is through them—as the holy ones under Christ Jesus—that God brings all his promised blessings upon his people. (Psalms 3:8; Dan. 7:13,14, 27; Rev. 21:2-4)

Please note that the figurative holy city has twelve foundation stones with the names of the twelve apostles on them. Is the number twelve in regards to the apostles figurative, or were there actually twelve of them? (Luke 6:13) Paul, in his letter to the congregation in Ephesus, had earlier described God's temple as having for its foundation “the apostles” and "prophets,” with Christ Jesus himself being the foundation cornerstone. Before a building can be constructed the foundation needs to be put in place first. That happened at Pentecost. (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6; Acts 1:15-2:4) The twelve apostles, as the primary stones of the foundation (Judas having been replaced with Matthias), together with "prophets," have been put in their respective position by God. (1 Cor. 12:28,29) How large is the foundation? Is its size uncertain, or did God determine in advance a fixed number that would provide the foundation?

Immediately after Adam's sin, God foretold the means by which he purposed to reconcile mankind again to himself. (Gen. 3:15) This was fulfilled in Christ Jesus. But God at the same time purposed to have faithful disciples of his Son share in his glory and rule with him in his future heavenly kingdom; each one chosen by God himself just as in the case of the twelve apostles, none of whom could have chosen themselves for this honor. (Matt. 11:11; Luke 11:50-51; John 6:44, 65; Heb. 5:4) The Scriptures explain that Christ Jesus, along with his bride, were foreordained "before the founding of the world." (Eph. 1:3-5, 11; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 1 Peter 1:2, 20)

That does not mean that every individual of them was foreordained millenniums before he was born; but the designated number of 144,000 certainly was. Although the apostle Paul understood that the foundation of God’s temple was not limited to the twelve apostles, yet there was no way for him to know the precise number of "prophets" who would eventually make up the completed foundation, for that information was not revealed until the apostle John received the Revelation more than thirty years later. When John saw "thrones, and those who sat down on them, and power of judging was given them. . . And they came to life and ruled as kings with the Christ for a thousand years," he saw 144,000 thrones and 144,000 kings sitting on them. (Rev. 20:4, 6)

God's covenant with Abraham promised that "by means of your seed all nations of the earth will certainly bless themselves." (Gen. 26:4-5) Included in the "seed" was Jesus, the Messiah, and his future "bride." (Gal. 3:16, 29) Jehovah desired that the entire number of the bride of Christ Jesus would be chosen exclusively from among Abraham's seed, the Israelites. It was only because they as a nation refused to accept Jesus as the promised Seed that God determined to break off some of the natural branches [Jews] of this figurative holy tree [Christ Jesus and his bride], and replace them with [graft in] wild branches [people of the nations]. After all, how could someone who rejected Jesus then be chosen to become married to him as a wife? The very fact that God replaced some domestic branches with foreign branches in itself gives evidence that there is a predetermined fixed number of branches. (Romans 11:13-29) That is why Paul explains: "For I do not want you, brothers, to be ignorant of this sacred secret, in order for you not to be discreet in your own eyes: that a dulling of sensibilities has happened in part to Israel until the full number of people of the nations has come in, and in this manner all Israel will be saved." (Rom. 11:25-26)

The purpose of Paul's extensive discussion on this topic was to explain that Jehovah did not break his promise to Abraham in that he rejected some of Abraham's natural descendants and replaced their glorious position with people of the nations, to complete the predetermined number of branches of the tree. The figurative tree has remained the same! The grafted in foreign branches have become part of the domestic tree and are producing fruit. (John 15:1-6) They are "the Israel of God," who are "sealed out of every tribe of the sons of Israel." (Gal. 6:15-16; Rev. 7:4)

How is it that they "did not defile themselves with women; in fact, they are virgins. . . and no falsehood was found in their mouths; they are without blemish"? (Rev. 14:4,5) Are they all males? In the heavens there is "neither male nor female." Therefore it does not matter what gender they are at present. (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 15:44; Matt. 22:30) They are "virgins" in that they kept themselves without spot from the world and it's false worship—"Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots"—of which Satan is the ruler and god. (James 1:27; 4:4; Rev. 17:1-2, 5-6; John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19; compare Ezek. 16:26-30) And neither did any of them receive the mark of the wild beast, either on their hand nor on the forehead. (Rev. 13:15-17; 20:4) There was no falsehood found in their mouths because they firmly and loyally stuck to God's word in all their teaching. Yes, they are all without blemish. (Matt. 15:6-9) Therefore we can have full confidence that God will bring the foretold blessings to mankind by means of them.

These 144,000 are not to be confused with the present Governing Body of the Watchtower Society with its secular Corporations and their many Associations; for these are closely identified with the "man of lawlessness." (2 Thess. 2:3-12) Those who were chosen but failed to measure up to God's righteous requirements, will not be among the ones standing with the Lamb upon the Mount Zion; for they will have been removed from the vine and "cast out as a branch and dried up, and pitched into the fire and burned." (John 15:6; Matt. 24:48-51) The four destructive winds of the earth will not be unleashed until the final one of the 144,000 has been sealed. The full foreordained number will be intact.

Who are the 144,000? They are the foundation of God's temple, and thus are an integral part of true worship, God's arrangement by which his people render sacred service to him that is acceptable. They have not chosen themselves as such, for everyone of them, as the "Lamb's wife," is chosen and put in their relative position by Jehovah, who puts his seal on them as belonging to him. (Heb. 5:4,5; Rom. 9:11, 16; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rev. 7:3,4; 14:1, 4) They are the "holy ones" who will rule in the kingdom of the heavens, along with the "son of man," by which God will bring blessings to his people. (Dan. 7:13,14, 21,22, 27; Heb. 9:14; Rev. 21:2-4)

Why is there seemingly so much confusion about the 144,000? Frankly, it should not surprise us that anyone not associated with God's household will not understand any of these things, just as Jesus said: "You have been given the chance to understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. It has not been given to outsiders. Everyone who has that kind of knowledge will be given more. In fact, they will have very much. If anyone doesn't have that kind of knowledge, even what little he has will be taken away from him." (Matthew 13:11,12, NIRV; compare 1 Cor. 2:7,8; Daniel 12:9,10)