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.

27 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.

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    • The Israel means spiritual Israel.

      If you wish to know what virgins mean – it is not physical virgins, it is those who did not defile themselves with the worship of Mother Goddess which is what all occult religions are secretly about.

      Worship of anything else than God who came in the body of Jesus Christ to save us, equals spiritual idolatry/ fornication, adultery.

      ‘But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God…’ – Romans 2:29.

      If you really wish to know what this world is about, who we are and who Jesus Christ really is, please see here:-

      This man reads the Bible in original Hebrew, past the mis-translations and preachers’ spins on the Bible that have been put there over the milennia.

      God’s End Times ministry has already begun.

      https://www.youtube.com/user/TheJonathankleck

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    • 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.

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  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?

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    • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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    • 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!)

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  5. I’m not sure that this whole idea is very important to put under a microscope, but it is interesting to think about. The 144,000 may not be a literal, exact number of people; rather, it may be an idea of people groups. As for the tribes, and which ones appear, this is my own idea of what this may represent:
    It may be that God is trying to show that all those who are believers will get to be with Him. It is less about the order and the tribes represented, and more about what it says about the Lord and His faithfulness to give everyone an opportunity to be in heaven. In Old Testament times, it would be silly for anyone to think that anybody but Jews could be redeemed. The Jews were the chosen ones. The 12 Tribes of Israel, if they only were represented in Revelation, would be seen as the only ones redeemed. By the 12 Tribes looking a little different than expected, it gives room for there to be more than just the “known” redeemed to be represented in the 144,000. There are many differences between the original 12 Tribes and the list in Revelation: “Dan is omitted, Levi…is included, Joseph is included instead of his sons.” (ESVSB 2473). The most interesting one to me is that Judah is listed first. We know that Christ is of the tribe of Judah, so that could be the reason it is listed first (ESVSB 2473). “The sons of Israel,” as stated in Revelation 7:4, is very puzzling because they are not the original tribes. This goes back to my initial statement that the tribes and numbers are more about God showing His faithfulness to the unfaithful and giving everyone a chance and reality to be in heaven.

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  6. In Revelation 7, it is seen that the 144,000 witnesses are sealed with God’s seal on their forehead and the passage shows that there are 12,000 from each tribe that receives the seal. Verse 3 seems to indicate that this seal is one of protection from the chaos that will befall the earth when the four angels holding back the wind are given permission to cause harm. This visual of a seal of protection on their foreheads seems to be a call back to the Jewish texts of Psalms of Solomon well as Genesis 4:15 with Cain according to the book Reading Revelation in Context. The seal or “mark” on the forehead was a sign that was given as protection for Cain which was then an idea transferred over to the book of Revelation for its readers (Herms, 76). This was something that the readers (or hearers) of the text would understand and therefore be able to associate the seal in Revelation as one of protection as it was back in Genesis. Another comforting thought is that even though Cain had murdered his brother, God still protected him showing that even though he is a just God, he still takes care of those who have not followed him wholeheartedly. Our sins do not keep us from receiving God’s seal, but we are still able to be claimed as one of his. What Revelation is showing then is that the 144,000 are all people whom God has placed his protection on, and they now belong to him.

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  7. Who are the 144,000 in revelation
    I have always been confused when it comes to the bible talking about the 144,000. But honestly, after reading this blog post, I am still confused. But what I believe is important to realize when it comes to reading and interpreting the bible, is that we can never know the real truth.
    But let’s say that this 144,000 is just a number or an illustration. The Bible uses metaphors and exaggerations to explain what will happen. The 144,000 is just a number to explain that a group of people will be saved because of how they stayed pure. But this is honestly my ignorant shot at trying to explain something I don’t understand. So, for this reason, I go to our textbook reading revelation in context. The textbook states that there are two visions when it comes to this number, first is that the 144,000 is fully accounted for. The second vision is that this is an innumerable multitude that communicates overwhelming responsiveness to the lamb’s work of restoring the earth (pg. 76). So this still doesn’t help us understand who this is because we can’t tell the future, but someday we’ll know, and maybe it’s not us because it’s not in our time.
    i wish i could understand this section far better, but sometimes you cant. i am looking forward to furthering my education in revelation. although it is a bummer that we are not meeting in class right now, i feel tat i benefit from my learning far greater than in an online setting, but thats okay. We will all make it through.

