Who are the 144,000 “sons of Israel” in the Book of Revelation?

PURPOSE

In Revelation 7, an angel “ascends” with “the seal of the living God.” He commands four other angels to continue holding back the four winds of disaster “until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads” (Rev 7:1-3). Then John heard that 144,000 were to be “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4).

The purpose of this article is to determine who the 144,000 “sons of Israel” are. It begins by showing that it cannot be interpreted literally; and that it is a symbol that consists of two parts:

      • The number 144,000 and
      • “The sons of Israel.”

It then discusses these two parts of the symbol separately.

SUMMARY

144,000 Israelites cannot be literal.

For the following reasons, the 144,000 “sons of Israel” are not literal:

1) The twelve tribes of ancient Israel no longer exist in any literal sense.

2) The list in Revelation 7 is not a valid list of tribes. It excludes certain tribes and includes both Joseph and his son Manasseh; which is effectively a double count.

3) 12000 from each of the 12 tribes (Rev 7:4) is too exact to be literal. It simply does not make any Biblical sense.

4) Literally interpreted, the 144,000 all men, never had sex, and never told a lie (Rev 14:4-5), which is impossible (cf. Rom 3:23).

For the following reasons, the 144,000 “sons of Israel” are a symbol:

1) Revelation is a book of symbols. It has been given in the form of signs (signified – Rev 1:1) and it is filled with obvious symbols.

2) All numbers in Revelation are symbols. For example, 4 signifies ‘the whole world’ and 7 should be understood as ‘the whole time’. See – The numbers in Revelation.

What “Sons of Israel” mean

The 144,000 “sons of Israel,” therefore, are a symbol, consisting of two parts; “sons of Israel” and “144,000.” 

Old Testament things become symbols.

Firstly, Revelation frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols for spiritual realities during the church age. For example:

1) Jerusalem becomes “the New Jerusalem” a symbol for God’s people (Rev 21:2, 9-10; cf. Heb 12:22).

2) Babylon – the main enemy of God’s people in the Old Testament – becomes “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots;” a symbol for the enemies of God’s New Testament people (Rev 17:5).

Revelation merges the Church into Israel.

In the view of many Christians, the nation of Israel has a distinct role during the end-time events. However, secondly, Revelation does not distinguish between Israel and Christianity but merges the church and Israel. For example:

(a) One of the things in the Jewish temple, namely, the seven-fold lampstands, symbolizes the seven churches (Rev 1:20).

(b) Before Christ, the woman of Revelation 12 represents Israel but, after Christ, she represents the Church. See – Who are the woman and her child?

(c) “Those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song” of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3).

(d) “The New Jerusalem” – a symbol of God’s people (Rev 21:9-10) – has written on it the names of both the 12 apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel (Rev 21:12, 14).

The many references in the book of Revelation to Jewish things, therefore, must be understood as referring to Christians.

The entire NT merges the Church into Israel.

This is a huge study. Whole books have been written on this subject and I will not attempt to do justice to this topic here. The following are a few examples:

(A) My study of Romans 9 and 11 – two key chapters for this purpose – concluded that God elected a remnant from Israel to inherit Israel’s promises and covenants, but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant.

(B) Paul illustrated this principle by saying that Israel is an olive tree from which unbelieving Jews were removed and believing Gentiles have been added (Rom 11:17). The important point is that the root of the tree, symbolizing the things God gave to Israel (Rom 3:2; 9:4-5), now belongs to Christianity.

(C) “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

(D) By choosing twelve disciples and not eleven or thirteen, Jesus signaled His intention to re-shape Israel.

They are Christians from all nations

All references in Revelation to Israel and the things that previously belonged to literal Israel, now refer to Christianity. The “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4) and “Jews” (Rev 2:9; 3:9), therefore, are Christians from all nations.

What makes this difficult to understand for us today is the fact that Christianity has become essentially a non-Jew organisation. But when Paul wrote and when Revelation was received, most Christians were Jews. We need to interpret Revelation against that context. See, Early Church History.

What 144,000 mean

But what does it mean that they are 144,000 in number?

12 symbolizes God’s People.

The number 144,000 is derived from the number 12 because it is equal to 12 x 12 x 1000. The number 12 appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents THE PEOPLE OF GOD. For example:

      • The lists of the tribes in the Old Testament differ, but there are always 12 tribes in these lists.
      • Jesus chose exactly 12 disciples; not 11 or 13.
      • Judas fell away, leaving only 11 disciples, but Revelation still refers to “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14).

Revelation also uses the number 12 to symbolize God’s people:

The pure woman (Rev 12:1), representing God’s people both before and after Christ, has a crown of “twelve stars” (Rev 12:1).

The New Jerusalem, the future home of “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (Rev 21:12) as well as 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (Rev 21:14).

144,000 is God’s end-time army.

In Israel, “a thousand” was a military unit (cf. Num 31:5). In preparation for the war to invade the promised land, Israel selected an army of exactly 1,000 elite warriors from each tribe, giving exactly 12,000 in total (Num 31:5). It is proposed that the 144,000, which is God’s army for the final war before Christ returns and God’s people enter the eternal promised land (See – Seal of God), is based on Israel’s army, but since the number 12 symbolizes God’s people, the repetition of the number 12 (12×12=144) symbolizes the perfection of God’s end-time people.

