The Apostle Peter predicted that, in the last days, scoffers would arise and say, “Where is the promised Messiah? When is he coming? Since Abraham’s time, everything continues as it always has, day after day. Nothing has changed since the beginning of creation.”
It does seem that way. It’s hard to believe in the coming of the Messiah for the same reason that it’s hard for people to truly wrap their minds around their own mortality: it hasn’t happened yet, and day after day, life seems to go on as normal. But thanks to COVID-19, we have evidence to the contrary. Things do change. Abruptly. Life does not always just go on as normal.
In the previous article in this series about current events and the coming of the Messiah, we discussed a sequence of compelling signs and portents that could be considered to be “Birth Pangs and the Signs of the Times.” Any one of those events, taken in isolation, might not seem like a definite sign or indication of the messianic birth pangs, but taken together, they add up to something significant. In the context of the global pandemic and shutdown, the coincidence of those signs starts to add up to look like a warning from heaven. But I have not yet even mentioned the biggest sign of all: the silence of the synagogues. Around the world, thousands of synagogues now stand empty. Churches too, of course, but it is the silence of the synagogues that strikes the most dramatic note. Let me explain the difference.
The synagogue liturgy is not just the Jewish version of a church worship service. It’s not the Hebrew version of Christian praise and worship time. Instead, it’s an extension of the holy service of the Temple, the heir of the priestly services that began in the book of Leviticus. One year after Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, he set up the Tabernacle. He initiated the daily continual burnt offering: one lamb in the morning (shacharit) and one in the afternoon (minchah). Those two daily sacrifices established the daily times of prayer and the rhythm of Jewish liturgy. Since the destruction of the Temple, the synagogues have maintained that rhythm, offering prayer services every single day of the week, to carry on the prayer services of the Temple that were once offered to accompany the daily sacrifices. The synagogues around the world, for nearly two thousand years now, have kept the fire on the altar going, so to speak, by offering up the Temple prayer services at the times of prayer.
To accomplish this, Jewish law mandates a minyan of ten Jewish men must be present and participating. Without that minimum quorum, you can still have a prayer service and recite the daily prayers, but it’s not on the same official level. Just as the Temple services required a minimum number of priests to be present and a minimum number of the assembly of Israel to be present to witness the sacrifices and participate in the services, likewise the synagogue services have carried on with the legacy of the Temple worship by requiring a minimum number of Jewish men to be present for the daily services.
The synagogue is not a Jewish version of church. The synagogue is a daughter of the Temple services that were instituted in the Torah. The synagogue worship services consist of a daily sequence of liturgical prayers that follow a specific order corresponding to the appointed times of sacrifice established in the Bible: shacharit, mussaf, minchah, ma’ariv. The shacharit prayers represent the morning burnt offering: a single lamb to begin the day’s worship. The Torah service in the synagogue represents the altar service. The mussaf prayers represent the additional sacrifices brought in the Temple on Sabbaths and festivals. The minchah prayers represent the afternoon continual burnt offering: a single lamb to conclude the day’s worship. The ma’ariv (evening) prayers represent the night shift of the priesthood that remained on duty through the night, tending the altar and burning the last remains of the day’s sacrifices.
For nearly two thousand years, the synagogue has kept the Temple services alive, so to speak, without interruption. But in the last two months, synagogues around the world have fallen silent, closed their doors, and turned away worshipers. The laws of social distancing and sheltering at home made a minyan of Jewish men impossible. Even in the land of Israel, the lockdowns closed synagogue doors. It reminds me of that passage in Revelation that says, “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1).
The silence of the synagogues can’t be dismissed as an incidental detail. In spiritual terms, it constitutes an epic and frightening sign. At the very least, the last two months have demonstrated that the scoffers are wrong. Those who say “all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” are wrong (2 Peter 3:4). That’s not a solid argument for doubting the coming of the Messiah. Everything can change suddenly, and things that seem as though they will go on perpetually can stop abruptly. Everything can be upended in a moment’s notice—in the twinkling of an eye.