The Lamb and His Tribes

“I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel…. After this I looked and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes …standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:4–9).

- Revelation 7

Our look at Israel’s twelve sons has thus far stressed the history of a physical nation. Yet we have also distinguished those of faith within this nation from those who are merely related by birth, since not every son of Israel belongs to Israel (Rom. 9:6). Yet the Lord at times seems to bless (or judge) indiscriminately those with faith and those without it. Even Jacob’s holy offspring were exiled, because God dealt with His people as an entire nation, not individually. The Lord thus allows the faithful to feel the effects of His wrath on the collective  sin of the whole body. God also dealt with Israel as a nation when He rescued her from Babylon, blessing righteous and unrighteous men alike.

However, the Lord knows those whom He has called,who follow Jesus in a life of repentance (John 14:6). Only these will enjoy the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21). God favored Israel under the old covenant, just as He favors both Jews and Gentiles who make up the church under the new. As a title for the Lord’s true people, Israel can be applied to the church today even if many within it, as under the old covenant, profess faith falsely.

Today’s passage points us in this direction. The twelve tribes sealed in Revelation 7:4–8 do not literally correspond to the physical nation of Israel. Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh were tribes, not their father. His inclusion in the list (v. 8) shows us John’s vision refers to something more than just the physical sons of Israel.

The number twelve here symbolizes completion. Israel was not a complete nation until there were twelve tribes, and twelve was the complete number of the apostles who served Christ’s earthly ministry. Likewise the Lord’s true people will all be sealed (that is, distinguished) from those who falsely profess faith only when their number is “completely complete” (twelve times twelve thousand). 

This 144,000, many commentators argue, should be identified with the innumerable multitude of verses 9–17. Aside from proving that twelve is not a literal number, this correspondence means that the real sons of Jacob include Jews and Gentiles who trust Christ. Every tribe and tongue is represented in the company of saints.

Coram Deo

The prophets looked forward to the day when the Gentiles would worship Abraham’s Lord. However, the prophets did not understand this fully (Eph.3:4–6), nor did they see that these Gentiles would be the ones in God’s kingdom used to draw Abraham’s physical sons back to Him. All who believe in Jesus are heirs of the promise; there are no second-class citizens in His kingdom. The Father has adopted you as His own child if you believe in Christ.

Passages for Further Study

Isa. 2:1–5
Mal. 1:11
Matt. 8:5–13
Rom. 11:11–36

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