Will the debate ever end about the identity of the 144,000 servants in Revelation 7? Perhaps not, but I hope these ten truths will contribute something to our understanding of who they are and what they do. We read that 12,000 are “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev. 7:4).
(1) The list of tribes in Revelation 7 corresponds to none of the nearly twenty different variations found in the OT. Judah, listed first here, is found in that position in the OT only when the tribes are arranged geographically, moving from south to north (Num. 34:19; Josh. 21:4; Judges 1:2; 1 Chron. 12:24). The only exception to this is Numbers 2:3 (followed by 7:12; 10:14). Perhaps Judah’s priority here “emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:10; 1 Chron. 5:1-2) and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down’ to Judah” (Beale, 417).
(2) One can hardly fail to note that the tribes of Dan and Ephraim are omitted. One tradition believed that the Antichrist was to come from the tribe of Dan (based on a misinterpretation of Jer. 8:16 and first found in Irenaeus, @ 200 a.d.). Dan was also closely associated with idol worship (Judg. 18:16-19; 1 Kings 12:28-30; cf. Gen. 49:17; Judges 18:30; Jer. 8:16), as was Ephraim (Hosea 4:17-14:8). In Revelation 7, Joseph and Manasseh substitute for Dan and Ephraim. In the final analysis, there is no clear reason for this and we may never know why.
(3) There are several noticeable differences between the 144,000 in vv. 4-8 and the great multitude in vv. 9-17. Notice that the first group is specifically numbered (144,000) whereas the second is innumerable. Furthermore, the members of the 144,000 are all taken from but one nation, Israel, whereas those in the innumerable multitude are taken from “every nation and tribe and people and language” (7:9). Another difference is their location: the 144,000 appear to be on earth, whereas the multitude is in heaven, before the throne of God (7:9). Finally, the 144,000 are in imminent peril and thus require divine protection, whereas the multitude are in a condition of absolute peace and joy.
Do these differences mean that the two groups are entirely different, or is it the same group viewed from different perspectives, at different stages of their existence and experience? I believe it is the latter. More on this in a moment.
(4) These in 7:4-8 are surely identical with the 144,000 mentioned in Rev. 14:1-5. In both cases it is said that they received the seal of God on their “foreheads” (7:3 and 14:1). In 14:3 they are described as those who had been “redeemed from the earth” and again in 14:4 they were “redeemed from mankind”. This echoes Revelation 5:9 where the Lamb is said to have “ransomed” or “redeemed” for God people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. This same phrase is used again in Revelation 7:9 to describe the innumerable multitude. This would seem to indicate that the 144,000 = the innumerable multitude = the redeemed of all ages, and not some special remnant of humanity.
(5) In Revelation 14:4 the 144,000 are described as “first fruits” (aparche) to God and to the Lamb. The idea would appear to be that the 144,000 were an initial group, perhaps a remnant, of believers whose salvation was a foreshadowing of a yet greater ingathering or harvest of believers in the end time. Thus the 144,000 represent the totality of God’s redeemed at that time, and thus “first fruits” of the remainder of all the redeemed who will be gathered in the final harvest at the close of history.
(6) These 144,000 are called the “servants” (douloi) of God (7:3). Whenever the word “servants” is used in Revelation (2:20; 19:5; 22:3) it refers to the entire community of the redeemed. Also, if Satan puts a seal or mark on all his followers (13:16-17; 14:9-11), it seems reasonable that God would do likewise for all his people.
(7) If you’re wondering why the 144,000 are numbered and the multitude is innumerable, it is probably because the numbering (144,000) is being used to evoke images of the OT census, which was designed to determine the military strength of the nation (see Num. 1:3,18,20; 26:2,4; 1 Chron. 27:23; 2 Sam. 24:1-9). The point is that these in Revelation 7 constitute a Messianic army called upon, like Jesus himself, to conquer the enemy through sacrificial death. In the OT those counted were males of military age (twenty years and over). This explains why the 144,000 in Revelation 14:1-5 are adult males, i.e., those eligible for military service.
(8) This “military force” in 7:4-8 conquers its enemy in the same way that Jesus has conquered at the cross. When Jesus died it appeared that Satan had won. But in an ironic twist it was precisely by dying that Jesus gained the victory. Likewise, when God’s people die for their faith without renouncing Jesus they conquer the enemy.
In other words, the people of God are portrayed as engaging in holy war, but in a spiritual, non-violent way. John’s aim is to show that the decisive battle in God’s eschatological war against all evil has been won by the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus and by his followers who faithfully persevere in the face of death when they refuse to deny that Jesus is Lord. It may look like Satan has won, but the martyrs are the real victors. They conquer by dying in their faith, committed to the end to Jesus.
(9) Most dispensational, pretribulational, premillennialists, that is, most who read the book in a futurist sense, understand the 144,000 to be a Jewish remnant saved immediately after the rapture of the Church. Many then argue that, in the absence of the Church, they serve as evangelists who preach the gospel during the Great Tribulation. In other words, these are literally 144,000 (arithmetically speaking, neither 143,999 nor 144,001) ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The innumerable multitude, some go on to argue, are Gentiles saved in the tribulation through the evangelistic efforts of the 144,000. Be it noted, however, that there is nothing whatsoever said in this passage about these people functioning as evangelists or being responsible for the salvation of the multitude.
My problem with this perspective begins with the fact that it depends entirely on a futurist interpretation of the book. Furthermore, why would God protect only Jewish believers and leave Gentile believers to endure such horrific judgments? And why would God protect only 144,000 Jewish believers? Why would he not protect all of them? In Revelation 9:4 we read that only those with the seal of God on their foreheads are exempt from the demonic torments that are so horrible and agonizing that men will long to die. Is it feasible or consistent with the character of God that he would protect only a select group from such wrath while afflicting the rest of his blood-bought children with it? The answer is a resounding No. Therefore, the 144,000 who are sealed on their forehead in 7:4-8 (and 14: 9:4) must be all the redeemed, not a select few.
(10) My understanding is that the number 144,000 is symbolic (as is the case with virtually every number in Revelation). “12” is both squared (the 12 tribes multiplied by the 12 apostles? Cf. 21:12, 14) and multiplied by a thousand, a two-fold way of emphasizing completeness. Hence, John has in view all the redeemed, all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, i.e., the Church.
Thus the 144,000 in Revelation 7:3-8 and 14:1-5 and the innumerable multitude in 7:9-17 refer to the same group of people viewed from differing perspectives. The 144,000 are the redeemed standing on the brink of battle while still on earth, while the innumerable multitude are the redeemed enjoying their heavenly reward. So again, the 144,000 and the innumerable multitude are the same. The 144,000 are portrayed as a Messianic army waging spiritual war while yet on earth while the multitude are the redeemed of all ages in heaven enjoying their reward in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