Why are the sealed ones said to be 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel? Doesn’t this sound like they are all Israelites?
In New Testament times, the only readily identifiable segments of Israel were the two tribes known as Jews (Judah and Benjamin), who had recently rejected Jesus’ teaching and instigated His crucifixion; the other ten were widely scattered. Yet James addressed his Epistle to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (Jas. 1: 1-2). The apostle Paul, in his defense before Agrippa, also spoke of the “twelve tribes”: “Now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain” (Acts 26:6-7).
In Revelation 7, the saints are symbolized as 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, making a total of 144,000. This is the same number mentioned in Revelation 14:1 as seen standing with Christ on Mount Sion, “having His Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Rev. 14:1). Verses 3 and 4 describe these individuals as “redeemed from the earth,” and “redeemed from among men.” In Revelation 5:9-10 these same redeemed ones are described as being “out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation,” and are made “kings and priest to our God” who shall “reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). From this description it seems unlikely that they would be all natural Israelites. The description certainly suggests an international group of people, not all of one nation.
A writer in the Encyclopaedia Britannica comments on the “twelve tribes,” that it is a term “to be understood allegorically. As Abraham is the father of all believers, so all believers make up the nation of the twelve tribes.” A writer in the Interpreter’s Bible embraces the same thought. “Some commentators have felt, not unnaturally, that the phrase should be interpreted rather literally as indicating that the Epistle is addressed to Jewish Christians alone. But as there is nothing else in the letter (James) that deals with the special problems of Jewish Christianity,… it is far preferable to explain the twelve tribes as meaning the whole spiritual Israel, i.e., all Christians.”
In Revelation 7, there is little question who is designated by the 144,000: They are the sealed ones, i.e., chosen, approved. But why are they said to be 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes?
When Jesus was preaching, He said that “Many are called, but few chosen.” In the symbolism of Revelation 7, the nation of Israel represents those who are “called” out of every nation (i.e., selected to be instructed or enlightened with the knowledge of God). Out of these are “chosen” the faithful ones (on the basis of their obedience), those to be “sealed,” or rewarded with eternal salvation, the 144,000 saints. These will rule with Christ in His kingdom.
Then verse 9 pictures another, much larger group: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne …. ” Here is another group designated, a “great multitude,” much larger than the first group, coming after the first group is selected. These will be the populace of the earth, those chosen to fill the earth with the glory of God. Of these it is said, “These are the ones who come out of [after or beyond] the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He that sits on the throne will dwell among them” (vs. 14-15).
What a happy time, when all who rule and all who serve will be rejoicing together, giving “blessing, and glory, and wisdom, thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might…to our God forever and ever” (v. 12).
The blessings will be personal, universal and without limit. “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vs. 16-17).