Pastor David B. Curtis


The Synagogue

Romans 12-15

Delivered 09/09/2012

This morning we are back in Romans (kind of). I am going to do an introduction to chapters 12-15. I think that in order to understand these chapters, we need to have an understanding of the Jewish synagogue in Rome. I hope that you understand that our roots are Jewish. If we are to understand Christianity, we must understand our Hebrew roots.

David Bivin writes, "In any attempt to understand the Bible, there is no substitute for a knowledge of ancient Jewish custom and practice."

The Bible, in its original languages, is, humanly speaking, a product of the Hebrew mind. The greatest tragedy of the last 2,000 years has been the removal of all things Hebrew from the church. The church has divorced herself from her Hebrew roots. We even call our Savior by a Greek name "Jesus," instead of His name, Yeshua. Prior to the 17th century no one ever heard the name "Jesus." When one says, "Yeshua," he is speaking Hebrew. This is the name that all the apostles would have known Him by and what His mother would have called Him. The name Yeshua literally means: "Yahweh's Salvation, or Salvation from Yahweh." We see that our roots are Hebrew in:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. Romans 11:17-18 NASB

I see the "root" as Abraham and the unilateral covenant that Yahweh made with him. Gentile believers become "partakers" with the Jews in the rich root. The word "partaker" means: "sharers or fellowshippers together with them in the rich root of the olive tree." With them" is a reference to believing Jews. We become partakers of the rich root of the olive tree. What does this tells us about the Church? Its roots are Hebrew. In the Bible the olive tree is a picture of God's people. Israel is God's olive tree.

With that in mind, let's look at the Jewish synagogue. Our English word "synagogue" comes from transliterating the Greek sunagoge, which means: "a bringing together." In its earliest usage, sunagoge did not refer to a building or place of gathering, but rather to the group of people who were gathered together. Later, as the buildings for gathering developed, sunagoge became used of the "gathering place" as well as the people gathered. So the word "synagogue" is similar to the English word "church" in that it we use it for the people who gather together or the place where the people gather together.

They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. Mark 1:21 NASB

So here we see that Yeshua entered "into the synagogue," using "synagogue" as the place of meeting itself. In contrast, Acts 13:43 is a good example of "synagogue" referring to the people:

Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God. Acts 13:43 NASB

Young's Literal says, "and the synagogue having been dismissed..." So the word synagogue is used of the building and of the people gathered.

The synagogue is not the Temple; the synagogue is a completely different place. The origins of synagogue buildings and the worship associated with them are obscure. But it seems clear that synagogue buildings and meeting places started during the Babylonian exile. The Jews who were carried away from Israel were not allowed to return, and Nebuchadnezzar had burned the Temple to the ground, so there was no way to continue Temple worship. For more than two generations between the burning of Solomon's Temple (2 Kings 25:9) and Zerubbabel's rebuilding it during the Persian rule (Ezra 1:2; 3:11; 6:14, 15), there was no way to obey the priestly and sacrificial regulations of the Torah, so devout Jews began to get together to pray, worship, and study the Law. They needed a place where the Scriptures could be read and taught, so they developed the synagogue.

By the time of Christ, it was the synagogue, not the Temple, that was the central institution for Jewish worship. This makes sense because even the Jews living in Israel would only go to Jerusalem three times a year (and most went only one time), but they went to their synagogue every Sabbath. The Rabbis have it that, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, that city had no fewer than 480, or at least 460, synagogues.

By the time of Christ, there were synagogues all over Israel and in many cities of the Roman world, something that greatly helped the spread of Christianity. We saw from our study of Acts that Paul went first to the synagogue in each town on his missionary journeys.

