Updated: Nov 5, 2019
We are all familiar with what synagogues are. The definition of a synagogue is “the building where a Jewish assembly or congregation meets for religious worship and instruction.” That definition hasn’t changed in the past two millennium.
Synagogues played a key role in the New Testament.
Let’s back up to the Old Testament to explain what the tabernacle and the temple were so you have a clearer understanding of the difference between them and the synagogues.
The tabernacle and the temple had the same purposes.
Tabernacle: After God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt (plagues, parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments,) God gave very specific instructions for building the tabernacle. (Exodus 26)
“Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.” Exodus 25:8
The tabernacle was a really large tent and was moved when God’s people moved. As God moved His people through the wilderness and into the promised land, the tabernacle was taken down and moved with them.
Temple: Much later King Solomon built a grand ornate temple for God in Jerusalem. This was a permanent structure.
But the purposes of the tabernacle and later the temple were for the Jewish people to worship God, to offer sacrifices to Him, and to observe religious festivals.
The Jewish people worshipped God at the temple. It was where God dwelled among His people. The temple was holy and sacred.
Jewish people offered their sacrifices to God at the temple. The priests served God at the temple and offered the atoning sacrifices for His people. Sacrifices could not be offered anywhere else.
It was where the Jewish people went for to celebrate Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Festival of Booths.
So how did synagogues come about and what was their purpose?
Synagogues aren’t mentioned in the Old Testament but they may have existed in the time period of Ezra. We know by the time Jesus was born there were many synagogues.
From the time Babylonia conquered Judah in 586 B.C., the majority of the Hebrews were scattered throughout the world. This scattering was called the Diaspora or The Great Dispersion.
In the Intertestamental period (the approximately 400 year time period between the Testaments) Jews outside Palestine came to be far more numerous than those in Palestine.
Since the Jewish people couldn’t get to the temple for regular worship and learning, the need for local buildings arose. Synagogues came about in just about every town and were found throughout the Roman Empire.
Synagogue services included prayers, the reading of Scripture, and, usually, a sermon explaining the Scripture.
Picture from The Essential Companion to Life in Bible Times by Moises Silva (affiliate link)
Portable chest/shrine containing scrolls of Scripture (our Old Testament)
Congregation sat on benches along the walls and on mats on the floor
Synagogue ruler and elders sat in front facing the congregation
Singing was unaccompanied
Speaker stood to read from OT scroll
To preach, he sat down
All stood for prayer
Different members (or visitors) selected to read Scriptures or teach
Sacrifices could not be given at a synagogue. Only at the temple. Men and women and God-fearing Gentiles attended the synagogue.
So why are synagogues important to your New Testament reading?
Jesus was Jewish. As He traveled around with His disciples, they went to the synagogues. Jesus preached and taught in the synagogues. A lot of action in the New Testament takes place in them.
After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus gave His disciples the great commission to proclaim His name to all the nations. The spread of the Good News that the Messiah had come started in the synagogues. Jesus’ disciples travelled far and wide and the first place they would go in each town was to the local synagogue. Stephen powerfully defends his faith in a synagogue in Jerusalem. Saul started out persecuting believers who were at the synagogues. Later when he was converted and became the Apostle Paul, he first took the gospel to the synagogues. (Later to the Gentiles – non-Jewish people and Paul became known as the "Apostle to the Gentiles.") The gospel message was first preached in the synagogues.
Some Jewish people and God-fearing Gentiles came to be believers in them.
The Dispersion of the Jews among the nations paved the way for the propagation of the Gospel of Christ in their synagogues.
God dispersed His people. He brought about the existence of synagogues throughout the Roman Empire.
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son. Galatians 4:4a
Synagogues played a key role in God’s redemptive plan – the spread of the gospel message to the world.
And it spread like wildfire!
Excerpt from page 133 of The Essential Companion to Life in Bible Times by Moises Silva (affiliate link)