Who Are the 144,000? (Revelation 7)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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1After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
612,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
712,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
812,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.—Revelation 7:1–8

Those Who Are Sealed

The previous text (Rev. 6:12–17) concludes with a query: Who can withstand the wrath of God and the wrath of the Lamb? John answers that question in these verses. The “four corners” of the earth aren’t intended to teach that the world is flat. Instead, the four corners stand for the entire world (cf. Isa. 11:12; Rev. 20:8), just as “four corners” of a house stand for the entire house (Job 1:19), and “four corners of the land” stand for the entire land of Israel (Ezek. 7:2). The four angels, then, superintend the world for God’s sake. The “four winds” stand for the judgment to come, the final judgment, which will engulf the entire world. We see precedent for this in the OT (cf. also Ezek. 5:10, 12) where “four winds from the four quarters of heaven” will be inflicted on the entire land of Elam (Jer. 49:36; cf. Ezek. 37:9; Dan. 7:2; 8:8; 11:4; Zech. 2:6; 6:5; Matt. 24:31; Mark 13:27), but here the four winds encompass the whole world. Elsewhere in Scripture, a close relationship is forged between angels and winds that strike the world (Ps. 104:4). Here the angels are restraining the winds so that they are not unleashed on land, sea, or trees. John takes us back to the period before the final judgment commences.

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Another angel appears with the seal of the living God, commanding the four angels about to harm the earth and sea—i.e., the angels about to bring final judgment on the world—to refrain from doing any harm until God’s servants are sealed on their foreheads. The sealing on the forehead isn’t literal but symbolizes protection granted to those who belong to God (cf. Rev. 9:4). So now we know who can endure the wrath of God—those with God’s seal upon them. John again draws upon the OT. In Ezekiel 9, Jerusalem is about to be judged by executioners because of its evil. Those who are wicked will be annihilated, but a “mark” is put “on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it” (Ezek. 9:4). The judgment will not spare the young or old, but those with the mark will remain untouched (Ezek. 9:6). Those who are sealed by God on the forehead in Revelation stand in contrast to those who accept the mark of the beast on their foreheads (Rev. 13:6; 14:9; 20:4). In both instances the mark is symbolic. What separates believers from unbelievers is that the former have God’s seal and the “Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1; cf. Rev. 22:4). They are protected by God and marked out as his own people, his genuine servants.

Those who are sealed are now identified. John hears the number. They are 144,000 from every tribe of Israel. John then lists 12,000 from each tribe. God numbers, knows, and cares for his own; he knows each of his sheep by name (John 10:3). The list of tribes doesn’t match any rendition of the tribes in the OT. Judah may be first since Jesus the Messiah, head of the people of God, comes from Judah. What is also striking is that Dan is omitted, perhaps because of the evil associated with that tribe (Judges 18). Instead we have Joseph and Manasseh. This is curious, as Manasseh descended from Joseph, and thus we would expect Ephraim and Manasseh. These peculiarities in the listing suggest a symbolic reading.

But Who Are They?

Scholars differ on identifying the 144,000. Some say the number is literal and records Jews from each tribe who become believers in Jesus Christ. Dispensational interpreters think the number refers to Jews who are saved during the final seven year tribulation period.

It is more convincing to say the 144,000 symbolically represent all Christians throughout history, both Jews and Gentiles. They are God’s army who wage war by being faithful to the Lamb and enduring persecution. The reasons for thinking John refers to all Christians are numerous, and some stem from Revelation 14, where the 144,000 appear again. First, numbers in apocalyptic literature are regularly symbolic. Here we have the number twelve representing the people of God from the twelve tribes in the OT, and the number is squared and then multiplied by 1,000. Hence the number should be understood as a symbolic way of designating the entire people of God.

We too deserve the wrath of God but have been spared by his grace and mercy, which should lead to thankfulness and heartfelt praise.

Second, John follows a pattern we saw in chapter 5. He is told about a Lion (Rev. 5:5), but he sees a Lamb (Rev. 5:6), and the Lion and the Lamb are the same entity. So too here, John hears the number 144,000 (Rev. 7:4), but he sees an uncountable multitude (Rev. 7:9). Again we have two different ways of describing the same entity, and the uncountable multitude buttresses the point that the 144,000 represent all believers.

Third, specifying 144,000 from Israel doesn’t necessarily mean they are Jews. John has already said twice that the Jews are a synagogue of Satan (Rev. 2:9; Rev. 3:9), and the roles between unbelieving Jews and Christians have been reversed, so that now unbelieving Jews play the role of Gentiles in the OT; they will bow before Christians to acknowledge them as the loved ones, the elect ones of the Lord (Rev. 3:9; cf. Deut. 7:7–8; Isa. 41:8).

Fourth, a practical problem arises if the reference is to 12,000 from each tribe of Israel. Virtually no Jews today know from what tribe they descend, nor is it clear that most knew their genealogical ancestry in John’s day. If someone were to say that God knows the tribes and apportions exactly 12,000 from each tribe, it is difficult to see how such a statement would be meaningful, for no one on earth could know that the 12,000 are from each of the twelve tribes specified.

Fifth, in Revelation 14:3 the 144,000 are described as those “redeemed from the earth” and in Revelation 14:4 as having been “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb.” The redeemed are most naturally interpreted to refer to all the redeemed, both Jews and Gentiles.

Sixth, John says they are “virgins” who have “not defiled themselves with women” (Rev. 14:4). But surely this language is symbolic, for being a virgin is not more pleasing to God than marriage, and it is false teachers who say sexual relations within marriage are defiling (1 Tim. 4:1–3). John (cf. comment on Rev. 14:4) reaches back to the OT, which often warns Israel against spiritual prostitution. To be devoted to God is to be a “pure virgin” devoted “to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). For all these reasons, then, we have good grounds for thinking the number 144,000 is laden with imagery and symbolism, referring to the entire people of God.

Spared by His Mercy

Who will escape the wrath of God at the final judgment? Only those who belong to God, those who are sealed by him, who are numbered by him. If we are sealed by God, we are protected and authenticated by him. At the same time, those of us who are sealed by God are the true and new Israel, the chosen and loved people of the Lord. We too deserve the wrath of God but have been spared by his grace and mercy, which should lead to thankfulness and heartfelt praise. How wonderful it is to be counted among his flock, to be the army of the Lord—an army that preaches peace and love through the slain and risen Lamb!

This article is by Thomas R. Schreiner and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

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