As we conclude this short series, I’d like to try to unlock the meaning of an obscure phrase, found twice within the letters to the seven churches of Revelation. which has always intrigued me. The references are quite easy to remember, as they both end in the number nine.
Christ told “the church in Smyrna” (Rev. 2:8):
I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Rev. 2:9)
And He exhorted “the church in Philadelphia” (Rev. 3:7):
Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. (Rev. 3:9)
Now, could it be that this short but highly descriptive phrase—used twice, apparently for emphasis—is actually rich in meaning, shedding light upon our subject, as I hinted at back in the beginning of Part 1 in this series?
Here we have a synagogue—a congregation of people—energized by Satan himself to claim a Jewish heritage that is not rightfully theirs. What does this mean?
By an overwhelming margin, the majority of commentators—even within our pretribulational, dispensational camp—assert that these passages refer to people who are of Jewish ethnicity.
Though there may be shades of difference in the way that various Bible students understand these verses, Alan F. Johnson provides one of the most concise summaries representing the majority view:
A “synagogue of Satan” appears to describe a Jewish element that vehemently denied Jesus as the Messiah and that actively persecuted others who made this claim.1
As I contemplate these intriguing passages, however, I find greater affinity with the interpretation espoused by none other than Dr. Harry Ironside, when he stated:
It is, undoubtedly, that false Judaizing system which is contemplated, whose advocates everywhere oppose the truth of grace…. In their ignorance, these teachers give up the true Christian position, claiming to be the spiritual Israel, appropriating to themselves Jewish promises and Jewish hopes, and would put the consciences of Christians under the bondage of Jewish legalism, thus really doing Satan’s work.2
Could we actually be dealing here, as Ironside suggests, with “false Judaizing” teachers—who are really not Jewish at all, but claimed to be? Admittedly, this is the minority view of the phrase in question, but it seems to me to make the most sense within the context. Would it really be in character for a book that will describe the ultimate rescue and salvation of the Jewish people (Rev. 12:13-17; see Zech. 13:9) to begin by describing them in such severe terms—even in their present state of unbelief?
Interestingly, The Moody Bible Commentary first advocates the widely held view that this “synagogue of Satan” is composed of “antagonistic Jews.”3 Later, however, the same author states in comments on Rev. 3:9:
It is difficult to identify the “synagogue of Satan.” … they may have been Gentiles who had been circumcised … and now are trying to force this teaching on other Gentiles.4
If, in fact, this understanding that I favor for this “synagogue of Satan” concept in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9 is correct, it offers a compelling rebuke to replacement theology—meaning any theological system that teaches that the church has become the new, true, spiritual Israel, and that the physical people, nation and land of Israel have thus been rejected forever.
Instead of this, we believe that God will restore Israel in a glorious future. The Jewish Messiah and King will indeed “sit and rule on His throne” as “a priest on His throne” (Zech. 6:13)—for a thousand years in Jerusalem.
You’ll never cancel Israel! May the Lord spare His church from her incessant struggle to do so in the face of the enormity of Scriptural teaching, and may He inspire us instead to contemplate the wonders of His gracious plan and provision for His chosen people.
1 Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Vol. 12, Hebrews - Revelation), gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 453, see comments on Rev. 3:9.
2 H. A. Ironside, Lectures on the Book of Revelation, 1930 ed. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1920), 71-72, see comments on Rev. 3:9.
3 Daniel Green, “Revelation,” in The Moody Bible Commentary, eds. Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 2,004, see comments on Rev. 2:9.
4 Ibid., 2,006, see comments on Rev. 3:9.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, based in Columbus, WI, and serving in the Midwest. For more information on his ministry, visit sermonaudio.com/pscharf or foi.org/scharf, or email email@example.com.