Toughened by persecution

One of the articles on the sealing (Rev 7:1-3) concluded that the 144,000 will also be sealed DURING AND THROUGH the persecution of Revelation 13. During that persecution, nominal Christians will flee. Those who remain are the remnant; the 144,000 “sons of Israel.”

Receive power from God

The second article on the sealing argued that those who remain (the 144,000) will be strengthened by receiving power from God, symbolized by the seal of God:

They have “His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1), meaning to think like God.

“No lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5).

They “have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste” (Rev 14:4), meaning that they have not been defiled by false Christianity, symbolized by the harlot Babylon and her harlot daughters (Rev 17:5).

The 144,000 “sons of Israel,” therefore, symbolize the perfection of God’s end-time people. They will remain “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10; cf. Rev 12:11).

– End of Summary – 


CANNOT BE LITERAL

The purpose of this first section is to show that a literal interpretation of the 144,000 Israelites is not possible.

The twelve tribes no longer exist.

The twelve tribes of ancient Israel no longer exist in any literal sense. There are Jews today who can trace their descent back to Judah, Benjamin, and Levi but the ten northern tribes have disappeared. These ten tribes broke away from the rest after the death of Solomon and formed the independent kingdom of Israel, with Jeroboam as the first king. In 723-722 BC, they were later taken into captivity by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:5-23), were assimilated into the peoples of the Middle East (2 Kings 17:34), and essentially disappeared from history.

Furthermore, a substantial portion of the Jews in the world today do not come from the 12 tribes but descended from converts over the centuries.

For these reasons, it would not be possible to identify 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes in any literal sense.

This is not a valid list of tribes.

The Tribes in the Old Testament

The “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4), in the original sense, were the twelve sons of Jacob. After he wrestled with the Angel, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “prince with God” (Gen 32:27-28).

The original list of the twelve tribes, based on the sons of Jacob, were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin. In Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his twelve sons, but after he had already given special attention to the two sons of Joseph; Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 48:8-22). So, Joseph’s two sons also become ancestors of recognized tribes, taking the place of Joseph. Therefore, right from the beginning, the tribes actually numbered 13; not 12.

The number returned to 12 after Levi was withdrawn for the priesthood, and given no distinct territorial inheritance (Joshua 13:14; 14:3-4; 18:7; Num 18:20-24). Consequently, in Numbers and Joshua, the tribes were listed consistently as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. (Both Joseph and Levi were left out).

The Tribes in Revelation 7

The list of tribes in Revelation 7:5-8 excludes Dan and Ephraim; probably because of their idol worship:

Dan was the first tribe to fall into idolatry. Jeroboam placed one of his two golden calves in Dan (1 Kings 12:29-30). These calves served as substitutes for the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem (cf. Gen 49:17; Judges 18:27-31).

“Ephraim is joined to idols; Let him alone” (Hosea 4:17; cf. 8:11).

To restore the number 12, the list in Revelation 7 adds Joseph and Levi. In doing so, it includes both Joseph and his son Manasseh; which is effectively a double count. And, by including Levi, it deviates from the Old Testament lists.

The order in which the tribes were listed in the Old Testament was never fixed. The order of the tribes in Revelation, with Judah first and Reuben second, is not unusual. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son (Gen 29:35). In Revelation 7, he is in the pre-eminent (first) place because he is the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who is “from the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5). For that reason, Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, is no longer listed as first.

144,000 is too exact to literal.

The number 12,000 is too exact to be literal. To say that God will select exactly 12,000 from each of the 12 physical tribes simply does not make any Biblical sense and is inconsistent with the freedom in God’s kingdom.

They are all men who have never sinned.

If the 144,000 Israelites are interpreted literally, then their description in Revelation 14 must also be literal. There it says that they “have not been defiled with women” and “no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:4-5). Literally interpreted, this means that they are all men who never had sex and never sinned, but we know that all people are sinners (Rom 3:23) and that God’s people consist of both men and women.

144,000 IS A SYMBOL.

The previous section lists four reasons why the 12000 from the 12 tribes of Israel cannot be taken literally:

      1. The twelve tribes of ancient Israel no longer exist literally.
      2. The list in Revelation 7 is not a valid list of tribes.
      3. 12000 from each of the 12 tribes is too exact to be literal.
      4. Read literally, they are all men and never sinned,

This section provides additional evidence to show that the 144,000 Jews must be interpreted symbolically.

Revelation is a symbolic book.

Firstly, Revelation 1:1 tells us that Jesus Christ received this revelation from God and He “signified” (Literal Standard Version) it and handed it on to John to write down for the churches. Strong defines the word “signified” (sémainó) as “to give a sign.” In other words, this revelation has been received in the form of signs (symbols).

Consequently, this book is filled with obvious symbols, such as the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Rev 6:1-8) and a beast with seven heads (Rev 13:1). Revelation, therefore, is a book of symbols.

While the normal way to read any work is to assume straightforward language unless it becomes evident that a symbol is intended, in Revelation, the opposite is advisable: You take everything as symbolic unless it is compelling that the author intended something to be taken literally. For a further discussion, see – Is a consistently literal interpretation of Revelation appropriate?

All numbers in Revelation are symbols.

2 symbolizes ‘the Word of God’.

The number 2 symbolizes the word of God. Most often, it appears in a hidden form, for example:

“(1) the word of God and to
(2) the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2; cf. Rev 1:9; 6:9; 12:17; 14:12; 20:4).

