God’s Word for You
Acts 9:21-22 The synagogue
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, February 3, 2020
21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Isn’t this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? Didn’t he come here to take them prisoner, to the high priests?” 22 But Saul grew more and more powerful. He confused the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
The people who were listening to Paul (Saul) were Jews; there was still no real separation between Jews and Christians, at least from the synagogues. It was Paul himself through his persecution who had caused a rift, but now he charged in with a boldness that only grew stronger and stronger as he taught people about Jesus. He did his work in the synagogues, where he would find people who knew about the Old Testament promises, and he proved through simple, clear examples and statements that Jesus is in fact the promised Messiah, the Christ. Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning Anointed One. Its Greek translation is Christ, and so there is no difference between Christ and Messiah.
The confusion, of course, came about because Paul’s mission had not been a secret one. Everyone in the Damascus synagogues probably knew that he was on his way to arrest and transport the Jerusalem Christians back to stand before the Sanhedrin. Yet when he turned up, no letters of authority were produced. No arrests were made. The man who had been persecuting the Christians was now defending their faith and with bolder and stronger words than anyone had ever heard used before. Here was the apostle of the Sanhedrin, proving that Jesus was the Christ!
This seems like a good place to touch on the origin of the synagogue (9:20), the place where Paul was confusing the Jews of Damascus with his preaching. Luke reports the words of James: “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). Asaph lamented that an enemy “burned every place where God was worshiped in the land” (Psalm 74:8). Apart from such verses, there is no definite account of a time when synagogues first appeared. Asaph was a priest who served King David and later his son Solomon. If “every place where God is worshiped” is a reference to synagogues, then that places their existence as far back as 1000 BC. This nearly fits with James’ phrase, “from earliest times.” Certainly Moses was not the one who created the synagogue. The question that must be addressed, and which so far cannot be determined from either the Biblical or archaeological records, is the original purpose of the synagogue. It most likely falls into one of three categories:
1, The synagogue was instituted to make up for the temple after the temple was lost (such as in the Babylonian captivity).
2, The synagogue was instituted to oppose the centrality of worship at the temple (such as happened among the Jews of the northern kingdom).
3, The synagogue was instituted to supplement the central temple worship and later continued when the temple was destroyed.
Most of those who theorize about the subject tend to orbit around theory #1 above. The other two must be considered. The second theory is supported, albeit weakly, by 1 Kings 12:28-33. Jeroboam I, first king of the northern kingdom, encouraged his people to stop going to Jerusalem to worship God by making new golden calves, one in the north at Dan, the other near the southern border at Bethel, not far from Jerusalem. He consecrated non-Levitical priests to serve at these shrines, and the people fell into sin over this practice. But since the Levites in the north did not serve at the calf-shrines, it might be conjectured that some kind of true worship continued, especially since Elijah was told that there were still “seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). These worshipers, generations after Jeroboam, were being fed God’s word by someone. Perhaps a kind of underground synagogue system had been put into place similar to what Asaph spoke about in Psalm 74.
The third theory is also possible, and may fit better with Asaph’s words and James’ statement. There is even one suggestion that “houses of the people” (Jeremiah 39:8) is not a reference to homes, but to synagogues.
Synagogue worship would look familiar to Christians brought up with liturgical worship. The services included prayers, hymns, Psalms, the reading of Scripture lessons and the explanation of one or more such lessons (that is to say, a sermon), and a benediction at the close.
Christians easily adapted the synagogue system of worship for their own purposes immediately as the gospel spread out into the world. As Luther teaches in the Large Catechism: “We keep holy days so that people may have time and opportunity, which otherwise would not be available, to participate in public worship, that is, that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then praise God with song and prayer” (Third Commandment, para. 84). Whatever our form of worship takes, the essential elements are the reading and preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the public distribution of the means of grace in the sacraments. Where these marks of the church are today, there is the true Christian Church on earth.
Pastor Timothy Smith