What Is the ‘Synagogue of Satan’?
- The word synagogue comes from a Greek word meaning “assembly of men” or “congregation,” and it was used much like the English word “church.” The “synagogue of Satan,” then, is an assembly or congregation—a church—made up of the individuals who “say they are Jews, and are not.” The term “Jew” is used here in a spiritual sense.
Notice the apostle Paul’s definition of a spiritual Jew in Romans 2:29: “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” In this case, it is not one’s physical race that counts, but his spiritual condition (Galatians 3:27-29; Romans 4:16).true Christians are spiritual Jews because Jesus says in John 4:22, “Salvation is of the Jews.”
Those in the “synagogue of Satan” say they are spiritual Jews—pretend to be real Christians—but are not. This false church was already developing in the days of the apostle John, masquerading as God’s true church. It had congregations in the cities of Rome, Smyrna and Philadelphia even at that early time. It and its daughter churches are further described in Revelation 17.
One of the hallmarks of Satan’s activities is deception, particularly counterfeiting the things of God. “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers [servants] transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (II Corinthians 11:13-15). Jesus says we will know such false ministersby their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).”
1 John 2:19
Rome: A Synagogue of Satan?
Some may respond, hasn’t the papacy been reformed? Do these abuses of the past render it a false church and justify the division of Christ’s church? Are the concerns of the Reformation that led to scores of Protestant denominations still valid today? Here the recent clergy sex scandals might come to mind as further evidence of Roman Catholicism’s inherent corruption. The problem with citing Rome’s abuse of church office is that this sets the bar at a height that Protestant churches would also have a hard time clearing. If Rome’s jurisdiction is no longer valid because of moral scandals or clerical abuse, would not Protestant churches need to be perfect to be worthy of the status of true church? In point of fact, the Protestant world has too many of its own examples of immorality and clerical misconduct.
For objections to Rome to stick, then, the case needs to rest on substantial matters. Here we see that the original protests against Rome involved not simply some corrupt bishops or prelates. Rather the focus was on the ministry of the church.
Ten Theses of Berne
The Ten Theses of Berne offer us good place to start in understanding the difference between humanists like Erasmus, who simply wanted to clean up church corruption, and the Reformers, who believed that church abuses stemmed from underlying problems in theology and worship. Under the leadership of Berthold Haller and Franz Kolb, the city of Berne joined Zurich in starting the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1528 the pastors in Berne convened a disputation that produced one of the earliest confessional statements of Protestantism, summarized in a short set of ten propositions. The theses cut to the heart of the Reformation.
The statement begins by affirming the authority of Scripture: “The holy, Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, abides in the same, and does not listen to the words of a stranger.” Thus the church may only require Christians to believe what the Bible reveals; it cannot appeal to tradition on matters of conscience.
The theologians from Berne went on to affirm, on the basis of Scripture, that there was no salvation apart from the work of Christ: His merits are the only that will satisfy. He is the only, and therefore, the true mediator. We do not need the mediatorial work of Mary or any other saint. Moreover, to worship Christ alone is to do so free without the aid of images.
Finally, the Berne theses condemn the Roman Catholic theology of the Mass, and they reject the doctrine of transubstantiation. For the first Protestants, to call the Mass a sacrifice was the same as saying that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross was insufficient.
In less than three hundred words, this confession identifies precisely what was wrong (and still is)with Roman Catholicism, namely, its rejection of the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of Christ. As prophet, Christ has revealed the grace of God through his inscripturated Word. As priest, he has made the final sacrifice. As king, he is the head of his church, and his Word bears authority over tradition and the papacy.
These initial and very basic interests of the Reformers had profound consequences as Protestants defended and propagated the gospel.
John Calvin and the Necessity of Reform
No one had a greater role in developing these principles than John Calvin (1509–1564). As the international Reformed community celebrates the 500th anniversary of his birth, it is fitting to give some attention to Calvin’s work and his objections to Rome. Calvin is credited with reshaping western culture in many ways. He was the “constructive revolutionary,” according to one biographer, the architect of a Christian “world-view,” and founder of western principles of education, economic, and politics, according to others. Among his enemies, he is vilified as the cruel theocrat of Geneva. What all of these characterizations overlook is that Calvin was first and foremost a Reformer of the church. Calvin’s passion was the unity and purity of the church. Calvin is best known for his majestic Institutes and his monumental Commentaries. These works bleed with his ecclesiology. He also composed the ecclesiastical ordinances a catechism for the Genevan church.
