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The Twelve Tribes of Revelation

Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: "Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God." Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (Revelation 7:2-4, NIV)

In Exodus 4:22, the LORD calls Israel His firstborn son.  This statement in a nutshell reveals the place of Israel in God’s grand design towards humanity.  In Old Testament society , the firstborn son received the birthright.  He had priority and authority over all his brothers.  He received the greatest share of his father’s wealth.

However, in several key instances in the Old Testament, the firstborn sons defaulted on their birthright.  In the lineage of Jesus Christ, there are several examples:  Esau deferred to Jacob; Reuben to Judah; Zerah to Pharez; to Eliab to David; Adonijah to Solomon.  This pattern can be no accident.

Spiritually, Israel was God’s firstborn son. They were to be foremost among the nations.  From Israel was to spring the Messiah, King of Israel first and then of all nations.  But Israel defaulted. First, they sold their birthright for 30 pieces of silver; and then, they traded Him away again in exchange for the life of a convicted murderer. Thus they were dispossessed of their spiritual birthright.

So why then are the Twelve Tribes of Israel once again  given prominence in Chapter 7 of the Book of Revelation? Is God planning to restore them to their position of spiritual priority?

There are some remarkable peculiarities about the listing of the tribes in Revelation chapter 7.  Dan, who figures in every other listing of the twelve tribes (including Ezekiel’s end-times vision in Ezekiel 48), is left off.  Both Joseph and Manasseh are included as separate tribes, which is surprising since Manasseh was Joseph’s eldest son.  Ordinarily Manasseh and his brother Ephraim were counted as half-tribes, and each had one portion in Joshua’s division of the Promised Land.

Another apparent paradox lies in the fact that nine of the twelve tribes listed had already vanished.  All except Judah, Benjamin, and Levi were exiled to Assyria, and none ever returned (there are far-flung communities who claim to be descendants of the Lost Tribes, but their claims are based on oral traditions and are difficult to substantiate – see http://www.wzo.org.il/en/resources/view.asp?id=174 and http://www.cohen-levi.org/the_tribe/tribes_of_israel.htm).  The very word “Jew” derives from “Judah”, to the exclusion of  the other tribes.

The twelve tribes in Revelation chapter 7 are strikingly reminiscent of the twelve apostles.  Just as Dan has lost his place, so for his treachery Judas lost his position.  Just as Manasseh (one of two brothers) is chosen to fill up the number of tribes, so Matthias (one of two candidates) was  elected to complete the Twelve.   Recall that Jesus promised the Twelve that they would judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28).  But is Jesus speaking literally, or spiritually? In Moses' time, there were twelve princes of Israel, each set over the tribe to which he belonged (Numbers 1:44).  However, Jesus' twelve disciples could not possibly belong to twelve separate tribes, because  Peter and Andrew were brothers, as were James and John.

Jesus sent  out first the Twelve, then seventy disciples, paralleling the growth of Jacob’s posterity from  twelve sons to seventy by the time he moved to Egypt.  Through the apostles, Jesus  was building a spiritual nation which parallels the  physical nation of Israel (1 Peter 2:9-10). It appears that the tribes of Revelation chapter 7 are a spiritual representation of the “holy nation” of believers in Jesus Christ.  They do not represent hereditary Jews.  Genealogical  Israel has lost forever its position of spiritual  priority.  It shall be grafted back into the tree which is God’s people,  but only as a branch among other branches (Romans 11:24).

As far as the redemption of the world is concerned, the current history of the nation of Israel is no more important than that of any other nation. The fate of national Israel has nothing to do with the fulfillment of  the prophecies in Revelation.  In my opinion, the restoration of the nation of Israel in 1947 was man’s attempt to do God’s work in man’s way.  The Jews have returned  to Israel, not in contrition, faith, submission, and repentance as in Daniel’s time (Daniel 9:1-19), but rather in bitterness, pride, violence, and intrigue.  Since they still refuse to keep His covenant, their claim to the Promised Land is still forfeit, and their tenure is not blessed.

Please do not mistake my intentions here.  The Holocaust was horrible -- but no more horrible, and no more soteriologically significant, than the genocide and oppression of other peoples in places like Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, Kosovo,  and Sudan.  The Jews deserve a secure homeland, as do these other peoples – but they have no divine claim to Israel.  Politically, their claim to the region is due entirely to British colonialism, apart from which they have no more claim to Israel than the Romans who forced them out  or the Arabs and Turks who displaced them in turn.  In essence, Israel is the Northern Ireland of the Middle East.

Prayer: Father, I pray for Your people, Your spiritual nation, which will inhabit the New Jerusalem.  As a nation,  we are as   fractious and stubborn as the original Twelve Tribes ever were.  Awaken us, stir our hearts to repentance, that we might strive to fulfill Jesus’ prayer for us:

“I pray … that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."   (John 17:20-23, NIV)

Preserve us from pride, O Father.  We are no better than the descendants of Jacob.  Lord Jesus, You always said that the last will be first.  Teach us always to seek  to be last, that You may exalt us and not we ourselves.

Father, Your heart is always with the dispossessed.  Teach us to to walk and run as Your feet, to reach out as Your hands, to smile and speak gently as Your lips, to provide sustenance and solace to those who are destitute.

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Copyright © 2002 CrossPollen
Last Revised: March 2002

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