There are Jewish sources that indicate that there had to be at least 10 Jewish men who would participate to have a synagogue. Later, when the Talmud was written, one of the requirements was that it should be on the highest point of town. Alfred Edersheim, in his book, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, says, "The highest ground in the place was at least selected for it, to symbolize that its engagements overtopped all things else, and in remembrance of the prophetic saying, that the Lord's house should 'be established in the top of the mountains,' and 'exalted above the hills.'"(Isaiah 2:2)

Edersheim goes on to say, "But if no prominent site could be obtained, a pole should at least be attached to the roof, to reach up beyond the highest house. A city whose synagogue was lower than the other dwellings was regarded as in danger of destruction." The pole attached to the roof reminds me of our Church steeples.

The synagogues were so placed that, on entering it, the worshipers would face towards Jerusalem. Beyond the middle of the synagogue rose the platform or "bima," as it was anciently named. Those who were called up to it for reading ascended by the side nearest, and descended by that most remote from their seats in the synagogue. On this "bima" stood the pulpit where the prescribed portions of The Law and the Prophets were read, and the message delivered.

Some things in the synagogue were standard, such as the presence of the ark where the scrolls were kept, many things varied from place to place. The local Jews were greatly affected by the culture they lived in, and synagogues reflected that; some being more Roman, or more Greek, etc. There are no clear records of the style of the architecture of synagogues before the second century A.D.

It seems likely that the oldest synagogues both in Israel and abroad seem to be houses, or to have developed out of houses, and this may be true in Palestine in New Testament days.

We see from the New Testament that there was a leadership structure in the synagogue:

While He was still speaking, they came from the house of the synagogue official, saying, "Your daughter has died; why trouble the Teacher anymore?" Mark 5:35 NASB

The word "official" here is from the Greek word archisunagogos. which means: "ruler of the synagogue." He was the top official of the synagogue, and it was his job to control the synagogue services. He decided who would read from the scrolls and preach; he controlled the order of the service and what went on:

After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, "Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it." Acts 13:15 NASB

We see here that some synagogues had several rulers. We know three rulers by name from the New Testament: Jairus (Mark 5:22); Crispus (Acts 18:8); and Sosthenes (Acts 18:17).

Another officer was the sheliach tzibbur, the Delegate of the Assembly. The Hebrew word sheliach means: "legate" or "delegate," and comes from the Hebrew root shalach, "to send." Thus it is easy to see how sheliach came over into Greek as aggelos, "a messenger" often translated: "angel." The Hebrew word tzibbur means: "assembly." The sheliach tzibbur was a man of good character who the ruler of the synagogue would ask to read the Scriptures, and he was also expected to read the prayers. He was the mouthpiece of the congregation.

Each synagogue had elders who were the officials that formed a kind of local tribunal, whose authority would be dictated in large part by local laws.

Another position in the synagogue is found in the New Testament in Luke:

And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. Luke 4:20 NASB

The word "attendant" here is the Greek word huperetes (hoop-air-ret-ace), which means: "servant." This synagogue position is also found in the Talmud. He is the "Servant" of the synagogue. He cleaned the synagogue, attended the lamps, and did other necessary jobs, including meting out corporal punishment and beatings:

"But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; Matthew 10:17 NASB

The Synagogue Service

According to the Talmud, at least 10 people had to be present for a regular worship service, which took place on the Sabbath, although there were services on other holy days as well. The synagogue was often used as a school or general gathering place, so there were activities almost every day of the week.

The Sabbath synagogue service had a general order, it started be reciting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, that God is One God, accompanied by blessings that were spoken in connection with those passages. Then formal and written prayers were read, including "The Prayer," which was actually one of 18 prayers read in a cycle, always followed by the people saying "Amen." Then there was a reading from the Law and the Prophets, we see this in:

After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, "Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it." Acts 13:15 NASB

The Law was divided up into 154 pericopes (specific selections), which assured that the whole Law would be read every 3 years. The Palestinian Jews read through the Pentateuch every three years, whereas the Babylonian Jews completed the reading in one year. After the reading, there was a sermon. The Ruler could ask someone to give the sermon, or a person who wanted to teach could ask him. It seems at that point the Ruler could recognize people to further contribute, comment, share, or teach. The service concluded with a benediction.

