[Jesus] went into their synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep! So then, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. (Matt. 12:9-13. See too Luke 13:10-14.)
Some might wonder why Jesus ever went to synagogue. After all, the reception was mixed. Of all the events of Jesus’ life that happened in synagogues or temple 75 % mention conflict or a negative reaction.1 He was ejected from His childhood synagogue because they doubted that God changes people; Jesus was no longer the carpenter’s kid (Matt.13:54-58; Luke 4:15-30). Like other religions, the Jewish religion was contaminated with traditions that strayed from God’s heart. There were hypocrites and glory seekers reveling in a system that rewarded special people with special seats (Matt. 6:2, 5; 23:6). Yet Jesus persisted (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Luke 4:44; John 18:20). Why?
Jesus did not fit neatly into Jewish religion; He didn’t come to endorse it; He came to fulfill God’s plan revealed in Scripture. There was a difference, and often there were sparks. He warned His followers to expect the same mixed reception (Matt.10:17; 23:34; Luke 12:11; John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). Similar contamination creeps into churches too easily. So, Jesus’ relationship with synagogues can teach us about our relationship to church.
- Perhaps the best-sounding reason we give for church is being in the presence of God. Certainly that happens. However, Jesus was always in His Father’s presence; synagogue was not special. In fact, when Jesus needed spiritual replenishment He withdrew to solitary places (Matt. 14:13, 23).
- Jesus attended because the Jewish culture, centered on synagogue and temple, was primed to receive the presence of God on earth. They knew the Scriptures. They awaited the Messiah. A traveling rabbi had a ready platform. Synagogue was a great place to find people who were somehow open to God. Our churches are too. Jesus did not politely conform to norms; He presented fulfilled promises of the kingdom. Open people rejoiced; devotees of the religious system were outraged. But they all heard.
- For Jesus it was another place to participate in God’s work. Hungry and needy people came to synagogue. Jesus met some there—but only some. A mere 19 % of Jesus’ recorded ministry happened in synagogues or the temple. Most of it (81 %) happened in ordinary settings—in houses, on journeys, in streets, on mountains, and by lake and river. I suspect that pattern allows for only a hesitant “thumbs up” for our special meetings held to minister to needs, get teaching, or do evangelism. Better to disciple one another to be salt and light, mostly “out there”, in the world.
- That leaves one important activity. “Synagogue” means “bringing together”. It was the place of community prayer for God’s people. Prayer meant more than petitions. It centered on Scripture reading as an act of worship for who God is and what He does. It led to petition and practical application. Jesus probably reveled in the ceremony on that level, especially knowing that He was fulfilling the prophecies and purposes of God. Even a dull church, if it is saturated in biblical theology, is a place to meet with and serve God. It gets harder when the meetings aim to earn social respectability points, soothe feelings, air opinions, or revel in relationships with each other rather than welcoming and responding to the presence of God. Fundamentally, church is revamped synagogue—Jesus-followers gathering to praise Him, listen to Him, and make disciples who disperse to obey Him.
So, how should we approach church? There is no sign that Jesus or Paul ever tried to change the organization or practice of synagogue. Instead they worked with open individuals, ordinary people and leaders, as opportunities arose. We can look for those opportunities too. Speak the truth, minister in kingdom power in a gentle and loving way, accept rejection gracefully, and move on if necessary.
- These figures come from my survey of the 190 “events” recorded in the Gospels. Of events in a synagogue, 34 % involved conflict, in the temple 78 %. [↩]