15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.
When Jesus entered the temple that day, he was on a mission. The temple was the center of life and worship. It was where the sacrifices were made to grant purification and forgiveness. Where sinners met with God. Where God dwelt on earth. It was the place to worship. But though it bustled with activity, it was lifeless, and its deadness was not a problem Jesus could ignore. He had to confront it. God’s glory was at stake. Sinners couldn’t get close to God.
The British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “every institution tends to become it’s opposite.” The temple, where the nations could come and find God, became a place where it was hard to find God. This can happen inside a church too. When a church becomes a place where it’s hard to find God, it becomes something other than what God intends. That’s why Jesus says in verse 17, referring to Isaiah 56:7, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” Isaiah 56 is about the nations coming to God. It’s about God’s heart for all people—the Jews and the Gentiles—and Jesus was there to set things right.
The temple had four main sections. Jesus stood in the outer court of the temple, the only place Gentiles could go. The leaders should have been there to minister but their heart wasn’t in it. They made it a den of robbers by establishing costly buying and selling and money-changing procedures for the sacrifices. They made a profit on the worship of God. Who can worship God in a Wal-Mart?
How did the temple get to this point? It didn’t happen all at once. Nothing like this ever does. It happens one compromise at a time. We don’t have to set up elaborate trading floors with international exchange rates. We just have to fail to welcome people, fail to make it easy to find Jesus. We just have to let our preferences set the agenda, let our feelings rule our interactions, let God’s word about loving one another for Jesus’ sake become mild suggestions rather than holy commands.
Ray Ortlund (to whom I’m indebted to these ideas and so many more) illustrates this well in his commentary on Isaiah.
Chuck Smith was pastoring a little church in Costa Mesa, California, in the late 1960s, not far from the beach. God began to pour out his Spirit. Teenage kids started getting saved and coming to church. But there was a problem. The oil deposits off the coast of California bubble up little globs of oil that land on the beach now and then, about the size of a quarter. If you step on one, it sticks to the bottom of your foot and you mess up the carpet when you get home. So these young people began coming into church right off the beach. They didn’t know they were supposed to wear shoes. All they knew was, Jesus is outta sight and church is cool. God was gathering in outsiders, and it was beautifully authentic. But the new carpets and the new pews at Pastor Smith’s church were getting stained. One Sunday morning Chuck arrived at church to find a sign posted outside: “Shirts and shoes please.” He took it down. After the service he met with the church officers. They talked it through. They agreed that they would remove the new carpet and pews before they would hinder one kid from coming to Christ.
That’s the heart of Jesus.
Through that one decision not to hinder anyone from coming to Jesus, God brought revival. He poured out his Spirit. They chose not to put up a barrier and God brought the people. What if they had kept that sign up? It wasn’t a big thing, right? Is it too much to ask people to wear shoes to church? Well, no, but it’s also not necessary, and it’s the unnecessary barriers we construct that quench the Spirit of God.
We have two options: we can make rules to exclude or remove barriers to include. If God’s church is a house of prayer—a house of worship—then everyone is welcome. Everyone has a chance to meet Jesus. This is something Jesus is willing to fight for and, ultimately, die for. This act of cleansing the temple cost Jesus. “The chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him” (Mark 11:18).
Jesus cared so much about removing barriers to worship that he lost his life over it. How much do we care? The test of true worship is not merely how we’re feeling about God; it’s about how open we are to God, and how open we’re making things for others. The test of true worship doesn’t reside in showy religiosity but in God-glorifying life. And just as it cost Jesus, it might cost us. We will have to lay down some of our preferences. We will have to open our hearts to those not like us. We will have to let Jesus rule in our church. But we know the kind of good King he is, don’t we? Give me one reason not to do church his way!
What if all of us in all our churches committed to never establish any barrier that would keep others from Christ? Yes, there are certain biblical commands and requirements we must obey. Those aren’t up for discussion. But those usually aren’t our biggest problem, anyway. It’s our man-made walls that too often separate.
If people leave the church because the Bible makes it hard for them to worship God, that’s between them and God. But if they leave the church because we make it hard for them to worship God, that’s between God and us.
Do we realize what God has done in Jesus Christ—how open the kingdom is? A church can become a place where it’s hard to find God. It should not be. What if we flung the doors wide open? What if, without compromising biblical doctrine, we allowed our culture to mirror God’s heart for the nations? What if, in our day and for God’s glory, we removed barriers rather than built them? It will take some courage. It will take some bucking of traditions and customs. It will take an opening of doors we might rather keep shut. But if we can follow Jesus down that hard road, we just might see what only God can do. That’s a risk worth taking.
“Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the heart of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:14-15)
Editor’s Note: This originally published at Things of the Sort.