We now come to a place in the Book of Revelation subject to various interpretations among scholars and lay people alike. For this reason, it is important that one not be dogmatic about one’s own interpretation but willing to listen. Therefore, allow me to say at the outset that mine may be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time, nor will it be the last. Now, as I have said before, I agree with those who teach that Revelation tends to move back and forth. What we have before us is what scholars call one of three “interludes” that come between major events—in this case between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals. And what happens in this first interlude is the sealing of the 144,000.
But who are these 144,000? We are told that they are 12,000 from certain Israelite tribes from the Old Testament. But there are a couple of things odd about this list. For starters, I say “certain tribes” because two are missing: Dan and Ephraim. In the Old Testament, Ephraim and Manasseh, sons of Joseph, are adopted by Joseph’s father, Jacob (aka, “Israel,” Genesis 48:5-6). As Jacob’s third son, Levi, was the priestly tribe and received no inheritance of land, the lists in the Old Testament usually replace Joseph with Ephraim and Manasseh to make twelve tribes, Levi not listed not because that tribe was forgotten but because as the priestly tribe, “the Lord was their inheritance.” But here, oddly enough, Levi and Joseph are listed and Ephraim and Dan omitted. Joseph would include Ephraim, but what of Dan? And second, the list begins with Judah—the fourth born. And though some cite the sins of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi as reasons for Judah’s priority, Judah was no better than his brothers (Genesis 37:26-28; 38:1-26).
I do not see how these tribes could represent the twelve historical tribes of ancient Israel if one is left out. Furthermore, it is obvious that Judah is listed first because our Lord was of this tribe. I firmly believe that this list represents the Church of Jesus Christ from all ages, Jew and Gentile—the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16; Romans 2:28-29). To sum: These 144,000 are the complete number of the redeemed, for whom the angels hold back the “four winds” (the four horsemen), so that they may be sealed by God—claimed as His very own—during that time between our Lord’s ascension and his return, which time is depicted in the breaking of seals one through six. Thus, in eternity, chapter seven happens before chapter six. And isn’t that wonderful! The redeemed of the Lord are sealed, owned, and claimed by God through the blood of Christ—and we are His no matter what happens.