Another example of the number 2 is the two witnesses (Rev 11:3) who also are the two feet of the strong angel (Rev 10:2). This symbolism is based on the Old Testament principle that at least two witnesses are required to confirm evidence (e.g., 2 Cor 13:1; 1 Tim 5:19).

4 symbolizes ‘the whole world’.

The number 4 signifies the whole world (e.g., Rev 7:1). It is also often hidden in phrases that use four synonyms to describe ALL the people of the world. For example:

“You must prophesy again concerning
many peoples and nations and tongues and kings

(Rev 10:11; cf. 7:9; 11:9; 14:6; 17:15).

7 symbolizes ‘all time’.

Seven is the most prominent number in Revelation (e.g., seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, seven heads of the beast, etc.). It is derived from the seven days of the week. Similar to the days of the week, many of the sevens in Revelation imply a chronological sequence, namely, the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh being the last or the end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12.

The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—ALL TIME. For example, God has seven Spirits (Rev 4:5; 5:6), but God does not literally have seven Spirits. It should be understood symbolically, namely that His Spirit is ALWAYS with us. Similarly, the seven heads of the beast are the seven phases of the beast, covering all time.

SONS OF ISRAEL

The 144,000 “sons of Israel,” therefore, are a symbol. As stated, it consists of two parts. This section discusses one part of the symbol, namely, the phrase “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4). The next section discusses the number 144,000.

Old Testament things become symbols.

Firstly, Revelation very frequently uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols for New Testament realities. As mentioned, in Revelation, Israel’s capital Jerusalem becomes “the New Jerusalem;” a symbol for God’s New Testament people (Rev 21:2, 9-10). Further examples are:

The Old Testament sacrificial ritual, in which the blood of animals was “poured out” at the base of the altar, becomes a symbol for the martyrdom of God’s people (Rev 6:9). See – Are the souls under the altar alive?

Babylon – the main enemy of God’s people in the Old Testament – becomes “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots;” a symbol for the enemies of God’s New Testament people (Rev 17:5).

The Euphrates – the river that flowed through ancient Babylon – becomes a symbol for “peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues” who support Babylon and who are controlled by her (Rev 17:15).

In chapters 2 and 3, the seven churches are promised the things that previously belonged to Israel, such as the tree of life (Rev 2:7), manna (Rev 2:17), the book of life (Rev 3:5), the temple (Rev 3:11), and Jerusalem (Rev 3:12).

So, if the things of Israel become symbols in Revelation, then the 144,000 Israelites themselves may also be a symbol.

Revelation merges the Church into Israel.

The purpose here is to show that the Book of Revelation does not distinguish between Christianity and Israel but merges the church into Israel. The following are specific indications that the references to the things of Israel must be interpreted as references to the church:

The Woman Is both Israel and the Church.

Secondly, as discussed in the articles on Revelation 12, the woman in that chapter represents Israel while she expects Christ, but after Christ ascended to heaven, she remains on earth and represents the Church (cf. Rev 12:1, 5, 17). In other words, Revelation uses the same symbol for both Israel and the Church. She has a crown of 12 stars (Rev 12:1). In her Old Testament existence, the 12 stars represent the 12 tribes. After Christ, the 12 stars represent the 12 apostles. Parallel to this, Jesus declared the 12 apostles to be the new leaders of the 12 tribes (Matt 19:28).

The New Jerusalem contains both.

The eternal home of “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” is “the holy city, Jerusalem” (Rev 21:9-10); also called the “New Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2; 3:12). Just as the first Israel had its capital in ancient Jerusalem, so God’s New Testament people are promised the New Jerusalem.

And, as already stated, the names of the 12 apostles are written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:14). This implies that it is built on their message. But “the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” are written on its gates (Rev 21:12). In other words, only Israelites are allowed into the New Jerusalem. This, by itself, should be sufficient proof that Revelation regards Israel and the Church to be a single entity.

The Seven Churches inherit Israel’s things.

Firstly, the entire book of Revelation was written to the seven churches (Rev 22:16). These seven churches, therefore, represent the entire Church. But Revelation uses one of the things from the Jewish temple, namely, the seven-fold lampstands, to symbolize the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Furthermore, it promises to the seven churches the things that previously belonged to Israel, such as:

      • The Tree of Life (Rev 2:7),
      • Manna (Rev 2:17),
      • The Book of Life (Rev 3:5),
      • The temple (Rev 3:11) and
      • Jerusalem (Rev 3:12).

The Song of both Moses and the Lamb

Thirdly, “those who had been victorious over the beast … sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:2-3). This combines the two main people from the Old and New Testaments into a single song.

The Innumerable Multitude is the 144,000.

While the 144,000 in the first part of Revelation 7 are on earth, only from Israel, and precisely numbered, the multitude in the second part of Revelation 7 is before God’s throne in heaven, from every nation, and innumerable (Rev 7:9). Read literally, these two groups are unrelated. However, they are NOT two completely different groups. In a number of instances, John hears about one thing, but when he looks, he sees something completely different, but the two things are different perspectives of the same thing. For example:

1) In Rev 5:5, John hears of a Lion that overcame, but when he looks, he sees a Lamb as if slain (Rev 5:6). The lion and the lamb are opposites in the animal kingdom but both are symbols of Jesus—representing two different aspects of His work. He allowed Himself to be slaughtered like a lamb, but He will return as the “Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev 5:5). “To him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen 49:10). “He will rule them with a rod of iron” (Rev 19:15).

