There has been much fanciful speculation concerning the identity of the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 7. Are they made up of Church saints or a Jewish remnant? Will there be literally 144,000 sealed, or does that number have some hidden spiritual meaning?
It is my conviction that the confusion is the result of ignoring clear identifying statements within the passages themselves, much as we saw with the indicators within sign of the woman and the man-child in Revelation 12, revealing their identities. Sound exegesis always draws the meaning from the text itself, instead of reading one’s understanding into the text. The following is an excerpt from chapter 9 of my book: “Focusing in on End-Time Events,” in which I point out the identity of the 144,000 from the text itself.
In Revelation chapter 7 there is mention of 144,000 servants of God from the twelve tribes of the children of Israel who are sealed. There are two basic interpretations as to their identity. The first is that they are to be seen symbolically as representing the Church saints, and the second is that it is referring to literal Israelites – 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes as listed in verses 5 thru 8 who will be sealed at the end of the age, just prior to the judgments which will be inflicted upon those who dwell on the earth. The arguments presented in defense of a symbolic interpretation will be first examined before explaining their identity using the literal approach.
Arguments against a Literal Interpretation of the 144,000 in Revelation 7
1) Revelation is a Book Full of Symbolism and should not be Interpreted Literally
It is argued that the 144,000 should be understood as simply referring to a great multitude and should not be taken literally. This position is defended in spite of the fact that much detail is given specifying that the 144,000 are children of Israel, composed of 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes mentioned in verses 5 thru 8. In reality, the passage is very specific as to the number of the sealed. It is in verses 9 thru the end of the chapter that we see a non-specific number of blood washed saints from all nations who come out of the Great Tribulation, as seen in distinction from the 144,000 Jews who are sealed in verses 1 thru 8. In verse 9 John says: “After these things I saw a great multitude which no man can number…” Why would so much attention be given to detail, specifying 144,000 individuals in one passage and then right afterwards refer to a non-specific number by simply saying “a great multitude” if the 144,000 are also meant to be understood as a non-specific number? The most obvious progression of chapter seven is to show first, those of literal Israel who will survive the tribulation, and then the great multitude of blood washed Church saints from all nations who will also come out of the Great Tribulation.
The same school of thought which would spiritualize the number 144,000, usually does not interpret the 1,000-year millennium or the three-and-a-half-year period of the Great Tribulation literally either. This they do in spite of the several ways it is expressed; “three and a half years,” “time, times and half a time,” “forty-two months” and “twelve hundred and sixty days.” It is as if God, anticipating that men would want to spiritualize these numbers, made them specific in every possible way. Nevertheless, many persist in seeing the numbers as nonspecific. One commentary actually states in reference to the 144,000: “The number is too exact and artificial to suppose that it is literal.” Since when do specific details instead of general terms argue for not taking them literally? Clearly the opposite is true.
In Old Testament prophecies that specify numbers we can see that they were fulfilled literally. In Daniel the numbers are literally fulfilled. Should we expect anything different in Revelation, the companion volume? In Jeremiah 29:10, it is revealed that the captivity would last 70 years. Did Daniel understand it literally? Yes. And exactly 70 years later the captivity ended as prophesied. Even though there was a secondary application revealed to him in Daniel 9:24-27 that would be fulfilled in 7 times 70 years, the primary prophecy was fulfilled literally, and the secondary fulfillment is also being fulfilled literally. Although prophetic Scriptures contain symbolism, we only have liberty to interpret symbolism symbolically. Literal prophecies should never be interpreted symbolically. A rule of interpretation should generally be recognized: “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”
The same interpreters arbitrarily take many other numbers in Revelation literally, such as the New Jerusalem with 12 foundations and 12 gates; 7 seals, 7 trumpets, 7 bowls, etc. Generally speaking, whenever God chooses to communicate with numbers, He wants us to think in terms of numbers.
