The Synagogue

What do you all think about the synagogue of the First Century? It did not originate in the law of God under Moses, nor in the days of the Davidic Kingdom. It probably developed during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews did not have access to their temple. If someone knows of any command of God to establish the synagogue system, please let me know.

Yet, Jesus made a habit, as did many others in Israel in His time, of attending these gatherings.

My question is this: if Jesus, Paul and others made use of this form of assembly to spread the Good News of the Kingdom, why would other means of organizing gatherings, as long as they served God's purpose be forbidden?

The core teachings of Jesus are to be shared and demonstrated to the world. Why should we not be open to both old and new opportunities to do this? We can gather in public parks, restaurants, homes or even in buildings dedicated to Christian meetings. The Holy Spirit has not ceased to lead us in a variety of ways to accomplish God's will in the earth.

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Comments (5)
    • Hi dear readers and my dear brother Dan,

      Much can be said about the synagogue. Here's a good summary from James Gall:

      "We must next observe that the worship of the synagogues formed no part of the Levitical system that was done away. This worship was purely Abrahamic both in its character and purpose. There was nothing symbolic and nothing ritualistic in it. There were no sacred men connected with it, for the priests had no standing there. The synagogue itself was not a sacred building and its worship was purely spiritual and spontaneous. It was the glory of the temple that everything that was done in it was according to a prescribed law; it was the glory of the synagogue that there was no prescribed ritual, but only the spontaneous worship of the heart.

      We have already shown that the Christian Church was molded on the synagogue, or rather it was its continuation, and not on the temple system. The elders of the Church were the analog of the elders of the synagogue, their duties being the same. The worship of the Apostolic Church was the analog of the worship of the synagogue, for we look in vain throughout the New Testament for the slightest trace of temple worship in the synagogues or house churches. There were no priests in the Christian Church because the Church itself was a royal priesthood, and their High Priest was Christ.

      The adoption of the temple theory produced a complete revolution in the Christian Church, which changed its character, because it necessitated the introduction of the canonical element, in order to imitate the temple service."

      From Acts 13:15: And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. The 'say on' reminds us of the freedom there. Access which the apostles and the Christ made regular use of. But that friendly environment only lasted so long and we recall Jesus' words that some would later be driven out of the synagogues.

      I think I read somewhere that there were more than 300 synagogues in Jerusalem. It's perfectly conceivable to me that in a rare case a whole synagogue would believe in Jesus. So, they would have no reason to abandon their building. What we do know is that the synagogue served as a daily community center of sorts. Also in that day very few copies of the scriptures existed. The synagogue would have been the library for these scrolls and a learning center, too, for all ages.  

      When we consider the precision and detail of the temple and tabernacle, we can be amazed that the synagogue system just seem to emerge on it's own. As it should have - all those born again love the brethren. And they desire to be in fellowship with the ones whom they love.

      God no longer seeks those who will worship in this mountain or in this or that place but those who will worship him in truth. So, back to your question. Christians must honor the Lord with their substance. Proverbs 3:9. Just as the horses bells were to be "holiness to the Lord". So... If someone has a house or a tree house or a house boat or any kind of property or structure - of course it can and should be used for the Kingdom. Especially now that the world is becoming more and more urbanized and building dedicated "church buildings" is all but impossible in most major markets.

      In that day shall there be inscribed upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD. Zech. 14:20. In other words - everything dedicated to the Son of God and every thought in submission to Him.

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      • Thanks David.  Great stuff!

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        • Allow me to share a couple of more short passages from a writer, Alfred Edersheim, who was considered an expert witness in this matter. From Chapters 17 and 18 of his Sketches of Jewish Social Life

          Of course, the synagogue system is not in every way to be equated with the church.

