Luke 2:46 NIV). The picture was very different some twenty-one years later. Mark tells the story this way: “On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (Mark 11:15, 16 NIV).
Jesus, upon arriving at the temple, entered first through the outer
court, the court of Gentiles. No gentile was ever allowed beyond this
point, but, here in this court, the gentiles who had converted to
Judaism were allowed to pray. At least that had been the original
intent. But the Gentiles couldn’t pray because, with the sanction of the
high priest, the outer court had been turned into a mall for the sale
of all the items necessary for temple sacrifice. Vats of wine and oil,
kegs of salt and pens of approved sacrificial animals and birds were
everywhere. In the Palestine of that day, Roman, Greek and Jewish money
was in circulation. Exchange houses had to be provided so that the
international visitors to the Holy Place, could change their money into
Jewish coin. All males, 20 years of age and older were required by law
to pay this temple tax.
Praying in the outer court would have been difficult amid such a
carnival atmosphere. As well, it appears that people going about their
business outside of temple property had become too lazy to walk around
the Holy Place, so they simply carried all their merchandise through the
temple, using it as a public street.
Jesus was outraged. “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17 NIV), he proclaimed. The religious leaders present would have understood this quote from Isaiah 56:7
that prophesied the day when Jews and Gentiles would worship God
together in one place. Even more did they understand the next reference
that the Lord quoted: “But you have made it a den of robbers”. The
reference to “the den of robbers” comes from Jeremiah 7:11
and was a prophecy concerning the judgment that would fall on
Jerusalem, the temple, her leaders and her people, for abandoning their
God. Jeremiah’s prophecy is scathing and condemning. He writes: “Will
you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal
and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before
me in this house which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ —safe to
do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name
become a den of robbers to you … I spoke to you again and again, but you
did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer … I will thrust
you from my presence … my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this
place” (Jeremiah 7:9-11, 13, 15, 20
NIV). And so it would be. Only a few short years later, in 70 A.D.,
Jerusalem and the Temple, were destroyed as the Roman armies led by
Titus ravaged the land.
The Son came back to His Father’s official residence at the end of His
ministry with one more warning. His desire, in this moment of righteous
indignation, was to remove that which hindered the Gentiles from being
able to worship God in quietness and reverence, as God intended that
they should. He also took one more opportunity to call His people back
“My house will be called a house of prayer” he shouts. It is interesting
that He didn’t say: “My house will be called a house of preaching”, or
“My house will be called a house of teaching”, or “My house will be
called a house of worship”, or a house of service, or a house of
fellowship, or a house of sacrifice. It was to be “a house of prayer”.
Hanging over the steeples and stained glass of today’s church is our
death sentence. Like the Temple, the majority of churches are no longer
houses of prayer. If God condemned one generation for abandoning His
prime purpose for His house, why would He not condemn another for doing
the same thing?
God’s house was to be a place of prayer for the nations. Foreigners
would be welcomed — a reference to the day when the gospel invitation
would be extended to the Gentiles. God’s house would be a house of
prayer for the marginalized. Isaiah’s prophecy states that eunuchs,
those who had once been denied the right to enter the court to pray and
worship because of their physical deformities, would no longer be
excluded. There would be no room in God’s house for discrimination.
It is important to the Lord that His house be set aside for worship and
instruction. But it is vital to Him that His house be a house of prayer.
The walls, floors, windows and doors are not sacred. Neither is, (dare I
say it) the pulpit or the communion table. What is sacred are the
purposes for which these things are used. We are not to use His house
for purposes other than those He intended, We are to facilitate prayer
in God’s house, and we are not to neglect to make prayer in His house a
major focus of our public worship, as well as in our private devotions.
If it was so important to Christ that His Father’s house be a house of
prayer, then it should be important to us as well. To the extent that we
are “houses of prayer”, corporately or individually, to that extent God
will bless both us and our land.