Who are these 144,000?
Who are the 144,000? will depend on which interpretive approach you take to the book of Revelation. With the exception of the futurist approach, all of the other approaches interpret the 144,000 symbolically, as representative of the church and the number 144,000 being symbolic of the totality, that is, the complete number of the church. Yet when taken at face value: "Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel" (Revelation 7:4), nothing in the passage leads to interpreting the 144,000 as anything but a literal number of Jews 12,000 taken from every tribe of the "sons of Israel." The New Testament offers no clear cut text replacing Israel with the church.
Much of the confusion regarding the 144,000 is a result of the false doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Some facts about the 144,000 from Revelation 7 and Revelation 14 give us insight regarding their identity.
1. They are called the children of Israel, Revelation 7.
2. Their tribal affiliation is specific, Revelation 7:4-8.
3. They seem to be protected and triumphant through the period of God's wrath, meeting with Jesus at Mount Zion at His return Revelation 714:1.
4. They are celibate, Revelation 14:4.
5. They are the beginning of a greater harvest, Revelation 14:4.
6. They are marked by integrity and faithfulness, Revelation 14:5.
Taken together, these facts make it difficult to say that the 144,000 are a symbolic picture of the church.
1. Israel is a term never specifically applied to the church in the New Testament, and never by any Christian until 160 A.D.
2. Their tribal affiliation is emphatic and known to God. Even if God only knows it, there is absolutely no reason to regard their tribal affiliation as symbolic, not literal.
3. It is difficult to imagine the entire church surviving through the tribulation without martyrdom, and remaining celibate through the period, something that was never required for the church as a whole, 1 Corinthians 7:1-6.
4. If the 144,000 are a symbol of the entire church, what greater harvest are they the beginning of?
It is best to see the 144,000 as specifically chosen Jewish believers in Jesus, protectively sealed throughout the tribulation as a sign.
These Jews are sealed, which means they have the special protection of God from all of the divine judgments and from the Antichrist to perform their mission during the tribulation period (look at Revelation 6:17, in which people will wonder who can stand from the wrath to come). The tribulation period is a future seven-year period of time in which God will enact divine judgment against those who reject Him and will complete His plan of salvation for the nation of Israel. All of this is according to God’s revelation to the prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:24–27). The 144,000 Jews are a sort of first fruits (Revelation 14:4) of a redeemed Israel which has been previously prophesied (Zechariah 12:10; Romans 11:25–27), and their mission seems to be to evangelize the post-rapture world and proclaim the gospel during the tribulation period. As a result of their ministry, millions "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language" (Revelation 7:9) will come to faith in Christ.