At the age of twelve, the Son visited His Father’s official residence in Jerusalem. It seems that at that point in time it was also a place of learning, since we are told that he was found: “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (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 were 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 to Himself.
“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.