2) In Rev 17:1, John hears about a woman sitting on many waters but when he looks, he sees her sitting on a seven-headed beast (Rev 17:3). The water is explained as the peoples of the world (Rev 17:15). The beast with its heads and horns represents those same people but organized into the kingdoms of the world (Rev 17:9-12 – see the article on The Seven-Headed Beasts of Revelation).

3) An angel says to John that He will show him the other woman in Revelation—the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:9) but then John sees a city—the New Jerusalem—descending from heaven (Rev 21:10). A city is a collection of people; not just a collection of buildings. The New Jerusalem is the collection of God’s people, just like Babylon is also both a city and a woman (Rev 17:18), representing the people who oppose God’s people.

Similar to these examples, in Revelation 7, John does not see the 144,000; he only hears their number (Rev 7:4). But when he looks, he sees the innumerable multitude from every nation (Rev 7:9-12). Literally read, the two groups are unrelated, but the hear/see combination implies that the 144,000 and the multitude are two perspectives on God’s people. The 144,000 represents God’s people on earth living during the end-time conflict. The next article will identify the innumerable multitude.

Say they are Jews, meaning Christians.

In the seven letters, we read of people “who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9). A claim to be a literal Jew does not make any sense. In the context of a Christian church at the end of the first century, after Jerusalem has been destroyed more than two decades earlier, what benefit would a person derive from claiming to be a literal Jew? But, to claim to be a Jew, in the context of Paul writing that “he is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom 2:29) does make sense. It would mean to be a true believer.

Conclusion

Revelation is a Christian book. The many references in the book to Jewish things must be understood in a Christ-centered spiritual sense as referring to Christians.

The NT merges the Church into Israel.

This is a huge study by itself. This section will only make a few key observations to show that the entire New Testament merges the church into Israel:

Romans 9 and 11

The article – Israel in Prophecy – is a study of Romans 9 and 11. Since these chapters are key to that discussion, the purpose was specifically to determine who Israel in the Book of Revelation is. This article concludes that:

In Paul’s day, God elected a remnant from Israel but included believing Gentiles into this chosen remnant. This is the definition of “Israel” which we should take with us to the study of the book of Revelation, for the interpretation of the Jewish symbols in that book.

God did not annul His word. Israel’s promises and covenants remain but now belong to this chosen remnant. Believing Gentiles, therefore, now also share in Israel’s promises and covenants (cf. Gal 3:29).

The NT did not replace the OT but is built on the foundation of the OT. Everything in the OT remains valid, except to the extent that the NT announces specific changes. The chosen remnant is a continuation of the chosen nation of the Old Testament; not a new entity with new founding principles.

The Olive Tree

One key passage is Romans 11:17-21, where Israel is described as an “olive tree” from which branches were broken off (the unbelieving Jews). Branches from “the wild olive” (the Gentile world) were grafted into Israel’s olive tree. Paul concluded:

“A partial hardening has happened to Israel
     (some branches of the olive tree were broken off)
until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;
     (branches from the wild olive were grafted in
and so all Israel will be saved
(all believers from both Israel and non-Israel)”

(Rom 11:25-26).

Paul warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant:

“Remember that it is not you who supports the root,
but the root supports you” (Rom 11:18).

The root refers to the covenants, the Law, the temple service, the promises, and the fathers (Rom 9:4-5). Is that not clear evidence that Israel and the church cannot be separated?

Specific New Testament Verses

In the New Testament, the things of Israel are applied to the church; the faithful followers of Jesus. Many texts from the New Testament can be quoted, for example:

“He is not a Jew who is one outwardly,
nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh.
But he is a Jew who is one inwardly;
and circumcision is that which is of the heart,
by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:28-29).

“They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; …
it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God,
but the children of the promise
are regarded as descendants” (Rom 9:6-8).

“If you belong to Christ,
then you are Abraham’s descendants,
heirs according to promise” (Gal 3:29).

“Neither is circumcision anything,
nor uncircumcision,
but a new creation.
And those who will walk by this rule,
peace and mercy be upon them,
and upon the Israel of God.” (Gal 6:15-16)

“We are the true circumcision,
who worship in the Spirit of God
and glory in Christ Jesus
and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3).

In the following text, James describes the church as the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1, NIV).

Jesus selected 12.

Just as Israel (previously called Jacob) had twelve sons, so Jesus chose twelve disciples (Matt 10:1-5, Mark 3:14; Luke 6:13, John 6:70-71, etc.). They became the twelve apostles—the first church fathers. It is not an accident that Jesus chose twelve and not eleven or thirteen. He was deliberately signaling His intention of re-shaping Israel. This is clear from what He said to them:

“At the renewal of all things,
when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne,
you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28, NIV).

In other words, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. So, since the first leaders of the Church were all Jews and the Church leaders will judge Israel, it is not feasible to distinguish between Israel and the Church. The true followers of Jesus have become a new Israel.

Conclusion: The Sons of Israel are Christians.

This section analyzed the phrase “sons of Israel” and concluded:

Revelation often uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols for New Testament realities, for example, the “New Jerusalem” and “Babylon.”

