When we think of the temple in ancient Israel, prayer isn’t the first thing that comes to our minds. The Lord Jesus, however, was different: “My House,” he said, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “shall be called a house of prayer.” (Matthew 21:13) But the question is why – why did Jesus (and Isaiah) identify prayer as the central focus of this place?
If you’ve been a Christian for some time and have read the Bible through at least once or twice, then you know what this meticulously constructed building was used for in ancient Israel:
It was for sacrifice…not prayer.
- It was the place that Jesus’ parents brought a pair of turtle doves as a sacrifice for their firstborn.
- It was the place where the drama of the Day of Atonement happened once a year.
- And it was the place where throughout the year lambs and goats and bulls were brought to be offered for the sin of God’s people.
The temple was a place of blood, a place of substitution, where one would die so another would not need to.
And all for what? For forgiveness of sins, of course – the punishment for sins placed on the innocent so the guilty would go free. And yet, why did sin need to be forgiven? Answer: because without forgiveness of sins, man could not approach God. Without forgiveness of sins, man could have no fellowship with Yahweh. Without forgiveness of sins, man was guilty before God and there could be no…prayer.
Musing on this truth leads us to consider the great purpose of life: We are not forgiven simply so we can go to heaven and live in paradise. We are not forgiven simply so we can spend eternity with loved ones. No. We are forgiven so that we might come into His presence. We are forgiven…so that we might experience the joy of prayer. “The chief end of man,” wrote the Westminster divines, “is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And according to Jesus in John 17:3, Eternal life is not a great fiesta in the sky, but is to know the Father, and His Son whom He had sent.
And so it is no surprise that when our Lord looked at the temple, he called it the “House of Prayer.” Prayer is what the temple was meant to bring about.
One last thought: There is no temple today, because the temple and the activities therein were never really able to do what many hoped they might finally do. The writer of Hebrews explains why:
…In these sacrifices, there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Hebrews 10:3, 4 (ESV)
Repeatedly coming again and again to offer the various sacrifices, Israelites had a picture of the cleansing of a Substitute, without any final and complete cleansing. What they really had was a constant reminder of their sinful lives. And then Jesus went to the cross…
But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:12, 14 (ESV)
And now, praise God, perfected once and for all by His single sacrifice at Calvary…we truly can enjoy God.
And we truly can pray.
Tomorrow, Friday, January 30th: Matthew 22