The 144,000 and the gospel heard

Revelation 7. Where are the 12 tribes of Israel today? Why are 144,000 called out from them? And what is the meaning of the great multitude that is now seen before the throne?

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind might blow on the earth or the sea or against any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, bearing the seal of the living God, and he called in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah sealed,
12,000 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 sealed.
The tribes are those descended from the twelve sons of Israel, omitting Dan and counting Joseph as two tribes, viz. his son Ephraim (listed under the name Joseph) and his son Manasseh. These were the two sons born to Joseph when he was in Egypt, whom Israel blessed as if they were his immediate sons. “Although Manasseh will also become a people and become great, his younger brother will be greater. His offspring will become a host of nations.” It remains unclear how this, and indeed other prophecies that Israel/Jacob uttered on his deathbed, were fulfilled in the ‘latter [or last] days’ (Gen 49:1). Dan is omitted from the list because the tribe followed an idolatrous religion throughout Israel’s history (Ju 18:30f) and was omitted from the genealogies (I Chr 1-7).

The first and last-named tribes, Judah and Benjamin, also Simeon and part of Levi, survive to the present day. They are the Jews, a collective term derived from the name of the territory, Judah or Judaea. They descend from the people who lived in the kingdom of Judah before the Babylonian Exile, i.e. before 586 BC. After the Exile some of them returned to the land; some remained in Babylonia and subsequently spread to other parts of the Near East, where they retained their identity (Esther 3:8, I Pet 1:1). After the first and second revolts against the Romans, those in Judaea were all exiled. Although some today can reasonably claim to descend from the tribe of Levi, genealogies going back to specific tribes are now lost, but it is remarkable that the Jews retain their identity at all, in view of the persecution they have suffered.Over the past 100 years many have migrated and settled in the land. Nonetheless, more Jews still live in other parts of the world – chiefly the United States – than in Palestine itself.

Sargon II, the king who conquered the city of Samaria and deported its citizens to AssyriaIn stark contrast, the non-Jewish tribes have long ceased to exist as ethnic entities. In 930 BC they broke away from Judah and Benjamin and formed a separate kingdom called Israel, distinct from Judah. Israel in this sense continued until the Assyrians conquered it in 721 BC. ‘In the ninth year of Hoshea [king of Israel], the king of Assyria captured Samaria [Hoshea’s capital]. He carried Israel away into Assyria and placed them in Halah [N Iraq], in Gozan on the Habor river [NE Syria] and in the cities of the Medes [NW Iran]’ (II Ki 17:6). In their stead the Assyrians brought in people from other parts of the empire to populate the cities. A few Israelites fled to the southern kingdom and became part of Judah. For example, the Anna who recognised the baby Jesus as the Messiah when he was presented at the Temple belonged to the tribe of Asher. But most of these tribes had long since merged with the Gentiles. James’s reference in his letter to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion’, like Paul’s in Acts (26:7), seems to have been largely notional.

‘Israel’ in the prophecies can refer either to the whole nation of Israel (even Judah where Judah is seen as representing Israel as a whole) or to the northern kingdom of Israel distinct from the southern kingdom; usually the context makes clear which. In Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, about 150 years after the Assyrian deportation of the northern tribes and 11 years into the Babylonian deportation of the southern tribes, God said, “These bones are the whole house of Israel.” He promised that he would raise the whole nation from their graves and place them in their own land. ‘Judah and the children of Israel associated with him’ would be re-united with ‘Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him’. They would no longer be estranged, but one king would be king over both.

God had banished the northern tribes from the promised land because they did not want to be set apart as God’s own people, distinct from the nations around them (II Ki 17:15). To abandon the true God was necessarily to lose their identity, and that is what happened. No prophets followed them into exile, and there is no evidence that the tribes ever came back to their senses. On the other hand, the people raised from the dead in Ezekiel’s vision are distinguishable as descendants of Israel. They must therefore be the northern tribes before they lost their identity.

