Who are the 144,000 in Revelation 7?

This past Sunday I taught on Revelation chapter 7, which states that in the last days there will be 144,000 redeemed Jews—the greatest missionary force the planet will ever know! But who are they? Here’s how they are identified:

“And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.” (Revelation 7:4-8, NASB)

Dr. John F. Walvoord’s commentary on this passage is helpful:

Some commentators have tried to make this list a symbolic reference to the church rather than to Israel. But such spiritualization ignores the plain statement of the text that the twelve tribes of Israel are in view. Israel’s tribes are still in existence, and God certainly knows who they are. The genealogical records of the nation were lost in the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, but today there are a number of groups from India to South Africa claiming to be remnants of the “lost tribes” of Israel, and with modern DNA identification techniques those claims may yet be established.

Comparing the lists of the twelve tribes with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons reveals some differences. This will not surprise the student of Scripture, for there are many variations of tribes listed throughout the Old Testament… the most important issue here is that Israel is here divided into twelve tribes… The fact that the twelve tribes of Israel are singled out for special reference in the tribulation time is another evidence that the term “Israel” as used in the Bible is invariable a reference to descendants of Jacob, who was given the name Israel. Paul’s benediction in Galatians 6:16 to “the Israel of God” is often cited as an example of Israel being used as a term for the church.

revelation-john-f-walvoord-hardcover-cover-artBut as Donald Campbell points out, “All the 65 other occurrences of the term ‘Israel’ in the New Testament refer to Jews. It would thus be strange for Paul to use ‘Israel’ here to mean Gentile Christians.” He goes on to note that Paul referred to two kinds of Israelites, unbelieving and believing Jews (cf. Rom. 9:6), and thus in Galatians 6:16 was referring to true Israelites who had come to Christ. Bible scholar S. Lewis Johnson says this distinction is in “complete harmony” with the usage of the terms “Israel” and “the church” in the early chapters of Acts, “for Israel exists there alongside the newly formed church, and the two entities are kept in separate terminology.”

The prevalent idea that the church is the true Israel is not sustained by any explicit reference in the Bible, and the word “Israel” is never used of Gentiles and refers only to those who are racially descendants of Israel, or Jacob. The remnant of Israel as portrayed in Revelation should not therefore be taken as meaning the church. It would be rather ridiculous to carry the typology of Israel representing the church to the extent of dividing them into twelve tribes as was done here, if it was the intent of the writer to describe the church. It is instead a clear indication of God’s continued purpose of the nation Israel and their preservation through this awful time of trouble. (140-141)

READ MORE:  Walvoord on the Rapture