What makes a church into the synagogue of Satan? And why is it that the two churches that had to deal with this are the only two that receive no blame but only commendation and encouragement in Revelation 2 and 3? These are worthy questions to ponder, because to call something a synagogue of Satan is an immensely serious thing to do, and not something that we should likely engage in. While remaining aware that we are engaging in reasoning and areas of probability rather than certainty, let us carefully tread such waters and examine what the Bible has to say about Satan in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia. First, let us begin by looking at what the Bible says in the short letter to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11: ““And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, ‘These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not,but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” ’” Now, let us see what the Bible says in the letter to the church at Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7-13: ““And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write,‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, “He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens”: “I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Indeed I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not, but lie—indeed I will make them come and worship before your feet, and to know that I have loved you. Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly!Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” “
It is striking that in the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia the same language is used to describe the synagogue of Satan as being made up of people who say that they are Jews but lie. It should be fairly obvious that in order to make such a claim one would have to be a keeper of the Sabbath, for it is completely ridiculous (even in modern times) to make a huge claim of being Jewish without having at least some interest in what it was that made Jews distinctive from the rest of the world. While circumcision and dining habits are occasionally distinctive, the Sabbath has always been the most obvious way that one could tell Jews apart from others. And it has also always been a reliable way to tell those Christians that took the Bible and its commandments more seriously than others. Obviously, to be referred to as a synagogue required the people being discussed in these passages to be assembling together to worship on the Sabbath. And one can be pretty sure that such people are not going to believe that they are a synagogue of Satan, but will believe that they are following God. Only a few people in our own dark and corrupt times believe that they are actively doing evil, as most evildoers of even the most wicked nature will tend to believe that they are doing some sort of good.
Fortunately, we need not speculate on what it is that would make the Bible speak of a group of people as the synagogue of Satan. Not only do we have the listing of what the Bible says about these people in both Philadelphia and Smyrna, but we also have a historical record of the behavior of the Jews towards Polycarp, one of the early bishops of Smyrna during the era of Smyrna in the 2nd Century AD. This bishop, who defended the proper day of observing Passover as opposed to the false Roman practice of Easter in an obscure controversy known as the Quartodeciman controversy, was killed in an anti-Christian action taken at the behest of a mob stirred up by Jews who were hostile to Christians even though plenty of godly Christians at this time worshiped as God has commanded on the Sabbath day. The Jews who whipped up anti-Christian hostility and actively helped in anti-Christian persecution were clear examples of the synagogue of Satan and a reminder that Sabbath observance is not nearly enough for salvation when it is done in the absence of love for one’s fellow believers. There were similar disputes known during the second century relating to hostility between Christians and Jews in Philadelphia, and between some who professed Christianity who were hostile to the Sabbath observance of other believers.
At this point it bears some reminder that the sign that John gives as far as how Christians will be recognized is by their love for one another. The Sabbath is surely a sign among the heathen that someone is at least striving to follow God’s laws, but if that obedience is not joined with brotherly love, we will be deluded if we think that we have satisfied God’s expectations for us or our responsibilities to each other. I will leave it for the reader to determine as an exercise the extent to which our behavior towards others is motivated by love. It is better for us to examine ourselves in these matters than that we should adopt a name as if we have such brotherly love while at the same time demonstrating a lack of it as is the case with some. And if the references to the synagogue of Satan demonstrate clearly, thinking that we are following God does not in any way mean that we are actually accomplishing this goal. We may have an identity that is precisely the inverse of what we would claim for ourselves.