Revelation merges Christianity into Israel. The New Jerusalem, for example, has the names of both the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles.

The NT does the same. Paul described Israel as an olive tree from which unbelieving Jews were removed and believing non-Jews were added. The root of the tree, symbolizing Israel’s things, now belongs to the Church.

Therefore, all references in Revelation to Israel and the things of Israel, now refer to Christianity. The “sons of Israel,” therefore, are Christians from all nations.

What makes this concept difficult to understand today is that Christianity today is essentially a non-Jew organization. But when Paul wrote and when Revelation was received, most Christians were Jews. We need to interpret Revelation against that context.

THE NUMBER 144,000

It was argued above that the 144,000 “sons of Israel” (Rev 7:4) are a symbol and that it consists of two parts:

      • The number 144,000, and
      • The “sons of Israel.”

The purpose of this section is to discuss the meaning of the number 144,000. As argued above, all numbers in Revelation are symbols. So, what does it mean that they are said to be 144,000 in number?

The Number 12

The number 144,000 is derived from the number 12 because 144,000 is equal to 12 x 12 x 1000. Therefore, to determine the meaning of the number 144,000, we first need to determine the meaning of the number 12.

The number 12 appears more than a hundred times in Scripture and consistently represents the people of God. For example:

12 in the Old Testament

Since Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs (Acts 7:8), Israel consisted of twelve tribes (Gen 35:22; 49:28). The lists of the tribes in the Old Testament differ, but there are always 12 in the list. Since the number 12 was regarded as important, there were:

    • Twelve spies of Israel (Deut 1:23),
    • Twelve stones of the Jordan River (Josh 4:2-9),
    • Twelve cities of the Levites (Josh 21:40),
    • Twelve governors for Solomon (1 Kings 4:7),
    • Twelve bronze oxen held up the bronze sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:44; 2 Chr 4:2-4; Jer 52:20),
    • Twelve lions in front of Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Chr 9:17-19),
    • Elijah’s twelve stones (1 Kings 18:31), and the
    • Twenty-four courses of priests, each with twelve trained musicians (1 Chr 25:1-31).

12 in the New Testament

Similarly, Jesus chose exactly 12 disciples; not 11 or 13. Judas fell away, but Revelation still refers to “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14).

12 in the Book of Revelation

The number 12 symbolizes God’s people also in Revelation. For example:

The pure woman (Rev 12:1) first gave birth to Christ (Rev 12:5) but, after Christ ascended to heaven (Rev 12:5), she also had other “children” (Rev 12:17) . She, therefore, represents God’s people both before and after Christ. She is associated with the number 12 because she has a crown of “twelve stars” (Rev 12:1).

The New Jerusalem, the future home of “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (Rev 21:12), meaning that only Israelites may enter. But it also has 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (Rev 21:14).

There are 24 elders in Revelation (e.g., Rev 4:4) and 24 is equal to 12 + 12.

In conclusion, the number 12 symbolizes God’s people – both in the Old and New Testaments.

The Number 144,000

Since the number 12 symbolizes God’s people, and since the number 144,000 is derived from the number 12, the number 144,000 symbolizes something specific about God’s people. This section argues that this number symbolizes the perfection of the end-time remnant of God’s people.

It is OT Military Language.

Firstly, the number 144,000 converts Old Testament military language into a symbol. The LORD ordered Moses:

“Take a census … of the sons of Israel …
every male … from twenty years old and upward,
whoever is able to go out to war.” (Num 1:1-3)

When Moses did this, he counted, for example, 46,500 from the tribe of Reuben and 59,300 from “the sons of Simeon” (Num 1:20-23). In this way, each tribe had an army of between 30,000 and 75,000 (Num 1:17-43).

Numbers 31 describes Israel’s preparation for the invasion of the promised land. Moses commanded the people to send “a thousand from each tribe … to the war” “against Midian” (Num 31:3-4):

“So there were furnished from the thousands of Israel,
a thousand from each tribe,
twelve thousand armed for war” (Num 31:5).

“The thousands of Israel” in this verse refers to Israel’s entire army, as counted in Numbers 1.

Since they selected “a thousand from each tribe,” it is implied that “a thousand” was a military unit; equivalent to what we today may call a regiment or a platoon. Support for this is that the Hebrew word for “thousand” (eleph) can also mean a military unit.

Therefore, the “twelve thousand” in verse 5 can be understood as twelve military units of 1000 men each that went out for that war. In other words, only the very best soldiers were selected.

It is proposed that the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4-8 are based on Numeri 31:5 (quoted above) because both:

      • Describe people of God
      • Who are numbered in thousands, and
      • Selected equally from the 12 tribes
      • In preparation for the war to invade the promised land.

As discussed, Revelation 7:1-8 describes an end-time event. It describes, therefore, the preparation of God’s end-time people for the final evil onslaught before Christ returns.

It symbolizes God’s people perfected.

Based on Numeri 31:5, we may interpret the 144,000 as follows:

1) It is the end-time army of God’s people.

2) In Numeri 31:5 a specific number of men were selected for that war. The parallel implies that the 144,000 are a select group of elite warriors. This may be compared with Gideon’s 300 chosen men (Judges 7:2-7). From the 32,000 warriors available, God led Gideon to select only 300.

3) Since a thousand is a military unit, the 12,000 from each of the tribes imply 12 military units from each tribe; in total 12 x 12 = 144 military units.

