The 144,000 are specifically mentioned only twice in the entirety of Scripture. In the end time, after God commands a temporary ceasing of calamities occurring on the earth (see Revelation 6), he sends an angel on a special mission.
2. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to damage the earth and the sea, 3. Saying, "Do not damage the earth, or the sea, or the trees until we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads." 4. And I heard the number of those who were sealed: one hundred forty-four thousand (144,000), sealed out of every tribe of the children of Israel (Revelation 7:2 - 4, HBFV throughout).
This group is mentioned again in Revelation 14, where it states the apostle John saw, " . . . the Lamb (Jesus) standing on Mount Sion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand (144,000), having His Father's name written on their foreheads" (Revelation 14:1).
Who exactly are they?
This special group of people in Revelation 7 are composed entirely of PHYSICAL descendants of Israel, as the Bible takes great pains to enumerate twelve tribes from which 12,000 people each will be converted ("sealed").
5. From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed; from the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand were sealed; from the tribe of Gad, twelve thousand were sealed . . . (Revelation 7:5, see also verses 6 - 8)
Two Israelite tribes are not specifically listed in Revelation 7. The first missing tribe is Dan (see our article on why Dan might have been left out). The second missing tribe is Ephraim. The Bible does not state why Ephraim, one of Joseph's two sons, is not directly named as contributing toward the 144,000. His other son Manasseh is listed in the chapter (verse 6). It is possible that the people of Ephraim are "hidden" within the distinct naming of the tribe of Joseph (verse 8).
Exactly when are they converted?
When are the 144,000 sealed (a spiritual mark to denote their conversion, a possible allusion to Ezekiel 9:4) by a mighty angel? How does their sealing fit into the prophetic end time events delineated in Revelation?
What is referred to as the Great Tribulation begins when the Beast and False Prophet appear in order to openly deceive and rule the world (Revelation 13:3 - 15). The ministry of the Two Witnesses also begins at this time (11:3 - 6). Shortly after the start of the Tribulation, the "mark of the beast" is implemented worldwide so that those who willingly obey and worship the Beast (who is possessed by Satan) can be easily identified. Once fully in place, anyone who refuses to receive this "mark" (those who keep God's commandments and worship him alone - Revelation 12:17, 14:12) is hunted down and killed (6:11, 12:11, 17, 13:7, 14:12 - 13).
After a great martyrdom of saints instigated by the Satan-inspired one world government, God will cause signs to appear in the heavens (Revelation 6:12 - 14). It is AFTER these signs, and just BEFORE the prophetic "Day of the Lord" (God's wrath against unrepentant humans) that 144,000 descendants of Israel and "a great multitude" from around the world become converted (Revelation 7).
What does the Bible teach?
The 144,000 are unconverted physical descendants of Israel who repent and become Christians near the middle of the Great Tribulation period. At the start of this time of global trial and trouble (Matthew 24) they are NOT Christians. If they were, they would have either been taken to a "place of safety" to await Jesus' return (1Thessalonians 4:16 - 17, Revelation 12:6, 14, 13:5) or would have been martyred for their faith shortly after the Beast and False Prophet began their rule. This means that any true Christians living today (in spite of what some church leaders might teach) are not and will not be a part of this select group!
The 144,000 are part of, but not the entirety, of God's church who will be changed into spirit beings and allowed to rule the earth with Christ, as kings and priests, during the Millennium (Revelation 5:10). Others joining them include all the righteous dead since Adam and those in the "place of safety" (1Thessalonians 4:16, 1Corinthians 15:51 - 52), as well as anyone, like the innumerable multitude (Revelation 7:9), who repents and becomes converted before Jesus' Second Coming (Revelation 18:4).