Servants Identified

SERVANTS IDENTIFIEDThen I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000. (Revelation 7:4-8)

Background – The Bible contains several lists of the tribes in the Old Testament. (Genesis 35:22; 46:8, 49, Exodus. 1:1, Numbers 1:2; 13:4, 26:34, Deuteronomy 27:11; 33:6, Joshua 13–22, Judges 5, 1 Chronicles 2–8; 12:24; 27:16, Ezekiel 48) and they are given in various orders.(1) Figure 14.2 compares three of the lists: the sons of Jacob by birth, the division of the promised-land and the list from Revelation 7.

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Explanation of Variants – In the original division of the promised land, Levi was omitted, as explained in Joshua 13:14 – “to the tribe of Levi He gave no inheritance, since the offerings made by fire to the Lord, the God of Israel are their inheritance.(2) Joseph was given a double portion through his sons Manasseh and Ephraim, making up for the omission of Levi. Judah (meaning praise), the tribe of Jesus’ ancestry, is listed first in Revelation. See also Jacob’s blessing of his son Judah in Genesis 49:8-12 – where he prophesied that “the scepter will not depart from Judah.” Reuben, the first-born, comes next after Judah, having forfeited his place to Judah, because of his sin (see Jacob’s “blessing” in Genesis 49:3-4 – “turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel, for you went up onto your father’s bed”).

Dan is omitted altogether in Revelation. Some believe this is because the anti-Christ is expected to either come from Dan (Irenaeus, for example, suggested that anti-Christ was expected to come from the tribe of Dan(3)), or because Dan will reportedly be a tool of the anti-Christ (see also Jacob’s “blessing” in Genesis 49:17 – “Dan will be a serpent by the roadside, a viper along the path”). Another reason given for the omission of Dan was that it was the first tribe to lapse into idolatry (Judges 18:1–31). This same reason is given for the omission of Ephraim (Judges 17:1–3; Hosea 4:17). This even though Jacob placed him first above Manasseh, Joseph’s firstborn in Genesis 48:19 – “his [Manasseh’s] younger brother [Ephraim] will be greater than he.” Also, the tribe was reportedly reduced to the one family (Hussim), which subsequently perished in the wars prior to Ezra’s time. Thus, it is omitted in the fourth through eighth chapters of First Chronicles.(4) Levi and Joseph are substituted for Dan and Ephraim. Some believe that the inclusion of Levi in Revelation 7 is because the Levitical ceremonies have been done away with, once again placing Levi on an equal footing with the other tribes. While the sequence of tribes in Revelation (other than Judah being mentioned first) may not be significant, as it varied considerably in the Old Testament,(5) there may be a reason that we are not told. It is hard to imagine that the ordering was random or happenstance.

The 144,000 Who Are Sealed – Interpretations as to the identity of the 144,000 divide generally into three main camps.

Literal – Among those holding a literal view, the 144,000 are believed to represent Jewish believers (in Christ) chosen out of the literal Israel that have been reserved by God until the time of the anti-Christ. These would be a remnant of the Jewish nation, similar to the remnant of seven thousand in the days of Elijah.(6) The literal interpretation is strongly supported by the text, which specifically states that these 144,000 are all Jews, going as far as listing the tribes.(7)

Symbolic – Others do not believe that the 144,000 is a literal count, since the number is often symbolic of fixedness and full completion (12 × 12).(8) What they see here is a reference to the completeness of all God’s people from both the Old and New Testament dispensations: the twelve tribes of Israel (Old Testament saints) and the twelve Apostles (New Testament saints).

Church –- Attempts have also been made to identify the twelve tribes with the Church (the “new” Israel). This may be an attempt to discredit the view of a literal Israel, since the Jews generally rejected Christ as their Messiah. Yet the Church is already sealed by the Holy Spirit. The fact that specific tribes were mentioned and specific numbers from each tribe were indicated would seem to undercut this interpretation. If God intended these verses to literally represent the Church, He likely would not have used the specific references to the twelve tribes. Furthermore, nowhere else in the Bible do references to the twelve tribes mean the Church.(9) Finally, if there is, in fact, a pre-tribulation Rapture then the Church is no longer on earth at this point. Thus, the 144,000 (literal count or symbolic number) are true Jewish converts (non-believers prior to the rapture) who will be alive on earth during this time. They will probably be won to Christ through the ministries of the two witnesses who will preach during the first three and one-half years of the Tribulation (see Revelation11:1–12).(10)

Israel, having largely rejected the Messiah, will be in the Tribulation, and though men do not know the identification of each tribe today, God certainly does.(11) While all the genealogical records may have been destroyed, and the ten northern tribes taken by the Assyrians are presumably “lost,” this is no problem to God. He knows His people and their whereabouts (see Matthew 19:28; Acts 26:7; James 1:1).(12) The most important fact taught here is that God continues to watch over Israel even in the time of Israel’s great distress. There needs to be no reason for spiritualizing either the number or the names of the tribes in this passage, to make them represent the Church.(13)

While we are not told explicitly in Scripture that the 144,000 Jews are God’s special witnesses, and that the Gentile host (see later musing) is saved through their ministry, this appears to be a logical deduction. Otherwise, why are they associated in this chapter? The parallel with Matthew 24:14 (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”) may also indicate that the 144,000 will witness for the Lord during the Tribulation.(14)

Up Next – Why This Group in Tribulation?

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References

  1. Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 7:4). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
  2. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 7:5–8). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Re 7:4). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.
  4. Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 570). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
  5. Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Re 7:5–8). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  6. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 501). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  7. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 590). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  8. Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 501). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  9. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 949). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  10. Wiersbe, W. W. (1992). Wiersbe’s expository outlines on the New Testament (p. 816). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  11. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 949). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  12. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 590). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  13. Walvoord, John F. (1985). Revelation. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 949). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  14. Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 590). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

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