Friday, August 31, 2012

The Synagogue of Satan

The word "synagogue" had developed a specific meaning among Jews by the time of the writing of the Apocalypse. It is actually borrowed from Greek and originally meant little more than a gathering of people, or an assembly. Among the Jews of the Hellenistic period, it had come to refer to a meeting place of Jews away from Jerusalem where they gathered to read from the Scriptures, pray, worship, and to be taught the Law. This approach, really, was the foundation of NT church life, although Christians used the similar Greek word "ecclesia" for their approach instead.

The phrase "of Satan" does not mean that the assembly was called for the overt purpose of worshipping Satan, but that despite it being Jewish in name, its people were actually serving Satan. This is readily evident from both the use of the term itself and the reference to Jews who were not truly Jews associated with it. This usage is neither cryptic nor arcane. Jesus accused Jews who were seeking to harm him of being the children of Satan, so the connection between opposition to Christ and the Devil was not new.

As I understand it, these were Jews who were not willing to seriously vet his claims of Messiahship--claims that were primarily substantiated by incredible, miraculous feats, and ultimately, rising from the dead. They could not get past his illegitimacy (his earthly father was not his actual father), nor their place of assumed privilege with God that came by virtue of being born Jewish (Abraham's descendants). They had so invested themselves in an approach to Judaism that they were not willing to acknowledge the Jewish Messiah because of that investment. Their minds were made up to reject and resist him (even to kill him) before his case could even be argued.

Callous unbelief would be a fitting description of their attitude toward Jesus. From that position, and with whatever influence they had with those who had political power, they relentlessly pursued a course of rejection, obfuscation, and calumny against Christ (and later, against his followers). This sort had, at the time of the writing of the Apocalypse, famously done so in Jerusalem and in Rome (Suetonius 25.4), as well as in PisidiaLycaonia and Thessalonica. This is the sort that Christ was referring to by the moniker, "Synagogue of Satan," when he warned the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia through the Apocalyptic letters.

Now, the Westminster Confession (25:5) attributes to that moniker the condition of lacking proper discipline in a Christian congregation which allows heresies to spread unchecked. Such a church, in effect, becomes a "synagogue of Satan", but that is not even close contextually to how the term was used scripturally. Unfortunately, that is not the worst hatchet job on the phrase out there--there is a lunatic fringe which attaches a labyrinthine conspiracy to attain world domination on the part of some very selective, secretive, and fabulously wealthy Jews to the term. Nuts, truly, are not just a garnish for salads!


Pumice said...

I must confess I never noticed the phrase before. I did a quick search and found it twice in Revelation in the KJV. Both times it seemed to be referring to false churches. I would make it a parallel with the OT idea of having Ichabod written over the door.

More food for my thoughts. Thank you.

Grace and peace.

SLW said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond.

The phrase, in my view, cannot refer to false churches. Jesus (through John) doesn't seem to have any problem describing heretical enemies within the church (e.g. Jezebel, Nicolaitans, Balaam), whereas this description is about enemies without. "Synagogue of Satan" refers to opposition to Christ coming from Jews outside the church who refused to acknowledge him as Messiah, rather than from any sect or false prophet within the church. Hence the emphasis on "synagogue" rather than "ecclesia". It was an issue in the earliest days of the church, but it still raises its ugly head, for instance, in Israel when Messianic congregations are harassed by non-believing Jews, and even (perhaps) Hollywood Jewry's ridiculous harassment of "The Passion of Christ."