Posts tagged Revelation
What Adventists Get Wrong about the U.S. in Prophecy

What Adventists Get Wrong about the U.S. in Prophecy
by Jeff Boyd 

In church this past Sabbath, I listened to a sermon about the United States in biblical prophecy. The sermon was part of a prophecy series (Unlock/Unlocking Revelation) that is being preached across the Lake Union Conference, not just in our single congregation (Media: WNEM5, MLive). I was told there are over 170 locations running the series simultaneously.

I like our local pastor. I respect him. My frustration with the sermon is not about him (I don’t believe he wrote the sermon). My frustration is about a very white-centric view of U.S. history. For context, the pastor is white, I’m white, and the majority of the small congregation is white (more so now than when we began attending three years ago).

After writing an initial draft of this blog post, I shared it with him so he could comment before I posted it. I’ve made a few revisions based on that hour-long conversation.

The basic theme of the sermon—and this is an overly simplified summary—was that the U.S. started as a good Christian nation, but now our laws are becoming bad, which is clear since we are losing our Christian freedoms. The breakdown of the family and laws that allow this were the key example of the current problems. Presumably this related to same-sex marriage, but this wasn’t stated outright. This degradation was paralleled with the second beast of Revelation 13, the one that has horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon.

So what the sermon was really saying by describing a fall from good to bad was that slavery did not discredit the early great Christian version of America. The U.S. was still godly. But today U.S. laws don’t support a certain version of Christian ideals relating to the family, so now we’re falling. However, this disregards the generations of families in slavery who were ripped apart as they were bought and sold (more than 10 million ^arrived^ in the New World, plus those born here; besides all those who died or were killed while crossing the Atlantic). How’s that for “Christian family values”? The abuse of those families didn’t invalidate the great Christian start to this country, but gay marriage does?

If our biblical interpretation demands that we disregard the violent injustice experienced by millions of people, then based on the centrality of justice to God’s Word, I propose that we reconsider our interpretation, or at least add a bit of nuance.

If one accepts the overall Adventist understanding of Revelation 13, then I propose a simple alteration of the sermon’s message: understand both features (lamb-like horns and dragon-like speech) throughout its history instead of saying one was earlier and the other was later. That is, at its start the U.S. had an appearance of godliness (lamb-like appearance), but it spoke like a dragon (slaves not treated as humans, at best counted only as three-fifths human). Injustice in word and action despite a religious appearance have continued in different forms ever since, and these require a persistent critique. To this end, I shared a small book with the pastor—Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

This approach is in line with early Adventist views (not that early is necessarily right or best, but merely demonstrates that my proposed interpretation is hardly novel). Adventist historian Doug Morgan writes about those Adventists:


Challenging the prevalent postmillennialist conception of the United States as an instrument of progress toward the millennium, they asserted that apocalyptic Scripture cast the Republic as a persecuting beast. They pointed to slavery and the Protestant establishment’s intolerant treatment of dissenters as evidence of the fulfillment of prophecy. (Adventism and the American Republic, 2001, p. 11).

After our conversation, the pastor decided his interpretation could have been kept in place while being supplemented with the admission that the ideals expressed in the nation’s founding documents are the key point while also admitting we have not done a good job of living up to those ideals.

This racial issue was my main disagreement with the way U.S history and God’s values were portrayed, but there were three other points that were less central to the sermon’s main arguments. First, and I don’t remember the exact wording, the violent entrance of Columbus and the conquistadors was greatly minimized (something like: they joined the people already here).

Second, yes the Bible says there will be persecution, but I’m frustrated when American Adventists accept the view that American Christians are being greatly persecuted today. Allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry is not persecuting Christians; Christians are still free to worship however we like. There is a difference between being persecuted and simply not being able to force one’s values or morals on others. We want our civil and religious freedoms, so let’s extend that concern to all others as well.

Third, the quick rise of U.S. power was described as a blessing from God. I cringe a bit when I hear this argument because I believe slavery was a key factor in our economic development. Later military dominance became another unjust tool for economic expansion. For starters, consider Smedley Butler,* John Perkins, or the case of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala (Wiki, GWU). To say that growth of the U.S. economy and our subsequent place of power in the world is simply because of God’s blessing is to sweep too much history under the rug.