So why did God treat Judah differently from the northern kingdom? And if he still had a purpose for the Jews in bringing them back to the land in 536 BC, why did he apparently have no further purpose for the tribes who did not come back?

The prophet Hosea addressed these questions just before the fall of the northern kingdom. Like other prophets before him, he warned that the northern kingdom was about to be terminated. Because of their spiritual adultery God would cease to regard them as his own people. Yet in days to come,
the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head.
The children of Israel up to this time had never been as numerous as the sand of the sea; the first half of this word must therefore refer to future descendants of Israel. They would become exceedingly numerous at the same time as they lost their ethnic identity. Hosea goes on to say:
The children of Israel will dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod [priest’s garment, as in Ju 18:14] or household gods.
Paul quotes the first half in affirming that in his mercy God has called people ‘not only from the Jews but also from the nations’ (Rom 9:24-26). The antithesis is no longer Judah and Israel, but Jew and Gentile. Having lost their identity, the children of Israel and the ‘nations’ amongst whom they dwell and with whom they have married are one and the same. They have become sons of the living God by receiving the gospel (so also I Pet 1:1-2:10). Paul advances the same antithesis later in his letter, when he says:
I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a hardness has affected Israel in part, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And thus all Israel will be saved.

Although not free of ambiguity, the sense is that spiritual blindness has affected part of Israel, not that partial spiritual blindness has affected all Israel. There is an ordained period when the Jews must be ‘enemies of God for your sake’. But when the harvest of Gentile souls is complete, the blindness will be lifted and then ‘the rest of Israel’ will be saved, i.e. the Jews.

The second half of Hosea’s prophecy refers to the past and then-present descendants of Israel, ethnically still distinct, and to their reunification with Judah that will occur after they have risen from the grave. Similarly, Hosea says,
Afterward the children of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they will fear the Lord and his goodness in the latter days.

It is after their resurrection that the children of Israel, once dispersed, will return to their land. They will seek the Lord God their coming Messiah and David their former king, whom God will also raise up for them (Jer 30:9). They are not so populous that they cannot be numbered. Rather, “I will set them in their land and multiply them” (Ezek 37:26); “I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast” (Jer 31:27). The borders of the land allocated for each of the twelve tribes are set out in Ezekiel 47-48.

So the 144,000 who are ‘sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel’ are disciples living in the countries into which, in the centuries after the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations, the northern tribes gradually dispersed. The countries, one supposes, are those of Europe, for it was to Europe primarily that the gospel went. Nonetheless, since Gentile believers are grafted into the olive tree that is Israel and share in its root (Rom 11:17), and since they are part of the new Jerusalem whose gates bear the names of the twelve tribes (Rev 21), ‘Israel’ here must have a still wider sense. Previously we Gentiles were alienated from the polity of Israel (Eph 2:12); now, being reconciled to God, we are citizens of Israel alongside the saints and household of God (Eph 2:19).

There is no further specific mention of the four angels, or of great winds ravaging earth and sea, but presumably they are the angels that blow the first four trumpets. When the fifth trumpet sounds, the demonic locusts that rise from the abyss are told not to harm the grass or the trees (what remains of them) but only human beings who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads; the protection of the 144,000 is re-affirmed. They are not harmed, because their role is to prophesy of the one who is to come: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come. Worship him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of water.” Like the seventy that Jesus sent ahead of him into every city and town, they will heal the sick, preach a message of repentance, and tell the people, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

As in Gideon’s day (Ju 7:3-6), and Elijah’s day (I Ki 19:18), their number is relatively small. Not everyone in the tribes is chosen – they are chosen ‘from’ the tribes. Not everyone who has been sealed with the Holy Spirit (II Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13) receives the seal that keeps him from harm. Certainly those who fear man rather than God, who do not believe that his judgement is near, and who do not worship God as the one who created heaven and earth will not be among those sealed. Nor will those who do not sigh and groan at the abominations now being committed in the city (Ezek 9:4) and who are not themselves sexually pure.