Often overlooked in his vast literary output was his defense of the Reformation, The Necessity of Reforming the Church. This 1544 book is a lens in which all of Calvin’s corpus can be comprehended. His successor, Theodore Beza, described this book as among the most vigorous and weighty of anything produced in this era. What is noteworthy in this treatise is how it echoes the Ten Theses of Berne. Calvin addresses four subjects in this book: worship, salvation (both of which were for him the soul of the church), the sacraments, and church government (which for Calvin constituted the body of the church). The Reformation cause, especially in Geneva, focused on these four issues. All “the evils and remedies” of Calvin’s day, the sum and substance of the Reformation’s cause, came down to worship, salvation, sacraments, and church government.
Worship was Calvin’s first concern. The church worships God properly only when worship is regulated by the Word of God. Contrary to the modern claim that the only criterion for true worship is the zeal of the worshiper, Calvin wrote: “God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if [it is] at variance with His command.” He goes on to ask, “What do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, ‘obedience is better than sacrifice’.” Worship in the Roman Catholic Church had declined to the point where it was “gross idolatry.” For Calvin, idolatry was as serious as works—righteousness in justification, because both replaced divine revelation with human wisdom.
From here Calvin addressed the chief doctrine in the Christian message of salvation: justification by faith alone. Calvin wrote, “there is no point which is more keenly contested, none in which our adversaries are more inveterate in their opposition, than that of justification, namely, as to whether we obtain it by faith or works.” The Roman Catholic teaching was a deadly wound upon the church. Calvin proclaimed the biblical teaching in the clearest possible language: man “is regarded as righteous before God, simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy, because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own.”
Calvin was quick to challenge the Roman Catholic charge that this teaching would encourage sinful licentiousness or antinomianism in the church. It had, in fact, the opposite effect. “By convincing man of his poverty and powerlessness,” he wrote, “we train him more effectually to true humility, leading him to renounce all self-confidence, and throw himself entirely upon God; and that, in like manner, we train him more effectually to gratitude, by leading him to ascribe, as in truth he ought, every good thing which he possesses to the kindness of God.”
Because believers need to have their faith strengthened to trust in God’s forgiveness, Calvin moved easily from justification to the Lord’s Supper. The Catholic principle of transubstantiation and the worship of the consecrated elements of bread and wine—for Calvin these practices were unbiblical, and they destroy the meaning of the sacrament and the comfort and blessing it is designed to convey. “While the sacrament ought to have been a means of raising pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the Supper were abused [by Rome] to an entirely different purpose and men, contented with gazing upon them and worshiping them, never once thought of Christ.”
Calvin despaired at the condition of the church and the function of the Christian ministry, the last subject in The Necessity of Reforming the Church. Were he to review ecclesiastical indiscretions in detail, he lamented, “I should never [be finished].” He especially focused on the nature of church office, especially that of the pastor. This in turn required the restoration of the importance of preaching. “None of the churches [in Geneva],” he noted, were “without the ordinary preaching of the Word.”
Together, these four topics, representing the body and soul of the church, embraced “the whole substance of the Christian religion.” As he addressed them, Calvin labored to be faithful to Scripture and thus prove innocent of the charge of schism.
Rome’s Response: The Council of Trent
The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation by convening the Council of Trent, from 1546 to 1563. Spanning the tenure of two popes, the council sought to institute reform in the church, but it also responded to Protestant arguments by reaffirming Rome’s teaching.
Trent defended the authority of church tradition. God revealed himself both in written books and in unwritten traditions that came to the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or to the church through the Holy Spirit in “continuous succession” of apostolic authority. The church must receive and venerate these two forms of revelation “with an equal affection of piety and reverence.”
On this basis, the Council took up Reformation claims, from Berne to Calvin, and it pronounced the Protestant cause as “anathema” (accursed). Here are some examples:
• On justification: “If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life—if so be, however, that he depart in grace—and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.”
• On transubstantiation: “If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.”
• On the Mass: “If any one saith, that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and of thanksgiving; or, that it is a bare commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross, but not a propitiatory sacrifice; or, that it profits him only who receives; and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for sins, pains, satisfactions, and other necessities; let him be anathema.”
Has Rome Changed?
By the terms of the Council of Trent, Protestants still stand condemned. And because Rome claims infallibility for the church’s teaching, the anathemas pronounced by Trent would appear to be forever true. What does Rome now say about Protestants?