2) The 10 Tribes of the Northern Kingdom were Dispersed Never to be Found Again
It is argued that the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom are lost tribes. After the reign of Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel was divided; the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained in Judea under the rule of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, and the other ten tribes formed the northern kingdom under Jeroboam. The northern kingdom abandoned the worship of God and persisted in idolatry until they were delivered over to the Assyrians around 722 B.C. They were then dispersed among the nations, and foreigners were sent to repopulate their cities. Those who argue against the 144,000 being the literal children of Israel say that the ten tribes of Israel were dispersed among the nations and lost forever and therefore could not be the 144,000 at the end of the age. However, God made an irrevocable promise that neither the nation of Israel nor Judah, which was also later sent into captivity, would be lost forever:
“For behold, the days are coming,' says the Lord, 'that I will bring back from captivity My people Israel and Judah,' says the Lord. 'And I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it….'" For I am with you,' says the Lord, 'to save you; though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a complete end of you. But I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished.” (Jer 30:3,11)
“Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for a light by day, the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar (The Lord of hosts is His name): "If those ordinances depart from before Me, says the Lord, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever." Thus says the Lord: "If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the Lord.” (Jer 31:35-37)
In these verses, and many others, God unconditionally promises that they will never entirely cease to be God’s elect people, contrary to what many may say. He also promises that, however lost they may seem to be, He will re-gather them into their own land and will restore to them their kingdom in the latter days:
"Then say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: "Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again.” (Ezek 37:21,22)
“After many days you (Gog) will be visited. In the latter years you will come into the land of those brought back from the sword and gathered from many people on the mountains of Israel, which had long been desolate; they were brought out of the nations, and now all of them dwell safely…. You will come up against My people Israel like a cloud, to cover the land. It will be in the latter days that I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me, when I am hallowed in you, O Gog, before their eyes.” (Ezek 38:8,16)
“For the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days.” (Hos 3:4-5)
In these passages we see clearly that, far from being lost forever, in the latter days both Israel and Judah will be back in the land of Israel as one nation with one king over them.
Early Christians would have had no problem accepting that all twelve tribes of Israel could be sealed. All twelve tribes were present and worshipping God at the time of the writing of the New Testament over 700 years after the dispersion. On the day of Pentecost, we see that the devout Jews of the dispersion, representing all the house of Israel, were in Jerusalem for the Passover Feasts:
“And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitudes came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language…. ‘Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know…. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:5,6, 22,36)
Here we see that on the day of Pentecost, Jews representative of the whole house of Israel were present in Jerusalem for the Feast (all twelve tribes were referred to as Jews as well as Israelites since the Babylonian captivity). Paul, speaking before Agrippa, presents in his speech something that was common knowledge – there were devout Jews serving God from all twelve tribes in his time:
“To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews.” (Acts 26:7)
James wrote his epistle to all twelve tribes of the Jews of the dispersion:
“James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings.” (James 1:1)
Though not all from the ten tribes returned to the land of Israel (that awaits the latter times), they were definitely not all forever lost, nor absorbed by the nations. And of those that apparently are lost, they are only lost to men, not to God.
The Jewish lineage in biblical times was traced through the father’s line and not the mother’s line. Throughout the Scriptures we see that a child continues to be a Jew even if the child’s mother is non-Jewish as long as the father is Jewish. Joseph married an Egyptian, yet his two sons became the fathers of the two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Moses married a Midianite. In the messianic genealogy of Matthew chapter one, we see that Rahab the harlot of Jericho was the mother of Boaz, but Boaz continued to be included in the line of Judah. He in turn married Ruth, a Moabite. So, although there were Gentiles in Jesus’ blood-line, that did not exclude Him from being a legitimate descendent of Judah and thus qualified to be the Messiah as a descendant of David from the tribe of Judah. God knows the paternal descent of every Jew and is fully capable of distinguishing them and sealing them.
There are millions of devout Jews in the world today who know they are Jews but do not know with certainty of which tribe they are. Some conclude that because their surnames are Levi or Cohen that they are of the tribe of Levi but even that is not conclusive. Genealogical records cannot be traced back more than a few generations. Israelites have been banished from many nations, persecuted, slaughtered, and obligated to embrace Christendom or the Muslim faith further complicating things (for a timeline showing how the Jews have been trampled underfoot by the Gentiles see the following link: ( [i] ). It is a miracle that they remain a distinct people after so many attempts to destroy them. Many modern-day Jews have continued to practice the Jewish faith as passed down from their ancestors even though they may not know of which tribe they are descended. Be what it may, God knows their paternal descent and knows whom He has chosen to be sealed from each tribe at the end of the age.