The essential aim of the synagogue was the instruction in the Law for all classes of the people. The Hellenistic Jew, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. to 50 A.D.) calls the synagogues "houses of instruction, where the philosophy of the fathers and all manner of virtues were taught." (Cp, ii, 17. Cp.)

We see Paul using this instruction time in the synagogue in Thessalonica:

And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, Acts 17:2 NASB

In the days of Paul, synagogues were a kind of "Jewish island" in the midst of a sea of Gentiles. For those Jews scattered abroad living in some heathen Gentile city, the synagogue gave them the opportunity to retain their identity by gathering together with other like-minded Jews to study the Scriptures and, to some degree, to worship.

When you think of the church in Rome, what comes to your mind? Do you think of them meeting in a church building similar to our church buildings? I want to suggest to you that in Rome the church met in a synagogue. Both Jews and Gentiles meet in the synagogue to worship Yahweh.

When Saul was persecuting Christians, where did you find them?

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2 NASB

Damascus was in the province of Syria, but had municipal freedom and was one of the ten cities of Decapolis, and contained many thousands of Jews. Damascus contained many synagogues. So Saul sets out to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem any believers he can find. Saul probably had a large entourage of people traveling with him in order to bring these prisoners back. He later tells us:

"And I said, 'Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in Thee. Acts 22:19 NASB

So the believers were meeting in the synagogue and that is where Saul hunted them.

"And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities. Acts 26:11 NASB

The Jews who believed in Yeshua, would go to the synagogue on the Sabbath just as they had always done.

The Epistle of James implies that the Christian community to whom it was written was worshiping in the synagogue:

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, James 2:1-2 NASB

The word "assembly" here is the Greek word sunagoge, which means: "synagogue."

In Revelation 3-4 Yeshua addresses the seven churches. Notice what He says:

"To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: 'I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Revelation 3:1 NASB

Who is the "angel of the church"? Back when John Eleazar penned the Revelations, this phrase would not have been misunderstood as an angel or heavenly messenger. It was the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, sheliach tzibbur, or messenger of the assembly, who was a leader in the synagogue. Yeshua wrote to the "angel," who would then read the letter to the congregation. When John wrote this, the church was still meeting in the synagogue.

These letters were written specifically to the "angels/messengers of the assembly" to be read in the public gathering of the community of Believers in the seven cities. The third verse of the Book of Revelations is, "Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near."

In Rome, Jew and Gentiles are meeting in the synagogue and Gentiles are being tempted to consider unbelieving Jews excluded from God's purposes. So Paul tells the Gentiles:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. Romans 11:17-18 NASB

They were being arrogant toward the unbelieving Jews. This is the main point of this section, it is a warning to Gentiles about the dangers of pride. At the heart of his concern is that the Gentile believers were beginning to look at the unbelieving Jews in the synagogue with disdain, they rejected and crucified the Messiah.

The Gentiles in Rome think that Israel has now been replaced as God's people by Gentiles who believe in Yeshua.

Mark Nanos, in his book, The Mystery Of Romans, writes:

"Paul's addressees have been assumed to function within house churches that are separated, usually sharply, from the Jewish synagogue(s) or communities by the time of Paul's letter so that no deep dialogue and interaction with Jews who do not believe in Jesus Christ is really expected...But the results of this investigation into the social setting of Romans suggest that the Christian Gentiles Paul addresses are still meeting in the synagogue of Rome, and that they are considered part of the Jewish community as 'righteous gentiles.'"

Nanos goes on to say:

"In Rome, they not only attended synagogue regularly for prayer and the reading of the Scriptures because of their new faith in Jesus as the Christ of Israel and Savior of the world, but even their house gatherings took place under the authority of the synagogue--there was, as yet, no separation of church and synagogue for Paul or for those he addressed in Romans."