In conclusion, if the Adventist interpretation of prophecy is correct, then surely it can be presented in balanced and meaningful ways that don’t (a) ignore gross injustices such as slavery and imperialism and (b) accept popular definitions of Christian victimization in the U.S. that ring hollow compared with true persecution seen in other times and also in other places today.

– – –

*My favorite Smedley quote: “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

Note: This article was originally posted on Adventist Peace Fellowship blog under the title "Unlocking Revelation & U.S. History". It has been republished with permission.
Enigma (part 6): Death to Ism
photo credit: Keoni Cabral via photopin cc
Welcome to Enigma 6, the last post in the Enigma series. In this series I have attempted to engage the mind of Christians with the challenges and opportunities we have in reaching the post-modern community. I have not attempted to be exhaustive or unique in my posts, but simply to share some thoughts and observations that have been percolating in my mind since arriving in Australia and observing secular/ post-modern challenge the church faces here. Today marks the end of Enigma and to top it off I want to highlight in a more detailed way the challenges the church is facing and then look at those challenges in the light of eschatology (last day events). 

Reaching the culture for Christ has always been a challenge. Post-modern or not, the human love for sin and our susceptibility to Satanic delusion has always made us anti-God. As a result mankind has always been difficult to reach. Just read the story of the flood (Gen. 6) which introduces us to Noah who preached (2 Pet. 2:5) for many years with the help of Christ himself (1 Pet. 3:19) and never gained a single convert. The challenges the church is facing today are nowhere near as bad as they were in Noah's day. While post-modernism may be a difficult worldview to counteract Noah had to preach to a world in which "every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Gen. 6:5). After many years of preaching the end result was that not a single person listened to Noah. None of them cared.

And take a look at Jeremiah who was sent by God to prophecy to Israel. Israel had become to enamored with its sin that the people were unwilling to repent. After dedicating his entire life to serving God and trying to reach the people the end result was that "they did not listen or pay attention..." (Jer. 44:5). Jeremiah felt like such a failure that at one point he even quit. Although he eventually recommitted his life to God's cause his mission was, by human standards, a failure. He called a rebellious people to reconnect with God and in the end, none of them cared.

The same can be said of Jesus who was condemned and crucified by the very people he came to save, and the apostles all of which died a martyrs death (besides John) because people didn't want to hear what they were saying. And all throughout history Christians have been persecuted, imprisoned, and killed by those who wanted nothing to do with God. We have always been the minority. Nothing has changed.

After the persecutions subsided the pre-modern church emerged. The pre-modern church also faced incredible challenges such as the dark ages, religious apathy, superstition, legalism, pagan philosophy, and biblical illiteracy. Then came the enlightenment era, the age of skepticism, and the liberalization of Christianity with concepts like the demythologization of scripture. Modernism, atheism, naturalism post-modernism, deconstructionism, and relativism have followed. And all throughout we have been challenged by the propositions of absurdism, nihilism, pantheism, asceticism, deism and countless other "ism's." All of these "ism's" have risen at differing points in history and presented monumental challenges to the mission of the church. 

But in Revelation John says something interesting. He says that "all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb" (Rev. 13:8). This beast, according to Revelation, is a religio-political power that will gain the allegiance and support of every human being on earth in the last days. Satan is said to work miracles through false Christs and false prophets (Mat. 24, Rev 13:14) that will gather the human race into a final, unified rebellion against God.

John's vision ultimately represents death to ism. Not every ism of course, and perhaps in some strange philosophical way not even death. But the reality is that as Satan begins his final campaign against God and his people he will have to somehow undermine many of the philosophies he has raised over the centuries to delude humanity. Naturalism and atheism will all but die in the wake of last day events and post-modernism, while it may retain some level of reverence, will nevertheless be abandoned by the vast majority. In order for the culture to embrace a religio-political power that claims allegiance to God while warring against him a certain degree of post-modern rejection will have to take place - especially in the realms of relativism and the rejection of meta-narratives.

