Introduction

In my last article “Overcoming Obstacles in Our Preaching by Introducing The Father and Family”, I mentioned that discussing the teaching of the “great crowd” could help Jehovah’s Witnesses in understanding the Bible better and thereby draw closer to our Heavenly Father.

This one will look to examine the “great crowd” teaching and help those who are willing to listen and reason. The teaching principles that Jesus used and discussed previously are just as important in considering this teaching.

Reminders on Giving a Witness

There is an important point to keep in mind, found in the parable in Mark’s account:[1]

“So he went on to say: ‘In this way the Kingdom of God is just as when a man casts seeds on the ground. 27 He sleeps at night and rises up by day, and the seeds sprout and grow tall—just how, he does not know. 28 On its own the ground bears fruit gradually, first the stalk, then the head, finally the full grain in the head. 29 But as soon as the crop permits it, he thrusts in the sickle, because the harvest time has come.’” (Mark 4:26-29)

There is a point in verse 27 where the sower is not responsible for the growth but there is a preordained process as shown in verse 28. This means that we should not expect to convince people of the truth because of our own ability or efforts.  The Word of God and the holy spirit will do the work without impinging on the gift of free will granted to everyone.

This is a lesson in life that I learned the hard way. Many years ago when I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I spoke with enthusiasm and zeal to a large part of my Catholic family—immediate and extended—about what I had learnt. My approach was naïve and insensitive, as I expected that all would see matters in the same light. Unfortunately, my zeal and enthusiasm was misplaced, and resulted in damage to those relationships. It took a considerable period of time and effort to repair many of these relationships. After a great deal of reflection, I realised that people do not necessarily make decisions based on facts and logic. It can be difficult to almost impossible for some to admit their religious belief system is incorrect.  Resistance to the idea also comes when the effect such a change will have on relationships and one’s worldview is folded into the mix.  Over time, I came to  realise that God’s Word, holy spirit, and my own conduct was a far more powerful witness than any clever lines of logic and reason.

The key thoughts before we proceed are as follows:

  1. Only use the NWT and Watchtower literature as these are viewed as acceptable.
  2. Do not look to destroy their faith or worldview but offer a positive Bible-based hope.
  3. Be prepared to reason and ensure that the one you are looking to help has prepared on the topic.
  4. Do not force the issue; and if matters get heated, be like our Lord and Saviour Jesus by always keeping the following two scriptures in mind.

“Let your words always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6)

“But sanctify the Christ as Lord in your hearts, always ready to make a defense before everyone who demands of you a reason for the hope you have, but doing so with a mild temper and deep respect. 16 Maintain a good conscience, so that in whatever way you are spoken against, those who speak against you may be put to shame because of your good conduct as followers of Christ.” (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

Context of the “Great Crowd” Teaching

We all need hope, and the Bible discusses the true hope in many places. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the hope that is mentioned in the literature and the meetings is that this system will end soon and an earthly paradise will follow, where all can live in eternal bliss. Much of the literature has artistic depictions of a world of plenty. The hope is a very materialistic one, where all are eternally young and healthy, and enjoy an abundance of diverse food, dream homes, global peace and harmony. All of these are perfectly normal desires, but it all misses the point of John 17:3.

“This means everlasting life, their coming to know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”

In this final prayer, Jesus highlights that a personal and intimate relationship with the true God and his Son Jesus is what each of us can and must develop. As they are both eternal, each of us is given everlasting life to carry on with this relationship. All the paradisiac conditions are a gift from a generous, merciful, and good Father.

Since 1935, this perfect life on earth has been the main thrust of JW preaching, involving a reinterpretation of Revelation 7:9-15 and John 10:16: the “great crowd of other sheep.”[2] A review of the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses will reveal that the connection between the “great crowd” and the “other sheep” depends on an interpretation of where the “great crowd” is pictured as standing in Revelation 7:15.  The teaching began with the publication of the  August 1st and 15th, 1935 edition of The Watchtower and Herald of Christ’s Presence magazine, with the two-part article titled “The Great Multitude”. This two-part article gave a new impetus for the teaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (I must highlight that Judge Rutherford’s style of writing is rather dense.)