3) The Fact that the Tribes are not mentioned in the Usual Manner Indicates that it was Not Intended to be Interpreted Literally
Those who maintain that the 144,000 symbolically represent the Church point out that the twelve tribes of Israel in Revelation 7 are not mentioned in the usual order, the tribe of Dan is excluded and instead of mentioning Ephraim he is replaced with his father Joseph. Also, the Levites, who are normally excluded from the lists of tribes because their heavenly calling as priests excluded them from earthly inheritances, are here included. From this it is argued that it was not meant to be taken literally. In reality the contrary is true. The fact that they are not listed in the usual order from the oldest to youngest and that there are exclusions should call our attention. Why is Dan excluded? Why is Joseph named instead of Ephraim? Why was Levi included? These differences should be a call to attention, causing us to investigate the reason for the changes.
The reason for the exclusion of Dan and Ephraim is implied in that Dan was the first of the tribes to turn to idolatry upon entering Canaan and Ephraim followed suit:
“Then the children of Dan set up for themselves the carved image; and Jonathan the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land.” (Judg 18:30)
“Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone.” (Hos 4:17)
The idea expressed in these texts is that both tribes rejected the worship of the true God and persisted in their idolatry until they were given over to a reprobate mind. Jacob even implied that Dan would be a stumbling block for the nation of Israel when he blessed his sons in Genesis 49.
“Dan shall be a serpent by the way, a viper by the path that bites the horse's heels so that its rider shall fall backward.” (Gen 49:17)
Levi would naturally be included because; though the Levites were not given an earthly inheritance, the seal of God is unto the heavenly inheritance of which they are heirs and ministers.
So, the differences in the list of tribes from the normal order, actually favor the conclusion that they should be taken literally. A Jew would naturally ask why two tribes are not mentioned and knowing the history of idolatry in the tribes of Dan and Ephraim would have understood the message that God meant to communicate by their exclusion.
As has been demonstrated, the arguments for not taking the 144,000 as being 12,000 literal Jews from each tribe listed, do not stand up under closer examination. Israel has not been lost and absorbed by the nations. And God has promised that, though they will be judged for their sin and idolatry, He will not cast them off forever, no matter what they may have done.
Reason for Sealing the Foreheads of the 144,000
The reason for sealing the 144,000 is implied in Revelation 7 verses 1 thru 3:
“After these things I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, on the sea, or on any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God. And he cried with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth, the sea, or the trees till we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” (Rev 7:1-3)
The judgments described in the seals alone will cause the death of at least one fourth of the world’s population (Rev 6:7), not to mention the loss of life in other events described in the trumpet and bowl judgments. The seal of God in their foreheads is for their protection from these judgments and the wrath of the dragon who will seek to destroy them after he is cast down to the earth. We see this demonstrated when the demons that ascend from the bottomless pit are not permitted to harm those who have the seal of God in their forehead (9:4). This is similar to a vision that Ezekiel was shown:
“Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub, where it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed with linen, who had the writer's inkhorn at his side; and the Lord said to him, ‘Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.’ To the others He said in my hearing, ‘Go after him through the city and kill; do not let your eye spare, nor have any pity. Utterly slay old and young men, maidens and little children and women; but do not come near anyone on whom is the mark; and begin at My sanctuary.’” (Ezek 9:3-6)
The Mark in Revelation, as in Ezekiel, is for Protection of the Servants of God
A change in John’s visions is often introduced by the words “after this I saw”, or “after these things I saw” or simply “then I saw”. These expressions are not to indicate that the contents of the visions chronologically follow the events of the prior visions but rather what John sees in the new vision follows what he saw in the prior one. John is shown repeated visions of the same three-and-a-half-year period of the Great Tribulation giving different details of the same timespan. They are not to be understood as one three-and-a-half-year period followed by another three-and-a-half-year period, but rather two visions where he sees the same timespan from a different perspective.
