It was the desire of Jesus that the temple be a house of prayer for the nations. It wasn’t. It was full of religious activities – the priests in their rich garments, the sacrificial ceremonies, the formality of the pomp and priestly procedures, the rituals and rites of cleansing and consecration, repentance and restitution. In the midst of all the elaborate and sacred ceremonies, the blowing of the Shofar, the fire and smoke, the blood of the altar and the water of the laver, the wonder of all the symbolic action – the simplicity of communion with God had been lost. And getting to God had become a complicated maze.
The money changers extracted an enormous surcharge from those who needed to make change to pay their offerings of restitution or vows of consecration. The sheep merchants had inflated the price of the approved lambs. Those with meager means who wanted to offer a burnt or peace offering (Leviticus 1; 3), and who needed to offer a sin or trespass offering (Leviticus 4; 5) could hardly afford to do so. The common and poor people wanted to get to the altar to get right with God. Some wanted to consecrate themselves and then offer the peace offering (Leviticus 3). That would return to them a portion of the sacrifice, according the law, and allow them to eat it in the presence of God as a symbol of their fellowship and union with Him (Leviticus 7:15-18). But the temple system placed obstacles, loaded with exorbitant fees, between them and God. To purchase the lamb, they needed to exchange their money. Upon exchange, they met excessive exchange fees. With reduced funds, they encountered inflated prices for the sacrificial lambs. Most of the time, the lambs they brought could not pass inspection. They didn’t qualify as perfect enough for an offering. It was all a rip-off.
Jesus thunders through the temple overturning tables. “My house shall be called a house of prayer!” (Matthew 21:12 – 13; Mark 11:15 – 16) He was a prophet, crying out – not against the exchange of currency or the availability of lambs in the temple – but against the obstacles that prevented the people from praying! Against the arrangement that put an unreasonable price on prayer and access to the grace of God.
But there is more! When we quote this passage, we often leave off the last phrase – “for the nations!” No prayer ministry is complete unless it has a global and missional focus. It is incarnational, global and missional praying that Jesus longed for in the temple. Jerusalem was to be a blessing for and to the nations. The call to Abraham was that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 22:18).
Learning From History
We rarely mention the fact that Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 56:7. That chapter is a judgment speech, rehearsed by Isaiah for the captives returning from Babylon. It was meant to be both an explanation of why the judgment came that destroyed the temple, wasted Jerusalem and carried them into captivity; and as an exhortation to not repeat the same mistake their fathers had made.
Jesus is shouting loudly in the temple. The effect of his message was clear: “You have made the same mistake as your fathers! You will experience the same consequences as your fathers – a dismantled temple, a decimated city, and new diaspora of the nation.” It all happened. The armies of Rome came. The temple was destroyed. The city was demolished. The Jews were scattered. Why? They had failed to make the temple a house of prayer – for the nations. Is the church relieved of such judgment if we fail in the same way?
Isaiah details the problem:
Israel’s watchmen are blind, the whole lot of them. They have no idea what’s going on. They’re dogs without sense enough to bark, lazy dogs, dreaming in the sun – but hungry dogs, they do know how to eat, voracious dogs, with never enough.
And these are Israel’s shepherds! They know nothing, understand nothing. They all look after themselves, grabbing whatever’s not nailed down.
“Come,” they say, “let’s have a party. Let’s go out and get drunk!” And tomorrow, more of the same. “Let’s live it up!” (TMNT: 56:10-12)
Here the role of pastor and intercessor are fused into one! “Israel’s watchmen are blind … and these are Israel’s shepherds!” They are one! No one can be a pastor – without being an intercessor. It is part and parcel of the job. Here leadership and prayer linked. The problem is clear. A lack of prayer by leaders – produces eyes that do not discern, watchmen over the city that do not sound a warning in the night, lazy and undisciplined leaders, self-centered and self-seeking leaders who use ministry for personal gain. They lack the spiritual understanding gained only in prayer. They are self-promoting graspers, not givers. A party spirit has replaced a culture of prayer. And judgment comes.
In the verses prior to this dismal description of these prayerless leaders, there is an inclusive standard set for the new temple. Isaiah holds forth the standards of justice and righteousness (56:1), sensitivity to holy days – which is the principle of regular worship and rest (56:2).
He calls for action faith: “Blessed is the man who does this [salvation and righteousness].”
And he calls for restraint from evil: “… and keeps his hand from doing any evil” (56:2).
Holiness is behavioral. It is both doing and not doing. The mention of the Sabbath is between these two – the doing of righteousness and the not doing evil. Here is the principle:
- No keeping of a holy day is successful unless it is coupled with a holy life. No keeping of the temple, or church, is successful unless it produces a community that does righteousness and justice, and restrains evil works.
This transformational community is to be open to the nations. It cannot be for a faithful few. There is to be free admission for all. So the son for the foreigner can come (Isaiah 56:3). Not so in the pre-exilic temple or in that of the first century. Further, the eunuch can come (56:3-5) if he keeps the Sabbath, makes godly choices, and holds fast to the covenant. Considered less than whole, any deformed person was barred from the temple proper.
Isaiah declares a new standard. And Jesus is echoing that inclusive, “whosoever will” standard. No foreign outsider or excluded insider who now desires to know the true God can be barred from access to the temple. This is to be a new day for Israel. They are to be a light to the nations. A missionary people to all peoples. It did not happen. Israel shut up the kingdom (Mt. 23:13) and made the temple about themselves. And judgment came.
The movement of the passage is simple:
- 1- 2 Behavior Matters – Sabbath keepers must do righteousness and restrain evil ways. Worship must affect one’s walk and ways.
- 3-7d Inclusiveness: You be inclusive – Give this faith away. Don’t let anyone say, “The Lord has separated me …”
7e MY HOUSE SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR THE NATIONS!
- 8 Inclusiveness: The Lord will be inclusive – “The Lord will gather … outcast of Israel and others!”
- 9 – 12 Behavior Matters – God calls for judgment. The reason? The leaders are not godly, praying leaders who will fulfill the vision! They are corrupt and self-indulgent.
Let’s outline it again:
God’s Desires for His People
God desires people whose worship is evidenced in their walk and in their ways: Verses 1-2.
God desires people who are embracing of others (the principle of reconciliation) – inside Israel and outside: Verses 3-7.
And God’s Desire for His House …
God wants his house to be a house of prayer for all people and for peoples to know him: Verse 7.
Are Connected to His Nature …
God is a gatherer (a reconciler). He wants the outcast accepted, the fallen restored, an inclusive harvesting church: Verse 8.
These qualities are … Not Reflected in these Leaders!
God wants leaders to prayerfully lead this process. If they don’t, the mission will fail and judgment will come: Verse 9-12.
So … Christ comes – and announces: The Judgment has Come!
Andrew Murray wrote, Christ actually meant prayer to be the great power by which his Church should do its work, and that the neglect of prayer is the great reason the Church has not greater power over the masses in Christian and heathen countries.
Eugene Peterson levels a stunning challenge in the book, Working the Angles:
- American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names appear on the church stationery, and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sunday. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone a whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries … The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money. Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same.
 Quoted by Vander Griend, 17 (Andrew Murray: The Ministry of Intercession).
 Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 1-2.