Jesus Christ, of course, is greatly concerned with the quality of the kings he will have with him. These kings receive repeated mention in the vision he gave to his apostle John. John reports:
“I saw thrones, and there were those who sat down on them, and power of judging was given them. Yes, I saw the souls of those executed with the ax for the witness they bore to Jesus and for speaking about God, and those who had worshiped neither the wild beast nor its image and who had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand. And they came to life and ruled as kings with the Christ for a thousand years.
“EXECUTED WITH THE AX”
How can we be sure that these 144,000 rulers will be as faithful and loyal to righteousness as is their Leader the Messianic King Jesus Christ? The vision tells us that before their resurrection to be kings, they were “executed with the ax.” Why? “For the witness they bore to Jesus and for speaking about God.” (Rev. 20:4) They, like Jesus, gained the victory over the world by refusing to break their loyalty to God. They continued to bear witness to God’s kingdom, to Jesus as its King and to God as its Creator, and to its coming rule of earth. Only their deaths could stop their loyal witnessing.
The scripture does not mean that every one of the 144,000 prospective kings would be executed with a literal ax, or beheaded. The apostle James was killed by the sword at the order of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:1, 2) Tradition has it that the apostle Paul was beheaded at Rome, Italy. (2 Tim. 4:6-8) Others were killed by different means of execution, while some died in a “normal” way.
All, however, had to be faithful until death. (Rev. 2:10) They had to die in order to receive a change of nature from human to “divine” (Godlike, spirit) nature by a resurrection, just as Christ did. (2 Pet. 1:4) They had to die “a death like his” in order to “attain to the earlier resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:10, 11) So they do not die for their sins. Their death is therefore counted as “sacrificial” with Christ. Paul writes: “If we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall certainly also be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection.”—Rom. 6:5.
How, then, can they be said to be “executed with the ax”? Well, in the Roman Empire the power of execution was symbolized by an ax wrapped within a bundle of rods, called the fasces. Benito Mussolini popularized the symbol during his “Fascist” regime in Italy.
So the political state, in effect, executes the 144,000 Kingdom heirs by judging them as unworthy to live under its authority. It sentences them to death, as it were. This is because the world hates them. (John 17:14; Matt. 24:9) They are “undesirable” in the eyes of the religious and political leaders of the world, even as were the apostles.—1 Cor. 4:13.
NO WORSHIP OF THE “WILD BEAST”
We can also be assured of the continued faithfulness of these 144,000 as kings by considering another reason for which they were “executed with the ax.” It was because they “had worshiped neither the wild beast nor its image” and “had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.”—Rev. 20:4.
Thus it was not due to any fanatical religious or revolutionary activities nor any meddling in politics that they were “executed with the ax.” It was because they were neutral as to the political situation in all its varied expressions and activities throughout the earth. They were for God’s kingdom as the only hope for mankind. Neither have the remaining ones of these Kingdom heirs in this twentieth century worshiped the United Nations organization for world peace and security.
Not ‘worshiping’ the political state or its “image,” the United Nations, would mean not transferring to these man-made agencies hope in and allegiance to God’s kingdom. Instead, these spiritual brothers of Christ continue to proclaim the Kingdom. They do not have the “mark upon their forehead and upon their hand.” That is, they do not have the identification as slaves of the state and do not lend an active hand in carrying on its worldly activities, often beastly. They do not run for political offices, or vote for political candidates. They refuse to share in its sanguinary warfare.
But these Christian witnesses to God’s sovereignty never interfere with the political state in these matters. They ‘pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar’ by complying with registration and tax laws and by obeying all the laws of the land that are not contrary to God’s laws as stated in the Bible. It is only when “Caesar” demands what belongs to God, namely, worship, devotion or anything that detracts from their acknowledgment of Jehovah’s sovereignty, that they must refuse, choosing to “obey God as ruler rather than men.” This brings about their symbolic, and sometimes their literal, ‘execution with the ax.’—Matt. 22:21; Acts 5:29.
This ‘execution with the ax’ is not one that they undergo because of their own will. They are not seeking persecution or martyrdom. Nevertheless, they know in advance that they are going to incur the world’s hatred by their bearing witness to Jesus as Christ and King and speaking about God as the rightful ruler of the universe (including our earth). They know they must follow Christ’s footsteps to a death of integrity to God, as was his.—1 Pet. 2:21.