One of the difficulties in Biblical interpretation is the fact that we often come to phrases that are difficult for us in our modern times (or even our own post-modern times). They are phrases that when not fully understood can lead to dangerous application and interpretation that can lead many down the wrong path if not careful.
There is such a phrase like this in Revelation 2-3 when John is describing the vision from Jesus in regards to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia. John uses the phrase “synagogue of Satan.” (NIV) If not careful, this phrase can lead to an anti-Semitic attitude that is not intended by John in this passage. Thus, it is important to understand the historical context of difficult phrases and passages when attempting to interpret and do exegesis of any passages. If we are negligent in this, we will be negligent in describing to our congregations what these passages meant for those in the First Century times and what it means for us today in the 21st Century.
So what was going on in this passage? In both Smyrna and Philadelphia, the two good churches of Revelation, there is a strong sense of impending of current persecution. Both churches are warned about persecution and are told to hold on tight to what they have in Christ (Philadelphia) and to maintain the faith in jail and even death (Smyrna). These were difficult times for Christians in Smyrna and Philadelphia. By maintaining the Apostolic faith, they had lost their finances and power.
Even more, what was going on was an internal struggle between Jewish leaders and Christians over who was actually living out the Scriptures. For the Jewish leaders, a lot was on the line. The Jewish faith had received official recognition from the Roman Empire as a historic faith and its members were allowed to practice their faith without any retribution from the Roman government. That is as long as the Jewish leaders did not attempt to add to their numbers from outside the Jewish community and did not attempt upset the Roman peace.
It is likely that Jewish leaders were collaborating with the Roman authorities to quiet the Christian movement. This partnership serves as the immediate background for the phrase “synagogue of Satan.” By joining with the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders, of that time, were doing the work of Satan by limiting the growth of Christianity.
Thus, the phrase is really limited to its specific historical context and we cannot use that phrase as applicable beyond that time. To do so, would add more than what John was attempting in this passage and would also add an anti-Semitic tone to the passage that is not intended.
So what is intended? First, John is using this phrase to articulate whom was in line with the teachings of Scripture (Christians). The impending warning of persecution flows out of this symbolism and describes what is really going on in Smyrna and Philadelphia.
Let us be careful to not take symbolism and phrases that was intended only for the original audience and attempt to place it in our 21st Century context. When we do, we miss the intent of the passage and can promote actions and attitudes that are not intended by the passage and are not indicative of what it means to be a faithful witness of Christ Jesus.