The passage (Rev. 7:1-8) reads:
7 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. 2 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
5 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
6 12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
7 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
8 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.*
The following is from Robert Mounce’s commentary on Revelation in the New International Commentary on the New Testament:
4–8 No description of the sealing follows. John does not see but hears the number of those who have been sealed—144,000 out of every tribe of Israel. The identity of this group has been extensively discussed. A few commentators interpret the 144,000 as a literal reference to the nation Israel. But this interpretation seriously complicates the book of Revelation by bringing in racial distinctions that no longer exist in the NT purview. It disregards the historical fact that ten of the twelve tribes disappeared in Assyria, and the remaining two lost their separate identity when Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70.
The number is obviously symbolic. Twelve (the number of tribes) is both squared and multiplied by a thousand—a twofold way of emphasizing completeness. It refers to that generation of faithful believers about to enter the final turbulent period that will mark the end of human history.18 That there are 144,000 (12,000 from each tribe of Israel) is a symbolic way of stressing that the church is the eschatological people of God who have taken up Israel’s inheritance. Their being sealed does not protect them from physical death but insures entrance into the heavenly kingdom. It indicates that they will remain faithful in the coming persecution.
The idea of the church as the new Israel appears to have grown out of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that they would one day “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28; cf. Luke 22:30). Paul writes that the believer in Christ is the true Jew (Rom 2:29), and he refers to the church as “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). James addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) when writing to the Christians scattered throughout the Roman world. Peter speaks of believers as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9), phrases taken directly from the OT (Isa 43:20; Exod 19:6) and reapplied to the NT church.
Some commentators would restrict the 144,000 to that portion of the entire church which in the last days is marked out for martyrdom. The martyrs under the fifth seal cried out for vindication and were told to rest a little while until the full number of their fellow servants should be killed (6:9–11). This interpretation is supported by reference to the prophetic role of the two witnesses in chapter 11 and the 144,000 in chapter 14 who are “purchased from among men, to be the first-fruits unto God” (14:4).
The arguments for identifying the 144,000 with a select group of martyrs, however, is far from conclusive. The detailed listing of the twelve tribes as well as the symbolism of the number emphasizes the idea of completeness. Twelve times 1,000 come from each tribe: no one is excluded. Further, there seems to be no place in Revelation for any believer who will not face martyrdom in the last days (cf. 13:15, “cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed”).
Several irregularities appear in the listing of the twelve tribes. The first is that Judah rather than Reuben (Jacob’s oldest son) heads the list. The reason for this change is obvious. Christ belonged to the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14; cf. Gen 49:10). Giving this priority to Judah would be perfectly natural for a Christian writer. The second is the inclusion of both Manasseh and Joseph, since Manasseh (as well as his brother Ephraim, who does not occur in this list) is included in Joseph. The answer to this peculiarity is perhaps bound up with yet another—the omission of Dan.
Some have suggested that Dan was inadvertently copied as Man, which was later taken as an abbreviation for Manasseh. This would solve both problems. Unfortunately, it is only conjecture unsupported by any solid evidence. Apparently Dan was omitted because of an early connection with idolatry. When the tribe of Dan migrated to the north and settled in Laish, they set up for themselves the graven image (Judg 18:30). Later Dan became one of the two great shrines in the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 12:29). In the Testament of Dan (5:6) Satan is said to be the prince of the tribe. Irenaeus, writing in the latter part of the second century, noted that the omission of Dan was due to a tradition that the Antichrist was to come from that tribe. This apparently rested on rabbinic interpretations of such passages as Gen 49:17 and Jer 8:16. Whatever the precise reason for omitting Dan, the inclusion of Manasseh was undoubtedly to bring the total number back to twelve.
There seems to be no particular reason for the order in which the tribes are given. The sequence should not be surprising in that the tribes are listed in some eighteen different orders in the OT, none of which agrees with the order in Revelation. By placing vv. 5c–6 after v. 8, one writer organized the list into the sons of Leah, Rachel, Zilpah (Leah’s maid), and Bilhah (Rachel’s maid). However that may be, the various irregularities of the list do not affect the interpretation of the passage. The 144,000 are faithful believers about to enter the period of final testing.*
*The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Re 7:1–8). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
*Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (158–160). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.