The Truth About the ‘Synagogue of Satan’
What did the Lord mean when He used the words synagogue of Satan in His revelation to His beloved apostle John in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9?
The Greek word translated “synagogue” literally means “an assembly.” The word Satan means “adversary.” So John was told that the believers in Smyrna and Philadelphia would suffer persecution from “an assembly of the adversary”—literally, “a gathering of Satan.”
The phrase does not mean that Jewish people are satanic or devil worshipers. It means only that Jewish people in Smyrna and Philadelphia persecuted believers. They did not comprehend the message of God’s grace as revealed to the fledgling church. This was so because they were being prejudiced by their teachers and, being uninformed, were encouraged to oppose the early Christians, many of whom were Jewish.
These two verses (2:9; 3:9) have led to much anti-Semi -tism down through the centuries. Some Gentiles (including some Christians) have used them to deny the Jewish heritage of Christianity and even go so far as to deny that Jesus Himself was Jewish. However, such people do so because of personal prejudice, blind hatred, and ignorance concerning whom the Bible is identifying in these two verses.
There is not much difference between the unbe -lieving Jewish people in Revelation and the unbelieving Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the church unto death (Acts 9:1–2; 22:20). Saul, in his unregenerate state, thought “the Way,” meaning the early church, was wrong and contrary to Judaism. So he attacked it and sought to destroy it.
Later, when he met the resurrected Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road, his life was transformed; he ceased persecuting the church and became the apostle Paul, a believer in Jesus the Messiah.
The late scholar Dr. Harry A. Ironside, in his commentary on Revelation, suggested another possible interpretation of the verses. Perhaps there was still an attempt to make Gentile Christians become Jewish before they became followers of Jesus. This heresy of Judaizing was first addressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Wrote Ironside, such advocates “oppose the truth of grace and seek in every way to hinder the carrying out of the principles…pleasing to the Lord.”1 They “put the consciences of Christians under the bondage of Jewish legalism, thus really doing Satan’s work.”2
Perhaps the correct position is a hybrid of both interpretations. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Bible teaches that Christians will have tribulation and persecution. Yet they are not to hate or despise the perpetrators. Believers are to love them, pray for them, and do good, so “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
- A. Ironside, Revelation (1920; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 45.