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Three Synagogues

by Tim O'Hearn

There is a lot in the news lately about the investigations into the events of January 6, 2021. The news is met with a variety of reactions. Some call the events an insurrection, and hang on every word in the news. Some call it a riot, and meet the news stories with indifference or apathy. Others call it a revolution, and face the news with skepticism. One event, many reactions. The same could be said about the news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. These reactions may be described by three types of synagogues of the Jewish people and their reaction to Paul.

The Synagogue of Rejection

Paul came to Corinth and, as was his custom, went to the synagogue of the Jews. At first it seemed that he met with some success. “He reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.” (Acts 18:4) After a while Timothy and Titus joined him, and he preached more boldly that Jesus was the Messiah.In spite of the rejection in the synagogue, Paul “continued there a year and six months.”

And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles. (Acts 18:6)

Even today, just the mention of the Messiah is enough to get most of the Jewish people to reject a speaker. Many no longer believe in an individual Messiah, but rather a concept of messiahship. It is not just the Jews, however. The Messiah as preached by Paul was a sacrifice for sin who arose triumphant over death. The vast majority of Americans (and even more Europeans) reject the concept of sin and salvation outright. Sin, to them, is not a violation of God’s law, but impingement on the rights of others. It is social impropriety.

Some churches who claim to be Christian churches have rejected the idea of sin and salvation. The “social gospel” has replaced Paul’s gospel in many places. Surveys show that 60% of Christians age 18-39 believe that Buddhism and Islam are equal regarding the way to salvation. About 52% of Christians believe that good works will earn them salvation. Only 35% of Americans believe that salvation comes only through Christ. Paul’s preaching would be rejected by many Christians today.

Many new Christians who want to change the world for Christ have a hard time facing this fact: most people don’t want to be saved because they don’t believe there is anything to be saved from. Paul, however, understood that he was not going to be successful every time he preached. There were synagogues of rejection, like the one in Corinth. Over time, people learn to shake their clothing to remove the dust of rejection and move on.

Sometimes rejection is passive. Sometimes it is active. The Corinthian Jews took Paul to court over his teachings. The judge realized that he had no jurisdiction and rejected the suit. Most people take the passive route. In some countries, though, preachers of the gospel have been beaten by unbelievers.

Fortunately, even in a synagogue or church of rejection, there will be some who believe. Paul moved into the house next door to the synagogue and kept teaching the Gentiles. Even then, the Jewish ruler of the Synagogue was baptized. In spite of the rejection in the synagogue, Paul “continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:11)

Synagogue of Envy

Paul preached at two synagogues that readily accepted his teachings as long as they were the only ones he taught. Paul came to Pisidian Antioch and went to the synagogue. They asked him if he had anything to say and he preached the gospel beginning with the history of the Jewish people. Many in the congregation became believers. However, envy crept in.

And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. (Acts 13:44-45)

The same thing happened in Thessalonica. He preached for three consecutive sabbaths. “And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.” (Acts 17:4) Others in the congregation, “moved with envy,” created a riot.

Envy is a dangerous thing, and it, too, is not limited to the Jewish people. Some Christian churches have been subject to envy. It is surprising that more aren’t.

There was a time when the Churches of Christ were accused (perhaps rightly) of believing they were the only people going to heaven. It was even joked that, “Just because the Baptists go in through the door that doesn’t mean we have to go in through a window.” If someone even suggested visiting another Christian group’s assembly, that person might be rejected out of envy. Others were more relaxed, sometimes, and more popular. Fortunately, most now understand that there may be true, baptized believers in many groups.

Why is a person a Methodist and not a Baptist? Why is one a Presbyterian and another a Congregationalist? Everybody thinks that the way they believe is right, and everybody else has some points on which they are wrong. To some the differences are minor and not related to salvation. To others the differences make all the difference, so to speak. When someone starts getting more followers than they have, they may reject that doctrine, “moved with envy.”

When envy is the only reason to reject a doctrine, that becomes a fault. It may even, as it did with the Jews in Thessalonica and Antioch, cause people to reject the truth. Then it becomes a sin. We should hold our ground on clear biblical doctrine. If someone else preaches sound doctrine, we should rejoice, not become a synagogue of envy. Paul addresses this to the Philippians.

Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. (Php 1:15-18)

Synagogue of Acceptance

Paul also preached in synagogues that readily accepted his preaching and stayed the course. Immediately after leaving Thessalonica because of envy, Paul went to Berea and found a different attitude.

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11)

Right after Paul left the rejection at Corinth, he traveled to Ephesus. There he taught, and when he had to leave “they desired him to tarry longer time with them.” The Ephesian congregation became one of the leading churches of the first century.

Such synagogues are a preacher’s dream. There were probably some in those congregations that rejected Paul’s message, but they appear to have been few. So few, in fact, that the scriptures emphasize those that did follow him.

What makes a synagogue of acceptance? From these two can we draw any conclusions?

The most obvious conclusion comes from the synagogue in Berea. Any congregation that accepts God’s message will be centered on scripture. The Bereans heard Paul speak on the Sabbath. They either insisted that he continue to teach them the rest of the week or they examined the scriptures on their own. They didn’t settle for a message from the preacher one day a week; they studied daily.

A congregation that is so devoted to the scriptures will insist on the same devotion in their teachers. One characteristic fault of many radio and television preachers is that they don’t quote scripture. They tell you what they claim the Bible says. They hope you don’t verify it. In fact, they make it hard for you to verify because they don’t tell you where the scriptures that they do quote can be found. You can listen to a lot of their sermons and neverIf someone else preaches sound doctrine, we should rejoice, not become a synagogue of envy. hear chapter and verse. Even in smaller congregations, some preachers follow their example. No matter what faults some people find with the Churches of Christ, few people fault them for not having “book, chapter, and verse preaching.” With modern technology, many preachers in that group project the scriptures (with location references) so the congregation can see “whether those things were so.”

From the Ephesian congregation we find that personal relationships are important. Those people became so attached to Paul that they did not want him to leave, even to fulfil Passover commitments. From the letter Paul wrote to them and other passages in the book of Acts, it is clear that this was not just a case of preacheritis. Their loving relationships extended to each other as well. “I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints.” (Eph 1:15) They were a congregation that wanted to congregate. They wanted to be together.

A synagogue of acceptance expects its members to gather together. While it may provide electronic streaming of its services, that is only for those who have a legitimate reason why they cannot be part of the assembly. Everyone possible is expected to join with the church so that they can encourage and be encouraged.

Five synagogues, but of three characteristic types. It is up to each individual to choose the type that appeals to them. No, wait. It is rather up to each individual to choose the type that appeals to God.