Reasoning on These Scriptures

First, I will state that I do not bring up the subject on my own for discussion, as it could seriously affect the faith of a Witness, and to have faith in a belief destroyed is not upbuilding. Normally, people approach me and want to know why I partook of the emblems or why I no longer attend meetings. My response is that my study of the Bible and the WTBTS literature has made me reach conclusions that my conscience cannot ignore. I tell them that I do not want to upset their faith and that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie. Quite a few insist that they would like to know and that their faith is very strong. After more dialogue, I will say we can do this if they agree to doing some pre-study and preparation on the subject of the “great crowd”. They agree and I ask them to read Revelation – Its Grand Climax is at Hand!, chapter 20, “A Multitudinous Great Crowd”. This deals with Revelation 7: 9-15 where the term “great crowd” occurs. In addition, I ask that they refresh themselves on the teaching of “the great spiritual temple”, as this is used to underpin the “great crowd” teaching. I also recommend that they read the following Watchtower articles: “Jehovah’s Great Spiritual Temple” (w96 7/1 pp. 14-19) and “The Triumph of True Worship Draws Near” (w96 7/1 pp. 19-24).

Once they have completed this, we arrange a meeting. At this point I repeat that my recommendation is not to have this discussion, but those who have come this far have carried on.

We now start the session with prayer and get straight down to the discussion. I ask them to state who and what they understand by the “great crowd”. The answer tends to be textbook, and I probe a little deeper on where they understand the “great crowd” to be located. The response is on earth and that they are different from the 144,000 mentioned in the earlier verses of Revelation, chapter 7.

We open the Bible and read Revelation 7:9-15 to be clear where the term occurs. The verses read:

“After this I saw, and look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes; and there were palm branches in their hands. 10 And they keep shouting with a loud voice, saying: “Salvation we owe to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Let the praise and the glory and the wisdom and the thanksgiving and the honor and the power and the strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” 13 In response one of the elders said to me: “These who are dressed in the white robes, who are they and where did they come from?” 14 So right away I said to him: “My lord, you are the one who knows.” And he said to me: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 That is why they are before the throne of God, and they are rendering him sacred service day and night in his temple; and the One seated on the throne will spread his tent over them.”

I encourage them to open Revelation – Its Grand Climax is at Hand! and read chapter 20: “A Multitudinous Great Crowd”. We focus on paragraphs 12-14 and normally read it together. The key point is in paragraph 14 where the Greek word is discussed. I have copied it below:

In Heaven or on Earth?

12 How do we know that “standing before the throne” does not mean that the great crowd is in heaven? There is much clear evidence on this point. For example, the Greek word here translated “before” (e·noʹpi·on) literally means “in [the] sight [of]” and is used several times of humans on earth who are “before” or “in the sight of” Jehovah. (1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:14; Romans 14:22; Galatians 1:20) On one occasion when the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses said to Aaron: “Say to the entire assembly of the sons of Israel, ‘Come near before Jehovah, because he has heard your murmurings.’” (Exodus 16:9) The Israelites did not have to be transported to heaven in order to stand before Jehovah on that occasion. (Compare Leviticus 24:8.) Rather, right there in the wilderness they stood in Jehovah’s view, and his attention was on them.

13 Additionally, we read: “When the Son of man arrives in his glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before him.” The whole human race will not be in heaven when this prophecy is fulfilled. Certainly, those who “depart into everlasting cutting-off” will not be in heaven. (Matthew 25:31-33, 41, 46) Instead, mankind stands on earth in Jesus’ view, and he turns his attention to judging them. Similarly, the great crowd is “before the throne and before the Lamb” in that it stands in the view of Jehovah and his King, Christ Jesus, from whom it receives a favorable judgment.

