Was it really just to pray and worship with their Jewish brothers, or had they something else in mind?
I had a discussion with a friend the other day about church buildings; while I think that they are unnecessary for the most part and that we should focus on planting house churches instead, he enjoyed church buildings and saw no reason to diminish their role. One of his arguments for using church buildings was that the early Christians went to the temple and synagogues. My response was that they went to the temple and synagogues to evangelise.
Perplexed, he asked “Where in the Bible do Christians evangelise in synagogues?” Well, here’s a summary.
Jesus in the Synagogues
Let’s start with Christ. Luke 4:15 says that Jesus “was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.” Later, in verse 21 of the same chapter, we read: “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'”
Some verses later, Luke writes: “Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath he taught the people. In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit… “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him.” (Lk 4:31, 35)
Synagogues are mentioned again in Luke 4:44: “And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” and 6:6: “On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled.”
Can you see it? Every time Jesus went into a synagogue in the Gospels He was teaching and preaching, and sometimes also healing the sick. He was evangelising, sharing the good news about the Kingdom of God.
The Temple in Jerusalem
The same is true for Jesus’ visits in the Jerusalem temple: “Every day he was teaching at the temple.” (Lk 19:47) “…Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news…” (Lk 20:1) “Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives.” (Lk 21:37)
In the book of Acts, we read that the disciples also went to the temple courts every day (Acts 2:46). And just like Jesus, they evangelised. In Acts 3, Peter and John go to the temple at prayer time, but nothing indicates that they went there just to pray. On the contrary, they heal a beggar in the Name of Jesus and preach the Gospel!
Acts 5 tells us: “The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (v. 12), that is in the temple courts. They then get arrested, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life.” (vv. 19-20).
And so they did: “At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.” (v. 21) “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.” (v. 42)
I’m not saying that the disciples didn’t pray when they went to the temple courts – we’re called to always pray (1 Thess 5:17) – but it’s very evident that their primary goal was to preach the Gospel.
The Synagogues in Acts
The same is true for the synagogues. Acts 13:5 says “When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues.” The rest if the chapter describes a sermon Paul holds in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia (vv. 14-42). The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathers at the synagogue to hear Paul evangelise (v. 44).
Acts 14:1 says “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” And later in Acts 17:1-3 we read:
When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said.
And in Acts 17:10-13:
As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.
And Acts 17:16-17: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Acts 18 writes about Paul: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. (v. 4) and Apollo: They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. (v. 19)
Perhaps you have enough evidence now that the early Christians evangelised in the synagogues, but let’s throw in just one more verse: “Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 19:8)
What then are the implications of this? Here are three things I think this tells us:
1) When hanging around with those who didn’t believe in Jesus, the early Christians were not just passive chickens who tried to please everyone; they boldly proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God to the point of death. They didn’t go to the synagogues just to pray, but to convert. When we hang around with nonbelievers today we should be just as courageous to preach the Gospel.
2) The synagogue ministry of the early church cannot be equated with meeting in a church, since the synagogue was packed with nonbelievers in Jesus while a church is packed with believers in Jesus. The church is the worst place on earth to evangelise in. Internal church meetings is what the early Christians had in their homes; the synagogue meetings were evangelistic in nature.
3) The fact that the early church went to the synagogues is thus not an argument for us building church buildings, but for us going to the synagogues. And the mosques, and the malls, and the streets. When Paul was kicked out from the synagogue he went to another public place where he could preach, often a secular or pagan place. We should go to those places as well to preach the Gospel.