The word ‘synagogue’ is derived from ‘sun’, together, and ‘ego’, to bring, and denotes ‘to bring together’. These were buildings set apart for the worship of God and appear to have originated after the Babylonian captivity to meet the need of the Jews dispersed throughout the world. They had so increased in number that there was no town without one or more of them. Rectangular in structure, they stood, where possible, on the highest ground in or near the city to which they belonged, and were so constructed that the worshippers on entering looked towards Jerusalem. At the upper or Jerusalem end stood an ark or chest containing the copy of the Law and the Prophets, and here sat the elders of the congregation facing the people – the chief seats in the synagogues, Matt. 23. 6. Here, too, was a pulpit from which the reader stood to read the lessons or sat down to teach. The congregation was divided, the men on one side, the women on the other or in a separate gallery. The Sheliach, or spokesman, read the prescribed lessons and the people responded at the close of each with an audible Amen. A first lesson from the Law of Moses was read every Sabbath, Acts 15. 21, and a second from the Prophets, Luke 4. 17., the readers being selected by the Sheliach. There was an exposition by any Rabbi who might be present and selected by the Sheliach. He sat to expound the scriptures as in Luke 4. 20; Acts 13. 14, 15. The elders seemed to have exercised a judicial power over the community. They tried offenders, Luke 21. 12; had power to scourge, Matt. 10. 17; could send offenders for trial to Jerusalem, Acts 9. 2; and had the power of excommunication, John 16. 2.
Three occasions are recorded on which the Lord entered and taught in the synagogue. First, there was the incident of the Unclean Spirit, in which we observe:
A Question of Teaching
‘And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the Sabbath day he entered into the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one that had authority and not as the scribes’, 1. 21, 22. Perhaps, this was the synagogue built by the centurion as in Luke 7. 5. In contrast to the teaching of the scribes, whose authority rested on tradition and Rabbinic precedence, the Lord taught in His own name declaring, ‘I say unto you’. The healing of the demoniac is the first miracle recorded by Mark and Luke, and confirmed in the minds of those present the authority of His teaching, 1. 27. This was no addition to scribal teaching but an entirely new doctrine in matter and form. As He spoke the silence was broken by the cries and ravings of a demon-possessed man. Capernaum, the scene of the miracle, was the city of great privilege but was devastatingly condemned for its unbelief by the Lord Himself, Matt. 11. 23, 24. It may be a sad commentary on the spiritual condition of Capernaum that a demoniac could worship in the synagogue unobserved. With no desire for deliverance, the demoniac cried, ‘Let us alone, what have we to do with thee?’, 1. 24, or more literally, ‘What have we in common?’.
Conflict with Demons
Recognizing the duality of his consciousness, the Lord addressed the demon saying, ‘Hold thy peace’, literally, ‘Be muzzled’, and ‘Come out of him’. Christ did not accept or tolerate the testimony of the demons as to His origin and office, 1. 24, and the response to the Lord’s rebuke was immediate and complete. Though led to wonder, those who beheld the miracle were not led to believe. The Lord performed His miracles selectively for those whose faith, though small, was genuinely sincere, Luke. 17. 6.
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