So what does this all mean? It means that post-modernism, along with many other "ism's" will meet their demise in the face of the religious and miraculous events that will characterize the last days. When post-moderns begin to experience the reality of the spiritual war presented in scripture they will begin to deny the foundations of their philosophy. Unfortunately, at that time the experience will come not simply from a Cristo-centric worldview aiming at connecting man to God, but also from a rebelio-centric worldview aiming at placing its seal of rebellion upon the hearts of as many human beings as possible. Thus, super natural experience will serve to undermine relativism with the intent to maneuver believers from one illusionary worldview onto another.

The challenge this proposes to the church is, therefore, quite serious. Post-moderns crave experience. As a church we have been slow to provide this experience. We are satisfied with our dogmatic, dry, irrelevant, and robotic liturgies. As a result we are failing to speak the language of a generation that craves experience. And the longer we fail to provide them with a Cristo-centric experience the more Satan prepares to deliver his rebelio-centric counterfeit. We must, therefore (and in the words of Ellen White), "awake to the necessities of the time in which [we] are living" (Ev 70.1). While Bricolage? will dive more deeply into this, I would like to end Enigma with the following note: The church must recapture the experiential element it originally possessed in order to reach a generation that is burnt out on liturgies, programs, and irrelevance (all aspects of modern Christianity alien to the original church). In order to do this the church must do two things. Number one, it must rediscover itself in light of scripture and number two (and most importantly) each member of the church must rediscover his/her individual selves in light of that same word. 

As my father once said, "The main problem of a church is the main problem of the members of that church." If a church is collectively unloving, it is because the majority of the members are individually unloving. If a church is collectively cold, its because its people are individually cold. If a church is collectively irrelevant, it is because its members are individually irrelevant. If a church is collectively unable to give post-moderns the experience they seek, it is because the members are individually lacking in that experience. And if we fail to acquire and share that experience with this generation we will have set them up for the enemies forgery.

More to come,

Farewell Enigma.
The Sabbath as "Seal" & Grace Alone: My Struggle with the "Contradiction"



photo credit: LarimdaME via photopin cc

I don't know about you, but the-Sabbath-as-seal doctrine is one that bothered me for quite some time. In case you don't know what that is allow me to explain. Seventh-day Adventists believe that the Sabbath is the seal of God and that in order to be sealed by God we must keep the Sabbath. Such a doctrine immediately throws up red flags. Being sealed by God means we belong to him. If we cannot be sealed unless we keep the Sabbath then logically it follows that we must keep the Sabbath in order to earn Gods seal and thus, ultimately, salvation. In the end then, it seems as is Adventisms claims to salvation by grace alone are pseudo claims since we do, in fact, believe that the Sabbath is the seal given only to those who honor the Sabbath. As I said above, this concept bothered me because it seemed incompatible with the gospel. However, after taking a closer look the Holy Spirit settled my questions by showing me two simple points I had totally missed. Ultimately my main problem was that I had an oversimplified understanding of the seal doctrine. It was this oversimplification of that led me to my misconceptions. By looking deeper I discovered that there was more to the seal than I had previously known and this new understanding opened up a whole new view to the seal. 

First, While Adventist believe that the Sabbath is the seal of God we do not believe that the Sabbath alone is the seal of God. To view Gods seal as simply the Sabbath is an oversimplification of Adventisms seal theology. The seal of God is primarily and foremost a love seal not a law seal. Ellen White expressed it well when she said, "Love is expressed in obedience, and perfect love casteth out all fear. Those who love God, have the seal of God in their foreheads, and work the works of God" (LDE 221.4). This quote demonstrates that Ellen White understood the seal of God to be more than just going to church on Saturday. It has to do with having a heart that loves God supremely – a love which according to scripture is always expressed by obedience (John 14:15). So, far from receiving the seal of God due to our ability to read the calendar correctly or to keep the law well, the seal of God is given to those who love God. 

Second, those who love God she describes as those who "work the works of God". Notice that the seal is not simply given to those who "work the works of God" but to those who "love God" and as a result "work [his] works". Thus, the seal of God must not be understood as simply a "law" issue, but as a "love" issue. What this demonstrates is that, according to Ellen White, Adventisms seal doctrine is presupposed by the same gospel that Luther, Calvin, and Arminius preached. That is that we are saved by Gods grace alone and that our salvation - while not dependent on - is nevertheless evidenced by our works. This point is important because it places the concept of obedience to God in the proper sphere. Working the works of God have nothing to do with earning salvation or earning the right to keep salvation. Instead, they have to do with the evidence for salvation. And it is the third point that God showed me which really brings this to life.

