Though prayer did occur in the synagogues, the main religious activity that took place there was the reading of a Torah portion on the Sabbath and holidays, along with a reading from the prophets. Unlike our churches today, where people sit casually while God's Word is read and the preacher stands while he/she speaks, men stood in the synagogue when they read from the Scriptures and sat when they taught from it. This was done from a special chair, raised above the benches that lined the side walls, called the Seat of Moses. Only guest rabbis and speakers could sit there.
In the days of Jesus, a particular order of reading the Torah or prophets was not set in place, so in Luke 4:16-17, when Jesus is asked to read, He most likely picked the passage out Himself. The discussion which follows (vv. 18-28) would have been typical of the day since an established liturgy of prayer had not yet developed. Instead of silent reverence, dialogue and discussion, along with people milling around while the dialogue took place, were typical of what occurred before and after the readings or teachings, and possibly even during them. The main point of this was to make the Torah more than just a mental assent of faith. It was interactive in one's life; not merely words, but life itself.
The typical first-century synagogue featured an entrance with doors facing Jerusalem. The bench seats along the wall were probably seats for the elders, while the rest of the congregation sat on mats on the floor. Men and women were seated apart. The congregation faced a "portable storage closet", the most sacred item in the synagogue, called the "Ark" which contained the holy scrolls. After the service was over it was stored away for safe-keeping.
The synagogue was the heart of the Jewish community in ancient Israel but it was never regarded in the same light as the Temple. It was a place where faith was explored and encouraged. Although it included activities like worship, its primary function was to bring the faithful together. Some people like to associate the synagogue of ancient Israel with the church building of today, but in reality it is better to compare it to a small group that gathers to study the Bible in someone’s home. It was a place where one could learn and discuss the Scriptures and put flesh on the skeleton of faith. The importance of the fellowship which the synagogue promoted is evident in Hebrews 10:25 where the author encourages the faithful not to "forsake our own assembling together". Consider becoming a part of a "synagogue". Find a group of believers where you can grow in the knowledge of God's Word and strengthen your walk with Christ. Whether it's a group that meets in someone's home on a week night, a fellowship group, or a Sunday School class, you'll find a dynamic community of support and friendship there. Working through God’s word and praying with this gathering will help you to be more than ready for the road ahead.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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