The Roman government legally classified synagogues as "collegia," a term used with respect to their shared traits with "private clubs," guilds, and other cultice associations that were legally recognized to have the same privileges: the right to assemble, to have common meals, common property, fiscal responsibilities, disciplinary rights among its members, and responsibility for the burial of members.

In addition to those privileges usually granted to "private clubs," Julius Caesar granted the Jewish communities the privilege "to live according to their ancestral laws."

These legal privileges were discussed at length by Josephus, and included the authority to interpret the Law and customs for the community, exemption from emperor worship and civic cults, the right to collect and distribute the Temple tax for Jerusalem, exemption from military service, protection of Sabbath observance including nonappearance in court, and the right to function as independent organizations without specifically seeking authorization to do so.

Josephus indicated that Julius Caesar's decree forbid the assembly of foreign religious societies other than Jewish ones in the city of Rome, and according to Suetonius Caesar had "dissolved all guilds, except those of ancient foundation." So how would Christians, outside association with the synagogues, obtain the right to congregate for fellowship and worship? And only Jews were free from declaring Caesar as god by the institution of a special substitutionary sacrifice.

Evidence indicates that in Rome Christianity and Judaism shared a common heritage and were probably inseparable before A.D. 60, and even perhaps until the middle of the second century. Robert Goldenberg asserts that it is increasingly accepted among scholars that "at the end of the 1st century CE there were not yet two separate religions called 'Judaism' and 'Christianity.'" Outside the synagogue environment the early Christians would have had little opportunity to learn the Scriptures.

In Chapters 12-15 it seems that Paul is specifically addressing the Gentile believers. He wants them to treat the non-believing Jews in the synagogue with love that they may be won to Christ. Remember what Paul said in:

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. Romans 11:11-14 NASB

The question is, "Did they stumble 'that' they should fall?" The word "that" is hina, which means: "in order that." Paul is not stressing the stumbling and the fact of the falling, but he's looking at the purpose. Have they stumbled that they should fall and that be all? May it never be! The stress rests on the purpose of Israel's fall. Through their transgression, "Salvation has come to the Gentiles."

So in Yahweh's eternal purpose the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews works to the salvation of the Gentiles, but it doesn't end there. He goes on to say, "To make them jealous"--the "them" is Israel. This is quoted from Deuteronomy 32, The Song of Moses, which is a prediction of Israel's last days. So the unbelief of Israel is ordained to promote the salvation of the Gentiles, which in turn promotes Jewish jealousy, which leads to their salvation. Later in this chapter Paul says:

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; Romans 11:28 NASB

Who are enemies for your sake? This refers to the remnant that have not yet believed the Gospel. It is the unbelieving Jews that they are in close contact with at the synagogue. They are the branches that can be grafted in again. From God's choice they are beloved. So they must be part of the remnant who have not yet believed in Christ.

so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. Romans 11:31 NASB

"These" is the elect remnant that have not yet come to faith in Yeshua, but they will be shown mercy. Because of the Gentiles coming to Christ, the Jews were made jealous, and they also are coming to Christ.

The Gentiles are to live righteously so as not to cause the unbelieving Jews to stumble. What exactly did it mean for the Gentiles to live righteously? I think we have the answer to this in Acts 15:

And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Acts 15:1 NASB

To these "Judaizers" salvation meant identifying not only with Christ, but with the nation Israel. It meant placing oneself under the Mosaic Covenant and keeping the Laws of Moses, as defined by Judaism. The issue at hand was whether Gentile converts had to become Jewish proselytes in order to be saved.

This is salvation by law, or by legalism, or ritual. And there are a lot of people today who are doing the same thing, it isn't Judaism anymore, but they are adding something to the Doctrine of Salvation besides faith: You have to be baptized, you have to live up to some standard, or you cannot be saved.

The Antiochian Church seems to have been unable to settle this debate on Soteriology, and so they appealed to the church in Jerusalem. So the believers met in Jerusalem to discus and debate the issue of Soteriology (how is it that a person is saved?).