The third point is this: The seal of God as the Sabbath must be understood in its apocalyptic setting in contrast to the mark of the beast. Let that sink in. In fact, read it over again two or three times before moving on. The seal of God as the Sabbath must be understood in its apocalyptic setting in contrast to the mark of the beast.  If we separate the seal of God from that context we end up with an oversimplification that both misrepresents Adventisms theology and also undermines the gospel. 

First, without the apocalyptic context in mind the Sabbath as seal doctrine translates as a “you must start keeping the Sabbath to be saved” theology that does nothing but undermine the truth about Jesus only. If such a theology were true then Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley - along with the billions of Jesus-followers of every age - will all be lost because none of them kept the Sabbath and thus none of them received the seal of God. However, this is not  what Adventisms seal theology teaches. So what does it teach? Once again, this teaching must be understood in its apocalyptic context.

Scripture is clear that in the final days there will be a crisis over loyalty. All of mankind will be compelled by force and threat to worship the beast but those who are faithful to God will refuse on pain of death. The faithful are described in Revelation as "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12). Today there is much debate over the validity of the Sabbath. Faithful Christians find themselves on both sides of the debate. But in the final crisis there will no longer be a debate. Every person will know for sure whether or not they are following God or following the beast. Thus, it is within this apocalyptic context that Ellen White could say:
... when Sunday observance shall be enforced by law, and the world shall be enlightened concerning the obligation of the true Sabbath, then whoever shall transgress the command of God, to obey a precept which has no higher authority than that of Rome, will thereby honor popery above God {GC, 449}.
Those who would have the seal of God in their foreheads must keep the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. This is what distinguishes them from the disloyal, who have accepted a man-made institution in the place of the true Sabbath. The observance of God’s rest day is the mark of distinction between him that serveth God and him that serveth Him not (Manuscript 27, 1899) {7BC 970.2}.
Understood within the apocalyptic context the seal of God poses no contradiction to Jesus Only. Those who decide to follow the beast will evidence their loyalty by obedience and those who choose to be faithful to God will evidence their faithfulness by obedience. Both groups will be obeying someone as a sign of loyalty. So the seal of God in Revelation is set against the backdrop of the mark of the beast. In the final crisis everyone will have either the mark or the seal. There will be no in between. And unless one is willing to go as far as to develop a theology that teaches that it’s OK to be disobedient and receive the mark of the beast and still be saved then you have to come to terms with the apocalyptic seal.

However, never make the mistake of thinking that we earn Gods apocalyptic seal and thus earn salvation. The issue here has nothing to do with faith vs works. It simply has to do with sincerity. Are we going to be faithful to God and worship him or are we going to ally ourselves with the religio-political beast system of Revelation and worship it? When you dig deep it becomes obvious that the real issue is not about 7th day VS. 1st day but about who your Lord is, man or God? It’s really that simple.

Therefore, it seems to me that the only way to turn the seal of God into a legalistic doctrine is to remove it from its apocalyptic context. Once you do that, yes it very much sounds like we are sealed based on our performance instead of Gods grace. But within the apocalyptic context it becomes clear that it is primarily and issue of sincerity/loyalty not faith/works.

A perfect example of this is the book of Hebrews. The book was written with one purpose in mind - to convince persecuted Christians, who were considering returning to Judaism in order to escape the persecution, to remain faithful to God. Hebrews is clear that turning your back on Jesus means forfeiting the salvation he so freely offers. Paul is encouraging the believers to be faithful to Christ because he is the only way to heaven. Judaism and its many ceremonies could not save, only Christ and his righteousness alone.

Likewise, in the apocalyptic context the Christian church will suffer intense persecution. The beast will offer his mark and say that anyone who receives it will escape the persecution. Since Adventists believe the beast is Papal Rome and his mark of authority is Sunday observance then we conclude that a Sunday law will be enforced. Those who honor it will give allegiance to Papal Rome. But those who refuse and instead honor Gods Sabbath (a sign of his creation, salvation, and redemption) will evidence their allegiance to Him and thus receive the apocalyptic seal. Is it possible for a sincere Christian during this time to say, "Well I'm not saved by works so I'm just gonna get the mark of the beast and go to heaven anyways"? No way! Such a thought is nonsensical. 

