This is not a study of whether the 144,000 is literal or symbolic. This is not a study of the relationship between the 144,000 and the great multitude. It is only a study of what period of time the 144,000 are part of. Where do the 144,000 fit in the grand scope of the great controversy?
We will look first at the Bible, and then the writings of Ellen White
We will begin with the fifth seal. “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, does thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.” (Rev. 6:9-11)
The martyrs are told to wait until further developments in the great controversy play out, including intense persecutions and more martyrs giving up their lives as seed sown for the great gospel harvest.
The next thing is the sixth seal. “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth.” (Rev. 6:12,13) These events took place in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Now we come to the climax of the 6th seal. “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.” (Rev. 6:14-16)
This cataclysm takes place when Jesus returns, when the great men try to hide from the glory of the face of Christ. In light of this, there is a question on every tongue. “For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17)
Chapter 7 is the answer to this question. It forms an interlude before the seventh seal finishes the story in chapter 8. Chapter 7 answers the question by going back to the time period between verses 13 and 14, just before the great cataclysm in verse 14. The situation seems hopeless, but God wants to make it very clear that no one needs to try to hide from the face of Christ.
Chapter 7 is perhaps the most positive, faith-strengthening chapters in the entire book of Revelation. It is about how we can stand when the earth is convulsing, in the great day of God’s wrath.
We will start just before the final destruction. “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” (Rev. 7:1) The angels are commissioned to keep the earth relatively peaceful so that God can prepare a people who can stand in this terrible time.
God’s solution follows. “And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.” (Rev. 7:2,3) Only God’s seal can protect a select group from destruction. Then a specific number is given. “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” (Rev. 7:4)
The key point is this. All of these verses take place at the very end of earth’s history, from 6:14-7:4. The context of the 144,000 is clearly at the end of time, and is the answer to the question of who can stand when Christ returns and the earth is torn apart.
The only other place in Scripture describing the 144,000 is in Revelation 14. “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads.” (Rev. 14:1) This verse explains what the seal of God is.
The next verses describe this group more clearly. “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.” (Rev. 14:3) This is a special song for a very special people who have had an experience like no other people, who are living at the end of time after Christ ceases His work of forgiving sins.
Then comes an amazing description. “These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.” (Rev. 14:4,5)
The firstfruits are not the entire harvest, but a special group whose experience makes it possible for God to complete His plan of redemption and raise the faithful ones from their graves. Immediately following are the three angels with the final warning message for the world, specifically in the time of judgment after 1844. The context of the 144,000 is the end of earth’s history.
Evidence from Ellen White
“None but the hundred and forty-four thousand can learn that song; for it is the song of their experience—an experience such as no other company have ever had. These, having been translated from the earth, from among the living, are counted as ‘the first fruits unto God and to the Lamb.’…They have passed through the time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation; they have endured the anguish of the time of Jacob’s trouble; they have stood without an intercessor through the final outpouring of God’s judgments.” (GC 649)
This song is restricted to a select group. Not everyone can sing it, because it is a unique experience limited to one company only. The members of this group have been translated. They have lived through the final time of trouble, including Jacob’s time of trouble, which is after the close of probation. They have experienced living without an intercessor because Jesus has ceased His work of forgiving sins.
“Soon we heard the voice of God like many waters, which gave us the day and hour of Jesus’ coming. The living saints, 144,000 in number, knew and understood the voice….The 144,000 were all sealed and perfectly united.” (1T 59) The day and hour is revealed a very short time before Jesus’ return. Only the 144,000 understand this message. In addition, they have been sealed with the final seal of Rev. 7:1-4.
“When this time of trouble comes, every case is decided; there is no longer probation, no longer mercy for the impenitent. The seal of the living God is upon His people….Not all who profess to keep the Sabbath will be sealed….Not one of us will ever receive the seal of God while our characters have one spot or stain upon them. It is left with us to remedy the defects in our characters, to cleanse the soul temple of every defilement. Then the latter rain will fall upon us….When the decree goes forth and the stamp is impressed, their character will remain pure and spotless for eternity.” (5T 213-216)
This is after the close of probation and after the final sealing. Those who are genuine Sabbathkeepers will be sealed, which eliminates the saved Sundaykeepers of the past. This group will have spotless characters before the latter rain. All of these are end-time events.
“This mightiest of angels has in his hand the seal of the living God….Only those who…are filling the position of those who are repenting and confessing their sins in the great antitypical day of atonement, will be recognized and marked as worthy of God’s protection.” (TM 444, 445) The seal of God in Rev. 7 is limited to the Day of Atonement, which is clearly the end-time period.
“I also saw that many do not realize what they must be in order to live in the sight of the Lord without a high priest in the sanctuary through the time of trouble. Those who receive the seal of the living God and are protected in the time of trouble must reflect the image of Jesus fully.” (EW 71) The seal of God prepares us for the time of trouble after the close of probation, and only the 144,000 receive the seal of God.
“When Jesus leaves the sanctuary, then they who are holy and righteous will be holy and righteous still; for all their sins will then be blotted out, and they will be sealed with the seal of the living God.” (EW 48) Once again, the seal of God is related to the close of probation, and only the 144,000 receive the seal of God.
“The sealing time is very short, and will soon be over.” (EW 58) This seal is clearly not the sealing of Eph. 4:30 and 2 Cor. 1:22, which is given at conversion as a promise of salvation to be realized on condition of faithfulness to God. This seal is for the end of time and is final and irrevocable, to prepare God’s people for the close of probation.
“The closing work for the church, in the sealing time of the one hundred and forty-four thousand who are to stand without fault before the throne of God.” (3T 266) The 144,000 are sealed in the closing work just before the close of probation.
“In a little while every one who is a child of God will have His seal placed upon him….Who can endure the thought of being passed by when the angel goes forth to seal the servants of God in their foreheads?...Those who would have the seal of God in their foreheads must keep the Sabbath of the fourth commandment.” (7BC 969, 970) This sealing was future to Ellen White’s time. Only Sabbathkeepers will be sealed, thus it cannot apply to saved Sundaykeepers of the Middle Ages.
“If you are faithful, you, with the 144,000, shall have the privilege of visiting all the worlds and viewing the handiwork of God.” (EW 40) This is an interesting insight. Ellen White was told that she would be with the 1444,000. She was not told that she was one of the 144,000.
“And as we were about to enter the holy temple, Jesus raised His lovely voice and said, ‘Only the 144,000 enter this place.” (EW 19) The large group was not permitted to enter the temple. Only the 144,000 special group was allowed to enter. Clearly there is a difference between the 144,000 and the saved of all generations.
The 144,000 is a very special part of those God will take to heaven to live with Him for all eternity. They fill a crucially important role in finishing the great controversy. They are the firstfruits of the harvest, which means that their experience is necessary for the completion of the plan of redemption. Without the firstfruits the harvest cannot be gathered.
“And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” (Heb. 11:39,40) The great heroes of faith could not receive the promise of eternal life without “us.” Paul’s great hope was to be among the group to welcome Jesus back. Only later did he realize that there would be a long delay.
Something about “us” is very special. After such a long delay “us” can only be the sealed 144,000. This unique group answers the last question in the great controversy. Can sinners with fallen natures be so transformed by God’s grace that they can be trusted to never again dishonor God and spoil His perfect universe? Our goal should be to fulfill Ellen White’s challenge—to strive with all our heart and the power God has given us to be among the 144,000. (7BC 970)