4) Since the number 12 symbolizes God’s people, the repetition of the number 12 (12×12=144) symbolizes the perfection of God’s people.

Toughened by Persecution

One of the articles on the sealing (Rev 7:1-3) concluded that the 144,000 will also be sealed DURING AND THROUGH the persecution of Revelation 13. During that persecution, nominal Christians will flee. Those who remain – the remnant – are the 144,000 “sons of Israel.”

Strengthened by God

The second article on the sealing argued that those who remain (the 144,000) will be strengthened by receiving additional power from God. This should not be understood as physical strength.  Revelation 14 helps us to understand the nature of the seal. It describes the 144,000 as follows:

They have “His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads” (Rev 14:1), meaning that they think like God.

“No lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless” (Rev 14:5).

They “have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste” (Rev 14:4), meaning that they were not defiled by Babylon, the mother of harlots, or by her harlot daughters (Rev 17:5). They will be pure in their worship of God and Christ.

Joyner, in his vision of the 144,000, similarly wrote, “the spiritual atmosphere that I felt when close to them was as awesome as their appearance. … I could not detect ambition or pride anywhere in the ranks.”

The 144,000 “sons of Israel,” therefore, symbolize the perfection of the remnant of God’s people after the nominal Christians had fled the persecution. The remnant will remain “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10; cf. Rev 12:11).

Rick Joyner’s description of the 144,000

Rick Joyner discusses the 144,000 in chapter 10 of his book The Call. He refers to them as 12 divisions in the vanguard of God’s army.

Joyner begins by describing Christianity as it is today. It moves erratically and wears “tattered, dull gray uniforms.” “Fights were constantly breaking out in the ranks causing many of the wounds.” “In a real battle, they would be much more of a liability than an asset.” However, Rick quotes Jesus as saying:

Before the last great battle, My army will be holy, even as I AM holy. I will remove those who are not circumcised of heart and the leaders who do not uphold My righteousness.

Jesus will purify His church through persecution. Quoting Jesus, Joyner wrote:

I will stop the march of the entire army until those in this group have been disciplined to become soldiers or dispersed.

Those who want to be called by My name but do not walk in My ways will be trodden underfoot.

The Wall of Jerusalem is also 144.

The other symbol in Revelation that includes the number 144 is the wall of the New Jerusalem, which “was 144 cubits thick” (Rev 21:17; NIV or YLT). In ancient times, the wall of a city was the most important defense for the people of that city. Both this huge wall and the 144,000 sons of Israel in Revelation 7 use military strength as a symbol. The 144,000 Israelites symbolize that God’s end-time army will not surrender. They will be willing to die for their testimony (Rev 12:11). The huge wall symbolizes the same concept but for God’s people in eternity.

CONCLUSION

So, Revelation 7:4-8 should not be taken literally. Revelation uses literal things from the Old Testament as symbols. The 144,000 is a figurative description of the perfection of the remnant. They will be sealed through the persecution described in Revelation 13 in preparation for the seven last plagues; in particular for the very final war as described in the sixth plague; Armageddon. See – Where does the sealing (Revelation 7:1-8) fit in the end-time events?

In Old Testament times, God made a covenant with Israel as the literal descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. In the New Testament, the covenant is between God and Israel’s Messiah (Gal 3:16). So, the meaning of Israel was expanded from literal Jews to everyone who belongs to Christ (Gal 3:14).

This passage is best understood within the larger picture of the book of Revelation:

While God’s faithful people proclaim the final message of God to the world (Rev 14:6-12), God protects the world from the end-time catastrophes (the four angels hold back the four winds).

At the same time, the image of the beast persecutes God’s people and attempts to put the mark of the beast on all people (Rev 13:15-17).

As a result of these two gospels, all people are more and more conformed to the image of the one that they choose to worship. These decisions are confirmed by the seal of God, on the one hand, and the mark of the beast, on the other (Rev 7:1-3; 14:1-3; 13:16-17).

When all have been settled into their respective beliefs and characters (when all people are marked with either the seal of God or the mark of the beast), the four winds (the seven last plagues of destruction) are released on the whole world. God’s people are not exempt from that hour of trial (Rev 3:10; 16:15), but they are under the special protection of the Holy Spirit and are brought safely through it.


OTHER ARTICLES

The 24 elders in God’s throne room are humans from all ages.

This is an article in the series on the vision of the book with the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1).

Summary

In Revelation 4, 24 elders sit on 24 thrones all around God’s throne (Rev 4:4). Since thrones symbolize authority, it means that they share in God’s rule of this world.

The elders are people.

For the following reasons, the 24 elders are people; rather than angels:

Elders – “Elder” is a familiar Biblical title for the leaders of God’s people. Angels are never called elders.

Sit on thrones – They sit on thrones and Revelation promises that THOSE WHO OVERCOME will sit on thrones (Rev 3:21). Angels are never depicted as sitting on thrones.

White clothes – They are “clothed in white garments” and Revelation promises white garments to God’s people only (Rev 3:4-5).

Crowns – On their heads, they have victory crowns (stephanois) as opposed to the royal crowns (diadêma) worn by rulers. In Revelation, the stephanos is the reward for overcomes (Rev 2:10) and symbolizes eternal life (Rev 2:10).

