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Vol 4 No 30 November 14, 1999

The Church of Christ: Synagogue or Temple?

Phil Roberts


The synagogue and the temple were quite distinct from one another in Judaism, though often confused today. There was only one legitimate temple. But, according to rabbinic law, a quorum of ten men was all that was necessary to organize a synagogue. Thus synagogues had sprung up in every town and village where Jews lived.

But a synagogue was only a house of prayer; it was not the house of God. Sacrifices could only be offered at the temple. A synagogue had no alter. Anyone could enter a synagogue - even a Gentile - but only a priest could enter the temple. The synagogue was the place where ordinary men went to pray. The point has often been made that instrumental music was not used in the synagogue. The fact it, Jews of the New Testament period did not have any music at all in their synagogues - instrumental or vocal. All such congregational praise was reserved for the temple, which was the only true dwelling place of God on earth. And in this, we see the inadequacy, not just of the synagogue, but of the entire Old Testament system.

It is not that the system was bad. It is just that the Old Testament was never designed to provide full forgiveness of sin (Rom 8:3). Thus it did not provide a real restoration of fellowship between God and man either. Sinful man could come close to the house of God, but he could not enter. Direct fellowship was prohibited. Even priests could enter only after special rituals of purification . And this inadequacy was deeply sensed by many Jews. Their desire for direct fellowship with God led some of them to begin to equate their synagogues with the temple - to speak of them, too, as the "House of God." Indeed, some elements of modern Judaism actually call their synagogues "temples," but it was not properly so in New Testament times.

But it is just here, in a comparison of the worship practice of the synagogue with that of the church, that we can gain a deeper appreciation of the rich blessings we have in Christ, and of the true glory of the church. Scholars have long pointed out the many similarities between the Jewish synagogue and the New Testament church. Many have argued that most worship practices of the early Christians were borrowed from the Jewish synagogue. Since all the earliest Christians were Jews, this could hardly be surprising. Perhaps God providentially provided the synagogue as the forerunner to His church.

The parallels are striking. Both structured their services largely around prayer and teaching. The reading of Scripture was prominent in both (1 Tim 4:13). The women were silent in both ( 1 Cor 14:34). A synagogue would often hire an "attendant" who filled a role very much like that of a preacher (Luke 4:20). If need demanded and resources permitted, a synagogue building would be constructed. Otherwise, a room in a private home might have been set aside for the weekly meetings. Compare this to the "house churches" mentioned in the New Testament (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15).

Most striking of all is the use of the very term "synagogue" to describe a Christian worship assembly in James 2:2. Not only is the term used, but James is concerned with exactly the same matter of desire for the "chief seats" that Jesus spoke of in the Jewish synagogues (Luke 20:46). Apparently some early Christians brought, not only their forms of worship, but also their social prejudices, from the synagogue to the church. The term "synagogue" even means "assembly," just as the term "Church" (ekklesia) does. It even went through the same changes that the term "church" did. Originally it referred only to the people who gathered to worship. But by New Testament times it had come to refer to the building in which they gathered as well.

Yet the New Testament church was not just a Christian synagogue. It was something new and different - something more. The great difference is most clearly indicated by the fact that the Christians could speak of the church, not merely as an assembly (a synagogue), but as the temple of the living God (Eph 2:20-22). And that was possible because true forgiveness of sin had come with the new covenant, and a true restoring of man to the presence of God. As Jesus had intimated to the Samaritan woman, the hour had come when the true temple - the true place of God dwelling with men - was to be found, not in a sanctified physical locality, but in hearts sanctified by the blood of Christ and worshiping in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24). Indeed, Christ Himself was the very embodiment of God dwelling with men (John 1:1,14; 2:19-21), and his church was the perpetuation of the living temple of the body of Christ Himself (Eph 1:21-23).

So the next time you sing in worship services, remember that this was not done in the synagogue - only in the temple of God Himself. And that is where you are. And that is where He is. The synagogue and the temple have become one in Christ. God and man have been reunited in Christ.


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