Q: #489. What is the "synagogue of Satan" in (Rev 2:9)(Rev 3:9)?
A: The term “synagogue of Satan” is used in only two places in the Bible, both in the book of Revelation (Rev 2:9)(Rev 3:9). There is some controversy about who is being referred to when speaking about the “synagogue of Satan” (SOS), however, one thing is quite clear, and that is that those in the SOS were persecuting both the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (part of the “Seven Churches Of Revelation”). Interestingly, these two churches were also the only two of the seven about which Jesus had nothing negative to say.
When you look at (Rev 2:9) and (Rev 3:9), they clearly say that those belonging to the SOS “say they are Jews and are not.” This is where the controversy comes in. Were they Jews, or were they Gentiles who claimed to be Jews?
Most scholars agree that they were likely Jews by “physical descent” (born Jews, descended from Abraham), but not “spiritual Jews.” In explaining this, (Rom 2:28-29) is often used: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: (29) But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Also see: Rom 4:16, Gal 3:29, Col 2:11, Phil 3:3) In other words, they did not fit this definition of a “true” Jew.
In my opinion, the evidence seems to favor this position, that they were Jews by descent, but not truly Jews. Following are a few things which lead me to hold this position.
1. The word “synagogue(s)” is used 69 times in the New Testament (all in the Gospels or Acts). In all but 12 of the 69 uses, the Greek word “sunagoge” is used for “synagogue,” and it is always used in relation to the Jews. (In Jas 2:2, this word is translated as “assembly,” and it is used for Jewish Christians.) This Greek word (“sunagoge“), which is used in relation to the Jews is the same word used for the “synagogue (sunagoge) of Satan.” When speaking of Christians, the New Testament generally uses the word “Church.”
2. It is quite possible that the “persecution” (or at least part of it) was “Jews” who were trying to keep newly converted Christians under the law. This happened elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 15:1,5,24-29 – this is what the “Council at Jerusalem was about)(Gal 2:4,14)(Gal 5:1)(Gal 6:12-15)(Phil 3:2).
3. There is also a pattern of radical, ungodly Jews attacking and persecuting Christians (and Jesus) in the New Testament: i.e. Jesus: (Jn 7:1)(Jn 8:37,52-59)(Jn 10:33-39)(Jn 19:14-16), Paul: (Acts 9:23-24)(Acts 14:19-20)(Acts 20:19)(Acts 23:12-14)(2 Cor 11:24) [Paul did this before becoming a Christian: (Acts 8:1-3)(Acts 9:1-2)(Acts 22:4-5)(Gal 1:13,23)(Phil 3:5-6)], The Apostles: (Acts 5:17-42), Stephen: (Acts 6:8 – Acts 7:60).
4. There was a man named Polycarp who lived from (66-155 A.D.). (More on Polycarp here.) Polycarp had been a student of the Apostle John (Irenaeus confirms this), and later became the Bishop of Smyrna (for app. 50 years). Apparently, years later, the “Jews of Smyrna” were still persecuting Christians, and him personally. Here is a quote regarding this from the International Bible Standard Encyclopedia: “In Polycarp, Mar. xvii.2 (circa 155 AD) the Jews of Smyrna were still persecutors of Christians and were conspicuous in demanding and planning the martyrdom of Polycarp the bishop of Smyrna, the same city in which the revelator calls persecuting Jews “the assembly of Satan.”” Eusebius confirms this, and explains the details of Polycarp’s persecution and martyrdom in Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chapter 15 (I urge you to read this: it is POWERFUL!).
5. Why would anyone lie about being a Jew if they didn’t consider themselves to be a Jew?
Having said these things, there are a number of websites dedicated to explaining away what we have discussed to this point. They argue that those in the SOS were “Gentiles,” believing that calling them Jews is yet another example of anti-semitism, which has been perpetrated throughout history. I have read quite a few of these explanations, and while they are possible, they don’t seem likely to me. However, because they are possible, we cannot know for sure that those of the SOS were Jews. But again, I believe the evidence points to them being Jews (at least by physical descent).
***Note: I have encountered websites who say that the SOS refers to ALL Jews (throughout history), and they use these verses (and those surrounding them: Rev 2:8-11 & Rev 3:7-13) as evidence that it is right to condemn, persecute, and attack Jews. This is TOTALLY false, and abhorrent. These verses, and those surrounding them, in context are simply referring to certain communities in a specific time who were being persecuted. There is NOTHING in the Bible which condones condemning, persecuting, and attacking these who are Jews. In fact, we are told to bless them (Gen 12:1-3)(Ps 122:6)(Rom 15:27), be thankful for them (Rom 11:17-18)(Jn 4:22), and to pray for them (Rom 10:1)(Rom 11:13-14). (***Note: Always remember, Jesus was a Jew: Heb 7:14, Rom 9:3-5, Gal 3:16, Jn 1:11-12, Mk 15:2.)