The 144,000 martyrs are described in the first vision John sees in book of Revelation, chapter 7. Later, he will see a vision of the great multitudes in white robes. Both groups appear to represent the full number and universal nature of the company of God’s people as Revelation presents them. Let’s look at the details of John’s visions of the 144,000.
The 144,000 is the first group to be sealed and protected from what is coming (Rev. 7:3-8). Revelation 14 describes them as those who were "redeemed from the earth" (14:4). John says "they have not defiled themselves" (verse 4). The 144,000 follow the Lamb wherever he goes and "no lie was found in their mouths" (verse 5).
The context suggests that the 144,000 symbolize those who are true to God and his way. This group is composed of spiritual virgins, who do not commit spiritual fornication by following false religious and philosophical teachings. Neither have they refused to repent of ungodly behavior. They are true to God’s perfect way. Those whom God has "sealed" will survive the outpouring of God’s wrath. They may suffer trials, persecution or even martyrdom, but they are saved for eternal life.
The sealing of God’s servants has much in common with a vision the prophet Ezekiel experienced. He saw human figures in Jerusalem (which is probably a symbol for the righteous remnant among the tribes of Israel) disturbed over the sins being committed in the city (9:4). They also received a "mark" on the forehead, as a sign of their faithfulness to God’s way.
What does it mean to be marked and sealed in the way Revelation 7 speaks of? To be "sealed" is a symbolic way of saying that the 144,000 are identified as belonging to God. They are "marked" as his special people. In ancient times, a seal commonly indicated possession, much in the way a rancher’s brand identifies which cattle belong to him. Merchants in ancient times would also place seals on packages to certify ownership.
To have the seal of God, then, is to belong to God – to be his spiritual child. Paul explains that God has "set his seal of ownership on us" (2 Corinthians 1:22). Christians can be sure of God’s divine care for, "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Timothy 2:19). The saints are sealed by the Holy Spirit "for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:30).
Ownership includes protection from condemnation, and the seal of God protects his people. Those who lack this seal face the judgment of God. The plagues fall only on "those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads" (9:4). They are the ones marked by their owners – the devil and his world system (13:16-17; 14:9; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).
The servants’ "mark" or seal is contrasted with the mark the followers of the "beast" receive. They are branded with the mark of his name or his number on the hand and forehead (13:16; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). This singles out and labels such people as the enemies of God and slaves of the beast.
What is being contrasted in Revelation, then, is the security of the faithful with a fearful world that can find no protection from the judgment of God. The church, powerless before the state apparatus, is being encouraged to see that God has already separated it for eternal life. The authorities or enemies of the church may be able to kill the body, but they cannot harm the soul (Luke 1:68-74; 12:5).
It seems clear that the vision in Revelation 7 has the church in view, not the ancient nation of Israel. The emphasis in the New Testament is on the spiritual people of God or his church. It is not interested in racial distinctions (Galatians 3:28). Paul says that the heir of Abraham is the person who is in Christ (Galatians 3:29). He is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11).
The believer in Christ is the true Jew (Romans 2:29). Peter speaks of the church as a holy nation and chosen people (1 Peter 2:9). Paul said of the church: "It is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:3) These are phrases and ideas taken from the Old Testament and applied to the New Testament church. The church is the extension of national Israel, or better, its replacement, elevated to a spiritual plane.
Certain details within the enumeration of the 144,000 indicate that Revelation 7 has the church in view. John has been careful to tell us that there are 12,000 people sealed from each tribe. But we notice several irregularities in his list of the tribes. In fact, John’s list does not agree with the order of any other list of the tribes in the Bible.
The tribe of Dan is missing in his list. To keep the number of tribes at 12, the tribe of Joseph appears twice, once under his own name and once under the name of his son Manasseh. Joseph’s other son, Ephraim, is not mentioned.
In the Genesis lists of the tribes, Reuben, as first-born, comes first. But John begins his list with Judah, rather than Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob or Israel. John may give preference to Judah because Jesus Christ belonged to the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14).
John’s list omits the tribe of Dan. This tribe settled in Laish after the Exodus and lapsed into idolatrous worship (Judges 18:30). Later, the king of Israel, Jeroboam, set up one of two great worship centers opposed to the God of Israel in Dan (1 Kings 12:28-29). Though Dan appears in different locations in the Genesis lists, he does appear. No matter what his spiritual condition, his inheritance in Israel was guaranteed by birth, not moral uprightness. His omission in Revelation implies inheritance comes not through human birth – rather, it comes through faith in Christ.
Interestingly, we do find Dan included among the tribes listed in Ezekiel (48:32). Yet, despite the fact that the last chapters of Ezekiel serve as a model for parts of Revelation, Dan is omitted in chapter 7. Dan’s omission from John’s list must have made an important point to the church about idolatrous worship. Some of the seven churches are chastised for idolatry – that is, they are selling Christ out for Caesar worship and for participation in the ways of this world. Revelation implies that if they continue to do so, their candlestick will be removed – as was Dan’s. They will not be included in the register or roll of spiritual Israel.
The irregularities in the list of tribes help us to identify the 144,000 of the "tribes" of Israel as a metaphor for the church – the spiritual Israel. This understanding of "Israel" accords well with the historical situation during John’s day.
Is the church to be literally limited to 144,000? Circumstances militate against such an interpretation. If true, it would mean that only some of those who accepted Christ in the first century are saved, and none since, as the number would have been filled to the full early on.
Revelation’s use of numbers also suggests that the 144,000 are not meant as a literal count. Since Israel is a symbol for the church, we should not take the 144,000 as a literal number either. Revelation is a book of cosmic symbols, and it uses numbers such as seven and twelve in symbolic ways. Twelve seems to be used as a foundational number, such as in the twelve apostles and twelve tribes of Israel. The number 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000) would then tell us the church is a complete "nation" of large size.