Then I heard the number of the ones having been sealed upon their foreheads: a hundred forty-four thousand, the ones having been sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel.

  • Out of the tribe of Judah twelve thousand ones having been sealed.
  • Out of the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Gad twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Ashur twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Levi twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand,
  • Out of the tribe of Benjamin twelve thousand ones having been sealed.
Revelation 7:4-8
By Hans Burgkmair the Elder – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0

Numbers are important, both in ancient Jewish writing, and particularly in an apocalyptic work, where symbology is central. And perhaps the question was already forming as John observed the angel with the seal. How many would there be, sealed unto God? How many would God protect when the four winds blew across the earth?

The specificity of the number 144,000 intrigues our modern minds, and features fundamentally for at least one modern day group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is this number literal or symbolic? Why go through each tribe? What is being revealed, exactly?

Expositors also note Judah as Messiah’s tribe is placed first, Dan is omitted, Levi is treated as an ordinary tribe, and Joseph replaces his younger son Ephraim. Why?

Historicist

Interpreters with this perspective see both the number 144,000 and the listing of the tribes as representing the whole Church as symbolically Israel. Listing the twelve tribes speaks to the visible church in the Roman Empire, all those who professed Christ, and the institution of the Church during that time. Constantine established the Church in Rome, and it was this Church that God sealed to be protected and preserved during the barbarian onslaught.

The four winds, then, are likened to the first four trumpets about to blow in the upcoming chapter of Revelation.

Preterist

Scholars focused on first century Judea note that God had, in times past, specially preserved the faithful remnant during times of judgment or persecution, and God knew their number.

The Seven Thousand

“Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill, and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

God to the prophet Elijah, 1 Kings 19:17-18 (NRSV)

The One Hundred and Fifty Prophets

Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets fifty to a cave and provided them with bread and water?

The prophet Obadiah to the prophet Elijah, 1 Kings 18:13 (NRSV)

Now, the faithful remnant were all those of Jewish faith and descent who had put their faith in Messiah Jesus, the original core group of pioneering believers who became the church.

One commentator suggested the tribes were listed in order of their historic faithfulness to God, Dan being removed entirely due to that tribe’s bent towards idolatry even in the days of Joshua.

Specific numbers could very well be the actual count of believers from each of the tribes listed, but most preterists see 144,000 as symbolic of the full number of Jewish believers who were preserved from the destruction of Jerusalem, and Rome’s brutal subjugation of the Judean province.

This protected faithful remnant is referred to later in Revelation as the “firstfruits to God,” in this view.

It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins; these follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They have been redeemed from humankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb.

Revelation 14:4 (NRSV)

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion: Greetings.

… In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave birth to us by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

James 1:1, 18 (NRSV)

The preterists’ final counter argument to the futurist view points to this word “firstfruits.” If the 144,000 somehow represent a future group, then how could they be first? They would far more likely be God’s last fruits.

Bad Doberan ( Mecklenburg ). Minster: Triumpf crucifix ( 1370s ): Relief of the Sealing of the Testifiers ( Book of Revelation 7,1-8 ) | By Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Futurist

Nevertheless, most theologians who are awaiting a future fulfillment see this faithful remnant as those of Jewish descent who will receive Jesus as Messiah during the time of the Great Tribulation—the seven-year period represented in the seals, the trumpets, and the bowels of God’s wrath. It cannot represent the Church for two reasons:

  1. The Church will have already been lifted up to Jesus during the Rapture, entirely removed from the horror and terror of the Tribulation.
  2. John’s vision takes great pains in saying “every tribe of the children of Israel,” then intentionally lists every tribe, underscoring these are Jewish believers, having nothing to do with the many Gentile believers who comprise the bulk of the Church.

Furthermore, John’s vision pertains to physical Israelites, and is not a symbolic number indicating the whole Church, because the church is not nor ever has been divided into tribes or twelve districts. Instead, this fulfills several ancient prophecies that spoke of God bringing Israel into full repentance at the end of time.

  • Prophet Isaiah: “And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord. … Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin.”
  • Prophet Zechariah: “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn.”
  • Apostle Paul: “I want you to understand this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not claim to be wiser than you are: a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.”

Some commentators interpret the absence of Dan as tacit acknowledgement that the AntiChrist will rise out of this tribe, in league with the Serpent of old.

Dan shall be a snake by the roadside,
    a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that its rider falls backward.

Jacob’s prophecy concerning his son Dan, Genesis 49:17 (NRSV)

Others agree with preterists that Dan and Ephraim (also missing) are omitted due to their idolatry, and some with historicists that 144,000 is symbolic of the whole historic Church.

Spiritual

Theologians seeking spiritual insight see this as a depiction of “true” Israel, spiritual Israel—all those who have been found righteous in God’s eyes because of their faith. Spiritual readers tend to speak of three reasons why this is the better reading.

  1. As apocalyptic literature, even as prophetic literature, Revelation is not to be read in a literal manner, but rather with understanding of its symbology.
  2. The rest of the book does not make distinctions among Jewish and Gentile believers (but rather celebrates the diversity and unity of the Church).
  3. Otherwise, the implication is that God would seal and protect only Jewish believers and not other Christians.

The symbology of 144,000 is one thousand, the basic military unit of antiquity, multiplied by the square of twelve, equaling the Israel of the Hebrew scriptures, the first covenant, and the “Israel,” the Church of the Greek scriptures, the new covenant. This is the true and spiritual Israel.

Though certainly God’s own have suffered through persecution and been swept up in the judgments of God as experienced globally, God has always protected the inner life and spirit of every believer.


The four perspectives taken from Revelation: Four Views Parallel Commentary, edited by Steve Gregg


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