Cleansing My Temple by Prayer

Matthew 21:12-13

 

By Daniel Mayfield

 

Cleansing Our Temple

 

Peace-bringing, humble Jesus rode into Jerusalem in last week’s message to bring salvation. “Hosanna!” the people cried. A cry of uninhibited praise unto God for the good things the Savior of the world would bring. He comes to save me. What a beautiful image. 

 

Now watch how that salvation is contextualized: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.’”

 

Jesus didn’t come into the world to save us from Rome; which means he didn’t come to save us from the jobs we don’t like; he didn’t come to save us from the town we don’t like; he didn’t come to save us from politicians we don’t like; he didn’t come to save us from cancer; he didn’t come to save us from poverty; he didn’t come to save us from physical hardships and pain—at least not primarily. He came to save us from God.

 

How is that done? Well, step back a moment and ask, why is God angry with us? “You may eat of every tree in the garden—the whole of it is yours—only you may not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” Adam, Eve, Cain, you, and I filled our bodies with things that God said, “Don’t eat!” He didn’t tell us not to eat it because he doesn’t want us to taste good things, nor did he prohibit the fruit because he makes meaningless rules; he said, “Don’t eat it because it will kill you; and in the process of it killing you, it’ll separate you from him because you didn’t believe him. So all of us are filled with the poison of fruit God told us not to eat; and therefore, Jesus saves us from God by removing the poison and by standing between us and the wrath of God. That’s the salvation Jesus came to secure.

 

I really like how most Bibles title Matthew 21:12-17: “Jesus cleanses the temple.” At least the title helps us know what he’s really doing. We all like things to be cleaned up. We like clean streets, clean beaches, clean cars, clean houses, clean shaves, clean teeth, clean bodies, clean public bathrooms. We like things to be clean. 

 

The thing we don’t like is cleaning! Let me trash my hotel room and leave a sign on the door handle, which reads, “Come in,” so that I can come back later to a freshly made bed and six new towels because I somehow used all six in the course of one evening. We love to have things clean, but mostly we don’t like the process to get things that way. 

 

I think that’s why Christianity is so attractive, and yet, most who wear the name of Christ are totally unsuccessful in their spiritual endeavors. We think Christianity is a sign on the door that says, “Come in,” whereby we can walk away and leave the whole mess to Jesus, our personal housekeeper. 

 

I suppose it’s sort of like that—except we have to stay in the room while Jesus cleans, and we have to give personal consent to everything he’s coming to throw away. So Jesus comes in to clean the temple, but the imagery is violent, messy, shocking, and offensive. 

 

Imagine using a hotel cleaning service and coming back to half of your personal belongings thrown out. There are freshly made beds, sparkling sinks, empty trash cans, and all of your misused electronics are gone; your immodest clothing is gone; your bag of ganja is gone; your mistress’s phone number is shredded; your hedge fund information is printed and says, “Seventy-five percent of proceeds were donated to African orphanages.” 

 

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?” you scream in a rage. And the housekeeper confusedly says, “But sir, you said you wanted your room cleaned.” 

 

Jesus cleansed the temple; and he did it to show what kind of home God will live in. If the Creator of the universe were to say to you, “I want to come live inside your body,” what would you do to prepare? Would you run to the liquor store and fill yourself with a 40? Would you go into a harlot that her disease might course through your veins? Would you stock up on esquire and people magazine to read the latest relationship advice? Would you watch The Hangover to tidy up your sense of humor? What would you do to make it a place he wouldn’t just visit but would stay?

 

Before we go any further, it’s important to know that both the church corporately and the Christian individually are homes for God’s Spirit. There are ways in which God dwells in the church, and there are ways in which God dwells inside our physical bodies. 

 

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). 

 

“19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).

 

A House without Prayer

 

Fortunately, we’ve been studying God’s design for the tabernacle in our Tuesday night study, and it really plays in nicely because we’ve been seeing both the simplicity of the tabernacle’s purpose and the gravity of reverence it demanded. A court surrounded it on all sides, and nobody but the Levitical priests could enter. It was holy ground. And upon entering, the first stop was the altar where innocent animals were daily slain for man’s sin, after which was the basin for physical cleansing through water, after which was the tabernacle divided into the two parts—the holy place and the most holy place. 

 

The whole purpose of the structure was to get people into contact with God—through spilt blood and baptismal like washing performed by sanctioned Levites who acted as intermediaries between God and the people. From point A to point B, there was no place for selfish pursuits. The whole of it was a service motivated by the fear of God and a love for his people—because God had a device whereby sinful, poisonous fruit-filled people could enter his presence and be joined to him again. That’s what it was all about. 

 

Fast-forward now to Herod’s temple in 30AD and look at the picture described by Matthew. Vendors have made the temple their platform for earthly greed and profit. Jews come from all over the ancient world with some regularity to offer sacrifices unto God; and some shrewd, business-minded Jews decided to make their whole worship experience a one-stop-shop. Don’t go to the farmer; don’t travel great distances with your own sacrifices; buy them here. There were probably other kinds of sales going on, too—food, clothing, and what not. 

 

The temple was no longer a sanctuary for worship, it was a chamber of commerce. God wasn’t even glorified in his own house! So if God’s house in the twenty-first-century is both the Christian’s individual body and the church corporately, we need to ask two questions:

 

 (1) What am I doing with my body? Do I think of my body as a house for God? And it’s easy to narrowly conclude what some have concluded—well, my body is a temple, therefore I should only eat healthy foods and I should exercise everyday. 

