The Significance of Synagogues
Discover the Origin of Having a Local Place of Worship
Another interesting word that occurs only in the New Testament is synagogues. Appearing sixty-six times, it’s in all four gospels, a lot in the book of Acts, and twice in Revelation. That’s it. Notably the word synagogue does not appear in the Old Testament. Where did it come from? Why did something nonexistent in the Old Testament become a place of prominence in the New?
The Old Way
In the Old Testament God establishes the tabernacle and later the temple as the only place to worship him. It’s a center of their national religion: one place for the whole nation. To encounter God, the people go to the temple, which they believe is his earthly residence.
The New Way
In the New Testament, the temple still exists as the national destination for religious celebration, but local synagogues also exist. It seems there’s one in every city that has a Jewish population. The people meet at their local synagogue on the Sabbath.
On Paul’s missionary journeys, he often first goes to the synagogue to talk to the Jews in that area. If they don’t accept his message, then he goes to secular locations to talk to the Gentiles.
The Transition to Synagogues
The Bible doesn’t explain why they’re synagogues in the New Testament. Nor does it explain the shift of emphasis, which makes each synagogue a local gathering place for Jewish worship.
However, history does provide an explanation. Babylon conquers Judah and forcibly relocates the people. They can’t go to their temple anymore. It’s too far away. In its stead they establish a local meeting place in each city they find themselves in. This becomes the focal point of the Jewish community: a synagogue in each city.
When they receive permission to return to Judah seventy years later, they take this idea of having a local meeting place with them. When they get back, they go about building synagogues in each city. And they meet there each week on the Sabbath.
God never commanded his people to build a local place of worship in each city. Of course, he never prohibited it either. What he did command is a central place of worship for the nation, the temple.
Though I’m still looking for it, I’ve not found any place in the Bible where God commands his people to worship him on the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath. What he does say about the Sabbath is that we are to keep it holy and not do any work (Exodus 20:8-9). I don’t see anywhere where he says we need to go to church. Instead, this practice seems to have emerged as a manmade tradition.God says to keep the Sabbath holy and not do any work. He doesn’t mention going to church. Click To Tweet
Though the temple was a place of worship, it was for various festivals and celebrations that God established. Indeed, going to the temple each Sabbath would pose a hardship on most people who would have to travel long distances to get there.
Though God’s people built synagogues and went there each Sabbath, it wasn’t his idea. He gave no command for them to do so.
Today this tradition persists. We build local houses of worship and go there each week to worship God. I wonder if we should instead focus on God’s command to honor him by keeping the Sabbath holy and not doing any work.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.