Twelve – In the book of Revelation, numbers are symbolic. Since the number 24 is equal to 12 + 12, the root number for the 24 elders is 12, and the number 12 is associated with God’s people, implying that they represent God’s people.

From both Israel and the Church

It is further proposed that the 12+12=24 elders represent the people of God from BOTH the times of the Old and New Testaments because Revelation merges Old Testament Israel and the Church into a single entity. For example:

1) The New Jerusalem—the eternal home of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth—has written on it “the names of the twelve tribes … of Israel” as well as the “names of the twelve apostles” on its “twelve foundation stones” (Rev 21:12, 14).

2) The “seven lampstands”—an ornament in the Jewish temple—become a symbol for the church of God (Rev 1:20).

3) The overcomers sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb; combining the main figures of the Old and New Testaments (Rev 15:3).

4) At first, the woman of Revelation 12 is pregnant; expecting Christ (Rev 12:1-5). Here, she represents God’s Old Testament people. However, after Christ was “caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:5) she continues to exist and to be persecuted by the dragon (Rev 12:6, 12:14). Now, she represents the church. Therefore, she represents God’s people from both dispensations.

5) Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, becomes a symbol for the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. 19:7; 21:27).

Those who love will rule.

It is wonderful to think that human beings, who love God with their whole heart and their fellow human beings like themselves, are, in the control room of the universe, in charge of the affairs of this world.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


The Elders are People.

They rule with God.

“Around the throne (of God) were twenty-four thrones;
and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments,
and golden crowns on their heads” (Rev 4:4).

Since thrones symbolize authority, this means that the 24 elders share in God’s rule.

Revelation sometimes explains what different things mean (e.g., Rev 5:5; 7:13) but it never explains WHO the elders are. So, we have to examine the available evidence and make the most appropriate judgment.

Angels or People?

There are two major views. Some see the 24 elders as a special class of angels, much like the four living creatures. The other view is that they are representatives of redeemed humanity.

There are several problems with the angel-view:

      • Angels are never called elders.
      • Neither are they ever depicted as sitting on thrones.
      • Nowhere do angels wear crowns of any kind.

But “elder” is a familiar term for the leaders of God’s people and God’s people are promised to sit on thrones and to receive victory crowns, as discussed below. This provides strong evidence that the 24 elders are human beings:

Sit on Thrones

Revelation tends to embed an outline of the next vision in the climax of the previous vision. As discussed elsewhere, Revelation 3:21 is the climax of the messages to the seven churches and also provides an outline of the next four chapters. It, therefore, helps to explain Revelation 4. It reads:

“To him who overcomes,
I will give the right to sit with me on my throne,
just as I overcame and
sat down with my Father on his throne” (NIV).

In other words, it promises that those who overcome will sit on thrones (cf. Rev 20:4). This implies that the 24 elders, sitting on thrones around God’s throne, are overcomers.

White Garments

The 24 elders are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4). Revelation consistently relates white robes to the people of God on earth during the Christian era:

      • White garments are promised to the overcomers in Sardis (Rev 3:4-5).
      • Laodicea is invited to “buy” white garments (Rev 3:18).
      • The martyrs of the fifth seal receive white “robes” (Rev 6:11).
      • The great multitude is “clothed in white robes” (Rev 7:9) for they “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).

A related passage is, that during the seven last plagues, every Christian will be warned to keep “his clothes” (Rev 16:15).

Golden Crowns

The 24 elders wear golden victory crowns (Greek: stephanois) as opposed to the royal crowns (Greek: diadêma) of rulers.

In the ancient world, the stephanos was not an emblem of royal authority but a symbol of victory or a reward for exceptional conduct, for instance, the crown that goes to the winning general. It was often a wreath made of foliage. It is best known today as the crown received by the winner in the Olympic games.

In Revelation, the stephanos is always worn by God’s people:

      • The rider on the white horse, who was interpreted as the gospel, has a stephanos (Rev 6:2),
      • In the seven letters, it is the reward for the overcomers in Smyrna and Philadelphia and it is called the “crown of life” (Rev 2:10; 3:11).
      • It was also worn by the woman of Revelation 12 (Rev 12:1), who is interpreted as symbolizing God’s people.

The locusts of Revelation 9:7 also wear golden victory crowns. This supports the interpretation that the trumpets generally and the locusts specifically are God’s messengers to the world. For example, the two prophets “have the power … to strike the earth with every plague” (Rev 11:6). Therefore, “these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth” (cf. Rev 11:10).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the stephanos is also associated with God’s people:

      • The word stephanos is also used for the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross (Matt 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2 and 5).
      • Paul anticipates a stephanos crown on the day when Jesus returns (2 Tim 4:8). Here, as in Revelation 2:10, it seems to represent eternal life.

In conclusion, in Revelation, and also in the New Testament more broadly, the “stephanos” crown is a reward of the overcomer and associated with eternal life. This supports the conclusion that the 24 elders, who also have stephanois on their heads, are the overcomers and, therefore, people.

The Number 24

The number 24 could be drawn from the fact that the Old Testament priests were organized into 24 divisions, each of which served consecutively in the temple for a week at a time (1 Chr 24:1-19). In Revelation 5:8, “the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding … golden bowls full of incense.” The incense implies that they function as priests. So, associating the elders with the 24 divisions of the Israelite priesthood is certainly possible.

