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The Synagogue of Satan and The Church of Pride

Hi Reggie, Please help me understand these passages…
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. (Rev 2:9)
Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. (Rev 3:9)
Thank you, and, of course, I hope all is well.

I believe the Lord is speaking to a situation that existed in the early church and now threatens to surface again. In another sense, it has always persisted, even apart from the issue of Jewish identity, since the essence of this sin is present wherever one can claim the high ground over other believers based on something ‘in’, ‘of’, or ‘from’ man, i.e., works religion, which is essentially spiritual Babylon in all its forms and kinds. This is simply the Jewish kind.

The essence of this pernicious tendency is present whenever something in the power of the flesh is trusted in to give a spiritual advantage. We can see from Paul’s epistles that even Jews were concerned to distinguish a ‘true Jew’ from one that was merely Jewish through natural descent. The Jews, no less than Paul, were concerned to distinguish between outward and inward. That is not the question. The question then as now is: “On what grounds?” The most observant Jews looked upon their less religious kinsmen as moving towards the great apostasy, believing themselves the true remnant based on their careful observance of the law.

They saw the new heart of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as a promise of a future inner transformation that would turn Jewish hearts back to the law as necessary for salvation, since obedience to the law proves and gives evidence of a true heart turning back to God. In that sense, nothing has changed. This is the answer you will find from many orthodox Jews familiar with the prophets. So it was a great goal to be pious enough to qualify as a “true Jew,” i.e., a Jew that would pass the test of divine judgment, since, as with Islam and all other works based ‘faiths’, there is no final assurance of salvation in Judaism. At best, there is only a shaky hope based on how much comfort could be taken by religious comparisons with others (Lk 11:18). It is a deeply evil propensity of the flesh, even when it is not particularly Jewish.

For Paul, Jewish heritage mattered (Ro 3:2), provided it accomplished its divine goal of witnessing to the true truth of the true God (Mt 23:28; Ro 2:28) and moving the gentile to jealousy, so to speak. However, where the Spirit of regeneration (circumcision of the heart) is not present, all else counts for nothing (Gal 6:15). In fact, Jesus, Paul, and the entire NT is clear that where the new birth (vital union with the Spirit is absent, even the most ardent and sincere zeal becomes a study in tragedy. It is this tragedy for which Paul felt the greatest sense of pathos, as should we (Ro 9:3; 10:1-3). Not simply because souls are lost; that is tragic enough. But all the more because the nation that has been blinded is not just any other nation, but the nation and people of divine choice and love (Amos 3:2) with whom God has bound His name, His covenant, and the glory of His return. We need to see what Paul saw. This has cost God; He cannot just ‘leave it there’. God forbid! His covenant and His name are at stake. Regardless of how great a good has come through their fall, He has determined that His own name and covenant reputation is at stake in their penitent return and He will get it done!

Now who exactly is Jesus addressing here in these passages? I’m not sure, but it could be either of three possible kinds of claims to Jewish identity, or some combination of them. First, there is the reprehensible but less fatal error of expecting that native Jewish identity and heritage gives the natural born Jew special covenant rights and favor over other gentile brethren. This is in manifest contradiction to the “mystery” that Paul proclaimed among the gentiles. (This propensity is currently making a come back).

However, it appears that the Lord is here denouncing something that is much more pernicious. All error is costly but not all error is fatal; this is fatal. It is more than pride of ethnic identity. It is the really Satanic presupposition that there is something good in man (Mt 19:17; Ro 7:18). It is the principle of all works religion that looks for something in the power of the creature on which it can base its hope of salvation or even a prideful distinction above others that permits judgment of others (Lk18:9; 1Cor 4:7). It is simply trust in the flesh. So the “Synagogue of Satan,” is, in one form or another, really just “the church of pride.”

It is easy enough to suppose that all that is intended here is the ‘parting of the ways’ between Christians and Jews over the question of Jesus, but there was also the powerful tendency in the early church, even for gentile converts, to emulate Jewish identity and covenant heritage to the point of coming back under what Paul called the “beggarly elements”. In Paul’s view this put gentile believer back under the curse.

[Side note: In the view of many scholars, this term translated “beggarly elements” in the ASV, is the Greek word, “stoichia” (Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20). It is the term for the ‘elementary principles’, or ‘elemental things’ of the world. It was common to associate coming back under these elemental things with coming under the powers that preside and rule over that part of the creation that has come under the power of Satan, so that those that trust in nature or natural ability, are actually putting themselves under the power of demons.]

Many gentile believers in the early church were putting themselves under the norms and requirements of pre-Christian Judaism in hopes of becoming Jews (“true Jews”) in the sense of full covenant privilege. The hope of advantage through observance of the law is one thing. It can have its own ‘slippery slope’ of self sanctification and superiority over others who believe. But here, it appears that something much more fatal is at work. Whether actual Jews by both religion and ethnicity or those desiring to become Jews, it seems that these who were claiming the high ground were in actual contempt of these whom Jesus loved, as though he did not love them. This suggests to me that this was a Christian sect within the early church that exalted their identity as Jews, whether that was ethnic or through legal conformity to Jewish custom and regulation, regarded as still binding for believers. In any event, the ‘Synagogue of Satan’ saw themselves as ‘in’ and all others as ‘out’. They supposed that they alone qualified for the Lord’s love in the sense of election, while discounting that Jesus could love these who were so manifestly disqualified to be counted among His elect. Where have we seen this tendency in the church?

Yours in the Beloved, Reggie Kelly

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