These are the words of him
Who is the First and the Last
Who died and came to life again.
I know your afflictions
And your poverty –
Yet you are rich!
I know the slander of those
Who say they are Jews and are not
But are a synagogue of Satan.
Do not be afraid
Of what you are about to suffer.
I tell you the devil will put some of you
In prison to test you
And you will suffer persecution for ten days.
Be faithful, even to the point of death
And I will give you the crown of life.
Traditional interpretation of this passage by the church has always been antisemitic. David H. Stern (1992:795, Jewish New Testament Commentary) explained it best when he wrote on this passage, which I quote here for your benefit:
Yochanan [John] writes about Gentiles who call themselves Jews but aren’t . . . . perhaps they, like the Gentile Judaizers of the book of Galatians, adopted a smattering of Jewish practices and tried to force them on Gentile Christians. They may have subjected themselves to a legalistic perversion of the Torah . . . . They apparently organized a pseudo-Messianic synagogue. … Virtually all the commentators ignore the obvious and straightforward interpretation that Yochanan is talking here about Gentiles who pretend to be Jews. The same kind of expression is used in v. 2: ‘…you tested those who call themselves emissaries but aren’t – and you found them to be liars.’ It obviously refers to false apostles, and there the commentators accept the literal sense without demur. But here they opt for the metaphorical interpretation that Yochanan is talking about Jews who reject Yeshua [Jesus] as the Messiah instead of the literal understanding that these are non-Jews who lie and say they are Jews but in fact are Gentiles. In this way a verse which says nothing about Jews is given a virulently antisemitic significance. The result is that over the centuries Jews have had the epithet ‘synagogue of Satan’ hurled at them by Christians who thought they understood the Bible. But nowhere in the New Testament are unbelieving Jews called non-Jews . . . . Nor does anything in the present context call for a violent outburst against Jews. … The only explanation I can see for its nearly universal disregard in this case is the anti-Jewish mindset that infected the Church, including its theologians and commentators, so that even those without antisemitic feelings rejected the p’shat [simple meaning of the text] in favour of imposing on the text their own drash [out of context interpretation].
Messianic Jews continue to observe Torah, not as a means of Salvation, but as a guide to living a holy life as ordained by God as acceptable. Messianic Gentiles, on the other hand, while they may observe and enjoy the festivals and feasts with Messianic Jews, live a holy life as guided by the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into paths of righteousness. This does not mean that they may not also observe Torah but it does mean they do it voluntarily as ‘God-fearers’ and not as Jews.
This is an important distinction because God’s word given to Jews and Israel has not been made void with the advent of the Messiah, for as Wilson (2008:83 How Jesus Became Christian) has observed:
Jesus’ challenge . . . was straightforward. Be better than the Pharisees, the teachers of Torah. Outdo them in righteousness. Live the covenant with God to the fullest, following the law carefully, paying attention not only to the required conduct but also to the corresponding right attitude. … Jesus’ message reinforced the teachings of Deuteronomy.
We cannot ‘universalize’ Yeshua to the point that He would abrogate His own word and work.
When it comes to interpretation we should heed Marshall’s (2001:6-9 Parables of War: Reading John’s Jewish Apocalypse) sage advice and remember that when it comes to the New Testament, “its foreground is just as Jewish as its background and that it is the secondary reception history . . . that is Christian.”
Ultimately, we all serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and walk down the path made by Yeshua Ha’Mashiach to Him.
Shalom Pesach / Easter Blessings
The Lord is coming!