What is The Synagogue of Satan in Revelation?

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John addresses the second particular church in this discourse—the church in Smyrna. The church in Smyrna was experiencing persecution. This address follows the format of the first, excluding any indictment. Ephesus had left her first love; Smyrna has nothing against her that Jesus needs to address at this point.

Revelation 2:8-11

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:

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.

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.

The commendation (v. 8-9)

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:

Once again, the Greek word, αγγελος, simply means “messenger.” Jesus is likely instructing John to address the messenger or pastor of the local church in Smyrna so he might relay the information to his local church congregation. John employs the imagery from Chapter 1, verses 17 and 18, to show that Jesus Christ is the one speaking to the local church. Jesus is identified as the first and the last. All things begin and end with Him. He died on the Roman cross and was raised to life again—redeeming His people. John will return to the work of Christ through the cross throughout his Revelation. He will remind us over and over again that Christ’s cross is central to His person and work. John, in his Revelation, always seeks to reveal Christ’s persona and work, not primarily people and their works.

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.

Just as Jesus knew the deeds of the Ephesian church, He knows the tribulation and poverty of the Smyrnian church. Tribulation and poverty are undesirable in this world. Jesus praises the local church for living in such a condition; The local church is rich in Christ even though it is impoverished concerning the comfort and wealth of the world. In many ways, tribulation and poverty are an advantage to a local church because the local church then focuses on Christ and depends wholly on Him. Tribulation and poverty are not damnable things; Nor do tribulation and poverty indicate God’s favor. God’s message is neither one of worldly prosperity nor of worldly poverty. Jesus simply recognizes Smyrna’s tribulation and poverty.

Jesus also knows the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. John does not clarify his meaning, here. We simply cannot know from this text what it meant that some people claimed to be Jews but were not. Further, we cannot know from this text why John, and Jesus, say they are a synagogue of Satan. When Paul wrote to Roman believers in AD 56, probably about 40 years before John’s Revelation, he wrote that a true Jew was one who was circumcised inwardly by a circumcision of the heart; The Law was written on his or her heart and there was a yearning to honor God. A Jew was not a Jew if he was only one outwardly by the physical sign of circumcision, having the appearance of a Jew but not having a heart circumcised by God (Romans 2:28-29). The difference between true Judaism and false Judaism was the difference between a sincere yearning for the things of God and mere outward religiosity. Outward religiosity is blasphemy according to Christ because outward religiosity appears to be one thing but is something else entirely—someone who presents him or herself as a Jew but cares not for the things of God and has not God’s Law written on their hearts. Instead, they are a synagogue of Satan, the blasphemer. Their religiosity is in line with Satan’s Gospel, not Christ’s.

In the same way, this truth could be spoken of Christians. Doubtless, a Jew with God’s Law written on his or her heart is a Christian in John’s mind. He doesn’t separate the two out. The synagogue of Satan is given over to legalism while the church of Jesus Christ is His by grace, having the Law written on their hearts. What does it mean for one to have the Law written on his or her heart? Paul clarified in Romans 2:29, circumcision of the heart is by the Spirit and not the letter. The Spirit writes the Law of God upon the hearts of Christ’s people such that, by His sanctifying work, the bondservant of Christ is brought to willingly keep God’s Law. Whereas the synagogue of Satan strives by the letter and by human works to adhere to the Law and so become righteous. Put simply, the Spirit works the Law in believers’ hearts, but unbelievers work themselves according to the Law. Jesus feels so strongly about works-based righteousness, legalism, that He condemns the whole system as the synagogue of Satan.

The legalistic Jews were some of those persecuting the true Jewish Christians in Smyrna. Christ comforts the true Jews, “I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich.” They experienced God’s amazing grace when majority religion was trapped in the vicious cycle of their own unrighteous religiosity.

The promise (v. 10-11)

Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.

Considering their tribulation, doubtless some feared the possibilities before them. They could be thrown in prison, slandered, or even killed. So, Jesus encourages the local church not to fear what they are about to suffer. He doesn’t promise to take away suffering. In fact, suffering is certain. The adversary, the devil or Satan, will throw some of the church members in prison so that the church may be tested. What does it mean that believers are tested? We see our answer in James 1:2-4:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Testing for the believer is not the type of testing we are familiar with in our society. Testing produces endurance, and endurance makes us perfect and complete. God is using tribulation caused by self-righteous religiosity to sanctify His true church. If we take James’s instruction seriously, it’s a reason to rejoice in the trials brought by the hands of others’ works-based worldviews on this earth. Legalism always brings tribulation with it. That tribulation is not outside God’s providence. He is working it together to make His true children into perfect and complete creatures, lacking nothing.

John explicitly states that the church in his own day will live through ten-days of tribulation. We recall that Revelation is a book of symbols. The number 10 is simply a symbol representing fullness. So, from John’s time onward, Christ’s church experiences tribulation for the full amount of time God has fixed for her poverty and tribulation as He works all things together for her good. Here, we see two myths debunked: (1) the myth that John’s tribulation is a strictly future event and (2) the myth that the church will be raptured out before some future tribulation. Smyrna is going through the tribulation. The tribulation is perpetual. The church goes through the tribulation for her sanctification. Without tribulation, we are not sanctified as described in the text. We deny Christ’s explicit work if we teach that the church escapes tribulation on this earth. Those who remain faithful until death will receive the crown of life. Without tribulation, there is no crown of life because there is no endurance through tribulation. The tribulation John describes is not a means of some future punishment but, instead, of current sanctification.

Again, John trusts that those who have been given ears to hear will hear and identifies the whole church, not only Smyrna, as the audience of this second admonition. To the one who overcomes (see notes on v. 7), he will not be hurt by the second death. Those who belong to Christ only die physically. Those who do not, but are part of the synagogue of Satan, experience two deaths—physical and everlasting.

Is the Law written on our hearts or are we merely trying to be righteous and teaching others to try to be righteous? Are we being saved and sanctified by grace or works? Are we part of Christ’s true church or the synagogue of Satan? May we reflect on our own lives and consider the way we walk. When it comes to our lives, may we be real with ourselves, our families, our coworkers, our churches, and whoever we are around. We cannot rightly pretend to be righteous before anyone. We cannot rightly condemn anyone on the basis of their sin—else we are the ones through whom tribulation comes, the synagogue of Satan.

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One comment

  • Thank you for your ministry among us. Please do continue to “cut it straight”. Remember that you are greatly loved by your congregation. God bless you.

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