14 The 24 elders and the anointed group of 144,000 are described as being “round about the throne” of Jehovah and “upon the [heavenly] Mount Zion.” (Revelation 4:4; 14:1) The great crowd is not a priestly class and does not attain to that exalted position. True, it is later described at Revelation 7:15 as serving God “in his temple.” But this temple does not refer to the inner sanctuary, the Most Holy. Rather, it is the earthly courtyard of God’s spiritual temple. The Greek word na·osʹ, here translated “temple,” often conveys the broad sense of the entire edifice erected for Jehovah’s worship. Today, this is a spiritual structure that embraces both heaven and earth.—Compare Matthew 26:61; 27:5, 39, 40; Mark 15:29, 30; John 2:19-21, New World Translation Reference Bible, footnote.

Basically, the whole teaching rests on our understanding of the antitypical spiritual temple. The tabernacle constructed by Moses in the Wilderness and the Jerusalem temple built by Solomon had an inner sanctuary (in Greek, naos) and only the priests and High Priest could enter. The outer courtyards and the entire temple structure (in Greek, hieron) are where the rest of the people congregated.

In the above explanation, we got it completely the wrong way around. This was an error that went back to an article “The “Great Crowd” Renders Sacred Service, Where?” (w80 8/15 pp. 14-20) This was the first time the “great crowd” was discussed in depth since 1935. The above error on the meaning of the word was made in this article as well, and if you read paragraphs 3-13, you will see it in a fuller version. The Revelation Book was released in 1988 and as you can see from the above, reaffirms the same erroneous understanding.  Why can I say this?

Please read “Questions from Readers” in the 1st May, 2002 The Watchtower, pp. 30, 31 (I’ve highlighted all the key elements). If you go to the fifth reason, you will see that the correct meaning of the word naos is now given.

When John saw the “great crowd” rendering sacred service in Jehovah’s temple, in which part of the temple were they doing this? —Revelation 7:9-15.

It is reasonable to say that the great crowd worships Jehovah in one of the earthly courtyards of his great spiritual temple, specifically the one that corresponds with the outer courtyard of Solomon’s temple.

In times past, it has been said that the great crowd is in a spiritual equivalent, or an antitype, of the Court of the Gentiles that existed in Jesus’ day. However, further research has revealed at least five reasons why that is not so. First, not all features of Herod’s temple have an antitype in Jehovah’s great spiritual temple. For example, Herod’s temple had a Court of the Women and a Court of Israel. Both men and women could enter the Court of the Women, but only men were allowed into the Court of Israel. In the earthly courtyards of Jehovah’s great spiritual temple, men and women are not separated in their worship. (Galatians 3:28, 29) Hence, there is no equivalent of the Court of the Women and the Court of Israel in the spiritual temple.

Second, there was no Court of the Gentiles in the divinely provided architectural plans of Solomon’s temple or Ezekiel’s visionary temple; nor was there one in the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel. Hence, there is no reason to suggest that a Court of the Gentiles needs to play a part in Jehovah’s great spiritual temple arrangement for worship, especially when the following point is considered.

Third, the Court of the Gentiles was built by the Edomite King Herod to glorify himself and to curry favor with Rome. Herod set about renovating Zerubbabel’s temple perhaps in 18 or 17 B.C.E. The Anchor Bible Dictionary explains: “The classical tastes of the imperial power to the West [Rome] . . . mandated a temple larger than those of comparable eastern cities.” However, the dimensions of the temple proper were already established. The dictionary explains: “While the Temple itself would have to have the same dimensions as its predecessors [Solomon’s and Zerubbabel’s], the Temple Mount was not restricted in its potential size.” Hence, Herod expanded the temple area by adding on what in modern times has been called the Court of the Gentiles. Why would a construction with such a background have an antitype in Jehovah’s spiritual temple arrangement?