Alright, so the meeting at Jerusalem satisfactorily settled from Scripture that God had promised in the last days to call many Gentiles to Himself, and that, therefore, the calling of the Gentiles as Gentiles was Scriptural. Now James gives his own judgment:

"Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, Acts 15:19 NASB

The word "trouble" is an interesting Greek word, it means: "to put an obstacle in their path." Troubling the Gentiles meant: "imposing the requirements of Jewish proselytes on them, namely, circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law."

The decision of the Jerusalem Council, then, was that the Gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God's grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Yeshua as the Messiah who bore one's sins and judgment so that they could be pronounced righteous in God's sight and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of the church in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were right, and those men who came to Antioch from Judea were wrong.

James, after having said we have freedom from the Law, we don't have to be circumcised, either to become a member of the covenant company or to be saved, introduces a few things that these people should do when they are in the midst of Jewish people in synagogue worship:

but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. Acts 15:20 NASB

What in the world is James saying? There is much controversy and debate over exactly what is meant here. Some see this as a reference to the Noachide Laws. In Judaism, the Seven Laws of Noah form the major part of the Noachide Laws, or Noahide Code. This code is a set of moral imperatives that, according to the Talmud, were given by God as a binding set of laws for the "children of Noah"--that is, all of mankind. According to religious Judaism, any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as a "righteous gentile," and is assured of a place in the world to come (Olam Haba), the final reward of the righteous.

The seven Noachide Laws listed by the Talmud are; Prohibition of Idolatry; Prohibition of Murder; Prohibition of Theft; Prohibition of Sexual immorality; Prohibition of Blasphemy; Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive; Establishment of courts of law. We'll deal more with this as we go through Romans.

I believe the point is this: All of those four issues--things offered to idols, things strangled, fornication, and blood--are connected to the worship of idols. Let me give you a quote here from Charles H. Savelle:

Concerning the nature of the prohibitions, the most likely explanation is that all four were associated to some degree with pagan religious practices. Since this association was highly offensive to Jews, Gentile believers were asked to avoid even the appearance of evil by avoiding such practices altogether. Thus the purposes of the decree and its prohibitions (cf. 15:29; 21:25) were to promote unity among believing Jews and believing Gentiles. (Charles H. Savelle," A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15." Bibliotheca Sacra 161:644 [October-December 2004]).

I think he is right on. The issue here is fellowship. James was calling for them to back off from expressing their freedom thoughtlessly (This is also exactly the argument of Romans 14). There were Jews in the churches who loathed idolatry. They hated it because Israel's own history was filled with that sort of failure, and they suffered for it. Everything about idolatry made them ill. So James was saying, "Don't flaunt your freedom.

The issue here was not a question of whether these things were necessary for salvation. It was whether they were necessary for fellowship in common. Refraining from these things would greatly reduce the cultural tensions which existed between Jews and Gentiles.

"For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath." Acts 15:21 NASB

These requirements would be necessary because the Gentiles were meeting in the synagogue with the Jews. James is saying, "The reason that the Gentile believers should abstain from these four behaviors is so not to offend the Jews and thus have an opportunity to share Christ with them.

Paul hopes, in harmony with James, that when the "stumbling" of Israel witness "obedient" Gentiles calling on the name of the Lord they will realize that the ingathering of the nations (Gentile salvation) is taking place before their very eyes, which means that the eschatological restoration of Israel has in fact already begun, as promised, and they will be provoked to reconsider the Gospel of Yeshua.

In Romans 12-15 Paul is calling on the Gentiles to do all they can to promote unity in their assembly so that the Jews who do not know Yeshua (the broken off branches) will come to faith in Him.

We are not involved in the synagogue with unsaved Jews, but I think that the application to us is that we are to live in such a way as to be a light to the lost. We are to live in a way that makes the Gospel of Yeshua attractive.

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