But it is more likely that the number 24 arises from a doubling of the number 12, which is the number symbolizing God’s people. In the book of Revelation, numbers often have a symbolic role:

      • The number 4 signifies the whole earth (e.g. Rev 7:1; 10:11).
      • The number 7 signifies completeness in time (seven churches, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls, etc.). For example, the seven Spirits of God signify that God’s Spirit will ALWAYS be with us.
      • The number 12 is associated with the people of God, for example:
          • The pure woman has “twelve stars” on her head (Rev 12:1).
          • “The New Jerusalem,” which is another symbol for “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9-10), has 12 gates and 12 foundation stones, and on them are written the names of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles (Rev 21:12, 14). Furthermore, in the Greek, the height of the walls of the city is 144 = 12 x 12 cubits (Rev 21:17).
          • The number 144000 (Rev 7:4-8) is also derived from the number 12, being equal to 12 x 12 x 1000. (See – Who are the 144000?)

In conclusion, since 24 is equal to 12 + 12, the root number for the 24 elders is 12, which is the number symbolizing God’s people, implying that they represent God’s people.

The evidence that the 24 elders are people, therefore, includes:

    • The title “elders,”
    • The thrones on which they sit,
    • Their white garments and gold crowns, and
    • The number 24.

For a further discussion, see – What do the numbers in the Book of Revelation mean?

From both Israel and the Church

“The names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel” as well as the “names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” are written on the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:12, 14). The New Jerusalem, therefore, is the eternal home of the totality of Israel; symbolically, twelve each from the times of the Old and the New Testaments. This is one example of how Revelation merges Old Testament Israel and the Church. The following are further examples:

1) The “seven lampstands”—an ornament in the Jewish temple—become a symbol for the church of God (Rev 1:20).

2) The overcomers sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb; combining the main figures of the Old and New Testaments (Rev 15:3).

3) At first, the woman of Revelation 12 is pregnant; expecting Christ (Rev 12:1-5). Here, she represents God’s Old Testament people. However, after Christ was “caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev 12:5) she continues to exist and to be persecuted by the dragon (Rev 12:6, 12:14). Hence, this “woman” represents God’s people from both dispensations.

4) Lastly, as discussed, Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, becomes a symbol for the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. 19:7; 21:27).

Jesus similarly said to His disciples:

“In the new world,
when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne,
you who have followed me
will also sit on twelve thrones,
judging the twelve tribes of Israel

(Matt 19:28, ESV, see also Luke 22:30).

In other words, the twelve disciples become the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Since it was concluded above that the 24 elders represent God’s people, and since the number 24 is equal to 12+12, and since Revelation merges God’s people from before and after Christ, it is proposed that the 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ.

The names of the 12 tribes of Israel and the names of the 12 apostles written on the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:12, 14) are not the names of specific individuals. It would not, for example, include the name, Judas Iscariot. And the list of tribes in Revelation 7:4-8 excludes Dan and Ephraim and includes both Joseph and his son Manasseh. It is proposed that the 24 elders, similar to the 24 names that are written on the New Jerusalem, are not 24 literal people, but symbolize the leaders of God’s people from both the times of the Old and New Testaments:

“Those who have insight will shine brightly
like the brightness of the expanse of heaven,
and those who lead the many to righteousness,
like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3).

How did they get there?

Another article concludes that Revelation 5 describes what happens in heaven when Jesus arrives after His ascension. Since Revelation 4 describes the time BEFORE Revelation 5, if the 24 elders represent redeemed humanity, at what point did they enter into heavenly places? My response is that we should not interpret the vision too literally.

Another possible approach is that evidence in the New Testament suggests that the elders can be associated with events that occurred at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. At the moment that Jesus died:

“The earth shook and the rocks split.
The tombs broke open and the bodies
of many holy people who had died
were raised to life
” (Matt 27:51-53, NIV).

Their existence was noticed as they wandered through Jerusalem’s streets after His resurrection (Matt 27:53). It is unlikely that these resurrected saints remained on earth afterward because their witness would have been powerful and widely noticed but none of that is reported in the Bible. Neither would they have died again. Paul gave us a small clue.

“When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives” (Eph 4:8).

This might mean that, at His ascension, Jesus was accompanied by those who were raised from death at the time of His crucifixion. They might be among the 24 elders around the throne of God.

But then the question may arise, why are they seen in the heavenly throne room (Rev 4:4) BEFORE Jesus Himself appears there (Rev 5:5)?

The CrossJesus ascended 40 days after His crucifixion (Acts 1:3). Revelation 5:6 implies that Christ arrived in the heavenly court AFTER the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, which was 50 days after the cross. So, these resurrected saints could have arrived in God’s throne room at least 10 days before the great event of Revelation 5.

But, as I indicated, this is all too literally interpreted for my taste. Furthermore:

1) The people who ascended with Jesus all lived in the old dispensation while it was concluded above that the 24 elders are from both dispensations.

2) It was also already concluded that Revelation 4 provides a TIMELESS description of God’s throne room; not a specific event.

Final Conclusions

    • The 24 elders in God’s throne room are people; not angels.
    • The number 12 is associated with God’s people.
    • The 24 elders represent God’s people from all dispensations.
    • Revelation merges the church into the Jewish symbols of the Old Testament.
    • God appoints human beings to reign over the creation under Him.

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