by L. Scott Kellum, Andreas J. Kostenberger and Charles L. Quarles
There are two essential positions on the identity of the 144,000 and the relationship of this group with the multitude from many nations in Revelation 7.
One view holds that the reference is to be taken literally to refer to ethnic Jews, the 12 tribes of Israel. This is taken to support the notion that God’s purposes during the Great Tribulation will be focused on ethnic Israel. This view maintains that the 144,000 are to be distinguished from the multitude from many nations. The other position maintains that the reference to the 144,000 is symbolic and pertains to believers (not merely Jews) who are alive during the Great Tribulation and that the 144,000 are to be identified with the great multitude.
The resolution of this question is important because it potentially sheds light on whether the church should be expected to be present during and go through the Great Tribulation (the posttribulational view) or whether believers have been raptured at the beginning of the Great Tribulation while God’s purposes during this time period focus on Israel (the pre-tribulational rapture position).
While identifying the 144,000 with ethnic Israel has the merit of a straightforward reading of the text, several considerations favor taking the reference as symbolic.
First, the 144,000 are explicitly called “servants of God,” which elsewhere in the Apocalypse refers to believers in general, whether Jew or Gentile. (The term doulos occurs a total of 14 times [1:1; 2:20; 6:15; 7:3; 10:7; 11:18; 13:16; 15:3; 19:2,5,18; 22:3,6]. The majority of uses specifically refer to prophets, but the term also denotes Christians in general.)
Second, the list of tribes provided (7:5–8) is unlike any other known list of tribes in the OT. (The primary differences include:  Judah heads the list, rather than Reuben;  the combination of Joseph with Manasseh, rather than Ephraim;  the omission of Dan; and  the inclusion of Levi.) This suggests that John intentionally altered the list in order to present the church as the continuation of the true Israel.
Third, John here most likely draws on a pattern by which what the prophet hears is portrayed in terms of one image and what he sees is depicted by another. (E.g., in 5:5–6 John hears about the Lion of Judah, but he sees the Lamb who was slain.) Thus John hears the number of 144,000 but sees an innumerable multitude from many nations.
Finally, the number 144,000 most likely conveys the symbolic notion of completeness, which also speaks against taking the reference to the 12 tribes literally (cf. 14:1–5; 21:16–17).
Request a faculty review copy here.
Request a media review copy here.