What Is The Synagogue Of Satan?

9 Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.

To use a phrase that “this is one of the most misunderstood verses in the entire Bible” is to use a cliché, but in this case the claim is actually true. The traditional interpretation is as follows:

The Jews in the city of Philadelphia hated and opposed the Christians, but according to God, the Christians now were the true people of God (spiritual Jews), and not them (the carnal Jews). The Jews, because of their unbelief and rejection of Jesus, are no longer Jews spiritually, the Christians are now spiritual Jews. There will come a day when persecuted Christians will be triumphant and the unbelieving Jews will submit to them. God will make it abundantly clear to all that He was always on the side of the Christians. The Jews simply lied about their identity. The Church has now became what Israel once was, God’s own people.

It is clear that my simplified but fair summary of the interpretation of these texts is an example par excellence of replacement theology or supersessionism at work. What, if not this reading, should be the proper reading of this text? There are a number of issues to consider here.

First, Christian Bibles (well-meaning and faithful translations) still fall into the trap of age old Christian Anti-Judaism when it comes to translation decisions from the Koine Judeo-Greek text of the New Testament when it is translated into modern languages. Take for example the Greek word συναγωγῆς translated here as synagogue (of Satan), while in James 2:2 when the commandment is given to treat poor worshipers on a par with the rich the same word (συναγωγῆς ) is translated as (your) assembly. The word synagogue (συναγωγῆς) in the first century and following was actually a Greco-Roman institution that emerged and functioned during the time of the Babylonian exile. It became a place of Jewish gatherings for study, prayer and fellowship. It really did mean something like a meeting or an assembly. James 2:2 is therefore appropriately translated, but instead of applying the same logic when an utterly negative context is in view as in Rev. 3:9 (of Satan), the overwhelming majority of Christian translators chose to call it not an assembly, but a Synagogue of Satan. In the minds of all modern people (Jewish or otherwise) this word evokes a clear affiliation with the religion we today call Judaism. This was not always because the first century Graeco-Roman institution called a συναγωγῆς (synagogue) was freely used by Jews and non-Jews alike .

Second, and this is absolutely stunning, Jesus actually told the Philadelphian believers that people who were saying and doing these things are not Jews. Stop and think about it for a moment. If we do not accept the traditional interpretation that the carnal Jews are not the spiritual Jews, we could accept what may be called the plain meaning of Jesus’ words, namely that the people opposing them were not Jews at all. If they were not Jews, who were they? Given the widespread practice of conversion to Jewish ancestral practices (proselyte conversion) or coming near to them as in the case of God-fearers, we may be dealing here with overzealous people who were either completely new to Jewish ways of life or who were only superficially familiar with the traditions and therefore not representative of them. We must think through other interpretive possibilities if Jesus’ words (that these people were not Jews) could be taken literally and seriously.

The seven assemblies of Asia Minor were made up of large number of former God-fearers (Gentiles) who had joined the faith of Israel through their reception of Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) and the assemblies included those Israelites who had earlier followed Jesus as the Messiah. It is likely that the non-conversion prescriptions decreed in Acts 15:29 were to blame. The group of people, led by overzealous converts to Jewish ancestral ways of life and who, until recently, were not members of the Jewish people were the ones behind the persecution of believers in Philadelphia. They strongly objected to Gentiles joining the Jewish people without formal proselyte conversion which was not required by the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:29) and which the Apostle Paul clearly forbade (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Jesus promised the Gentiles who followed him according to the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (vs. those who chose the proselyte conversion path to Israel’s God) that he would finally and publically approve them (Rev. 3:9b). He also praised them for doing well.

10 Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. 

The Jews in the Roman Empire were numerous and they were a privileged minority. Since the followers of the Jewish Christ from the Nations were instructed against proselyte conversion to Judaism, they were at odds with both the prevailing Roman culture and the majority of Jews who did not understand why they counted themselves among the people of Israel’s God without officially joining that very people. This was the primary meaning of conversion in late antiquity. Jesus promised these precious believers, that since they had kept his commandments in spite of enormous difficulties, he in turn would preserve them through the hours of great difficulty that were soon coming. It is likely that the empire-wide persecution of Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ was in view. That particular persecution took place under Emperor Nero (64-68 C.E.)

11 I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

In the Roman Empire, Jews, even Jesus-following Jews, were a minority who were protected by law. However, Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ were not. Former Roman pagans who joined this Jewish coalition under Jesus without actual conversion to Jewish ancestral traditions and way of life were vulnerable to the attacks of their enemies on both sides – the Roman pagans that despised them and the former Roman pagans who went through proselyte conversion to Judaism (those who say “they are Jews, but are not” in Rev.3:9).

Even with the promise of preservation (Rev. 3:10), the coming persecution and survival/overcoming would not be easy. Once it was accomplished, however, the rewards of the Israelite Kingdom for Gentile members of this Jewish Jesus coalition would be great. Members from among the Nations of the world who joined the Jewish Jesus not as Jews, but as members of the nations, would be fully brought in and treated as first class citizens of the Kingdom of Israel’s God.

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  1. Jay Axtell

    Outstanding explanation, Dr. Eli. Have you ever looked at the new Tree of Life version? Baker publishing just picked it up.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      No. How does it translate it and other problematic “anti-Jewish” sections? Would love to hear about it.

  2. Jerry S.

    As a “Gentile member(s) of this Jewish Jesus coalition” I love this particular kind of study in search of HIS truth. I’ve written before, it’s the implications of these studies that interest me most.

