A “Synagogue of Satan?”
Revelation 2:9 – “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”
3:9 – “Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.”
Looking at these verses, there are false assumptions that lead people to the erroneous view that Yeshua is calling the ‘pre-believing’ Jewish people in Smyrna ‘non-Jews’ and members of a synagogue of Satan. Two words in these verses, “Jews” and “Synagogue,” are especially confusing to many who read this portion. We’ll consider both of them.
The argument here is that this verse is saying that these Jews are only Jews in the flesh and not truly Jews in the spirit (these would be “Christians”.) In this verse, the fact that these people say that they are Jews but are really not means that they identify themselves merely according to their fleshly origin. This interpretation of the passage may seem to make sense, but should be rejected because Yeshua states here that these people are not Jews. Holding to this interpretation would mean that only those who are born-again children of God should have the touted title of Jews, regardless of their ethnicity or parentage. This is not possible according to God’s Word.
In the Bible in general, and the New Covenant in particular, Gentile believers are never specifically called Jews. When this discussion is brought up, Romans 2:28-29 is usually used to ‘prove’ that Paul calls all born-again believers “spiritual Jews.” What is usually overlooked is that in the context of these verses, beginning in Romans 2:17, Paul is speaking to physical Jews, and he is actually teaching them that only the born-again Jews (not born-again Gentiles) are “spiritual Jews” (in God’s sight). However, in saying that only born-again Jews are spiritual Jews, this doesn’t mean that Paul is thereby declaring non-believing Jews to be non-Jews, not at all. And though he strongly teaches that Jewish believers and Gentile believers are equal in the sight of God, Paul still refers to non-believing Jews as “Jews” throughout his writings (See 1 Cor 9:20; 10:32 etc). Also, Paul makes it clear in Romans 11:14 that Gentile believers in Yeshua are still non-Jews: “I’m writing to you who are Gentiles.” He doesn’t write ‘to you who were Gentiles,’ but to you who ‘are Gentiles.’ For even though they are children of God, and enjoy every spiritual blessing that God has for all His children in Yeshua, they are still physically non-Jews.
We read of the Ephesian believers’ strengths in Revelation 2:2: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.” We see the same grammatical structure in Rev 2:2, as we see in Rev 2:9 & 3:9, (“those who say they are apostles and are not” and “those who say they are Jews and are not.”) As the self-proclaimed apostles were not actual apostles, so the self-proclaimed Jews were not actual Jews. As it happens today as well, these were merely Gentiles who called themselves Jews, perhaps thinking that there is some spiritual validation in having the name “Jew” (which, according to Scripture, there is not, for in Yeshua alone is all our righteousness and complete validation before God).
The word “synagogue” in this verse is also confusing for many readers. “Synagogue” is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning a gathering place or assembly. But many assume that in Scripture a synagogue always refers to a place of worship for non-believing Jews, but not a place for believers to gather to worship. This is not the case. In James 2:2, the Greek word “synagogue” is used for a place where believers gather for worship. This word is generally translated “assembly” in many English translations, but in the Greek it is the word synagogue nonetheless. Apparently, and as a result of the anti-Jewish bias that developed from the Church fathers, most translators today do not want to ‘confuse’ English readers by translating the Greek word “synagogue” as synagogue, lest they think that believers went to a non-believing Jewish synagogue for worship, so the word “assembly” is used instead.
As an aside, the use of “synagogue” as a place where believers go to worship and honor Yeshua reminds us that this is a fulfillment of prophecy: In Genesis 28:3 we read, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.” The rabbis translated this phrase, “a company of peoples,” into Greek as a “synagogue of peoples”. And in Genesis 35:11: “God also said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you.” So besides “a nation” (Israel), God promised a “synagogue of nations” alongside of Israel! And again in Genesis 48:4: “and He said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and numerous, and I will make you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your descendants after you for an everlasting possession.’” So here too God would make a “synagogue of nations”! How appropriate for a believing congregation made up of Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles to be called a “synagogue” of Yeshua!
But too often for many non-Jewish believers, the word “synagogue” merely refers to a non-believing Jewish place of worship, and so they would therefore see the word “synagogue” in Rev 2:9 and 3:9 as having a negative connotation. But the word doesn’t merely mean a “Jewish” place but an “assembly” place. Thus the phrase “synagogue of Satan” in these verses might better be translated as “an assembly of Satan” and thereby refer to an assembly, a cult of Gentiles calling themselves Jews, (i.e., today Mormons also call themselves “Jews”) who were persecuting the believers made up of both Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles. Satan had this legalistic cult of Gentiles, who called themselves Jews though they were not, spiritually deceived. Individuals and groups like this are acting as his agents against the true Messianic faith even while they give actual Jewish people a bad name!