Who are the 144,000?
Revelation 7:4 says,
4 And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.
After this, John lists twelve of the tribes of Israel, each contributing 12,000 to the total.
Perhaps the most controversial issue regarding this is whether John was speaking of physical Israelites or members of a tribal unit. There is a difference, because anyone was allowed to join a tribe if he was willing to attach himself to God’s covenant (Isaiah 56:6-8). Likewise, tribal members (including physical Israelites) could be “cut off” and denied citizenship for refusing to repent of various sins. (Lev. 17:4.)
Hence, each tribe of Israel from the beginning included many who were not actually born of the physical seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No doubt over time their descendants married someone who could trace their genealogy back to one of the original patriarchs, but that is beside the point because they were full members of the tribe before such marriages took place.
The Tribes are First Fruits
The Greek word for “tribe” is phyle, pronounced “fulay,” which is a compound word. Phyo (“fuo”) means “to puff, to swell up, to produce, bring forth, to beget.” Phylion means “a sprout, a leaf.” Hence phyle means to grow, to sprout like a leaf from the Wind, or Spirit of God. The word implies that one has been begotten by the Spirit of God.
Hence, a tribe is a group of related people whom God has brought forth by His “wind” or Spirit. It is applied to physical people, yet it recognizes that all tribes originate with God. The word applies equally to those who are begotten of God by His Spirit. One cannot use John’s term phyle to prove that these twelve tribes must be physical descendants of one of the patriarchs.
As we see often in the book of Revelation, topics that are introduced in the earlier chapters find their culmination in the later chapters. So in Rev. 1:6 we read that “He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father,” and this reaches its culmination in Rev. 20:6, where the resurrected overcomers “will be priests of God and of Christ.”
The souls under the altar in Rev. 6:9-11 await the promise of God, but in Rev. 20:4 they are seen again as they rise from the dead to reign with Christ a thousand years.
In Rev. 7:2 the angel comes with the seal of God to sign His name on their foreheads. In Rev. 14:1 we see the same 144,000 “having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads.”
Nowhere is there any indication that these overcomers must be physical descendants of Abraham or from one of the twelve sons of Jacob-Israel. The focus is entirely on their character and upon their faithfulness even unto death. Rev. 14:4 calls them “first fruits to God and to the Lamb.” In other words, they are not the only redeemed ones, but are first fruits of a greater harvest.
Paul explains the law of first fruits in Rom. 11:16, “And if the first-fruit be holy, so also the mass; and if the root be holy, so also the branches” (The Emphatic Diaglott). When the first fruits were offered to God in the temple three times a year, it sanctified the rest of the harvest. Hence, once the first fruits offering of barley was waved in the temple on the first Sunday after Passover, men could begin to harvest their barley, because the entire crop was thus sanctified.
The 144,000 are these first fruits. They are the first to be raised from the dead in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6), in order that the rest of creation might be raised and saved as well in the greater harvest.
Revelation 14 shows that there are actually 144,000 pairs (male and female, warriors and singers), a total of 288,000 overcomers. This is patterned after the example of the Kingdom of David, who had 288,000 in his National Guard (1 Chron. 27:1) and 288 in his choir (1 Chron. 25:7). We will cover that in detail later at the proper time.
Meanwhile, it is enough to see that John’s pattern of 12,000 from each tribe of Israel draws from the earlier pattern established by King David, who was a type of Christ. In order to connect David’s kingdom with that of Christ, John sets forth the tribes of Israel, knowing that these include righteous non-Israelites (such as Uriah the Hittite) serving in David’s army. (See 2 Sam. 11:6.)
The first fruits are followed by “a great multitude” in Rev. 7:9, pictured as the harvest that is sanctified by the smaller group. It is clear that the 144,000 do not make up all who are to be “harvested” (i.e., resurrected from the ground). They are only a small sample taken from the field that is the world. They are the first to be presented as the sons of God, and their presentation ensures a greater harvest yet to come.
Is 144,000 a Literal Number?
Whether we speak of 144,000 or 288,000, John does not explain if we are to view the number literally or symbolically. John merely tells us what he has “heard” (Rev. 7:4). Thus, it is not crucial to know whether the number is literal or not. Personally, I see the number as both literal and symbolic, because most of the stories in Scripture (other than parables) were historical events that should be taken literally. Yet history has as much meaning as parables, and for this reason, the story of Abraham’s two wives was not only historical, but also allegorical (Gal. 4:24). Allegory without history is just a myth or fable.