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  8. I think that when Revelation mentions the 144,000, I think that does not mean that there are exactly 144,000 following the Lamb. Instead, I believe that this is just a made up number referring to a great multitude following the Lamb. 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.” I know that these individuals are righteous and faithful, however, there is something that confuses me. “These 144,000 witnesses have “not defiled themselves with women, for they are virgins”. Does this mean that only men are following the Lamb? Where are the women? I am not trying to be ignorant or anything, but if these witnesses have not “defiled themselves with women”, does that mean that these followers are just men and not women? Another thing is that the same verse says that these witnesses are “virgins”. Does that mean that men who were married and were faithful to God were not allowed to participate? I’m not sure, I am a little bit confused.

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  9. After reading Revelation I find it hard that anything John wrote was made as suggested another post. John wrote down what he saw and I can not say that any numbers he uses were accidental either. I would agree that It appears as if John left out the tribe of Dan however if you look at there were 12 tribes at the start of Isreal and John only lists twelve tribes in Rev 7. the 144,000 may not be an exact number it may also refer to those in each of the twelve tribes John lists that were faithful followers who heeded to God’s calling. The 144,000 are definitely a special elect people since in 7:9john writes “a great multitude that no one could count”. Could these 144,000 be teachers of the gospel that never were faithful in carrying out the word of Christ to the nations and fulfilling the what Isreal was meant to from the beginning. Regardless whoever theses 144,000 are we need to acknowledge that they are clearly set apart from the rest of the “great multitude” . The other interesting part is the 144.000 not defiling themselves. While we would typically would assume this meant they were virgins which could very well be the case. It could also mean that they refused to worship any other idol or god expect for the God of Israel.

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  10. I really enjoyed reading this blog as I have very distinct childhood memories of the JW’s coming to my house and trying to persuade my family to try to become apart of the 144,000 by converting my family to the JW religion. I think the most important thing to recognize is that this text in Revelation 7 has Jewish language in it. I like what Noah said above in that it may not represent an exact literal number but instead an idea of people groups. I did find it interesting however that there is consistency that matches with the gospels as Dr. Long writes “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)” (Reading Acts)

    This was Israel’s messiah that had come and commissioned his Jewish disciples to announce the coming of the Messiah. In this administration of God’s grace, both Jew and Gentile can become apart of God’s family when the specific commandment from God back then when just to bring the message to the nation of Israel. Because of this, I’m not quite sure how the witnesses wouldn’t be Jewish for the future coming of the messiah as we know the twelve tribes will judge the nations. Does that have any correlation to Matthew 19:28?

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  11. The first thing I immediately thought of when seeing the title of this post was Jehovah’s Witnesses. I knew that they believed there will be only a limited number of people that get into heaven, but honestly I never really knew why they believed that or what sources they use to support that idea. It makes a bit more sense now that I’ve thoroughly read Revelation 7 and 15 (not that their point makes sense, but I see what they’re referencing). I don’t think they’ve quite gotten it right when it comes to their interpretation of who the 144,000 are, but I can’t give a definitive answer myself about who they are. After reading Revelation, I was a bit confused about who they are supposed to be. It makes a bit more sense knowing that it could be a reference to Matthew and Luke’s gospels. I say this a lot about the book of Revelation, but I feel like it’s just another one of those things where we don’t really have a good answer and don’t have enough evidence or facts to come up with one, so we just have to accept that John and God knew what was meant by these words and didn’t clarify for a reason and trust that we will know when the time is right. What we do know about them, as Ronald Herms says, is that “these are the people who ‘can stand’ as a result of God’s faithfulness to them” (77).