          As a rule, synagogues were built at the expense of the congregation, though perhaps assisted by richer neighbours. Sometimes, as we know, they were erected at the cost of private individuals, which was supposed to involve special merit. In other cases, more particularly when the number of Jews was small, a large room in a private house was set apart for the purpose. This also passed into the early Church, as we gather from Acts 2:46, 5:42. Accordingly we understand the apostolic expression, "Church in the house" (Rom 16:3,5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phile 2), as implying that in all these and other instances a room in a private house had been set apart, in which the Christians regularly assembled for their worship. Synagogues were consecrated by prayer, although, even thus, the ceremony was not deemed completed till after the ordinary prayers had been offered by some one, though it were a passing stranger. Rules of decorum, analogous to those enforced in the Temple, were enjoined on those who attended the synagogue. Decency and cleanliness in dress, quietness and reverence in demeanour, are prescribed with almost wearisome details and distinctions. Money collections were only to be made for the poor or for the redemption of captives.

          Also:.

           It was customary to have service in the synagogues, not only on Sabbaths and feast-days, but also on the second and fifth days of the week (Monday and Thursday), when the country-people came to market, and when the local Sanhedrim also sat for the adjudication of minor causes. At such week-day services only three persons were called up to read in the law; on new moon's day and on the intermediate days of a festive week, four; on festive days - when a section from the prophets was also read - five; and on the day of atonement, six. Even a minor was allowed to read, and, if qualified, to act as translator from the Hebrew to the Aramaic.

          Takeaway: There were no money collections to pay the "Staff" or the rulers or the chief rulers of the synagogues. Yes, there appear to have been chief rulers of some sort. Note the word only in the first quotation.

          Even children could participate in the formal readings. I find this last point interesting in view of the previous discussions from years ago on the various house church forums. It was regularly asserted that the scriptures had little usefulness in the early church because that vast majority of Christians were illiterate.

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          • David,

            All of this information is very helpful and interesting. What I am intrigued about is how the synagogue came about as a practical way to meet several needs. Since it was not specifically commanded in the Law under Moses, it could be seen by some as an innovation. 

            Yet Jesus and the apostles saw the gatherings as providing an opportunity to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I suppose that criticisms could have been brought forth against some of the practices as can be said against any group of people. 

            Yet no where in the NT does Jesus or any of His apostles condemn the practice of synagogue worship itself. My point is that patterns of meeting and gatherings that are not found explicitly in the bible are not all necessarily wrong. Each situation should be judged on its own merits or faults, IMO.

            For example, some people say that Sunday School for children at church is unbiblical. We know that the primary responsibility to teach the children on the parents. However, we have seen the benefits in our own lives growing up and learning about God from others besides our own parents.

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          • Another 'institution' which, along with the synagogue, naturally came into existence due to necessity and expediency, was the diaconate or the table servers for the poor widows. Chronicled in Acts 6.

            Wow, how we long for the church to again become a health and welfare provider!

            OK. In other words, the first Christians were not met with permanent "church blueprints" for all people in all ages in all places. But rather a few abiding principles which also left room for change according to the changing landscape. Where the spirit is - there is liberty. 

            If the Almighty has not forbidden something - and it is beneficial for the edification of others, by all means, prayerfully consider such a course.

            As for the interior of a synagogue, the benches were positioned toward Jerusalem. This gives new meaning to Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well:  

            "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. ... But the hour is coming, and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. For the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth."

            Our Lord is declaring here that location is no longer important in the big picture of worship and life. Whether public house of worship or private house meeting - both of these are mere physical locations. God is seeking SPIRITUAL worship irrespective of the physical location. 

            Carefully observe that Jesus did not teach: "But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in private houses only." Yet this is what house church purists maintain. Personally, I have heard it and I have read it online and in several books. In reality, it just makes us all look a little backward...

            If house meetings were the only legitimate form of church structure for all people in all places for all time, Jesus surely would have had something specific to say about it. Instead, he attended both small household meetings and large public meetings, too. As did his apostles. On many recorded occasions. Over a period of many years.

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