The way I see it, the final test has nothing to do with revealing to God who his faithful ones are. He already knows. But the final test will help us see if we really love God and would be happy to spend eternity with him. God never tests us to discover something about us he doesn't know. He tests us to reveal something to us that we don't know. I think at this time many who thought they wanted to go to heaven and be with God forever will discover that they find no joy in honoring him in the midst of a temporary conflict and will thus make their decision to walk away from him forever. Again, sincerity is the issue.

However, the NT does say "do not grieve the Holy Spirit by whom you "were" sealed." Not "by whom you are going to be sealed." This concept, when combined with Revelation, paints a picture of a two dimensional sealing. One in the here and now. It gives us assurance of our salvation. The other is in the apocalyptic context, protects us from the plagues, and reveals to us how much we truly love God.

In conclusion, the Sabbath as seal poses no contradiction to salvation by grace through faith. An oversimplification of this doctrine that places it outside of its apocalyptic context certainly creates that problem. However, placed within its apocalyptic context where it belongs demonstrates that the seal of God is a love issue, not a law issue. Because this is a contextual topic it is clear that no one today has the mark of the beast. It is only at the end of time when the polarization becomes clear that the mark is given. However, all who love God today have the seal of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of salvation and in the end of time, those who are alive will receive the apocalyptic seal in contrast to the mark of the beast. However, Gods people won't be sealed because they keep the Sabbath but because they love God. That love will compel them to honor him in the final conflict which involves the Sabbath by honoring the one day that celebrates him as creator, redeemer, and restorer while rejecting the day that celebrates the papacy - a system which presents an alternative method of salvation that counters the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

_____
Note: This post is an edited excerpt from: REclaiming Adventism: A Response to the Testimony of Former Adventist Eliana Matthews.
Who Are The 144,000? (part 2)


In part 1 we saw who the 144,000 are in Revelation 7. Revelation 14 begins by revisiting the 144,000. This time rather than John hearing the name 144,000 he looks and sees them. One could argue this is evidence for the literality of the 144,000 but such is not the case. At this point John has already heard the number 144,000 and seen that it represents the numberless multitude. Rather than say, “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him a numberless multitude that no man could number who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” John used the nickname for this group and instead said, “…and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” John is not here saying that he saw a literal 144,000. Based on previous evidence it is clear that the number 144,000 refers to all of the saved of all ages. Therefore, John saying he looked and saw 144,000 is a simplified way of saying he looked and saw the numberless multitude of the redeemed. He is simply making use of the symbolism in the same way the angel made use of it in chapter 7. 

Another evidence is found in the description of this group. John says, “These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. No lie was found in their mouths; they are blameless.” There is nothing in this description that demands this be a “special” group. This description can easily apply to any Christian. Take the Apostle Paul for example. Did he "not defile himself with women" (false doctrines)? Did he not "follow the lamb wherever he goes"? Was he not "purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb"? Can it not be said that "no lie was found in his mouth and that he was blameless"? It is clear, the description of the 144,000 presents no evidence of a special elite group of last day Christians who have attained a perfection that no one else has ever attained before.

But why did the angel choose the term 144,000? Couldn't he have chosen a less confusing symbol? While there may be many answers to this question allow me to propose one that I believe is very significant. 

In Revelation 11:1 John is "given a reed like a measuring rod" and told to measure the temple. We see this same picture in Ezekiel 41. The act of measuring is a symbol of judgment. That which is being measured is being inspected. The same scenario takes place in Revelation 21:16-17 when the angel measures the New Jerusalem. John says, 
And he who talked with me had a gold reed to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal. Then he measured its wall: one hundred and forty-four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of an angel.
Notice that the height of the city is 12,000 furlongs.  Its breadth is 12,000 furlongs. Its height is also 12,000 furlongs. All of the measurements are equal. The number 12,000 is used by the angel when describing the 144,000 in Revelation 6:5-8
of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand were sealed; of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand were sealed... etc.
Notice also that when the angel measures the wall of the city it is 144 cubits, a number which parallels the 144,000. When the inspection is over the New Jerusalem is described as a beautiful city with walls of jasper, streets of pure gold as clear as glass, twelve gates made of 12 pearls etc. In the end the angels inspection revealed how beautiful the city was. The interesting part is that the earthly Jerusalem was a city of rebellion and apostasy and yet here we have a New Jerusalem that has been measured and is a symbol of loyalty and beauty. 

