It can be easy to overlook the meaning of numbers in a prophetic message. Numbers are not hidden codes, but numbers gain meaning by the things associated with them. For example, in America 9-1-1 is associated with emergencies because this is the nationwide number to dial if there is an emergency. But the same digits, expressed as 9 - 11, brings to mind tragedy because that is the date the World Trade Center towers were blown up and thousands lost their life. The number 13 has long been associated with bad luck, so strongly that buildings in America aren’t occupied on the thirteenth floor.
In the Bible certain numbers are associated with meanings and these associations are used in Revelation.
One - The Ultimate Unity
It starts in Genesis 2:24 where marriage is instituted. Two people are joined to become one flesh. As Jesus says, they are no longer two but one (Matthew 19:4-6). In the same way, Jesus took the Jews and the Gentiles and merged them into one people (Ephesians 2:11-15). It has always been Christ’s desire that his people be one as God is one (John 17:20-21).
How is God one? (Deuteronomy 6:4; Revelation 16:5). The statement that God is one is not a numerical count but a statement of ultimate unity. After all, if Jesus prayed that his disciples would be one, he wasn’t talking numerically. How God is one is how the disciples are to be one. We can also see this in marriage. A husband and wife becoming one doesn’t mean one of the two ceases to exist.
Two - Testimony and Witness
When Pharaoh dreamed, the dream repeated. This, Joseph stated, showed that what the dream showed was firmly established (Genesis 41:32).
Two cherubim were placed on each side of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22). In the ark were two tablets of stone with the law written on it by God. Those tablets were called a testimony or a testament (Exodus 31:18). And now we have two testaments, the Old and the New (Hebrews 8:13).
Under both the Old and New Testaments truth is established by the testimony of at least two witnesses (Hebrews 10:28). So when Revelation talks about witnesses, they are two in number (Revelation 11:3-4).
Three - Complete or Entire, often connected with Deity
After the flood, the world was repopulated through the descendants of Noah’s three sons (Genesis 9:18-19).
When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, he was required to make a three day journey to the place for the sacrifice (Genesis 22:4).
While in prison, Joseph interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker, dreams that are filled with threes (Genesis 40:9-19).
The Israelites had three major feasts that required all males to travel to Jerusalem (Exodus 23:14).
Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 1:17). Jesus said that in a similar way, he would spend three days and three nights in the grave (Matthew 12:40). It was on the third day that Jesus arose (I Corinthians 15:3-4).
Before Saul became a Christian, he was blinded for three days and was baptized on the third day (Acts 9:9; 22:16).
God is presented in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is done in their names (or with their authority) (Matthew 28:18-19). See II Corinthians 13:14 as another example where all three are mentioned.
Thus, in Revelation three woes are pronounced before three angels bring judgment on the world (Revelation 8:13). In Revelation 9:18 we see three plagues killing a third of mankind. New Jerusalem is depicted as having three gates on each side, indicating a complete, unimpeded entry (Revelation 21:12-13).
Four - Every Direction, Everywhere
It starts with the Garden being surrounded by four great rivers (Genesis 2:10). Eventually mankind divides directions to four compass points: North, South, East, and West. This leads to talking about the four corners of the earth even though it is round (Isaiah 11:12; Revelation 20:8). This is also why people talk about the four winds (Ezekiel 37:9).
Ezekiel also presents to us four living creatures each facing in a different direction (the four compass points). The creatures each have four faces, each facing in a different direction (Ezekiel 1:5-10). Those that serve God can go anywhere and see everything at once.
The New Jerusalem has four sides, each containing three gates (Revelation 21:12-13). Thus, the city welcomes people from all points of the earth.
Seven - Finished, Perfect, an Oath
The creation took place over seven days, including the day of rest (Genesis 2:1-2). This was the day that God declared that everything was finished.
When Noah entered the ark, seven clean animals were taken on board, but only two of the unclean animals (Genesis 7:2-3).
Interestingly, the word “seven” (שבע) and the word for “oath” (שבע) are similar words in Hebrew. The difference is whether you pronounce the word sheva’ (seven) or shava’ (oath). This can be seen Genesis 21:28-31 where a play on words is used to name the location Beesheba, which can be translated as either “the wells of seven” or “the wells of an oath.”
Jacob had to twice work seven years in order to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:20,27,30). When Solomon described his bride, he listed out seven attributes and concluded that she was completely beautiful and without blemish (Song of Solomon 4:7).
