In Revelation 14:1-5, the 144,000 witnesses are marked with the name of the Lamb and his father. This stands in contrast to those marked with the name of the beast at the end of chapter 13. What can we know about these 144,000 witnesses?
First, they have not defiled themselves with women and are virgins (ESV). Normally the Greek word for virgin (παρθένος) is used for a young woman, not a young man (BDAG, a female of marriageable age). Joseph and Asenath 8:1 refers to Joseph as a virgin using this word. First, it is possible this use of virgin implies they men were unmarried at the time they were killed for their faith (although that they are killed is not clear at this point in Revelation). Second, the term is applied to men because they abstain from immorality, whether married or not. Aune dismisses this as “unconvincing.” Third, it is possible to take “virgin” literally as a reference to men who have chosen to remain celibate because of their service to God. Priests and soldiers were exclusively male in the Old Testament. Priests avoided sexual activity during their time of service to avoid ritual uncleanliness (Lev 15:16-18).
It is possible this virginity as a refers to soldiers engaged in holy war. Caird thought the background for this verse was the requirement of Israelite soldiers to be ceremonially pure for battle (Revelation, 179). Richard Bauckham thought the 144,000 were engaging in “an ironic holy war” (Climax of Prophecy, 229-32).
There are several places in the Old Testament were men abstain from sexual activity while engaged in a Holy War. In Deuteronomy 23:9-10 men who are encamped against an enemy should keep themselves from “any evil thing,” with the implication of sexual activity. The reason given is the Lord himself walks in the camp, therefore the camp must be holy, free from any indecency that might turn away the Lord (24:14).
It is tempting to draw a parallel with The War Scroll. The men preparing for the eschatological battle are to be in a state of ritual cleanliness and the army will have “no lame, blind, paralysed person nor any man who has an indelible blemish on his flesh, nor any man suffering from uncleanness” (1Q33 Col. Vii.4). These are all categories of people excluded from temple worship. The main problem with the 144,000 as soldiers in a holy war is that they are not called solders in Revelation nor are they engaged in warfare.
Since these men are described in verse 5 as a sacrifice, the “firstfruits to God,” then “defilement with women” may stand in contrast with those who have followed the beast. In Revelation 17 John will describe worship of the beast as adultery with the great whore of Babylon. In Revelation 2:20 the church at Thyatira tolerated the teaching of a false prophet styled as Jezebel. The association of Jezebel and sexual immorality in that context may refer to worship in the imperial cult (although sexual immorality in the context of a banquet is a possibility). In either case, idolatry is often described as spiritual immorality (Hosea 1-3, for example).
The 144,000 follow the Lamb wherever he goes. The language of “following” Christ is almost completely limited to the Gospels. Following in the Gospels does not mean “accepting the teachings of” the one you follow. For example, “Pastor Smith followed N. T. Wright in his teaching on sanctification.” The “following” is completely intellectual.
In Revelation, following Christ is to become his disciple on a more intimate level. It implies the commitment to continue following Christ even to death. There are many passages that talk about the disciple’s willingness to give up earthly pleasure and security in order to follow Christ on the deepest level possible. The point of the “take up your cross and follow me” saying is that the disciple must be ready to forsake all earthly relationships and be willing to be executed for his faith. This is perhaps the only hint that the 144,000 are martyred, that they continually followed Christ to the point that they gave their lives resisting the beast.
The other unusual thing about this description is that the Lamb is portrayed as a shepherd (as in 7:17). This is to be expected since the Messiah’s leadership is described as a “shepherd” in Is 40:11 and Ezekiel 34:23 and became a part of the Jewish idea of the Messiah (Aune 2:812 for rabbinic apocryphal writings).
The 144,000 were purchased from among men and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb. The martyrdom motif continues in the next description. “Offered as a firstfruit” is a clear reference to sacrifice. Firstfruit refers to the practice of offering the first portion of a crop to the Lord, or the best of one’s flock to the Lord. The Old Testament is very clear that the only acceptable sacrifice is the best sacrifice, therefore the flawless firstborn male lamb is the most pleasing sacrifice to the Lord. This anticipates Revelation 14:14-20 the harvest of the earth.
No lie was found in their mouths; They are blameless. This description concerns moral purity and continues the theme of describing the 144,000 as spotless sacrifices. The phrase is used in Zephaniah 3:13 to describe the remnant of Israel in the last days.
This whole scene is designed to give comfort to the reader; those that have been set aside to the Lord in the tribulation are being brought through and will stand with the Lamb in Zion and will apparently rule with him in the Kingdom. After the description of the protection of the 144,000, John describes three angelic messengers that continue the theme of comfort and hope.