Fourth, almost anyone—the blind, the lame, and uncircumcised Gentiles—could enter the Court of the Gentiles. (Matthew 21:14, 15) True, the court served a purpose for many uncircumcised Gentiles who wished to make offerings to God. And it was there that Jesus sometimes addressed the crowds and twice expelled the money changers and merchants, saying that they had dishonored the house of his Father. (Matthew 21:12, 13; John 2:14-16) Still, The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “This outer court was, strictly speaking, not a part of the Temple. Its soil was not sacred, and it might be entered by any one.”

Fifth, the Greek word (hi·e·ron’) translated “temple” that is used with reference to the Court of the Gentiles “refers to the entire complex, rather than specifically to the Temple building itself,” says A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, by Barclay M. Newman and Philip C. Stine. In contrast, the Greek word (na·os’) translated “temple” in John’s vision of the great crowd is more specific. In the context of the Jerusalem temple, it usually refers to the Holy of Holies, the temple building, or the temple precincts. It is sometimes rendered “sanctuary.”—Matthew 27:5, 51; Luke 1:9, 21; John 2:20.

Members of the great crowd exercise faith in Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. They are spiritually clean, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Hence, they are declared righteous with a view to becoming friends of God and of surviving the great tribulation. (James 2:23, 25) In many ways, they are like proselytes in Israel who submitted to the Law covenant and worshiped along with the Israelites.

Of course, those proselytes did not serve in the inner courtyard, where the priests performed their duties. And members of the great crowd are not in the inner courtyard of Jehovah’s great spiritual temple, which courtyard represents the condition of perfect, righteous human sonship of the members of Jehovah’s “holy priesthood” while they are on earth. (1 Peter 2:5) But as the heavenly elder said to John, the great crowd really is in the temple, not outside the temple area in a kind of spiritual Court of the Gentiles. What a privilege that is! And how it highlights the need for each one to maintain spiritual and moral purity at all times!

Strangely, while correcting the meaning of naos, the following two paragraphs contradict that understanding and make a statement that cannot be scripturally sustained. If naos is the sanctuary area, then in the Spiritual Temple it signifies heaven, and not earth. So the “great crowd” is standing in heaven.

Interestingly, in 1960, they already had the correct understanding of naos and ‘hieron’.

“The Temple of the Apostles’ Time” (w60 8/15)

Paragraph 2: It may well be asked, What kind of building could this be that had room for all this traffic? The fact is that this temple was not just one building but a series of structures of which the temple sanctuary was the center. In the original tongue this is made quite clear, the Scripture writers distinguishing between the two by the use of the words hierón and naós. Hierón referred to the entire temple grounds, whereas naós applied to the temple structure itself, the successor of the tabernacle in the wilderness. Thus John tells that Jesus found all this traffic in the hieŕon. But when Jesus likened his body to a temple he used the word naós, meaning the temple “sanctuary,” as noted in the footnote of the New World Translation.

Paragraph 17: The floor of the temple sanctuary (naós) was twelve steps higher than the Court of the Priests, the main part of which was ninety feet high and ninety feet wide. Even as with Solomon’s temple, there were chambers on the sides, and in the center of it was the Holy Place, thirty feet wide and sixty high and long, and the Holy of Holies, a thirty-foot cube. The three stories of chambers around the sides and “attics” above account for the difference between the interior of the Holy and Most Holy and the outside measurements.

The first question I am asked at this point is, “Who are the great crowd and are you saying there is no earthly resurrection?”

My response is that I do not claim that I know who the “great crowd” represent. I am only going on the WTBTS understanding. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that they have to be in heaven. This does not mean that there is no earthly resurrection, but it cannot apply to this group who are standing in heaven.

It is important at this stage not to provide an explanation or alternative interpretation as they need time to realise that there is no apostasy here but just someone honestly lost for answers.

Up to this point, I have used only WTBTS references. At this point, I show my own research into the two Greek words to check to see where else the word naos occurs. I found it 40+ times in the Christian Greek Scriptures. I have created a table and consulted with six biblical dictionaries and about seven different commentaries. It is always the inner sanctuary of the temple on earth or in a heavenly setting in Revelation. In the Bible book of Revelation, the word occurs 14[3] times (in addition to Revelation 7) and always means heaven.[4]

Download Chart of Use of the word Naos and Hieron in the NT

I then explain how I decided to go back and study the teaching from the 1935 Watchtowers and also found the two August 1st and 15th, 1934 Watchtowers with the “His Kindness” articles. I offer to share the articles and my notes on the teachings in it.