In Pharaoh’s dream there were seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:25-31).
Sevens also appeared in the worship of God. The lamp stand contained seven lamps (Exodus 37:23). When a sin offering was made, blood was sprinkled seven times (Leviticus 4:6).
When God emphasized punishment, it was a seven-fold punishment (Leviticus 26;18,21,24,28).
This then leads to two other important numbers in Revelation. Since seven is perfect, one less (six) is imperfect. It becomes the number for sin and for man. The Israelite week was divided into six days of labor for man, but the seventh day was dedicated to God (Exodus 20:9-11). Half of seven is three and a half. This is the number used when something is incomplete and is associated with trials. The drought Elijah brought on Israel lasted three and a half years (Luke 4:25).
Ten - A complete set or a short time
New parents count the fingers and toes of their newborn children to assure themselves that their child is born whole.
God sent ten plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7-14). The Law of Moses started with Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 4:13).
When the bride described her husband, Solomon, she listed 10 qualities and concluded that he was wholly desirable (Song of Solomon 5:16).
In illustrating the church in the end, Jesus used a parable concerning ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13).
Twelve - God’s people
Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants became know as the twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49:28). What is interesting is that Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons and gave them their father’s inheritance, so in reality there were thirteen tribes, but they were always counted as twelve. In the New Testament there were twelve apostles (Matthew 10:2). Matthias replaces Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26). But later Paul is also added as an apostle (I Corinthians 9:1-2). So in reality there were thirteen apostles, but we always count them as twelve. Still, twelve is a number associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments.
If you count the gates to the New Jerusalem, there are twelve in number, one for each of the twelve tribes, and there were twelve foundation stones, one for each of the twelve apostles (Revelation 21:12-14). The subdivision of 12 as 3 times 4, with three being complete, godly number and four indicating from all directions makes twelve the ideal number to represent all of God’s people (Isaiah 2:2).
Twenty-four - God’s people under the Old and New Testaments
Revelation mentions the twenty-four elders. Elders were leaders of God’s people. If you combine the twelve tribes under the Old Law with the twelve apostles under the New Law, you get twenty-four.
Forty - A complete, encompassing trial
The flood started with forty days and nights of rain (Genesis 7:4). The children of Israel were sentenced to wander forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13). Jesus spent forty days fasting in the wilderness before his temptations (Matthew 4:1-2).
Notice that forty is a combination of two other numbers: four (everywhere) and ten (complete).
One Hundred - A lot in quantity or a long time
Proverbs 17:10 tells us that a hundred blows on the back of a fool won’t cause him to learn. To describe someone who is greatly evil, Solomon says, “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times” (Ecclesiastes 8:12). To describe a large family, Solomon said, “If a man begets a hundred children” (Ecclesiastes 6:3). And the parable of a hundred sheep describes the shepherd leaving the many to find the one (Luke 15:4).
In time to describe someone living to an old age, an age span of one hundred years is used (Isaiah 65:20).
666 - The Number of a Man
Revelation 13:18 speaks of the number of the beast as being 666 and tells us this number is a man’s number. This has lead to numerous speculations, but for the moment notice that six is the number for something incomplete and sinful – it is the number for man. Three sixes would indicate something complete, often with a religious connotation. Thus, it makes sense that the beast of false worship (Revelation 13:11-12; 14:9) would carry the number 666.
One Thousand - All in quantity or all the remain time
The cattle on a thousand hills belongs to God (Psalms 50:10); yet, we understand that all the cattle belongs to God.
A thousand years is used to describe a very long time (Psalms 90:4). Forever is compared to a thousand generations (Psalms 105:8).
One Hundred Forty Four Thousand - All of God’s people
This a composite number: 12 x 12 x 1,000. The two twelves are God’s people both under the Old Testament and New Testament. One thousand is used to mean all. Thus, 144,000 is all of God’s people or as Revelations states, “the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth.” (Revelation 14:3).
Numbers take their meaning from the events they are associated with and it appears that God repeats the use of the same association to give emphasis to the meaning of the number. When reading Revelation the numbers selected are not arbitrary, nor are they always directly stated. For example, God is described as “Him who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:4). Notice that three time frames are mentioned: the present, past and future. It is a complete picture of time, stating that God lives in eternity. As you read through Revelation, take note of how many descriptions are used in the text.
Because numbers are being used for their meaning, it would be a mistake to take a number from Revelation and conclude that it is a literal value without careful consideration.