Likewise, I believe the angel refers to the saved as 144,000 because they too have been measured ("inspected" or "judged") in the pre-advent judgment. The inspection has revealed how beautiful they are, arrayed in the white robes which they made white in the blood of the Lamb. They were not defiled, they follow the Lamb wherever He goes, in their mouth was found no deceit, and they are without fault before the throne of God. Thus the term 144,000 is not used to describe a literal number of a group of last day super saints, but it is used to describe the all sufficiency of the blood of Jesus to cleanse and transform a filthy sinner of any age, of any tribe, and of any culture into a beautiful creature. Like the New Jerusalem which replaces the earthly Jerusalem, the 144,000 are "new creatures" in Christ. The number 144,000 is not a numerical description of people but a redemptive description of all the saved. It is a number that symbolizes measurement, inspection, and judgment which reveals the beauty of those who were once sinners and are now saints. The number testifies to the promise of scripture:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (1 Cor. 5:21).
How sad that many waste their time debating back and forth over whether the number is symbolic or literal. While these discussions are good and beneficial, if we focus on them at the expense of the gospel message, at the end of the day we miss the true meaning of the 144,000. They, like the city, have been measured and the act of measuring has revealed God's saving grace in taking these sinful human beings and transforming them. It is a testimony to the power of grace and it is beautiful. 

So who are the 144,000? They are the saved of every age who, by virtue of the blood of Jesus, have been found spotless and who, by virtue of the power of grace, have been transformed into beautiful new creatures. Ah yes, heaven is all about the new. New heavens and new earth. New bodies and new life. New Jerusalem and new humanity. Jesus says, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). And its all because of grace.
Who Are The 144,000? (part 1)


Revelation 7, the chapter that deals with the 144,000, has been a very divisive chapter in Adventist history. Several years ago I became interested in the topic so I listened to two popular Adventist speakers present on it. One of the speakers said the 144,000 was a literal number. The other said it was symbolic. I was frustrated. Which one is it? Another theory I heard attempted to the merge the two by saying that the number was a literal number of end time leaders of Gods people but not a literal number of all of the faithful in the end time.Today I am certain, based on Revelation 7, that the term 144,000 is not a literal number. Here are the reasons why:
The first thing to notice is that John did not see the 144,000, he only heard the number “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000”.
The second thing to notice is that John specifically says that this group of people are Jews, “144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.” He then proceeds to give a very detailed list of which Israelite tribes the 144,000 come from and how many come from each tribe (12 tribes with 12,000 from each tribe). If we are to take the number 144,000 literally then we must also conclude that they are all Jews and that they all come from 12 different tribes within Israel even though those tribes no longer exist. 
So who are the 144,000? The answer comes to us in verse 9 which says: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count.” While John heard the number 144,000 when he looks upon the scene he does not say he saw 144,000 but “a great multitude which no man could number.” John then goes on to say, “from every nation, tribe, people and language.” In other words, they are not just Jews from Israel but a diverse, multi-ethnic parade of saved people who are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” While John “heard” that there were 144,000 from Israel he “saw” a numberless multitude. And while John "heard" they were all Israelite's he "saw" people from all over the earth. The 144,000 is a symbolic number which refers to all of the saved of every culture of all time.

The final evidence I see for the rejection of a literal interpretation is the description of this group at the end of the chapter. The description John writes includes 1) They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands, 2) they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God…” 3) they… have come out of the great tribulation, 4) they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, 5) they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple, 6) he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence, 7) Never again will they hunger…[or] thirst, 8) The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat, 9) the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, 10) ‘he will lead them to springs of living water, 11) And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Notice that nothing in this description gives the impression that the 144,000 are a “special group” of people. They are not super saints. They have not suffered more or less than other saints in history. And they receive the same blessings that we can find elsewhere in scripture as being promised to the whole of the redeemed. However, what about their description in Revelation 14:1-5? Doesn't that do away with this entire argument? I will cover that in the next post.



Further Reading: Who Are the 144,000? (part 2)