The Watchtower Society teaches that the 144,000 of Rev 7:4 is to be taken literally. If chapter 7 of Revelation is to be taken literally, where then does the Bible say that the 144,000 will come from? (See Rev 7:5- 8)
The book of Revelation is the very last of a compilation of 66 books for good reason. It draws upon the history of numerous places, persons and things in conveying through symbolism the things to come.
For example, in Jesus’ letters to the congregations he refers to historical personages such as Jezebel and Balaam. We should not suppose that there were literal persons within the congregation that Jesus was referring to, but rather, the names Jezebel and Balaam are evoking the infamous connotation of such persons.
The ominous word “Armageddon” is drawn from a Hebrew place called Megiddo. But we should not imagine that all the nations of this world will be drawn to the literal place north of Israel. Jehovah’s Witnesses understand that the war of the great day of God the Almighty at the place called Armageddon will be global in scope.
Consider a couple more examples. In the 14th chapter of Revelation the very same 144,000 are pictured standing upon Mount Zion along with the Lamb of God. Mount Zion, of course, was associated with the city of Jerusalem and the worship of Jehovah. It is understood, though, at least by sensible Bible readers, that Mount Zion in Revelation is not a reference to the literal hill that king David captured from the Jebusites about 1000 years before Christ walked the earth. Rather, since Mount Zion was where the Israelite throne was initially established, as well as the location of the temple of Jehovah, Mount Zion stands as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, which is a heavenly kingdom – not of this Earth.
Also, Revelation 21:2 describes a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. Again, since Jerusalem was the capital city of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms, the center for true worship and the place where Jehovah placed his name, the New Jerusalem also signifies the very Kingdom of God that is destined to rule this earth in the aftermath of the now-looming cataclysm.
In view of the obvious fact that Mount Zion and Jerusalem, as well as many other places, are used in a symbolic way, why should we suppose that the 12 tribes of Israel are to be taken literally? They are not.
Moreover, the book of Revelation was written long after Jesus had already declared that the Kingdom of God was going to be taken from Israel and given to a “nation” producing its fruit. That nation is Christ’s congregation. Initially all of its members were Israelites. But some three years into the Christian era non-Israelites began to be baptized and anointed – sharing in the exact same inheritance as the fleshly descendents of Jacob, whom Jehovah renamed Israel.
It is Christ’s congregation that is the true seed of Abraham that will bring blessings to all the nations, as Jehovah had promised Abraham. In his letter to the Galatians Paul referred to this congregation as “the Israel of God.”
In keeping with that designation, in the salutation in the opening words of the letter of James the writer sends greetings to “the 12 tribes that are scattered about,” calling them “my brothers.” We may be certain the Christian writer is not addressing the Jews as his brothers, many of whom hated Jesus and persecuted his followers.
Besides the above, Revelation was written more than 20 years after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. That destruction was in fulfillment of Jesus’ own prophecy. It underscored the fact that Jehovah had finished using the nation of Israel. And the fact that Christians who had been living in Jerusalem survived that Holocaust was proof that God had transferred his blessing away from Israel and the Jews to Christians.
And it is quite likely that the destruction of Jerusalem and all Judea also destroyed documents recording family lineages, so that as time went on it became impossible to determine from which ancestral tribe a person of Hebrew heritage may have descended.
According to its usage in Revelation the 12,000 from the 12 tribes would seem to symbolize the completeness of God’s intention to take 144,000 humans to become part of a new creation, along with Jesus Christ.
It is well to keep in mind, too, that when Jesus began his ministry he chose 12 apostles. All those who have been called into his Kingdom afterwards may be thought of as spiritual descendents of the 12 apostles.
That is why in the 21st chapter of Revelation in describing this New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, the apostle John wrote: “He carried me away in the power of the spirit to a great and lofty mountain, and he showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God and having the glory of God. Its radiance was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone shining crystal clear. It had a great and lofty wall and had 12 gates with 12 angels at the gates, and on the gates were inscribed the names of the tribes of the sons of Israel. On the east were three gates, and on the north three gates, and on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. The wall of the city also had 12 foundation stones, and on them were the 12 names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb.
Now the one who was speaking with me was holding a golden reed as a measure in order to measure the city and its gates and its wall. And the city is laid out as a square, and its length is as great as its width. And he measured the city with the reed, 12,000 stadia; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, 144 cubits according to a man’s measure, at the same time an angel’s measure.”