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 14:4-5, 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.”
This 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.