“These are ones who have not defiled themselves with women,” John is told (14:4). It is not simply that Christ has made them pure in this respect (II Cor 11:2) but they have kept themselves pure. Like him, they have never married; they are ‘virgins’. Since the Bride of Christ is the whole Church, male and female, the emphasis on male purity may not necessarily mean that only men are among their number. They follow the Lamb wherever he leads. This can be costly, for he does not always lead where we wish to go. They follow him, and like Christ (Isa 53:9, I Pet 2:22) they say nothing false. They fulfil the prophecy of Joel, that he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh in the last days, on his male and female servants alike, and they will prophesy (2:28-31).
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and columns of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the day of the LORD comes,
the great and terrible day.

Like the apostles at Pentecost who prophesied to the Jews before their day of wrath, they will urge people to be saved from this crooked generation (Luke 3:7, Acts 2:40, Rom 2:9). The 144,000 (including 12,000 from the tribe of Judah) will prophesy to the rest of the world (including the Jewish Diaspora) at the same time as the two witnesses in Jerusalem prophesy to the Jews, for it is during the trumpets that the latter bear witness. After three and a half years of prophecy they will all be martyred.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation and tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. And they cry with a loud voice, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four animals. And they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thankfulness and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”
And one of the elders spoke to me, saying, “The ones clothed in the white robes: who are they, and where have they come from?” And I said to him, “My lord, you know.”
And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them. And they shall hunger no more, nor thirst any more, nor shall the sun strike them, nor any heat; because the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will lead them to fountains of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And when he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about half an hour.

‘This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come’ (Matt 24:14). Christians in Europe and North America have been sharing the gospel with the nations beyond for more than two centuries, but there will be one final push, made more urgent by signs of the end and intensifying persecution. In response a multitude no one can number will believe. Before God made his covenant with them, the Israelites washed their garments in water (Ex 19:10). In a spiritual sense the Gentiles will wash their dirty clothing in the blood of the Lamb, and the blood will make them white. That is enough to gain them access to the throne.

Some will be killed during the natural disasters and persecution of the great tribulation; some will survive. At the sound of the last trumpet (Rev 11:15, I Cor 15:52), they will rise as one, both the living and the dead, and enter the presence of their God.
For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm, a shade from the heat. … (Isa 25:4)
On Mount Zion he will make for all peoples a banquet of rich food and well-aged wine (Isa 25:6-8).
He will swallow up death forever,
and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Having suffered the famine, drought and stifling heat that accompany the first three trumpets – there is no suggestion of martyrdom – they will suffer no more. The Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd, leading them through the valley of the shadow of death to waters of rest. The Father on the throne will soothe their sorrows. In his first vision of heaven John saw myriads of angels but only twenty-four human beings. Now he sees a multitude gathered from all nations.

An elder provides the explanation for what John sees, for in due time the multitude will join the elders. The tenses are significant: the cleansing of their souls in the blood occurred in the past, their emergence from the great tribulation and their service in the inner temple (naos) are present continuous, and the time when they will suffer no more is future. Service (latreia) refers to the active inquiring after, discernment of, and praying for the will of God as a consequence of bowing down before him (Rom 12:1). “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve” (Matt 4:10). The New Testament singles out fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37, I Tim 5:5). Spiritually this takes place in the sanctuary of God in heaven (Heb 4:16, Rev 8:3f), day and night, much as sacrifices were performed in the earthly temple.

Chronologically, the vision of the 144,000 and the great multitude relates to the period of the seven trumpets, before the wrath of God. It thus steps out of the sequence of the six seals that culminates with the wrath. The promise of an end to suffering with which the vision culminates connects with the point later in the narrative when that promise is fulfilled (Rev 21), equivalent to the opening of the seventh seal. The silence for half an hour marks the transition to the trumpets.