Then, I provide a summary of the various teachings that were used to support this understanding of the “great crowd”. There are basically four building blocks. The fourth one is also erroneous but the WTBTS has not admitted to it yet, and I don’t really say anything unless they ask about it. In that case, I get them to read John 10 in context and look at Ephesians 2:11-19. I make it clear that this is a possibility but am happy to listen to other perspectives.

Here are the four fundamental elements upon which the teaching of the “great crowd” is based.

  1. Where do they stand in the temple? (See Revelation 7:15) Naos means the inner sanctuary as based on the 1st May WT 2002 “Question from Readers”. This means that the “great crowd” location needs to be revisited based on the revised understanding of the Spiritual temple (see w72 12/1 pp. 709-716 “The One True Temple at Which to Worship”, w96 7/1 pp. 14-19 Jehovah’s Great Spiritual Temple and w96 7/1 pp. 19-24 The Triumph of True Worship Draws Near).  The point was corrected in the 2002 “Question from Readers”.
  2. Jehu and Jonadab of type and antitype based on the 1934 WT 1st August on “His Kindness” no longer applies based on the Governing Body’s rule that only antitypes applied in Scripture can be accepted.[5] It is not explicitly stated that Jehu and Jonadab have a prophetic antitypical representation, so the 1934 interpretation must be rejected based on the official position of the Organization.
  3. Cities of Refuge teaching of type and antitype teachings based on the 15th August 1934 “His Kindness Part 2” is no longer valid. This is an explicit statement as we can see in the November, 2017, The Watchtower study edition. The article in question is, “Are you taking Refuge in jehovah?” A box in the article states the following:

Lessons or Antitypes?

Beginning in the late 19th century, The Watch Tower drew attention to the prophetic significance of the cities of refuge. “This feature of the typical Mosaic law strongly foreshadowed the refuge which the sinner may find in Christ,” stated the September 1, 1895, issue. “Seeking refuge in him by faith, there is protection.” A century later, The Watchtower identified the antitypical city of refuge as “God’s provision for protecting us from death for violating his commandment about the sanctity of blood.”

However, the March 15, 2015, issue of The Watchtower explained why our recent publications seldom mention prophetic types and antitypes: “Where the Scriptures teach that an individual, an event, or an object is typical of something else, we accept it as such. Otherwise, we ought to be reluctant to assign an antitypical application to a certain person or account if there is no specific Scriptural basis for doing so.” Because the Scriptures are silent regarding any antitypical significance of the cities of refuge, this article and the next one emphasize instead the lessons Christians can learn from this arrangement.

  1. The teaching of John 10:16 is the only one remaining and that application is disproved contextually, as well as scripturally by Ephesians 2:11-19.

Therefore, three out of four points have now been shown to be in error. The 4th point can be reasoned contextually and also disproved.

In addition, in the 1st May 2007, The Watchtower (pages 30, 31), there is a “Question from Readers” titled, “When does the calling of Christians to a heavenly hope cease?” This article clearly states at the end of the fourth paragraph, “Thus, it appears that we cannot set a specific date for when the calling of Christians to the heavenly hope ends.”

This raises an additional question as to why this calling is not taught to those studying the Bible. A scriptural explanation of how this calling would work is not clearly outlined other than to say that a person has a feeling and the hope becomes sure.

In conclusion, the current teaching on the “great crowd” cannot be sustained scripturally and even the WTBTS publications no longer support it scripturally. No further revisions have been made since The Watchtower of 1st May, 2002. To date, most people have left asking questions and many have followed up with me checking on possible solutions. Some have asked why I don’t write to the Society.  I provide the October 2011, The Watchtower reference where we are told not to write in as they do not have any further information if it is not already in the publications[6]. I explain that we should respect that request.