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  12. I believe that given the language that is used within the fourteenth chapter of Revelation, we can safely assume that these witnesses are of Jewish descent. I feel that given the amount of detail put into the description of these people, from their equal quantities divided amongst the tribes to even the list of the tribe’s names (however incorrect they may be), gives a pretty good visual of the tribes of Israel of old. Of course, it is always possible that this illustration is allegorical for something, as there is no shortage of Old Testament imagery in the book of Revelation. Easily the most perplexing part of this passage is, as P. Long said, is the supposed mistake within the names of the various tribes. I don’t believe that this was a mistake based on faulty memory, as John of Patmos, if he is the apostle John, would have known the names of the tribes, given their importance to the history of Judea as a whole. This also does raise interesting connotations for a futurist who looks at the scripture literally. As this post says, there is no real system of tribes in Israel today.

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  13. Greetings Dr. Long,

    Concerning the non-inclusion of Dan and Ephraim; the only viable solution I can see is connected to idolatry.

    See Judges 17 & 18

    This is the initial instance of idolatrous worship in the promise land by the Israelites after the conquest and allotment. Here we see that Micah, (a man of mount Ephraim,) concocted a hybrid system of worship (“house of God’s”) centered around a graven image, molten image, ephod, teraphim and makeshift priesthood. A BIG no no (!), and a ‘spot’ upon the very tribe of Ephraim, for the surrounding inhabitants joined Micah in his idolatry (Jd.18:22-24). Enter the children of Dan: they essentially strong-arm the man Micah and take all the articles of his, “house of gods”–along with his priest unto the (soon to be founded) city of Dan. It is here that they set up shop.

    So here we have the first instance of idolatrous worship after the conquest, and it just so happens to involve both Ephraim and Dan.

    Secondly; see I Kings 12 & 13.

    Here we see the notorious Jeroboam set up his two golden calf’s: with the primary purpose of diverting the inhabitants of the northern kingdom from going to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the LORD. The calf’s are set up (in rebellion against God) at Bethel (which pertained to Ephraim) and Dan.

    Therefore, it seems that the names of both Dan and Ephraim have been blotted out of the roll in Rev. 7 for idolatry (compare Deut. 29:18-21 and Hosea 4:17).

    This (if indeed true) would naturally lead one to understand the use of the term ‘virgins’ in regards to the 144,000 in a spiritual sense. They are clean from idolatry, i.e. spiritual whoredoms (Hosea 1:4 etc.).

    At least that’s my take. I was taught this when I was yet a child and have never come across anything that fits any better. In fact, there are many other verses (and arguments) that could be brought into play on it’s side, but obviously this is not the place for such a lengthy process.

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  14. the 144,000 aren’t literal Jews not do they have to be Jewish at all. Those of us who follow Christ or Christians are grafted in, which makes us heirs to the promise as Abraham was and is.
    Don’t forget once the kingdom divided Assyria took the top tribes captive first, then they migrated throughout the world and never truly returned as Judah did, hence Jews are derived from Judah.
    Note the dismal number though, out of 7.4 to 7.5 billion people on earth there is only 144,000. Sealed.
    They aren’t virgins as they never have had sex they are virgins as they have never let the church any church beguile them through hypocrisy and false teachings. That doesn’t mean they’ve never been to church, for even most Atheists have as well IE Weddings Funerals etc… But they learn scripture by reading it and not letting mankind mess with them!
    There may be a great multitude after they are sealed but who knows what that number is Even a few million would be a great multitude so…
    The word is mostly sold on the idea that we evolved and or mix god the way we want so anyone attempting to warn anyone about the mark of the beast etc… is looked upon as fools. how dare anyone in today’s science ran society take God seriously, that’s what I see now!

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  15. The answer to why Dan is not a part of the 144000 may be in Genesis 49:16-18. 16 Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. 17 Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.
    18 I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord. Dan placed himself as a god to judge others and judge the law as a serpent which is to cause others to fall. Dan was un-righteous and unholy.

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    • Very good, this is a common verse to cite to explain this, some will even connect the serpent to Satan, and then to the Antichrist. However, many of the sons of Jacob are compared to animals and not all the blessings are as positive as we might expect. The name Dan means judge in Hebrew, and a serpent is not always a symbol of evil in the Ancient Near east; attacking a rider is not necessary a reference to evil, and how else does a snake attack? Still, Dan’s later behavior as a tribe is curious (they migrate away from their allotment int he judges period, for example).

      For other readers, your quotation ends with “I have waited for salvation,” the rest of the last two lines are your interpretation of the scripture you provided.

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