Problem: In this passage, John mentions a specific group of 144,000 believers. Is this an exact number, and does it mean only this many will be saved? If not who are they?
Solution: Spiritual Interpretation. Some take the “144,000 of all the tribes of Israel” to be a spiritual reference to Christians. However, this view is not supported by the facts. First, the word “tribes” is never used of anything but a literal ethnic group in Scripture.
Furthermore, if the number is taken seriously, surely it grossly under represents the number of believers there will be in heaven. True, the Bible nowhere reveals the exact number of believers there will be in heaven, but since there are billions of humans alive, and since there are easily multiplied millions of these who are saved, this is obviously not a reference to the total number of redeemed of all time.
In addition, even the physical dimensions of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:16–17), to say nothing of the rest of God’s vast universe, could contain a much larger number than 144,000 people.
Revelation 7:9 declares that there were, in addition to the 144,000, “a great multitude … of all nations” who were also redeemed, which not only indicates that the saved are not limited to them but that the passage makes more sense if taken literally.
Literal Interpretation. Others take this passage literally as a reference to 144,000 Jews who will be saved during the tribulation period, 12,000 from each tribe of the 12 tribes of Israel. They note, first of all, that Dan is not listed while Levi is listed among the 12 tribes, since Dan went into idolatry and was largely obliterated. Levi, however, who, because of its priestly function, was not given a separate land inheritance in the OT is numbered with the 12 tribes here, since the Levitical priesthood was fulfilled by Christ (Heb. 7–10). Likewise, Ephraim may be in the place of “Joseph” in this passage, since he was Joseph’s son.
In further support of the literal interpretation is the fact that Jesus spoke of the 12 apostles (whom we know were literal persons) sitting on “twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” in the last day (Matt. 19:28). There is no reason not to take this as a reference to 12 literal tribes of Israelites.
In addition, the last question Jesus answered before His ascension directly implied that He would return and “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6–8).
Indeed, the Apostle Paul spoke of the restoration of the nation of Israel to its former privileged position in Romans 11 (cf. vv. 11–26).
Many Bible scholars believe in a literal restoration of the nation of Israel, because God’s land promises to Abraham’s literal descendants (Gen. 12; 14; 15; 17; 26) have never been fulfilled “forever,” as they were promised (cf. Gen. 13:15), but at best only for a short period during the time of Joshua (Josh. 11:23).
And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. Of the tribe of Juda were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Reuben were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Gad were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Aser were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Nephthalim were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Manasses were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Simeon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Levi were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Issachar were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Zabulon were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Joseph were sealed twelve thousand. Of the tribe of Benjamin were sealed twelve thousand. (Revelation 7:4–8 )”