The Prophetic Future of the Twelve Tribes

Dr. Jerry A. Collins


Jacob’s deathbed blessings upon his 12 sons touched upon prophecies with future characteristics for each of them. Many of those prophetic blessings were fulfilled throughout the history of Old Testament Israel. Other Scriptures, however, indicate that there is still future prophecy yet to be fulfilled in relation to the 12 tribes.


Over 1/4 of the Bible is prophecy. Actually, if you put together all the prophetic passages of the Bible in one book, you would have a volume larger than the New Testament. Obviously, future prophecy is important to God. Therefore, it’s important to study it.


Why is prophecy so important to God?

It is probably not to equip us to predict the future. Jesus criticized those looking for signs of the future (Matt. 12:39; Acts 1:7). He never answered the apostles’ question about “when” the future events would happen (Matt. 24:3), even though He gave many details about “what” would be the signs of His coming at the end of the age.


Prophecy is given by God not to predict the future but to confirm the past. Jesus told the disciples from now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He (John 13:19; 14:29). Prophecy is one of God’s ways of confirming that what He said is true. He offers it to us as proof that His Word can be trusted and that He is to be taken seriously, precisely, and literally. When we see that prophecy is literally fulfilled, we know that God keeps His promises.


When hundreds of details of the Messiah’s life are fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, we can see that God keeps His promises. When Daniel’s predictions of the future of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome are fulfilled to the letter, we can see that God keeps His promises. Fulfilled prophecy has consistently demonstrated that the Bible is not a book of fantasy, religion, and myth but a book of truth, facts, and reality. Fact is: The Bible has never ever been one detail off in its prediction of future events.


Why Is It Important to Study Future Prophecy?

We might be tempted to ask, “If the purpose of prophecy is to confirm the past instead of to predict the future, why study future prophecy?” The first answer is that the importance of prophecy comes not from how it’s going to pan out, but from the fact that God chose (1) to tell us about it and (2) to command us to be on the alert concerning it (Matt. 24:42).


All of the work of God will “pan out” as God has planned. The salvation of the lost will “pan out” the way God has planned it (Eph. 1:3-11). The spiritual development of all believers will “pan out” as God has planned it (Rom. 8:28). The church will “pan out” as God has planned it (Matt. 16:18). But that doesn’t mean we should neglect studying and applying the Scripture in those areas. So the first reason we should study future prophecy is simply because God chose to reveal it to us.


The second reason we should know the details of prophecy is to be future sensitive. Jesus Christ tells us to be on the alert to the unraveling of God’s future program (Matt. 24:32-39, 42; 25:13). Believers who are future sensitive love Christ’s appearing. Paul told Timothy, in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:8). This also includes whatever prophecy says about the 12 tribes of Israel.  



The 12 Tribes in the Tribulation

The major section of the book of Revelation (chapters 6 through 19) describes events during the seven-year Tribulation period. Chapter 7 is between the sixth and seventh seal judgments. In that chapter two large groups of people appear who represent those saved during this period of time.


Verse 4and I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel—This group of 144,000 is clearly described as every tribe of the sons of Israel. 144,000 are sealed (12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel). This will be some type of stamp for security and preservation that God will see. It means these tribes exist today and are identified as such in the Tribulation.

Verses 5-8From the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed—The Apostle John identified this entire group as Jewish by mentioning that 12,000 came from each tribe of the 12 tribes and even giving their specific tribal names. This group is contrasted with a great multitude (in heaven) which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands (v. 9). Most likely these are believers who died or were martyred during the Tribulation.


PT—These sealed Jews are those who came to faith in Jesus as Messiah during the Tribulation period. They are further described as the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And no lie was found in their mouth; they are blameless (Revelation 14:4-5). This group will be known for their moral purity and the fact that they were protected from martyrdom during the Tribulation. They are further described as the first fruits to God and to the Lamb, indicating that they compose the first stage of a final harvest of Jewish souls to be gathered later at the Lord’s coming in glory.


