The Jewish Synagogue and Jesus (An Imaginative Explanation)

Jesus, the first time I heard you teach was in my local synagogue, and after listening to you teach on that passage from Isaiah 61:1-2, I realized that you were unlike any other teacher that I had sat under. You see I’ve been around synagogues all my life. They exist in all sizes some are small groups that meet in houses (usually it takes a group of about 10 or more Jewish males to call it a synagogue) and others are large groups that meet in buildings. The size and the grandeur of the building usually depends on the size and the wealth of the Jewish community. Some of the larger cities have many synagogues so that observant Jews could be within reasonable walking distance. My synagogue is a place where I can gather with other Jews on the sabbath and on holy days to recite the Shema (Deut 6:4-9), worship and receive education in the Torah. We also use the synagogue in order to meet the needs of others. This is the place where we give our money to help the poor and where we collect and distribute food to the hungry. On occasion, we even bake unleavened bread there when we are low on supplies. The head of the synagogue and the synagogue council do a great job at overseeing all the religious and ministerial activities.  I particular like that the synagogue is a place where new or visiting people can connect with one another. Often when fellow Jews are new to town, they need work and the synagogue gives them an opportunity to meet those with similar occupational skills and endeavors.[1]

Jesus, as you can tell I have experience with synagogue life, but when you showed up on that day, I sensed that my experience of the synagogue was about to radically change. There was something different yet familiar about you. You were different because you spoke with such authority and your gracious words penetrated my soul in such an amazing way. You were familiar because I had seen you before. I couldn’t remember where I had seen you until someone whispered to me that you were Joseph’s son. You returned to your home town to give that powerful teaching in the synagogue. I’m sorry for the way my neighbors responded that day. I was impacted so deeply that I decided to follow your ministry, and so I travelled to other synagogues where I knew that you would be teaching. Teaching in the synagogue seemed to be a primary focus of your early ministry, and you appeared to have high esteem for the institution of the synagogue.  Jesus, I learned so much from you on those many sabbaths. What struck my heart evenmore than your teaching were the healings you did in the synagogues. I was there when you delivered the man from the evil spirit (Luke 4:31-36), when you healed the paralyzed man and forgave his sins (Luke 5:17-26) and when you healed the man with the shriveled hand (Luke 6:6-11). Also, a synagogue ruler named Jairus tells how you raised his daughter from death (Luke 8:40-56).[2]

Jesus, your life and ministry was truly God’s kingdom come to earth, and for me, I will most treasure those times in the synagogue, especially those first words you read,

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

[1] James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era : Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1999), EPUB edition, ch. 10, “The Synagogues.”

[2] B. Chilton, “Synagogues,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background. Edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, 1145-1152.

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