Who Are The 144,000 in Revelation 7?

The 144,000 are specially appointed witnesses during the great persecution at the end of the age. The witnesses are “sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (7:3; 14:1). In Revelation 15:4-5, these 144,000 witnesses have “not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins” and they “follow Lamb wherever he goes.” The 144,000 “have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits.” There are two passages which may help to

144000This text may allude to marking those who grieve over idolatry in Jerusalem in Ezekiel 9. In this apocalyptic vision, six men with swords enter Jerusalem to judge those who practice idolatry, and a seventh is appointed to mark those who have not practiced idolatry. The ones who have been marked by God will survive the slaughter of idolaters when Jerusalem falls. The ones who have been marked by God are the remnant of Israel which survives. In Revelation 14, the 144,000 are sealed by God in contrast to those who are sealed with the “mark of the Beast” a few verses before Rev 13:13-18).

It is also likely the description of the 144,000 is modeled on Matthew 10. Jesus sends out his specially trained twelve disciples two-by-two for the purpose of announcing the messiah to the nation of Israel. They are given authority to heal and cast our demons (10:1) and are specifically instructed to avoid Gentiles since they are sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-8). Anyone who welcomes these witnesses welcomes Jesus, and anyone who gives even a cup of water to one of the witnesses has welcomed Jesus (10:40-42). In Luke there are two sets of missionaries. First in Luke 9:1-9 Jesus sends out twelve, a passage parallel to Matthew 10. Second, in Luke 10 he sends seventy or seventy-two missionaries (72×2 = 144, although the number 72 is only found in textual variants, so if may or may not be significant). Much of Luke 10:1-24 is also parallel to Matthew 10.

If these are Jewish witnesses to the coming of the Messiah, then the difficult interpretive problem is how to understand “the tribes of Israel.”  If these are literally Jews (as opposed to Christians who are not ethnically Jewish), then there are a few problems: Many will argue that the twelve tribes did not exist in the first century, and they certainly do not today. Josephus, however, does refer to the 12 tribes in the first century (Ant 11.33), and the Jews did have a hope that in the kingdom the full tribal structure would be restored. A restoration of Israel to Palestine in our future may include some kind of tribal structure, or this passage may signal the beginnings of the revival of the twelve tribes. The millennial kingdom will include the twelve tribe ruling and judging the gentile nations.

The order of the tribes is also troublesome. They are re-arranged to place Judah at the top, likely because the Messiah was to come from the tribe of Judah (Smith 215). The main problem is that Joseph is included and Dan is omitted. Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; 112, for example, solves the problem by noting that the “list as an attempt to list the tribes in an intelligible order which failed owing to faulty memory.” Joseph was not a tribe, recall from Genesis 49 that his two sons were adopted by Jacob and became tribes (Ephraim and Manasseh).

The list in Revelation 7 does not correspond to any of the lists in the Old Testament, see Genesis 35:22-26; Numbers 1:5-15 and 13:4-14, for example. (In Numbers 13 Joseph is mentioned parenthetically as being represented by Manasseh; Levi is rarely mentioned since it was not allotted land). Nor does the list conform to the birth order of the sons, either literally, or by wives (Leah, Bilah, Zilpah, Rachel). One suggestion is that 7:5c-6 is misplaced, if it is moved after verse 8, then the order is more correct, the sons of the wives in order followed by the wives of the concubines in order.

By way of some sort of conclusion on the list of the tribes in Revelation 7, we might have to let some of the mystery remain and confess we cannot know for sure why the tribes are ordered as they are, nor why Dan is missing. Sometimes it is best to remember Grant Osborne’s advice to apply the “hermeneutics of ignorance” when reading Revelation.

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7 Again” JSNT 42 (1991) 99-115; Christopher Smith, “The Tribes of Revelation 7 and the Literary Competence of John the Seer” JETS 38 (1995) 213-18.

12 thoughts on “Who Are The 144,000 in Revelation 7?

  1. I am a little disappointed that I will not be part of the 144,000 as I am not Jewish. I feel that it would be a great honor to serve God in such a way as witness in the final days. What I find rather interesting about this passage is the fact that the tribe of Dan is left out of the list of the tribes of Israel. Reading the quote about “faulty memory” made me think of the old age John was in when he wrote the book of Revelation. John was very old at the time of this book’s writing. However, I do not believe that the order of the tribes or the omittance of Dan is simply because of old age and a faulty memory. The Bible is the inspired word of God. This means that every word in the Bible is correct and without error. This means that God inspired John to write the list of tribes like he did for a specific reason. This reason will probably go unknown until this time comes.


    • I am glad you can use it. I find dealing with JWs frustrating since they minor their doctrine so well, it is hard to convince them some things are just wrong.


  2. In reference to the beginning of the original post, I was chatting with Kate and we were curious as to the significance of the 144,000 witnesses being virgins. I thought the usage of the world “defiled” makes it sound as if not being a virgin is a negative thing. I wondered why God chose to make his witnesses virgins even though he is the one who invented sex. Perhaps there is a reason for it, I just didn’t know what it was.
    Because my knowledge of Revelation is so limited, I also was curious as the significance of the order of the tribe. I understand that the Messiah was from the Judah tribe, but other than that, what is the significance of them being in a different order?


    • I am also curious to the significance of the 144,000 witnesses being virgins. I believe that when the author uses the word “Defiled” he is referring to the idolatry in Jerusalem. God did create sex, as you said, but sin came into the world and ruined good things that God created. In this case, sex is viewed as a negative thing because of the circumstances. I guess if you want to be so particular about this passage, you could ask if the witnesses are just male? Revelation 14:4 is suggesting that the witnesses haven’t defiled themselves with women, so is this referring to 144,000 male witnesses? I would say probably not. It is probably just addressing a specific issue.


  3. Great post. One thing to consider is that James writes “to the twelve tribes of Israel” in James 1:1. That might support the 144,000 as the future twelve tribes of Israel view. Just my thoughts.


  4. What if it’s because Dan are the judges? It’s that their traditional role? You can’t be a judge AND a witness.


    • That is as good a suggestion as any! Someone might object the Apostles are the judges base on Matthew 19:28, or the church, based on 1 Cor 6:3 (although that is a very obscure passage!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.