“And I heard the number of those which were sealed, and there were sealed 144,000 of all the tribes of the children of Israel. Of the tribe of Judah were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Asher were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Naphtali were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Manasseh were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Zebulon were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed 12,000. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed 12,000.” (Revelation 7:4-8).

Who are the 144,000? So far we have seen that they are people who are alive at the time of the Second Coming of Christ. They are sealed, which means that 1) the Holy Spirit has developed the character of Jesus in them, thus proving them genuine, 2) they are protected by God during the great tribulation, and 3) they are secure in God's kingdom even though they are still facing the trials and tribulations of the time of trouble.

Verse 4 reveals that they are sealed out of “all the tribes of the children of Israel,” followed by a list of the tribes. A comparison of this list with the lists of the twelve tribes given in the Old Testament shows that it is significantly different from all other lists,[1] suggesting that there is a symbolic meaning. Since the Jews lost their right to be the true Israel of God[2] and the literal tribes have long since lost their identity, Israel here must refer to the spiritual Israel identified by the Apostle Paul: “They are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham (Romans 9:6,7). “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly...but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit” (Romans 2:28, 29). “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus...There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). These and other texts[3] show that the New Testament designation “Israel” refers to those who are declaired righteous because of their faith in Jesus rather than according to physical lineage.[4]

The listing of the names of the tribes does not refer to a physical genealogy, but rather to the spiritual characteristics of those who are sealed as the 144,000.[5] The characteristics of the tribes are given in Genesis 49, where Jacob said, “Gather together that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days” (Genesis 49:1). The twelve tribes that make upe the 144,000 are quite a diverse lot. There are likely candidates such as Judah with his kingly scepter (v.10) and Joseph, the fruitful bough (v.22). There are unlikely candidates such as Reuben, “unstable as water” (v.3,4), Simeon and Levi with their cursed anger and cruelty (vs.5-7) and Benjamin, who is like a ravenous wolf (v.27). A full study of the characteristics of the tribes of Israel could be a whole chapter by itself.

The point is that God can make almost any kind of character suitable for an exalted position among the 144,000. But a careful comparison with the tribes mentioned in Genesis 49 shows that there is one tribe missing: Dan is not included among the 144,000 listed in Revelation 7. In chapter 4: The Four Tribes we saw that this is explained by considering his character: he judges his people, and he is a serpent, biting at the horse’s heels causing its rider to fall backwards (Genesis 49:16,17). The history of his tribe, as recorded in Judges 18, shows that Dan was the first tribe to separate itself from Israel and to get involved in worshiping idols, and the territory of Dan was later known as a center of idolatry (1 Kings 12:29,30, 2 Kings 10:29).

Dan’s place on the list of the 144,000 is taken by Joseph’s son Manasseh. In several of the Old Testament lists of tribes Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are listed, so that there are actually 13 tribes.[6] However, even though Ephraim would be expected to be on the list (since his brother Manasseh is included), he is omitted along with Dan. As we saw in Chapter 4, Ephraim was the leader in the idolatry that eventually resulted in the dispersion of the 10 northern tribes of Israel. In the book of Hosea Ephraim’s idolatry is repeatedly condemned (eg. “Ephraim is joined to idols. Let him alone” Hosea 4:17).

The picture that emerges is that God can use all kinds of people with a variety of character faults for the vital mission of the 144,000, but He cannot use those who have not been loyal to Him. Even though the 144,000 have human weaknesses and failings, they are totally devoted to Christ. “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4). This does not mean that idolaters cannot be saved. Throughout history, the majority of those saved have been former idolaters. But the 144,000 have a special role in the last days, and those who have committed spiritual adultery are disqualified for this special work.

Continue to next section: SEALING THE 144,000

[1] Typical lists of the tribes are found in Numbers 2 and Ezekiel 48. Levi is not listed, since he was the tribe associated with the temple and did not have an inheritance. His place was taken by dividing Joseph into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh. However, the list in Revelation 7 includes Levi, includes Joseph and one of his sons, Manasseh but not Ephraim. Dan, who is included in every list in the Old Testament, is also left out.

[2] In Daniel 9 the Jews were given 490 years of probation, but when they crucified Jesus and persecuted His followers they failed to carry out the conditions that would allow them to continue to be the chosen people (see a detailed explanation in Appendix 4: The Secret Rapture). Jesus, in the parable of the wicked vinedressers, clearly taught that “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” (Matthew 21:33-43).

[3] For example, James addresses his epistle to “the twelve tribes who are scattered abroad” (James 1:1) but there is nothing in the letter that would indicate that it is not to the whole church, both Jews and Gentiles. Paul refers to gentile believers in Galatia as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Paul referred to literal Jews as “my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Romans 9:3.4), and it is within this same context that he refers to them as “Israel” without specifying if he is talking about spiritual or physical (for example Romans 10:1). This shows that it is from the context that we determine the physical or spiritual meaning of “Israel”, and in the case of the 144,000 the context of chapter 7 clearly indicates a spiritual meaning.

[4] This does not mean that the New Testament does not recognize the physical lineage. In Romans 9:11 Paul is concerned about “My brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Romans 9:2,3). In this passage Paul shows that the Jews are beloved because of “the fathers,” that they can be saved in the same way that anyone else can and are not totally rejected just because they rejected Jesus as a people. He also shows that God will do a special work for their salvation, and that they along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” will constitute the people of God who will inherit eternal life—“And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

[5] In Revelation 21: 12, 24, 25 it is seen that the New Jerusalem has “twelve gates…and names written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel…and the nations of those who are saved shall…bring their glory and honor into it. Its gate shall not be shut.” Here we can see that the New Jerusalem has gates designated for the tribes of Israel, but all the saved of every “nation” shall enter in. Thus the names are symbolic and include people from every literal, physical tribe.

[6] For example, in Numbers 2 the twelve tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh taking the place of Joseph) camp around the tabernacle, with Levi in the middle. Similarly, in Ezekiel 48 there are six tribes on each side of the temple, with Levi as the 13th in the middle.