They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one having authority, not as the teachers of the law. – Mark 1:21-22
Originally the synagogue was not a specific building but a place where God‘s people gathered in His presence around His Living Word. It was sometimes called a place of prayer, because in the Jewish mind the verb translated pray means worship as well as prayer. Synagogue began before Solomon’s temple was destroyed, but the practice became essential to the Jewish faithduring the exile.
As exiled Jews returned to the land of Israel, they brought synagogue – the practice of coming together as a community to study and worship in God’s presence – with them. by the first century in Israel, larger community buildings were built to serve as meeting places for synagogue. Soon the name synagogue was applied to the buildings where community study and worship of the Scriptures took place. So, during Jesus’ time, the synagogue was both a place and a group of people engaged in seeking God through the study of Scripture and prayer.
Synagogues played an important role in the lives of religious Jews who lived along the north and northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee. Although the Jews traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to worship three times a year, they worshipped regularly with family, friends and neighbors in the local synagogue. The Torah scrolls were kept in the synagogue, so people went there to read and study the scriptures and listen to the rabbis proclaim their interpretations of the text. Their children attended synagogue schools where they learned to read, write and memorize the text. Thus the community worship, expressed in a handful of small synagogues in Galilee, contributed greatly to the disciples’ preparation to follow Jesus, their Rabbi and become like Him in every way.
Christians today tend to think that the theology and teaching of the Pharisees was all wrong, but it was not. The Pharisees were faithful Jews who worked hard to obey God in all they did. That’s why they had so many applications of Bible texts: they were trying to obey God! Jesus called some of the Pharisees hypocrites because they didn’t practice their own teaching (and some of their own writings criticize this as well). Some other Pharisees were so set in their interpretations of the Scriptures that they refused to consider the interpretations of others – including the interpretations of Jesus. Despite their imperfections, the Pharisees made knowledge of the Scriptures and obedience to God top priorities in life.
Although many Christians today think that Jesus called His disciples away from the Jewish faith and community, that is not the case. Jesus and His disciples continued to participate in community life, including synagogue worship, throughout His ministry. Even when His disciples went out into the world beyond Israel, they sought out and continues to be a part of the faith community of the synagogue. This is not to suggest that you must join a synagogue to follow Jesus, but active involvement in a faith community is necessary.