February 2, 2023

Jesus and the Synagogue


Shortly after Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, He came to Nazareth, His hometown, and entered the synagogue to declare that He was the promised Messiah (Luke 4:16–30).

Understanding synagogues at the time of Jesus can help us better visualize this pivotal moment, when, according to Luke, Jesus began His ministry. Several ancient synagogues dating to the time of Christ have been excavated in Israel, giving us a remarkable view of what it might have been like to worship and hear the Savior’s words as He taught on this occasion.

Synagogues were the main civic and religious center of Jewish life. The main worship area was generally rectangular in shape with stone benches around the sides where people could sit. Unlike most religious churches today—with pews facing one direction towards a pulpit—these stone perimeter benches allowed for more of a discussion or debate. Pillars within the chamber held up the ceiling, and thus blocked the view of some of the participants. This suggests that the building was designed primarily for hearing instead of seeing the speaker. Both men and women were allowed to attend, though women possibly sat in a separate area from the men and likely had minimal involvement except to listen to the teachings. 

As the townspeople entered the synagogue, the best seats were reserved for the higher-ranking officials (see Matthew 23:6). These were likely on one of the lower benches, or a single bench against the wall. These would have provided more space while separating them from the commoners. In addition, these reserved benches were likely not placed behind any of the pillars, allowing an unobstructed view of the reading and study of the Torah.

Synagogues were normally quite plain in design. The floors would have been made of packed dirt or plaster. The walls would also have been plastered, though we do find some examples of colorfully painted frescos. 

The Magdala synagogue is one of the best-preserved synagogues from the time of Jesus. While still fairly modest, some of its floors were decked with beautiful mosaic tiles, including in the main worship area around the perimeter of the room and also the room where the torah scrolls may have been stored. The walls had beautiful frescoed panels. Several of the original remains still show the vivid colors of the original paint, and even the pillars themselves were plastered and painted in red.

In the center of the main room stood an impressive stone-carved bench or podium, depicting one of the earliest examples of the tabernacle or temple menorah. The stone also portrayed other temple-related objects, including the table of showbread, the altar of incense, and the holy of holies with the presence of God. It’s thought that this stone served as a base for a wooden stand, upon which the torah scroll could be read. Others have suggested that it also could have been used as a bench for sitting, or as a table for offerings brought to the synagogue, such as the offering of the first fruits.

Some synagogues also had secondary rooms which were likely used for small study groups. At the Magdala Synagogue, this type of room features a large rectangular stone with two carved notches. This stone may have been for holding open a torah scroll as it was studied. Because the stone is low to the ground and surrounded by benches, it would have allowed multiple students to gather around the scroll as they learned to read and study the scriptures. It was also common to have a small storage room off the main room for holding the torah scrolls. 

Each Sabbath, as the townspeople gathered at the synagogue, one person was assigned to read from the torah. An attendant would retrieve a scroll from the torah room or from a portable storage box and place it on the table at the center of the room. The book of scripture and specific passages would already have been likely selected beforehand, so the reader would simply open the scroll to the designated location and begin to recite its words. Once finished, he would return to his bench and sit down to expound on what he had just read. It’s been suggested that standing while reading showed respect for the sacred text of the scriptures, while sitting signaled that the individual was no longer reading the word of God, but instead giving his own interpretation.

With this background, let’s now study the story of Jesus as He taught in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth. No doubt, the people there had heard about his profound miracles and were possibly hoping for some type of spectacle! Jesus certainly stirred things up, but probably not in the way they expected. After entering the synagogue, Jesus stepped to the center of the room, was given the scroll of Isaiah, and began to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18–19).

Jesus then returned the scroll to the attendant and sat down, stating, “This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21). This bold declaration shocked his listeners, and for good reason. Jesus had just declared that He was the promised Messiah! The word often translated as Messiah or Christ in the New Testament comes from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed.” While prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed in ancient times—thus making them all types of a messiah—this passage from Isaiah was thought to refer to the promised Messiah, who would come to save or redeem Israel.

Sadly, the people who had watched Jesus grow up in their midst could not see him as anything but the son of Joseph (see Luke 4:22). How could He be more than a common carpenter, like his earthy father! In rage, they took hold of Jesus, thrust him out of their village, and then attempted to kill him by throwing him off a cliff. However, his time had not yet come, and Jesus miraculously escaped through the crowd. (Luke 4:28–30).

If only the people of Nazareth had been more patient, they may have seen that each of the prophecies that Jesus read from Isaiah were fulfilled during His earthly ministry. In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the gospel to the poor, saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). He healed the brokenhearted, not only by blessing and curing the masses, but also as He ministered to the one. On the cross, Jesus proclaimed deliverance to the thief who hung next to him, stating, “today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NKJV). Lastly, of all the miracles in the Bible, the only person that is claimed to restore sight to the blind was Jesus himself, which he did on several occasions. So there’s no question that his personal ministry adequately fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy.

Yet, perhaps even more meaningful today, is that Jesus Christ is still fulfilling Isaiah’s words. In one way or another, we are all spiritually poor or weak. We’re all blind to important sacred truths. And we’re all in spiritual captivity or bondage, due to sin. The question we must ask is how do we see the Savior of the world? Do we see him just as a common man, a carpenter, the son of Joseph? Or do we see him as the promised Messiah!

As we come unto Christ and recognize him as our personal Lord and Savior, Isaiah’s words will be realized in our own lives on a daily basis. Jesus is the only one who can deliver us from spiritual poverty, captivity, sickness, and death. He truly is the Christ, the Anointed One—the Messiah foretold by ancient prophets.

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