The fact that Jesus had twelve disciples was meant to portray symbolically that He was establishing the seeds of divine government, for twelve is the number of governmental perfection and authority. We need not deny the historicity of the twelve disciples in order to affirm the symbolism that it portrayed. Both levels can be understood at the same time without any contradiction.
So also with the 144,000—or, as I believe, with the 288,000. These numbers are built upon the more foundational number twelve. Hence, those who are raised in the first resurrection in Rev. 20:6 are said to be those who “reign with Him for a thousand years.” Likewise, the number 144 has to do with resurrection, because the name of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, carries a numeric value of 144. So we find Lazarus being raised after four days (John 11:39). This speaks of the 4,000 years from the time of Abraham.
The Remnant of Grace
The first fruits company is called “the remnant of grace” (Rom. 11:5 KJV). God revealed that in the days of Elijah this remnant numbered only 7,000 at the time (Rom. 11:4). Was this a literal number? Undoubtedly. Out of millions of Israelites, only 7,000 were actually “chosen” (Rom. 11:7). In other words, one’s Israelite genealogy in itself did not make any man “chosen.” There is no such thing as a “chosen people” apart from the remnant of grace, and no one is part of that remnant apart from faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet at the same time, the remnant of grace are not the only ones who will be saved, for they are only the first fruits of a great multitude yet to be presented to God (Rev. 7:9). In Paul’s day the remnant of grace was supposed to include the entire church as the remnant of all the tribes of Israel (and Judah). Yet as the church grew, it became obvious that not all believers qualified as part of the remnant of grace, for many of them were induced to return to the slavery of Judaism and were thereby nullifying the grace of God (Gal. 2:21). Paul tells such people, “you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
The remnant of grace is begotten of spiritual seed by the Holy Spirit, which has impregnated them with the gospel in order to bring forth “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Their spiritual mother is the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26), rather than the earthly Jerusalem. Their status as sons of God is based upon the New Covenant, rather than the Old.
This remnant of grace is not based upon the flesh, but upon the spiritual seed. John agrees with this, saying in John 1:12, 13,
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born [begotten] not of blood(line), nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
John clearly believed that the children of God were not begotten in the fleshly way. Flesh begets flesh; spirit begets spirit. “Blood” speaks of natural descent. No one is a son or child of God until he/she has been begotten by the Spirit. In all of John’s writings, we never find him advocating the idea that children born of the flesh to Israelite parents are “chosen” or that they are sons of God. He has much to say about sonship in his first epistle, but he always bases his teaching on one’s spiritual descent from Christ, rather than to one’s natural descent from the first Adam or from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel.
For this reason, I find no reason to believe that John’s record of the 144,000 from each tribe of Israel is to be interpreted to mean that these are physical descendants of one of the patriarchs. Some Bible teachers in the past 150 years have tried to resolve this problem by saying that there will be only 144,000 surviving Jews on earth, and that they will all be converts to Christ. Out of 20 million Jews on earth today, only 144,000 will survive?? That is a survivor rate of less than 1%, which is very unrealistic.
The Flow of John’s Revelation
We must view the sealing of the tribes in the flow of revelation that John is setting forth. It is a natural extension of the sixth seal, which focuses upon the persecution of the saints during the time of tribulation that began when Assyria took Israel captive and later when Babylon took Judah captive.
Yet the persecution of martyrs really began with Abel, whom Cain slew, and this has continued to the present time. It intensified when the little horn declared war on the saints, and this is the main focus of the sixth seal. John then reveals the end of this persecution when the kings and mighty men of the earth flee from the light and glory of Christ’s presence in His saints.
It is in this context that the sealing of the 144,000 is mentioned. It is not to protect 144,000 surviving Jews who have suddenly come to recognize Jesus Christ at the end of the age—as many teach today. It is to protect the saints of God, regardless of their genealogy. Moreso, it is to identify the saints of God who have qualified as first fruits, the remnant of grace, the children of God. The seal of God is not limited to Jews or Israelites, but upon all who are “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13)—assuming, of course, that they do not later fall from grace.
Paul puts it this way in Gal. 3:9, 26, and 29,
9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer… 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
It is clear that being an Israelite (seed of Abraham), insofar as being an heir to the promise is concerned, is not really about genealogy, but about following Abraham’s example of faith. The seal of God is not dependent upon one’s physical descent from Abraham, but upon one’s faith in Jesus Christ. God signs His name on the foreheads of the faithful ones, regardless of their descent from Adam, Abraham, or from one of the patriarchs of Jacob-Israel.