 

But the bigger picture is, where do I take my body? What do I think in my mind? Sometimes in a fit of frustration, some really ugly attitudes will come out of me. And I think, “My goodness, where did that come from?” Well, I know where it came from. It came from inside! So as it is, God is dwelling in me and he’s perfectly aware of those things that may be subconscious to me. I pray that God will expose to all of us those areas in order that we might, by his power, root them out, in which God’s home will be more suitable. 

 

(2) What is my primary function in God’s church? 

 

A past boss was the wife of an elder at a rather large church in the Oklahoma City area. She said, “Daniel, all the worst things you’d imagine happen out there in the world are happening right in our congregation—shocking, awful things.” Adultery, theft, child molestations, extramarital affairs, drunkenness, drug abuse, hatred—all of these very things happen within the place God has chosen to dwell. What a tragedy! 

 

I hope one day to be an elder of a church, and I hope to be able to lead the body of Christ onto salvation, and I hope that God will provide me with the wisdom as to how to cleanse those kinds of situations. What do you do with that kind of stuff? What do you do when somebody says, “Our church is filled up with robbers, adulterers, and a host of people who are here for something else besides God?” 

 

Jesus’ response is astounding: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer.’” Wow. “Pastor, there’s a pornography epidemic here in this church—what do we do?” The common answer today is, “Well, get them some accountability software, and let’s get them plugged into an accountability group, and maybe get them started on a twelve step program.” 

 

What’s Jesus’ answer? “You guys aren’t praying anymore!” That’s the reason there are robbers and selfish pursuits everywhere. Nobody’s praying anymore! My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer! That means everybody in it is there solely to talk to God. I mean, how many passages in the Bible tell us to PRAY!? 

 

“Pray without ceasing; Don’t be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition…present your requests to God; Devote yourselves to prayer, be watchful; Be…faithful in prayer; The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth; The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective; praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication; they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” PRAY!

 

And I imagine the priests would’ve said, “What do you mean, ‘house of prayer!’ We pray! We pray every day! I was just at the synagogue corner earlier—didn’t you see me? I had the largest phylactery and the brightest tassels.”

 

So why didn’t that help? Because that wasn’t real prayer. Now I want to illustrate what can happen with prayer by a rebuke the Lord gave to the priests in the prophecy of Malachi. I’ll begin reading in Malachi 1:6: 6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor?

 

Now the example here involved priests and the sacrificial system of bulls and goats and rams, but the application is very easily made concerning prayer. We can be the greatest conversationalists when we’re together with friends—we can really just roll with the conversation, and we enjoy it! But when go before God in prayer, we can’t hardly think of anything to say to him. So we offer him whatever junk is the first stuff to come to mind.

 

And I can’t help but think that God sometimes becomes weary of our prayers. “Oh, this stuff is so boring! It doesn’t even reflect what’s in your mind! When you’re together with Stacy, you can just spill the beans on your frustrations in marriage and your worries about work and your struggles with the kids—but every time you come to me you say the same old stuff. Why isn’t anybody like David anymore!? You should read what he wrote, and maybe learn a thing or fifty. He got creative with his prayers; he made them poetic; they reflected what he actually thought; they expressed his deep need for me; and more than anybody on earth, he’d rather be in conversation with me! But you’d rather be in conversation with everybody but me.” 

 

Now I’m going to turn now for these last couple of minutes to give a challenge to the prayer leaders at our small congregation: No matter where I go to church around the world—whether here in Cayman or back in the United States—I can’t help but notice that most church prayers are the same kinds of statements. You can almost guarantee there’s gonna be a “Thank you for those who are here this morning, and please be with those who couldn’t be here, and bring them back to us at the next appointed time.” That one is almost a guarantee. 

 

And if you’re at a church long enough, you start noticing that prayer leaders say the same kinds of things every time they get up to pray—that’s why the prayer is continuous talking with almost no breaks or pauses. Most people who are thinking of thoughtful statements to God have to stop here and there to think for a moment. My challenge, prayer leaders is threefold: (1) When you pray, let the room be silent for four or five seconds if you need to think of what to say next. But we hate silence! Well, many scholars actually think the words “selah” in the Psalms were pauses. There was a moment for the listeners to digest what was said, and perhaps a moment for the Psalmist to think of what to say next! The temptation is to just spout off some repetitious thing that doesn’t really come from the heart. 

 

(2) Stop using fancy prayer language. There are a million different personalities in the world, there are a million different vocabularies in the world, there are a million different conversation styles in the world. So why do most church prayers sound like they were written by the same people? Just spend some time reading through the Psalms! David spoke differently than Asaph. When you pray, just talk to God.

 

(3) Let your prayer fit with the needs of the church, the needs of yourself, and the general spirit of the environment. Imagine a church where the people’s hearts were obviously disengaged, and you were noticing this. And so you got up and prayed this: 

 

[To God] Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer! [To the church] O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord. [To God] There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety (Psalm 8). 

 

You don’t pray like that! People would get really uneasy. “Prayers are not supposed to be what you actually think!” some would say. “They’re supposed to be neatly packaged statements that everyone expects to hear, and that never make people feel uncomfortable, and that never challenge people, and that never get real with God.” That’s actually the opposite of what prayer is supposed to be!

Conclusion

 

When God’s house is a house of prayer, it becomes a temple full of people who are falling at his feet, talking to him every chance they get, wanting to be cleansed, wanting to know his will, feeling an overwhelming love and adoration for their Maker. When God’s church is filled up with those kinds of prayers, there will be a power to cleanse her of even the deepest spiritual diseases.

 

Let this place be a house of prayer. Let East End set the example for true, Biblical prayer. This means that when we pray before the audience, we aren’t caring what they think about what we say—we are merely talking to God. And it means, when I’m at home, I spend a good amount of time drawing near to God in my prayer closet. If we don’t properly pray, Jesus may come in and violently drive us from the presence of God. 

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