    Your summary is just what I was taught as I sat under traditional Christian teaching and is what the majority of Christians I know have come to understand as doctrine. The false doctrine of Replacement Theology has been” institutionalized”.
    I’ve found that coming at this debate from the translation stand point defuses much angst that results from the discussion, but not always. There lacks much in understanding translation/interpretation from one language to another in the “assembly” of believers today.

    The translation of the English word church runs parallel with the word synagogue in its misleading modern understanding of scriptures intent. The Septuagint can be used as a key to interpretation where there exists a correlating Hebrew to Greek translation/interpretation that then can be used as a basis for Greek to English understanding.

    OT Hebrew words Qahal and Edah are both translated to English as assembly, convocation, congregation readily, but NT English translations for whatever reason use these English words intermittently alongside of both the words church and synagogue. Any lay person can study this phenomenon with modern internet search engines.

    J.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I agree the word church should not be used to translate anything in new testament (ekklesia and church are not the same ideas, one is jewish (first one) and the second (church) is already invested in Christian vs. Jewish conceptional meaning, therefore is problematic. Read Anders Runesson (Oslo, former McMaster University) on this.

  3. Lori

    This interpretation is so logical. Instead of manipulating the words to fit our pre-conceptions, the actual historical facts are simply presented and fit perfectly.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Lori, many thanks for your feedback. It is amazing how much is being read into texts. Everyone is guilty. So we should just be on the lookout always asking ourselves what else may we be overlooking?

  4. cecille12

    I love the way you pull the actual historical and cultural to explain Revelation as well as God’s plan with His loved ones who are stepping up to follow His Son Jesus. I heard a Rabbi on the Internet this past week, though not a believer in the Jewish Jesus, say the Torah speaks where anyone can understand. Just from your explanation of the believers in the Church of Philadelphia, it is crystal clear, you point it out from the proper understanding and ground of the Jews. It has to be because of the replacement theology or supersessionism that has clouded the meaning. I always want to put others before me, but it seems the replacement theology and supersessionism wants to put Jews under their feet to the nations and not to Jewish Israel. Israel will be the head, not the tail. Thanks be to the Lord Jesus who deemed it good in His eyes to fully bring me in and be a first class citizen of the Kingdom of Israel’s God through His great mercy!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Mary. I don’t think there is a real conspiracy here. But I think those are trajectories of meaning. Once people accept them they go long way. Most things that blind us are not what we don’t know, but we think we know – one wise man had said.

  5. Luis R. Santos

    Well said!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Luis.

  6. yetilived

    Your example of replacement theology is indeed excellent. I noticed in Acts 15:19-21 that the reason behind the decision of the Jerusalem Council was because the law of Moses had been preached in every city on every Sabbath. I also noticed that they were speaking about gentiles who had turned to God, not Christ(?) If I toss aside the “sinners” model of evangelism this seems to be more about the blood covenant than sin. Questions I am asking myself are: 1. are the 7 stars in Revelation the Holy Spirit? 2. is this different then the seal of the Holy Spirit? I was under works (- no sacrificial system +Ten Commandments) before I repented. I turned to God in my repentance and the hidden manna and the white stone were the revelations bringing me to faith to accept the blood covenant (Matthew 26:26-29) A lot to think about.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Let’s keep on thinking about it together.

    2. alicialala

      What I know is we also do what the jews does. The difference is the jews are obeying the laws to avoid punishment and condemnation, but in our case we obey the law out of love for God and others, and we want to be free.

      I will not eat meat if others will see and will get stumbled for eating such. Jews will not eat meat because it is forbidden by the law. Spiritual Jews eat meat with gladness, thankfulness, righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. So it is all about the manner of practice of being natural and spiritual in all conduct of our lives.
      Paul said the natural first then the spiritual. Jews first then the Christians. But In the case of salvation, the first became last, and the last became first. Jesus taught through the natural so we will understand the spiritual. The jews did not fully understood the significance of the Blood Covenant because they did not saw the spirit behind it, it was kept hidden from them because of their carnality. Christians understood it because of their faith and knowledge of the One who gave them the Blood Covenant manifested both in the natural and spiritual way, the jewish heritage and culture as their parallel. It is so true that the New Testament revealed what the Old Testament has concealed. Praise God Almighty and Lord Jesus Christ!

  7. Don Demrow

    Excellent article. Todah rabah!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      bevakasha (welcome) 🙂

  8. David

    Dr.: I believe you are a little mixed up on this translation, and are making an effort to make the translation of the verse sound anti-Semitic. In doing so, you make the reading of this article difficult.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      David, hi. Any one can be mistaken including myself. Plz, make your point in more concrete way, where do you believe I am “a little mixed up on this translation”?

  9. Disciple of Jesus

    Under the heading of “A brief History of the Terms for Jew” in the 1980 Jewish Almanac is the following:

    “Strictly speaking it is incorrect to call an ancient Israelite a ‘Jew’ or to call a contemporary Jew an Israelite or a Hebrew.” (1980 Jewish Almanac, p. 3).

    http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/1/61.abstract — The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses

    http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/1/61.full.pdf+html — The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypotheses

    Jesus was an Israelite (temporarily) not a “Jew”.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think in John in particular, while Jesus is a Jew (in a sense of being Judean), but he is primarily an Israelite. So I agree, but I am not sure that you with me on everything here :-).

  10. MARCELINO

    EXCELENTE LA INTERPRETACION, ATESORARE ESTE COMENTARIO, DOY GRACIAS A DIOS POR SER MI AMIGO,BENDICIONES