There is no standard way to list the 12 tribes. There are at least 19 different ways of listing them in the Old Testament, and none of them agree with the list here. In this listing Ephraim and Dan are both absent. We know that Dan was overrun by idolatry from the days of the judges. That may have been a contributing factor here. Interestingly, Jeroboam’s idols were placed in the tribes of Dan and Ephraim (Bethel, 1 Kings 12:29). In the Revelation 7 listing of the tribes, Dan was replaced by Levi (v. 7) and Ephraim was replaced by his father Joseph (v. 8). Joseph’s brother Manasseh, was included to complete this list of 12 (v. 6).


An Application—God has a future for all the tribes of Israel (apparently, except Dan). He is still honoring His promise to Abraham way back in Genesis 12. God keeps His promises and He keeps them specifically, not generally nor approximately. The prophecies of Jacob in relation to his sons will be as literally and specifically fulfilled as the prophecies of the past for the tribes were literally and specifically fulfilled. So these 144,000 will be reserved from death during the Tribulation. They will be a precursor to the many more Jewish believers who will survive the Tribulation period.


The 12 Tribes at the Second Coming

The Jewish tribes will eventually come to the realization that they did actually crucify the Son of God and that recognition will bring mourning and repentance when Jesus returns to earth for the second time.


Revelation 1:7Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. AmenThis is a description of the Second Coming of Christ, not the Rapture, because every eye will see Him, even the unbelievers, which is not the case with the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). The Rapture is never mentioned in the book of Revelation. Believers will ascend with clouds at the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:17); and Christ will return with the clouds at His Second Coming ...they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight...This Jesus...will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).


Zechariah 12:10—Even those who pierced Him refers to the Jews when God said, “...the house of David and... the inhabitants of Jerusalem...will look on Me whom they have pierced...”. But we know that this moment will result in much repentance (such as the 144,000, for example). The fulfillment of this announcement does not actually occur until Revelation 19:11-16, which takes place at the end of the Tribulation.


PT—In the context of Zechariah’s prophecy, those who look upon him whom they have pierced (12:10) are the inhabitants of Jerusalem—Jews. The great mourning in Jerusalem (v. 11ff.) are Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel. This mourning is an indication of the penitential remorse to be experienced by Israel at its national conversion prophesied in the Old and New Testaments. Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days (Hosea 3:5) and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob (Romans 11:26).


Unfortunately, it will take a Tribulation judgment to prepare the nation Israel for her Messiah, and to bring about the conversion of a multitude of Jews who will enter into the blessings of the Kingdom and experience the fulfillment of all Israel’s covenants. “It will come about in all the land,” declares the Lord, “That two parts in it will be cut off and perish; But the third will be left in it. And I will bring the third part through the fire, refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, And I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are My people,’ And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God’” (Zechariah 13:8-9 [i.e. cf. Deuteronomy 4:30; Jeremiah 30:7; Ezekiel 20:37; Daniel 12:1; Matthew 24:9-26; Revelation 7:4-8; 12:1-2; 17]).


PT—Interestingly, this is the same message preached by Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2:36. There he concluded, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—whom you crucified. The result ‘now when they heard this they were pierced to the heart’ saying ‘to Peter and the apostles “what must we do?” (v. 37). Peter said, “Repent…” Unfortunately for Israel, the repentance of Pentecost never took place on a larger scale. But in this day to come, yet future, at Christ’s Second Coming, the entire nation will be pierced to the heart about their piercing of this One, the Messiah.


Unlike Pentecost, at the Second Coming of Christ, the tribes of Israel will change their mind about who Jesus is and accept and fully embrace Him as their Messiah. So the tribes of Israel are alive and well. So many will believe that they will stream into the land of Israel and it will not be able to contain them all. For your ruined and desolate places and your ravaged land will now indeed be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away. Yet the children of your bereavement will say in your hearing, ‘This place is too small for us; make room for us to live here’ (Isaiah 49:19-20).


The 12 Tribes in the Millennial Reign

Following the Second Coming to Earth, Jesus Christ, the Messiah will reign over a restored Israel and a renewed earth for a thousand years. During this period the tribes of Israel play a prominent role.


