Read: Ezekiel 9:1-11
Chapter 7 continues within the vision of the removal of the 6th seal from the scroll. The scene described herein is a reflection of a famous scene from the book of the prophecy of Ezekiel.
A judgment is about to commence. But the master of ceremonies who is presiding over the execution of that plan is told to defer for the time being. It is apparently improper to punish the innocent along with the wicked. To avoid such a mishap a signal is arranged (reminiscent of the Passover in Exodus 12 too!) for, and the servants of God are given a mark upon their forehead to distinguish them. This is a precursor to the liturgical signing of the cross upon the forehead which is done at Christian baptism and thereafter in remembrance of that baptism.
144,000 get the mark. The number is symbolic. To take the number as any kind of literal cap on those who can be saved is criminally ridiculous.
“Who are these guys with the marks,” the elder asks John?
Then he answers his own question. They are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation. That is to say, those who have already died. The tribulation is the world. They have left. As the epitaph on the tombstone says, “rest in peace.” They’re out of it.
The 144,000 does not refer to any group who have been snatched up (literally–raptured) out of the fracass that the world is. The oft mistaken image of the rapture has it that the good guys get to get out while the getting is good, before things go to pot. That presumes of course that things have not already gone to pot. It could always be worse, I suppose.
But the real problem with the rapture-theory is that it betrays the whole substance of the gospel which is not about getting out of trouble, but about going through it. The cross of Jesus is the most powerful witness to this idea. Jesus tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. He never tells them that he’s going to get them out of having any difficulties. Far from it. He assures them that they will get through it; that He will go through it with them.
Furthermore, the idea that Christians could be at all gleeful about escaping the turmoil of the world and leaving the rest of mankind to stew in its own excrement is grotesque. If things get bad or worse, oughtn’t we want to be here to help those who have not received the mark upon their heads; to help them find the gospel? If you are hoping to get raptured, and stay out of the fray; and if you think that you merit such preferential treatment because you’re such a great guy, then I wonder how good a guy you really could be if it is to your delight to ditch the less-deserving in the dust. That doesn’t sound much like Jesus to me.
I think that the 144,000 is simply a way of depicting for us the blessed state of death for those who, when their own race was done and their journey complete, were graciously excused from this vale of tears; that we should not mistakenly pity our dear-departed.