John says that he “heard the number of those who were sealed,” and that they numbered 144,000. As for the tribal listing, we find that Dan was omitted but replaced by Levi, which, as the tribe of priests, did not receive any territory as a state within the nation of Israel. Further, Joseph replaces his son Ephraim in the list.
The tribes are not listed by age, nor are they listed by mother. They are arranged in a peculiar order that does not make much historical sense. The question is why John would list the tribes in this way and in this order. Since (as we believe) he spoke by inspiration, there must be a reason.
Let us quote the passage first. Rev. 7:5 says,
5 from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
Judah means “praise, confess, give thanks.”
Reuben means “behold, a son.”
Gad means “a troop, fortune has come.”
6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
Asher means “happy, blessed.”
Naphtali means “my wrestling, strife.”
Manasseh means “forgetting, one who forgets.”
7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
Simeon means “hearing/obeying” (being in agreement).
Levi means “joiner, adhesion, unification.”
Issachar means “hired, there is wages/recompense.”
7 from the tribe of Zebulon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand were sealed.
Zebulon means “dwelling, habitation.”
Joseph means “He will add, increase.”
Benjamin means “Son of the right hand.”
The peculiar tribal order in these verses, along with the omission of Dan and the insertion of Levi, makes little sense unless there is a deeper prophecy to be understood. When we string these tribes together in the order that John lists them, we see that there is a hidden message for us. It is, in fact, a confession of praise to God, which leads us directly into the praise of the “great multitude” in the next few verses. It is as if we are meant to include this as a Statement of Agreement in their praise to Jesus Christ.
Praise Confession [Judah]:
Behold, a Son, a whole troop whose fortune has come. They are happy and blessed after wrestling and striving, forgetting their past troubles, hearing and obeying, united as one. Their recompense for their labor is to dwell with God, and He will increase and add to them many sons of His right hand.
Hence, in the flow of the narrative about the martyrs, the 144,000 are sealed by the Holy Spirit, not to keep them from being martyred, but to assure them of ultimate victory. The promise to them is that they, as the unified body of Christ, will be recompensed for their labors on earth, for they are marked by God’s signature in their foreheads. These are the sons of His right hand, who will reign with Christ in the Tabernacles Age that is to come.
If Levi had not replaced Dan in the list, we would have missed the whole point of the prophecy. John does not couple Simeon and Dan, but links Simeon and Levi, brothers who, in their time, did not honor their father, Jacob, nor did they hear and obey his instructions. Simeon and Levi are linked to the massacre of Shechem in the incident involving Hamor in Genesis 34. Their cruelty and religious zealotry gave Jacob and God Himself a bad name in Canaan (Gen. 34:30).
Indeed, God’s name is continually blasphemed throughout the nations on account of the lawlessness that is practiced among those with this religious spirit (Rom. 2:24; Isaiah 52:5).
The spirit of Simeon gave rise to Phariseeism, which later opposed Jesus. The spirit of Levi was in the priests who also opposed Jesus. Simeon and Levi were united by this cruel religious spirit that was identified in Jacob’s last words about them in Gen. 49:5-7,
5 Simeon and Levi are brothers; their swords are implements of violence. 6 Let my soul not enter into their council; let not my glory be united with their assembly; because in their anger, they slew men, and in their self-will they lamed oxen. 7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel…
But later, in the sealing of the tribes, we are told the true purpose of these tribal names. The overcomers hear and obey, united by their agreement with Jesus Christ and the divine plan. For this reason, Dan, the judge, is omitted, having served his role as judge of both Simeon and Levi. The sealed ones are overcomers, and the cruel religious spirit has been corrected through discipline. Hence, there is no longer any need for judgment upon them, and a true spirit of unity in Christ has replaced their unity in crime. Dan is thus omitted.
As for Joseph replacing Ephraim, the two names are closely related. Since Ephraim was the birthright holder, we should view his name as a supplement to Joseph. According to Gen. 30:24, Joseph means “He will add” (another son). Ephraim means “double fruitfulness,” which directly refers to the promise of Sonship that is inherent in the name Joseph.
So when we string the names together, we see the climax of the thought: “He will increase and add [Joseph] to them many sons of His right hand [Benjamin].” We could just as easily have used the alternate name to read: “He will bring double fruitfulness [Ephraim] in order to raise up many sons of His right hand [Benjamin]. The important thing is that the hidden message in the tribes, as listed in Revelation 7, tells us that the sealed ones are the sons of God.