Revelation 7:4 "And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel."
Revelation 14:3 "And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth."
These verses are cited by Jehovah's Witnesses to support the doctrine that most of the 144,000 are now reigning over the earth. This "little flock" of the "anointed remnant", it is claimed, commenced its rule in 1914. Members of this group are said to depart to heaven at the instant of death. 1 A J.W. publication comments as follows:
"Those who are called by God to share in such heavenly service are few in number. As Jesus said, they are a 'little flock'. Years after his return to heaven, Jesus made known the exact number in a vision to the apostle John . . . So the 144,000 are persons who die on earth as humans and are resurrected [at the instant of death] to heavenly life as spirit creatures, as Jesus was . . . Members of the 'little flock' know that God has called them to heavenly life. How? By means of the operation of God's spirit, which implants and cultivates in them the hope of heavenly life." footnote 1
We must begin by understanding that, "the book of Revelation is primarily symbolic, therefore, the 144,000 is a symbolic number". Consistency would demand that the 1,000 years of Rev. 20:4, 6 should also be taken figuratively.
But, consistency also demands that the J.W. settle for either a literal or figurative interpretation, but not an indiscriminate mixing of the two to suit a presupposition. If the J.W. insists on a literal 144,000, then all J.W.'s are excluded from this group because literally the 144,000 only come from the tribes of Israel! footnote 2. If, on the other hand, the J.W. takes the stand that the passage is figurative because the tribes are symbolic, then likewise the 144,000 is a symbolic, and not a literal number.
The following evidence from Rev. 14 indicates that the number 144,000 is symbolic, and not literal:
It is usually inconclusive to assert that the 144,000 and the great multitude are two presentations of the same redeemed group. There appears to be too much evidence that two different groups are intended. Although it is sometimes stressed that John "heard" the number and "saw" the great multitude, this in itself does not establish that he saw and heard the same group. The two groups have these significantly differing descriptions:
A more fruitful approach is to trace the allusions in Scripture. It is suggested that to do so establishes the 144,000 as the first fruits i.e., those faithful at Christ's return, and the great multitude, as the final in-gathering of the saints at the end of the millenial age.
The following is the evidence for identifying the 144,000 with the saints at Christ's return:
The word first fruits is taken from the Old Testament feasts in Lev. 23. Using the above two quotations to identify the types, the following pattern becomes apparent:
The evidence that the great multitude, which no man can number, represents the final in-gathering of the saints at the end of the millenial age comes from the following:
The import of the J.W. teaching on the 144,000 becomes apparent once it is realized that current living members of the 144,000 expect to obtain immortality at the instant of death in heaven, whereas worthies commended for their faith and works, such as Abraham and David, are relegated to second-rate positions of everlasting life on the earth without immortality. footnote 4
It is expressly stated that the worthies catalogued in Hebrews 11 died in faith not having received the promises, "God having provided some better thing for us [New Testament believers], that they without us should not be made perfect". (Heb. 11:13,39,40). Yet, according to J.W. teaching, Abraham sleeps unconsciously in his grave awaiting resurrection to everlasting (not eternal) life on the earth, while thousands of J.W.'s since 1914, said to belong to the 144,000, have gone straight to heaven at the instant of death.
This answer is taken from the article on Jehovah's Witnesses in the book "Wrested Scriptures" by Ron Abel. (please click on the title to go to the full article online)