The desire of Jesus was 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 thundered 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).