Recapitulation is a common characteristic of the book of Revelation. When he says, “after these things I saw…” in 7:1 he is not saying, “after the seven seals have already wiped out over a quarter of the world’s population I saw that the 144,000 were sealed to protect them from being harmed,” but rather that he saw in the next vision that the four angels continued to hold back the four winds of the earth so that no harm would be done to it until the 144,000 servants of God had been sealed. The vision takes him back to the beginning, before any of the seals which will bring devastation to the earth and its inhabitants are broken,
Identity of the 144,000
Having established that the 144,000 are 12,000 natural Jews from each of the twelve tribes of Israel listed, the question still remains as to their identity. They are called servants of God which speaks of their devotion to Him. However, if they were blood washed Church saints, they would not need a sealing to protect them distinct from that which one receives upon appropriating salvation in Christ:
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” (Eph 1:13)
“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Eph 4:30)
“who (God) also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2Cor 1:22)
Though man cannot see the seal, both angels and demons alike see it. Angels, as ministering spirits, provide protection to those sealed of God, and demons are not permitted to touch us without God’s permission. God only permits Satan to afflict His elect children when it is necessary for their sanctification. In the case of one who does not judge sin in his life, it becomes necessary for God to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1Cor 5:5). God will discipline His children in order that they may not be condemned with the world. Even one who loves the Lord like Peter, and longs to serve Him full heartedly, must be broken and divested of self, and in order to accomplish this, God permits Satan to sift us like wheat, so we may learn to trust in Him, putting no confidence in the flesh.
Messianic Jews, in the same manner as Gentile believers, are sealed by God for the day of redemption upon believing. They are no longer distinct from the Church but rather joint members with the Gentiles. Church saints will be protected from the wrath of God during the tribulation, but many will also be privileged to die as martyrs under the reign of the Antichrist:
“Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' Yes, ‘says the Spirit,’ that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.” (Rev 14:12-13)
Many Christians who refuse the mark or the name of the beast in their foreheads will be put to death. For them it is said to be a privilege to die in the Lord. The same could not be said, however, of devout Jews who have not yet believed in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and Savior. They must be preserved alive until the Second Coming of Christ at which time they will be saved:
“For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins." Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:25-29)
How is all Israel saved? By the Deliverer who comes from Zion. They will continue throughout the tribulation period as devout Jews but in unbelief until they see their Deliverer coming in the clouds of heaven. At that moment they will be saved.
“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.” (Zech 12:10)
When is it that God pours out upon the house of Israel the Spirit of grace and supplication? When the Deliverer comes from Zion. Then they will look upon the wounds in His hands and feet. They will see His pierced side and will mourn – not for themselves but for Him whom they pierced. It will be a time of deep repentance for those 144,000 of Israel who survive the most horrible holocaust ever under the Antichrist that will apparently result in every Jew being killed except for those who are sealed for protection. Romans 11:26 says, “all Israel will be saved” when the Deliverer comes. In other words, as a result of the coming holocaust, only the 144,000 sealed will be saved alive. Their protection from the dragon and the Antichrist can be seen in Revelation twelve where the woman, or Israel, is persecuted by Satan after giving birth to the man-child:
“Now when the dragon saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male Child. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” (Rev 12:13-17)
Here we see that the dragon pursues the woman, but the Lord comes to the woman’s aid, keeping her from his reach. The 144,000 are not only protected from the wrath of God, as are the Christians, but they are also protected from Satan’s wrath, enabling them to survive until they are saved after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in and the Deliverer comes from Zion. In his frustration and rage at not being able to touch the woman, the dragon focuses his wrath upon the rest of the woman’s offspring, the Christians.
So, we see that the 144,000 are non-messianic Jews who are chosen and sealed to survive the worst and final holocaust under the Antichrist and stand before the Son of God, believing on Him only when they see His wounds and pierced side when He returns to earth. They will probably be the only surviving Jews, since genetic research is rapidly replacing genealogical records with DNA testing, potentially making it possible to positively determine Jewish descent under the persecution of the Antichrist.