Matthew 19:28And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel—Peter wondered what reward he and his fellow disciples would receive because they had forsaken all in this life to follow Jesus. Jesus told them the physical reward would not come in this life but in the life to come, when the apostles would participate in the millennial government. Here, their assignment would be making disciples in the midst of rejection and persecution, but in the kingdom, they would be judging the twelve tribes of Israel as vice-regents to the King of Kings in His millennial administration.


The concept of believers judging or ruling in the sense of governing also appears in 2 Timothy 2:12. If we endure, we will also reign with Him and also those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:4).


Ezekiel 48 “Now these are the names of the tribes… the workers of the city, out of all the tribes of Israel, shall cultivate it… As for the rest of the tribes… This is the land which you shall divide by lot to the tribes of Israel for an inheritance, and these are their several portions,” declares the Lord God… shall be the gates of the city, named for the tribes of Israel—These verses describe the Millennial Temple with its regulations and priestly duties and the appointment of the land to the various tribes. Here is the description of the boundaries of the Millennial tribal divisions, which differ considerably from the original boundaries in Joshua 13–19 allotments. The entire territory west of the Jordan River is to be divided into 12 parallel portions running east and west. The northern boundary is in the modern country of Lebanon. The southern boundary is roughly the same as Israel’s present boundary line with Egypt. Each tribe will receive an equal share from north to south in this order—Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, and Gad. Between the territories of Judah and Benjamin will be situated the sanctuary of the Lord shall be in its midst (v. 10).


PT—It is noteworthy that the tribes descended from the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, are placed at the extreme ends, farthest from the sanctuary. It should also be noted that the tribe of Dan, although not included in the 144,000 Jews sealed during the Tribulation, will have its own portion in the Millennial Kingdom. Jerusalem will even have a name change “and the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The Lord is there’” (v. 35). The tribes of Israel, long scattered in the lands of exile, will be regathered, restored, regenerated, and ruled over by their Messiah King, The Lord Jesus Christ.


An ApplicationEternal rewards are based on leaving everything of worldly value behind. That will be true for the apostles and for all believers. Life lived here on earth is God’s laboratory by which His people prepare themselves for the eternal life to come. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).


The 12 Tribes in the New Heavens and the New Earth

In the eternal realm, in the new heavens and earth, the 12 tribes of Israel will have a presence and role in the eternal affairs of God’s kingdom administration.


Revelation 21:1-2Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband—With the passing of the first earth, a new eternal one will emerge. The first one will be destroyed by fire but the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (2 Peter 3:10). God will replace the old city of Jerusalem with one coming down out of heaven. The city itself is beautiful, as a bride is beautiful on her wedding day.


Verse 12It had a great and high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels; and names were written on them, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel—This new Jerusalem will have specific dimensions and will be entered and exited through 12 gates. For all eternity, these gates will represent the tribes of Israel, the people of the promises, the covenants, the Scripture, and the Messiah—each gate will have a tribal name. This city will have angel guards at its gates.


Verse 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb—The 12 gates are balanced by the 12 foundations of the wall which bear the names of the 12 apostles. Although this reference does not describe a separate role for the 12 tribes in that day, it does speak of the fact that throughout eternity the Old Testament people of God, the tribes, and the New Testament people of God, the apostles, will be together in the light of the glory of God and of His Lamb, where the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb (vv. 22-23). The 12 sons who originally gathered around their aged father’s bedside scarcely could have realized that their descendants would play such a crucial role in the plan of God for the ages.



·         The twelve tribes teach us about sanctification. We are to take possession of our position in life. That position involves everything God has provided: our talents, desires, opportunities, spiritual gifts, convictions, personalities, and physical situations, so that we walk in a manner worthy of our salvation. Like the Tribes, we have been given a position in life. Like the Tribes, we have accountability for taking possession of the position for the glory of God.

·         Like the Tribes, we have a prophetic future to live and prepare for as we apply the position in life God has given to us. As the Tribes were to live out their lives taking possession of their position, so we, too, having been given the gift of eternal life, have an obligation to live now preparing for that everlasting life.

·         Taking possession of our position in life is laying up treasure in heaven. It’s getting ready for the judgment seat. It’s enduring, so we can reign with Him. It’s being an overcomer, so we have the fullest blessing available in eternity. It is receiving a full reward. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward (2 John 1:8).