The Roman Catholic Church is far more willing to dialogue with Protestants today than it was five hundred years ago. The second Vatican council (1962-1965) ushered in a kinder, gentler Rome. And more recently, Pope John Paul II particularly tried to reach out to Protestants. His 1995 encyclical, Ut unum sint (“That They May All be One”) builds on Vatican II’s potential bonds of unity with “separated brethren.” But there are limits to the ecumenicity of John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI. For them a true church is one that is in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome.
More significantly, Roman Catholic Church has never lifted the anathemas of Council of Trent. The Vatican may tend to refer to Protestants as “separated brethren” rather than “heretics.” But Protestantism remains condemned, and Protestant churches are false churches, from Rome’s point of view.
So is the Roman Catholic Church a “synagogue of Satan” (to cite the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith)? Were the Reformers justified in separating from Rome?
Dr. D.G. Hart & Mr. J. R. Muether
We will be looking down the corridors of time around 100AD to the present moment. We will be scrutinizing the Roman Church or what is called now Roman Catholic Church” Core theological beliefs, as well as behavior over this period of time & judiciously comparing it against the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ.
You then, if you can; determine for yourselves whether the charge of Anti-Christ/Synagogue of Satan is misapplied or not. In the words of our Lord Jesus Christ “Mar 4:9 And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”.Jeremiah 6:16-18; Jeremiah 23:16-17
Rev 17:4-6 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked withgold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication: And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus:
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9).
Rom 2:28-29For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Rev 2:9 I know thy works,…. Good works, as before in Rev_2:2, and tribulation; this is Christ’s legacy to his people, and which lies in their way to heaven; and never was the way of any to heaven more strewed with it than was the way of the saints in this period. But Christ took notice of it, and of them in it; he knew their souls in adversity, and remarked their patience under it, and their constancy, and close adherence to him: and poverty; which was true in a literal sense, through the spoiling of their goods, to which they were exposed for the profession of Christ: nothing is more contemptible among men than poverty, yet Christ takes notice of it, and owns his people in it; for this poverty came not by sin, but by sufferings for his sake: but thou art rich; they were rich, in faith, and heirs of a kingdom, though poor in this world; they were rich with the riches of Christ, with the blessings of the covenant, with the graces of the Spirit, and in good works; they were kings and priests unto God, had a kingdom of grace here, and a right to the kingdom of glory hereafter; and were heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ, And I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not; who asserted themselves to be the true Israel of God, Jews that were so inwardly, regenerate persons, or truly Christians; for the Christians, baptized persons (m), were by the Heathens called Jews; but these were not, they professed Christianity in words, but in works denied it; they were men of bad principles and practices, and both blasphemed the ways and doctrines of Christ themselves, and caused them to be blasphemed by others also; they were false Christians,nominal professors, and shunned persecution for the Gospel; who were not what they would be thought to be: these were the broachers of heresies in this period of time, in which there was a multitude of them, and which chiefly respected the doctrine of the Trinity, and the person of Christ; and they were introducers of Pagan and Jewish rites into the church, and were men of flagitious lives and conversations, and paved the way for the man of sin: but are the synagogue of Satan: were the children of the devil, imitated him, and were influenced by him, and were the forerunners of antichrist, whose coming was after the working of Satan, John Gill
(m) Vid. Arrian. Epictet. l. 2. c. 9.
1Ti 4:2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy,…. Or “through the hypocrisy of those that speak lies”; for the apostle is still speaking of the means by which the apostasy should rise, and get ground; and it should be by the means ofpersons that should deliver/develop lying or false doctrine under the colour of truth, and make great pretensions to religion and holiness, which would greatly take with men, and captivateand lead them aside: and this plainly points at the abettors of antichrist, the Romish priests, who deliver out the lying doctrines of merit, purgatory, invocation of saints, fastings, pilgrimages, &c. and the fabulous legends of saints, and the lying wonders and miracles done by them, and all under a show of godliness, and the promoting of religion and holiness: having their conscience seared with a hot iron; which exactly describes the above mentioned persons, whose consciences are cauterized and hardened, and past feeling; and have no regard to what they say or do, make no conscience of anything, but under a cloak of sanctity commit the most shocking impieties; and are men of the most infamous characters, and of the most enormous and scandalous lives and conversations; so that the metaphor may be taken either from the searing of flesh with an iron, or cauterizing it, whereby it grows callous and hard; or from the stigmas or marks which used to be put on malefactors, or such who have been guilty of notorious crimes.John Gill