In the Synagogue

by Lois Tverberg

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and as was his custom, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. – Luke 4:16

When we visited Israel we saw many churches, but what we found more interesting was the synagogues that remained from Jesus’ time, where he may have even taught. You might think that the tradition of “church” that we know would have descended from worship in the tabernacle or Temple. Actually, the church is a continuation of the weekly synagogue meetings that were in practice in Jesus’ day. Paul’s custom was also to attend synagogue on the Sabbath (Acts 17:2) and James speaks to the early believers about their synagogue meetings in James 2:2.

Capernaum Synagogue

The tradition of the synagogue began more than 500 years before Christ, during the Babylonian exile, when faithful Jews needed a way to worship God in the absence of a temple. When they returned to the land they persisted, because most people lived too far from Jerusalem to go to the Temple more than a few times a year, or even less. Through the synagogues, average laborers could study the Bible together every Sabbath. Children learned the scriptures through the local school that was also held there.

Common folk who dedicated themselves to study were encouraged by that culture to become itinerant teachers called rabbis, who traveled from synagogue to synagogue to teach. Through this practice, faithful Jews were hiding God’s word in their heart, and the scene was being set for Jesus’ ministry on earth. This is was the reason for the high level of scripture knowledge in Jesus’ time, and his ability to teach large crowds of interested, educated listeners.

We can be very thankful for this innovation of the local synagogue. The religion of the Ancient Near East, including biblical Judaism, focused on sacrificial offerings with priests at a central temple or tabernacle. Even in Acts, the early Christians worshiped at the Temple for feasts and took part in sacrifices (Acts 21:26). These practices were entirely dependent on having a temple, and ended when it was destroyed in 70 AD.

But through the synagogues, and later churches, average people could grow in faith and knowledge of God’s word wherever they lived. When Paul went to the diaspora, he brought the gospel first to the synagogues there. When the church moved outward, it brought people a way to worship God wherever they lived, to the ends of the earth.


*The picture above is of the synagogue in Capernaum. The limestone synagogue pictured here is from the fourth century AD, but it is built on top of the basalt stone of the synagogue of Jesus’ time. In 2010, the very first synagogue dating back to the first century was unearthed in Magdala, only 6 miles (10 km) away.

Jesus in the Synagogue

by Pastor Ed Visser

On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me …” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them,
“Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

Moses SeatMany of the places we visited in Israel boasted the ruins of ancient synagogues. As we read in this passage, Jesus was in the habit of attending synagogues in Galilee, often being asked to read the
Bible and preach. In those days, that entailed reading a prescribed Torah passage & a self-chosen portion from the prophets, all done standing. Then the reader would sit in Moses’ Seat and share what the Scripture meant to him (the sermon).

One Sabbath Jesus was invited to do so in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. We don’t know what the Torah portion was for the day, but Jesus chose to read Isaiah 61:1-2, changing the reading in a couple of important ways: 1) he dropped the last half of Isaiah 61:2, “the day of vengeance of our God”; and 2) he added a phrase from Isaiah 58:6, “to release the oppressed.” While this may seem like Scriptural manipulation to us, it was a a very acceptable form of biblical interpretation for the Jews, in which they linked verses that contained similar words or phrases to make their point. So what was Jesus’ point?

CapernaumSynagogueThe Isaiah 61 passage had been linked with the biblical theme of Jubilee, freedom from slavery and return to the land (when in exile). But it also was seen as the promise of the coming messiah, who would bring not only Jubilee for Israel, but God’s judgment on their oppressors. Thus, many (including John the Baptizer) expected messiah to bring freedom by coming with a sword.

Jesus’ changes in the reading were his way of challenging faulty expectations. Messiah was not coming with “vengeance” (at least not yet), and Jubilee was to be a mutual effort of Messiah and the people of God. Messiah brought freedom from sin. But Isaiah 58 is a message calling Israel to enact Jubilee themselves by taking care of the poor & oppressed among them, not waiting for Messiah to do it! Jesus then sat on the Seat of Moses and told them that he was Messiah. But, as we gather from the Wheat & Weeds parable, the final judgment would come later, when he returned.

Until then, they, and we today, live in the Kingdom of God and are called to enact Jubilee on earth. How are we doing?