Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?

“Sealing the 144,000” Ottheinrich Bibel, c. 1430

The identity of the 144,000 who have their “Father’s name written on their foreheads” is one of the great puzzles in the book of Revelation.  Because these people are said to be “from all the tribes of Israel,” they are often understood to be Israelites of some kind.  But there’s a very good reason to believe that they are not exclusively Israelites, but rather a different group that includes some Israelites.

The list of the tribes of Israel in the description of the 144,000 in Revelation is different from any other such list in the Bible in two significant ways:
(1) the names are different and
(2) the order is different.

Elsewhere in the Bible, these names are typically listed in one of two ways.  When they are being presented as the sons of Jacob, they are listed by birthright, according to the seniority of his wives and concubines and the birth order of their sons:

Sons of Leah
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun.
Sons of Rachel
Joseph, Benjamin
Sons of Bilhah
Dan, Naphtali
Sons of Zilpah
Gad, Asher

On the other hand, when the names represent the tribes of Israel, that is, territorial and civic entities, Levi is not listed because his descendants became temple servants and were not assigned any territory.  To get back to a total of twelve, Ephraim and Manasseh are listed in place of their father Joseph.  When the names represent the tribes, they are often listed in geographic order, roughly from south to north.

In Revelation, Levi and Joseph are both on the list, suggesting that the sons of Jacob are in view.  However, Manasseh also appears on the list, even though all of his descendants are already included in Joseph—this is a redundancy.  And Dan, for some reason, is missing.  So we have one tribe too many and one tribe too few.  And the order isn’t even close to being correct either by birthright or geography.

So what’s going on here?  As I’ve argued in this article, I believe that here in Revelation we have a “portrayal of the church as the new Israel in the names and order of the tribes.”  That is, the names are presented in such a way as to show that the community of Jesus’ followers is the continuation of the people of God flowing out of the community of ancient Israel.

Specifically, in the portrayal of the 144,000:
• Judah comes first because Jesus was from that tribe as the Messianic heir to David’s throne.  He is the “lion of the tribe of Judah.”
• Reuben comes next representing believing Israelites, the “firstborn” who belong to God.
• Then come four names representing the tribes descended from Jacob’s concubines, who come last by birth order, but in the community of Jesus’ followers, “the last shall be first.”  These names represent the Gentiles, who at the time of the book’s writing are actually coming to faith ahead of the Israelites.
• However, one of the four names, Manasseh, is a replacement for Dan.   The tribe of Dan was the first to fall into idolatry and the first to be carried off into exile.  This represents the danger of apostasy in general (one of the main concerns of Revelation), and perhaps also how Judas Iscariot fell away and was replaced by Matthias.
•  The remaining sons of Jacob’s full wives make up the last six names on the list, expressing the expectation that ultimately “all Israel will be saved.”

The 144,000, in other words, represent the community of all who believe in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.  They are a symbolic representation of the reality that is described more literally immediately afterwards, the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

This is another of the places where the book of Revelation is creatively adapting an image from the First Testament to speak to New Testament realities, in this case the continuity between the covenant communities of both testaments; they are one people of God.  This same theme is encountered in other places in Revelation as well, such as when the new Jerusalem is seen to have “the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” on its gates and “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” on its foundations, or when the human community around the throne of God is represented as 24 elders, depicting the first and new covenant communities, 12 being the covenant number in the book.  But in this case the continuity of the covenants is symbolized by 12 x 12 (144) rather than 12 + 12 (24).  The symbol is intensified by multiplication by 10 x 10 x 10 (1,000), representing the totality of those who belong to the community.

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Q. In your Revelation study guide you say that there’s a symbolic meaning for the numbers in the book.  3 means God, 4 means creation, 7 means perfection, 10 means completeness, and so forth.  Did John really write with all of this in mind?

I believe he definitely did. Throughout the book of Revelation, John is drawing on a stock of recognizable symbols from the First Testament.  This stock includes some commonly-used numerical symbols that would have been meaningful to John’s readers.

For example, in the First Testament, 10 represents completeness in the human dimension, since people usually have ten figures and ten toes.  That’s why God gave an epitome of the law in the Ten Commandments.  The number is also used in this sense when Job says to his friends, “Ten times now you have reproached me.”  This is not a literal count, because the friends have only spoken five times to that point in the book.  But the number means “You’ve reproached me as many times as a human can bear.”   Ten meaning what is complete or ultimate in human experience is also seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts.  The last one, representing a supreme empire, has ten horns.  The image and the number with its significance are echoed in John’s description of the dragon in Revelation.

To give another example, since there were twelve tribes of Israel, the number 12 represents the covenant community in the First Testament.  In the New Testament, Jesus himself appealed to this symbol when he chose 12 apostles.  Through this number he was declaring that a new kind of covenant community was coming into existence through his life and ministry.  In Revelation the number 12 is used throughout the book to represent the community.  See how many times it’s used in the depiction of the New Jerusalem, for example. (See the Daniel-Revelation study guide, p. 131.)

Twelve can also be used in multiples and in combination with other numbers. There are 24 elders in the heavenly throne vision to depict the continuity of the first and new covenant communities.  The number 144,000, for its part, comes from 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10, representing the fullness of the community of believers throughout time and space from the first and new covenants.

Examples like these show us what an intentional part numbers play in the book of Revelation’s symbolism, echoing the First Testament background.  As for some of the other numbers in the book, as I write in my Daniel-Revelation study guide:

•  3 represents God, who’s often described in three-part phrases (“who was, and is, and is to come”) and ascribed triple attributes (“holy, holy, holy”; “glory and honor and power.”)

•  4 is the number of creation.  It’s represented in the heavenly throne vision by four living creatures, and it’s also described as having four parts: heaven, earth, under-earth, and sea.  The song of every creature ascribes four attributes to the Lamb: praise, honor, glory and power.  There are other uses of the number 4 to symbolize creation later in the book, for example, in the following vision, “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds”.

•  The number 7 (4+3) represents perfection and completeness.  The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes; these symbolize his absolute power and knowledge.  The scroll has seven seals because it contains the definitive judgments of God.  The seven churches at the beginning of the book are symbolized by seven lamp stands and seven stars.  While these are actual churches, they’re also representative of the church as a whole; what’s written to them is also addressed to the wider community of Jesus’ followers.  The throne vision depicts the “seven spirits of God.” As a translation note in the NIV explains, this is the “seven-fold” Spirit of God–the perfect (divine) Holy Spirit.  The angels, in their song, ascribe seven attributes to the Lamb, acknowledging his divine perfections.

We see in all of these ways, as I write in my study guide, that “in addition to visual symbols drawn from earlier Scriptures, the book of Revelation also uses numerical symbols.  Certain numbers in the book are like ‘logos’ that point to key characters and themes.”

For the symbolic meaning of the number 666, see this post.