Finally, I highlight that I have only used the NWT, WTBTS literature and only went to dictionaries and commentaries for studying the Greek words in more detail. This study confirmed the “Question from Readers” in 2002. This then establishes that my issues are sincere, and I have nothing against the WTB TS but cannot in good conscience teach this hope. I then share the relationship that I have with my heavenly Father on the basis of his Son’s sacrifice and how I am looking to “live in the Christ”. This is something I offer to discuss with them in a future meeting.

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[1] All scriptural references are from the New World Translation (NWT) 2013 edition unless otherwise stated. This translation is the work of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS).

[2] For more details please see The Watchtower articles of August 1st and 15th 1935 with articles titled “The Great Multitude” Parts 1 and 2 respectively. The preferred translation used by the WTBTS at the time was the King James Translation and the term used is “the Great Multitude”.  In addition, The Watchtower articles of August 1st and 15th 1934 included articles titled “His Kindness Parts 1 and 2” respectively and laid the groundwork for the teaching by setting up the type and antitype teaching of “Jehu and Jonadab” as two classes of Christians, one that would go to heaven to become a co-ruler with Jesus Christ, and the other that would form part of the earthly subjects of the kingdom. The “Cities of Refuge” are also viewed as types for Christians to escape from the Avenger of Blood, Jesus Christ. These teachings were meant to have their antitypical fulfillment after the setting up of the Messianic Kingdom in 1914. Most of the teachings in these magazines are no longer held by the WTBTS, yet the resultant theology is still accepted.

[3] These are Revelation 3:12, 7:15, 11:1-2, 19, 14:15, 17, 15:5-8, 16:1, 17 and 21:22.

[4] It is interesting to see how the NWT renders it in all the Revelation verses as 3:12 and 21:22 are self-explanatory. Why is the word sanctuary is missing in 7:15 when it occurs in chapters 11, 14, 15, and 16?

5 See the March 15, 2015, The Watchtower (pages 17,18) “Question from Readers”: “In the past, our publications often mentioned types and antitypes, but in recent years they have seldom done so. Why is that?”

Also in the same edition, there is a study article titled “This is the Way You Approved”. Paragraph 10 states: “As we might expect, over the years Jehovah has helped “the faithful and discreet slave” to become steadily more discreet. Discretion has led to greater caution when it comes to calling a Bible account a prophetic drama unless there is a clear Scriptural basis for doing so. Additionally, it has been found that some of the older explanations about types and antitypes are unduly difficult for many to grasp. The details of such teachings—who pictures whom and why—can be hard to keep straight, to remember, and to apply. Of even greater concern, though, is that the moral and practical lessons of the Bible accounts under examination may be obscured or lost in all the scrutiny of possible antitypical fulfillments. Thus, we find that our literature today focuses more on the simple, practical lessons about faith, endurance, godly devotion, and other vital qualities that we learn about from Bible accounts. (Boldface and italics added)

[6] See 15th October, 2011 The Watchtower, page 32, “Question from Readers”: “What should I do when I have a question about something I read in the Bible or when I need advice about a personal problem?
In paragraph 3, it states “Of course, there are some topics and scriptures that our publications have not specifically addressed. And even where we have commented on a particular Bible text, we may not have dealt with the specific question that you have in mind. Also, some Bible accounts raise questions because not all the details are spelled out in the Scriptures. Thus, we cannot find immediate answers to every question that arises. In such a case, we should avoid speculating about things that simply cannot be answered, lest we get involved in debating “questions for research rather than a dispensing of anything by God in connection with faith.” (1 Tim. 1:4; 2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 3:9) Neither the branch office nor world headquarters is in a position to analyze and answer all such questions that have not been considered in our literature. We can be satisfied that the Bible provides sufficient information to guide us through life but also omits enough details so as to require us to have strong faith in its divine Author. —See pages 185 to 187 of the book Draw Close to Jehovah.”