An expression that, in itself, is quite common in the Christian Greek Scriptures. “Great crowd(s)” is sometimes used with regard to the large groups of persons who heard Jesus Christ’s public teaching. (Mt 14:14; 19:2; 20:29) After the vision of the destruction of the symbolic Babylon the Great, the apostle John heard “what was as a loud voice of a great crowd in heaven.” (Re 19:1) At Revelation 7:9, however, “a great crowd” is mentioned whose identification has particularly been a matter of keen interest.
In this chapter, the apostle John first refers to the sealing of 144,000 slaves of God “out of every tribe of the sons of Israel.” (Re 7:2-8) After this, he saw in a vision “a great crowd” out of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. These ascribe their salvation to God and to the Lamb as they stand before God’s throne. They have come out of “the great tribulation,” they serve God in his temple, and he spreads his tent over them. All their hunger and thirst are to be ended and every tear is to be wiped from their eyes as his Son (the Lamb; Joh 1:29) guides them to the waters of life.
Popular Views. Various views have been advanced as to the significance and identification of this “great crowd.” Many commentators view the 144,000 sealed ones, first mentioned, as members of “spiritual Israel” and believe that they symbolize the Christian congregation while on earth. They feel that the “great crowd” represents that same Christian congregation in heaven, after the individuals have died in faith and have been resurrected. Others hold that the 144,000 are literally from “every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Re 7:4), that is, fleshly Jews who become Christians, and they consider the “great crowd” to represent all the Gentile Christians. A consideration of Revelation chapter 7 and other related texts, however, reveals serious inconsistencies in these views, at the same time pointing to a different conclusion.
To hold that the 144,000 sealed ones are the members of the Christian congregation while on earth whereas the “great crowd” are the resurrected Christians in heaven does not harmonize with the other mention of the 144,000, in Revelation chapter 14. There the 144,000 are stationed with the Lamb on “Mount Zion.” At Hebrews 12:18-24 the apostle Paul contrasts the experience of the Israelites at the earthly Mount Sinai with that of the Christians who have “approached a Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, and myriads of angels, in general assembly, and the congregation of the firstborn who have been enrolled in the heavens.” Obviously, then, although Revelation 14:3 says that the 144,000 have been “bought from the earth,” the context depicts them as being, not on earth, but in heaven with the heavenly Lamb, Christ Jesus. (Re 14:3, 4) This renders invalid the view that the 144,000 represent the Christian congregation while on earth in contrast with their being the “great crowd” in heaven.
Additionally, the way in which the apostle John introduces his vision of the “great crowd” indicates a clear distinction of identity between them and the 144,000 sealed ones. He states: “After these things [the account of the 144,000 sealed ones] I saw, and, look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number.” (Re 7:9) He thus presents the “great crowd” as a separate entity and makes a definite contrast between the specific number of the 144,000 and the unnumbered “great crowd.” They are also distinguished by their being, not “of the sons of Israel,” but out of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. They are not seen standing ‘with the Lamb’ as are the 144,000, at Revelation 14:1, but are “before the Lamb.” These several factors all argue that the “great crowd” is separate and distinct from the 144,000 sealed ones.
On the other hand, the view that here Christians of Jewish stock are being distinguished from Gentile Christians runs counter to the apostle Paul’s inspired statement that fleshly distinctions are of no consideration in the Christian congregation, its members being all one in union with Christ Jesus. (Ro 10:12; Ga 3:28) Jehovah, having ‘fully reconciled both peoples [Jews and non-Jews] to himself in one body’ through Christ, could hardly be expected to make a division between the two groups now by separating fleshly Jews from Gentiles in the vision given to John. (Eph 2:11-21; Ac 15:7-9) This is particularly evident when the divine principle stated by Paul is taken into account. The apostle wrote: “He is not a Jew who is one on the outside, nor is circumcision that which is on the outside upon the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit.” (Ro 2:28, 29) Why, too, would there be no mention of any ‘sealing’ of the Gentile Christians in this divine vision? And why would not the Gentile Christians be able to master the new song sung by the 144,000? (Re 14:3) It thus seems clear that the 144,000 sealed ones are of spiritual Israel, not fleshly Israel
Their Identification. The key to the identification of the “great crowd” is found within the description of them in Revelation chapter 7 and in obviously parallel passages. Revelation 7:15-17 speaks of God as ‘spreading his tent over them,’ of their being guided to “fountains of waters of life,” and of God’s wiping “every tear from their eyes.” At Revelation 21:2-4 we find parallel expressions: ‘God’s tent being with mankind,’ his ‘wiping every tear from their eyes,’ and ‘death being no more.’ The vision there presented is concerning persons not in heaven, from where the ‘New Jerusalem comes down,’ but on earth, among mankind.
This poses the question: If the “great crowd” are persons who gain salvation and remain on earth, how could they be said to be ‘standing before God’s throne and before the Lamb’? (Re 7:9) The position of ‘standing’ is sometimes used in the Bible to indicate the holding of a favored or approved position in the eyes of the one in whose presence the individual or group stands. (Ps 1:5; 5:5; Pr 22:29, AT; Lu 1:19) In fact, in the previous chapter of Revelation, “the kings of the earth and the top-ranking ones and the military commanders and the rich and the strong ones and every slave and every free person” are depicted as seeking to hide themselves “from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb, because the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Re 6:15-17; compare Lu 21:36.) It thus appears that the “great crowd” is formed of those persons who have been preserved during that time of wrath and who have been able to “stand” as approved by God and the Lamb.
The Lamb’s guiding them to “fountains of waters of life” finds a parallel at Revelation 22:17, which says: “The spirit and the bride keep on saying: ‘Come!’ And let anyone hearing say: ‘Come!’ and let anyone thirsting come; let anyone that wishes take life’s water free.” The “bride” is clearly identified in the Scriptures as the anointed Christian congregation, espoused to the heavenly Bridegroom, Christ Jesus. (Eph 5:25-27; 2Co 11:2; Re 19:7-9; 21:9-11) The invitation to “take life’s water free” presented by the heavenly “bride” class is obviously open to an unlimited number of persons, “anyone that wishes.” Likewise unnumbered are the “great crowd,” the vision at Revelation 7:9 thereby harmonizing with that at Revelation 22:17.
The sum of the evidence, therefore, points to the “great crowd” as representing all those persons who are not of the heavenly “bride” class, or 144,000 sealed ones, but who stand approved at the time of the “great tribulation” and are preserved alive on earth.