In Kansas City, a man with a belief in the rapidly approaching end times has built a nondenominational “temple” which he calls the International House of Prayer, which has drawn a great deal of young and rootless people ambitious to pray but not necessarily ambitious for education or practical matters because of their eschatalogical beliefs that the world is going to end soon . Not knowing a lot about the specific nature of that particular mission, I would like to spend today commenting a bit on how the temple of God (whether we view that literally or figuratively) is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations, and what that means in the biblical context, while time permits.
Some time ago, I wrote a post exploring the biblical phenomenon of remez, where a writer or speaker will hint at a deeper truth without expressing it in detail, relying on the reader or listener to know the text that is being referred to so that the gaps can be filled and so that the proper meaning of the author’s intent may be clearly understood . As someone who greatly loves to hint in my own speaking and writing about matters that I leave to the reader to understand and pick up on (or not). Let us look briefly at the scripture which the fellow responsible for Kansas City’s International House of Prayer uses to justify his own efforts and see what hints we may uncover about what Jesus Christ was trying to tell the corrupt leadership of the Jews at the time, as well as some potential relevance of that hint to us today.
In Matthew 21:12-13, the scriptures say: “Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” This particular passage refers to two scriptures as a hint to a larger meaning about the failure of the worship of Jesus’ time to serve God’s purposes because of their own corrupt and hard heart. The first passage referred to is Isaiah 56:6-8, which reads: “”Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Eternal, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Eternal, to be His servants–everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast to My covenant–even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Eternal God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, “Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him.”
The second passage referred to is Jeremiah 7:1-15, which has a very ominous hinted meaning from Jesus Christ: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Eternal, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Eternal’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Eternal, all you of Judah who enter in at the gates to worship the Eternal!'” Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in these lying words, saying, “The temple of the Eternal, the temple of the Eternal, the temple of the Eternal are these.’ For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings, if you thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, or walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold I, even I, have seen it,” says the Eternal. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all these works, ” says the Eternal, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you, but you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to this place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren–the whole posterity of Ephraim.”
Both of these passages that Jesus Christ merely obliquely hints at contain a great deal of insight into the heart of the problems that Jesus Christ saw with the temple establishment of its time and with the general mindset of the Jewish people. The first passage points to the fact that God desires to be worshiped by all people, a point that is repeatedly emphasized in scripture . The repetition of this message over and over again ought to have sunken in at least a little bit among the people of Israel and Judah, given that they sang the Psalms regularly and proclaimed their knowledge of and devotion to the law. These matters ought not to have been an obscure sort of truth that must be found through strained interpretations of hidden passages, but rather they are foundational elements of God’s whole purpose for calling Israel as a nation. Israel was not to consider itself a privileged people that looked down on others because they were special, nor were they to be embarrassed of the laws and ways that God had given them because they were afraid of being thought of as a different kind of special, but rather they were to follow God’s ways as a model, receiving the blessings and abundant life as a result of that obedience, and to lead other peoples to a worship of God.
Lest we think that is merely a historical phenomenon, this is a consistent problem that Christianity has had to deal with as well. Christianity was explicitly founded with universal implications of the “Israel of God” belonging from all nations, and we are explicitly forbidden to believe in ethnic or social or gender identities as carrying with them any sort of spiritual inequality in the eyes of God or those who are called and chosen by God (most obviously in Galatians 3:26-29, as well as in James 2:1-13). Yet Christians have been no less chauvinistic about matters of social class or ethnicity or gender, on every side possible, and it has been a very difficult matter for Christians to stop taking pride in their own ethnic identities to see other believers as fellow brethren and fellow citizens in the same heavenly kingdom where there are no such divisions by race, class, or gender. This is a foundational aspect of biblical truth and understanding, and one that the ancient Jews spectacularly failed out, although an area where we fare no better ourselves.
The second passage points to the fact that the Jews were superstitious about their temple. Jesus Christ is hinting about a point he would make explicit a little bit later in Matthew 24:1-2 about the judgment on the temple and its destruction, a hint that he might have expected his disciples to understand, but they did not. Over and over again in the Bible Israel felt superstitious about some element of the physical accoutrements of God’s worship system. Whether we are talking about the seizure of the Ark of the Covenant or the idolatrous worship of the nehustan (Moses’ staff) or the first or second temples, Israel and Judah continually was superstitious that some particular item or building would save them from God’s judgment and allow them to feel safe, like the beloved security blanket or stuffed animal of a small child in a dangerous world, and just as efficacious in providing safety, which is to say not useful at all.
Yet we should not condemn the Jews of Jesus’ time or the ancient Israelites for this tendency without looking at ourselves as well. Our athletes are often the mostly highly viewed members of society, and are role models for many (however unfit they are to serve as a model), and yet they are among the most superstitious people around, with lucky socks or underwear or bizarre rituals that are done in order to help them achieve some kind of success in their chosen profession but are ultimately not useful at all except on a psychological level (perhaps showing the fragility of mankind in general as far as our confidence is concerned, which ought to be at least somewhat alarming). All too often we have the same sort of blind faith in our traditions and habits (even if those habits are hostile to established traditions) with no greater spiritual depth than that found by the Jews who Jesus Christ was dealing with who did not see the need to repent and make their hearts right with God because of the longevity and strength of their ritual and liturgy. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap ourselves.
Sadly, it does not appear that Jesus’ audience, or many readers of the Bible, have gotten Jesus’ hint and seriously reflected on what He was really saying. Rather than celebrate the universality of God’s offer of salvation to all people in all walks of life, all too often we place our identity in what divides and separates us from others rather than what unites us. It is easy to unite only in bland generalities and corrupt behaviors, and harder to unite with people on the deep truths of our shared identity as beings created in the image and likeness of our heavenly Father. Likewise, it is easy to erect beautiful buildings for worship and keep a formal and rigid manner of worship in which we find safety and comfort than it is to seek God’s mercy and cleansing from the darkness and corruption in our hearts. The ruins of this world are a testament to the fragility of all human creations, and yet we would rather trust in our own man-made rituals than in obedience to or Lord and King. Let us therefore take the hint of Jesus Christ and apply it to ourselves, and avoid the sort of judgment that the Jews of Jesus’ time faced shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which destroyed the temple and its corrupt government, never yet to be rebuilt and restored in all the ongoing centuries after that. Let us make sure that our own houses of prayer that we build in honor of God do not become a den of thieves, lest we suffer the same fate ourselves.
 See, for example: