NT Background

The Synagogue & the Word

The Capernaum Synagogue

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2015. Used by permission.

A former graduate professor of mine made a passing statement once that grabbed my attention. He referred to two types of worship: the temple model and the synagogue model. The temple emphasized ritual and the synagogue emphasized the Word. In this companion article I want to focus on three physical aspects of the synagogue that relate to the Word of God— the ark, the platform, and Moses’ Seat. 

The pictures below help illustrate these three physical features. The first image shows two arks, or special containers for the scrolls of Scripture, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem today. On Mondays and Thursdays young men have their bar mitzvah celebrations at the Western Wall. These arks are here in preparation for their reading from the scrolls at this turning point in their lives. 

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The Zealots (Part 2)

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There were two political choices facing the Jewish person in Judea under Roman rule—submit or rebel. Those choices were personified by two groups or sects that were active during the period—the Herodians and the Zealots. This is not to say that every Jew belonged to one or the other of these “fraternities.” They each actually had very few “members” as such. But the Herodians and the Zealots exemplified the extreme ways in which conquered peoples have always reacted to foreign rulers. Who were these Jewish sectaries and how did they themselves respond to Jesus’ unique message of salvation?

The Herodians are mentioned only twice in the Gospels, once in Galilee (Mark 3:6) and once in Jerusalem (Mark 12:13, Matthew 22:16). In each of these occurrences they are associated with the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus. While they may have agreed with the Pharisees in their religious views, they must have been distinguished from them in their political beliefs. The Pharisees tended to be rather non-political, more concerned about the Mosaic and Oral law and its application to their daily lives. On the other hand, the Herodians, by their very name, must have been active supporters of Roman rule. The Emperor Augustus was wise enough to know that a subject people could be kept under control better if they were ruled immediately by a “puppet ruler” from the people themselves. Therefore, he appointed Herod who was of nominal Jewish background as a descendant of forced converts to the Jewish faith. Herod, his sons, and their sons ruled over the Jewish people for over a century. This rule, however, was exercised by the permission and blessing of Rome. The Herodian dynasty represented Roman rule to the people. Those who actively supported Roman domination of Judea manifested that support by devotion to Rome’s puppets, the Herods. Hence they were known as Herodians.

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The Zealots: Rendering Unto Caesar

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus as your Savior, I ask you the following question: “Are you a Christian American or are you an American Christian?” You may answer with some bit of perplexity, “What’s the difference?” Well, pondering the answer to that question involves more than just playing a game with words. In the phrase “Christian American” the operative word is “American” and the modifier is “Christian.” In the phrase “American Christian” the operative word is “Christian” and the modifier is “American.” Is there a difference here worth noting?

For years now some patriotic Christians have proudly borne the title “Christian American” without realizing the subtle way in which they may unintentionally be denying their calling as “citizens of heaven” (see Phil. 3:20 and I Pet. 2:11). A true believer has been translated from this earthly “kingdom” into a “heavenly” kingdom (Col. 1:13). That does not mean that we should drop out of this world. We are to submit to the government, pay it our taxes and obey its laws. Jesus told to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21). Admittedly, it is not always easy to decide where the line is between our duty to the government and our duty to our Lord. But one thing we cannot deny—our allegiance first and foremost is to the Sovereign King of Heaven. That is why we are Christians who happen to be Americans (or Canadians or Israelis) not Americans who happen to be Christians.

It is encouraging to know that this is not a new problem but one that was faced by Jews and Christians in Biblical days as well. During the first century A.D., the relationship of a believer in the one true God to the ruling power, i.e. Rome, was an issue that divided the Jewish people who first heard the message of Jesus. Understanding this ancient problem may help us to more intelligently decide what should be our duty to our own “Caesar,” whatever be the country where we live.

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