In Revelation 7:4, we read that these 144,000 are supernaturally protected by God. Later in Revelation 14:1-5, we read that these people appear with Christ in the millennium (Walvoord) or the New Heaven and New Earth (Ladd). But who are these 144,000 people?
There are two major groups of opinion regarding the 144,000 in Revelation 7:4. One group believes that we should interpret this passage literally—the other symbolically. Those who interpret this passage literally hold that these 144,000 are the Jewish people, while those who hold to a symbolic interpretation believe them to be the Church.
OPTION #1: The Jewish People
Those who hold to this view believe that we should take this passage at face value. The text says that there are 144,000 Jews from the twelve tribes of Israel. In support of this view are a number of biblical observations:
First, there are many differences between the 144,000 and the church mentioned later in the very same chapter. Consider this side-by-side below:
Differences between the 144,000 and the Church (Rev. 7)
|They are “from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (v.4)||
They are from “every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (v.9).
They are “sealed” (v.4). This means that they are still alive on Earth.
|They are “standing before the throne” in heaven (v.9). This means they are dead.|
|They are specifically numbered 144,000 (v.4).||
They are an innumerable group of people (“a great multitude which no one could count”—v.9).
Second, John details the twelve tribes specifically. If John was simply thinking symbolically, why would it be necessary to write out each tribe and number them accordingly?
Third, symbolism doesn’t always invalidate the literal number being used. Osborne writes, “It seems likely that John has written his book carefully to signify the perfect plan of God and the completeness of his work. This does not mean that no number can be literal. There were of course twelve tribes and twelve apostles, but even that number was chosen by God for theological reasons.” As Osborne points out, there were twelve literal apostles, and God may have chosen this number for a symbolic purpose. Likewise, there are seven literal churches in chapters 2 and 3. Walvoord notes that the number 7 is used 54 times in the book of Revelation, “more than any other number in the book.” It’s possible that John was using the number seven symbolically in chapter 2 and 3, but this does not invalidate the literal churches there. Hardly any commentator would argue that the use of the number seven in chapters 2 and 3 would invalidate literal, historical churches in the area of Asia Minor. Finally, God reserved 7,000 people for himself in the days of Ahab, and he will likewise preserve 144,000 in the future.
Fourth, the term Israel is never used to refer to anyone other than ethnic Israel. The only possible exception to this would be Galatians 6:16. Even those who do not believe that the 144,000 are Jews concede this point. For instance, Johnson writes, “Those who argue that the term ‘Israel’ in other NT books refers exclusively to Jews are in our opinion correct.” Thus if John was using the term “Israel” to symbolically refer to the church, this would be the only usage like this in the entire NT.
Fifth, Jesus spoke of a literal return of Israel at the end of human history. In Matthew 19:28, he explains, “You [the apostles] also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Elsewhere, Jesus implied that the end of history would bring back the nation of Israel (Acts 1:6-8; c.f. Rom. 11:25ff).
OPTION #2: The Church
Those who hold this view argue that the book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and we shouldn’t press symbolic language hyper-literally. If we do, we could be missing the point of the original author. Instead, these commentators hold a “replacement theology” (or supersessionist view) that the Church is now the “eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel’s inheritance.” To argue for a symbolic reading, advocates of this view make a number of observations:
First, while the term “Israel” is never used of Gentile Christians, the NT authors do use Jewish language to describe the church. For instance, Paul refers to Christians as “Abraham’s seed” (Gal 3:29) and as “the true circumcision” (Phil. 3:3). In Romans 2:28-29, he writes, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 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.” Therefore, while the term “Israel” isn’t used of the church, the concept of a spiritual Israel is biblical.
Second, the number of a thousand is used throughout the book of Revelation to refer to perfection or completion. For instance, the “thousand” appears later in Revelation 21:16 to refer to the dimensions of the holy city of Jerusalem. While it is possible that John is thinking of a literal measuring of the city, it is more likely that he is simply trying to convey that heaven will be a perfect place.
Third, these genealogical records for the twelve tribes are long lost today. If John believes that the twelve tribes will be numbered in the future, who will do this? The records for the twelve tribes are completely lost. While Jewish people know they are of an ethnic Jewish descent, they do not know what tribe they are from. Of course, other commentators—like Walvoord—argue that God in his omniscience knows this. He writes, “Though Israelites today do not normally know what tribe they belong to, in the mind of God there is no question.”
Based on the evidence above, this author favors the first view that John is referring to the twelve tribes of Israel. This view seems to fit with the many prophecies that refer to the tribulation period as a distinctly Jewish event. For instance, Jeremiah speaks of this era of history as “the time of Jacob’s [Israel’s] distress” (Jer. 30:7; c.f. Dan. 12:1). Based on this OT support, Revelation 7 seems to fit nicely with this Jewish understanding (see also our earlier article “A Pretribulational Rapture”).
 Some supersessionists argue that the 144,000 refer to the “portion of the entire church which in the last days is marked out for martyrdom.” However, first, it’s odd to refer to these “sealed” people as martyrs. Second, the “great multitude” are those who came out of the Tribulation (Rev. 7:14). And third, the false prophet will “cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed” (Rev. 13:15 NIV). This hardly fits with the notion that a very small percentage of believers will be martyred.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 17-18.
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Galaxie Software, 2008), 28.
 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 480.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 158.
 John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Galaxie Software, 2008), 142.