One of the more dramatic scenes in the gospels is when Jesus clears the Temple (John 2:13-17). Having made his way to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, Jesus is upset over the presence of moneychangers and tradespeople crowding the Temple’s outer courts. The atmosphere is chaotic and noisy.
Instead of a serene entranceway into prayer, the Temple appears more like a busy mall on Christmas eve. In response, Jesus cries out: “Get out of here! You have turned my Father’s house into a market house.” He is quick in action and judgment.
Jesus is clear that the concern for financial gain is a misuse of his Father’s House. The Father’s house is to be a place of prayer, a place of invitation. The outer courts were known as the “Court of the Gentiles;” it was the only place where Gentile converts could pray to Yahweh.
Filling the outer courts with commerce, then, effectively cut off the Gentiles from any participation in worship. Instead of a house of prayer, the Temple became a commercial enterprise.
The Lord’s zeal for the Father’s house is unchanged. Jesus desires it to be a place defined by prayer and worship above all else. Yet given the fact that Christians do not worship at the Jerusalem Temple, this begs the question: where is the Father’s house today?
The Church as the Father’s House
The Temple was known as the house of the Lord; it was the place where God resided. Jesus declared this when he stole away from his parents “to be in [his] Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). This notion, that God dwelt within the walls of Jerusalem, was important to how Israel understood itself as God’s chosen nation.
Just as the tent of meeting represented God’s physical presence with Israel during the Exodus (Exodus 27:1), the Temple represented the permanent residence of Yahweh amongst the people of Israel.
This meant that people of all types flocked to Jerusalem during the Passover each year. People came not merely for a religious celebration, but to be in the presence of the Lord. Scholars estimate that close to one million people, Jews, and Gentiles alike, would descend upon Jerusalem during this time.
The journey to the Temple was one of delight and joy. The clutter in the outer courts, then, barred people from entering God’s presence.
If the Temple was seen as the place where God resided, then the local church fulfills this function today. The local church is the house of the Lord as it is reserved for an encounter with God through prayer and worship.
Each week people go to the local congregation to be in God’s presence in a unique way. The church is not just an empty building, it is a place where the Spirit of God is in residence.
This means that Christ’s cleansing of the Temple is instructive for our own places of worship. Do we allow practices or habits to obstruct the call to prayer? Sadly, this can occur in all sorts of ways. Choirs or worship bands can too easily focus on self-promotion; councils and boards can sometimes treat the church more like a business than a place of ministry.
While churches may not employ “money changers,” many include gift shops where a myriad of church-branded merchandise may be purchased. If one has to pass through a gift shop in order to get into the sanctuary, what message does this send?
It takes a certain willful dedication to remain focused upon God. We are to be stubborn in the belief that the church exists as a place of prayer and worship alone. The church is “our Father’s house,” a place dedicated to being in God’s presence.
If anything begins to take precedence over the activity of prayer and worship within the walls of the church, then, like the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus says we are forsaking the church’s very nature and purpose.
Our Homes as the Father’s House
Does this mean that the local church is the only place where we can interact with God’s presence? Absolutely not! In fact, long before there was a local church on every corner, the Christian community met in people’s homes.
When the early disciples were put out of the Temple, “the church” existed as an intricate body of house gatherings. The Book of Acts records how the early Christians “broke bread in each other’s homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (2:46). For the early Christians, the home church was the primary place of meeting the Risen Lord.
Importantly, this is nothing new. The community of faith has always seen the home as a primary place of prayer and worship. Deuteronomy 11:18-20, for example, reads,
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Israel’s faith was to be a holistic experience. The home was just as much a place of faith as was the tent of meeting, or the Jerusalem Temple.
In fact, there is a long history of viewing the home as “the domestic church.” Our homes are to be a place where we invite the Spirit of God to reside. This means that “the Father’s house” is as much our own home as it is the local church.
Do we see our home as the house of the Lord? Do we believe that Christ’s presence is met in our kitchen, our living room, or our bedroom? In today’s culture of busyness, it can be easier to see the home as a second office, rather than a place of prayer or worship. Home becomes the place where we do the work. By the time we set our tasks down, we are too exhausted to focus on the presence of God.
If our home is the Father’s house, then Jesus is zealously committed to meeting us in our homes. Our home is where we can be drawn deeper into God’s loving presence. Like the Temple, then, Jesus may wish to do a bit of cleansing to strengthen our divine communion.
Could Jesus point to anything in our homes and declare, “Get out of here, you are making my Father’s house into a house of . . . entertainment, leisure, frustration, busyness, self-focus? What might change in our lives if we choose to recognize our home as a place of divine interaction?
Our Lives as the Father’s House
Ultimately, the Father’s house refers to the place where the Spirit of God resides. Thus, we cannot escape the fact that this includes our own selves. The house of the Lord is in our hearts and our lives. Jesus declares, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.
My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). As baptized Christian people, who have invited Jesus into our lives, Christ’s Spirit has taken residence in us. Our heart is the house the of Lord. This is not something we say merely as a quaint religious doctrine, it is a fact of our existence.
Christ’s clearing of the Temple, then, illustrates his desire for our own lives. Christ desires to clear out whatever might work against the full realization of his presence. If there is something that works against the activity of prayer in our own lives, then we might need to hear Christ’s challenge. Christ’s desire is for us to know, and experience, his presence as a constant reality.
Jesus is present and active in “the Father’s house” today. He is present in our churches, in our homes, and more than anything, in our own lives. Furthermore, Jesus is zealously committed to these places. He loves them. He longs for them.
He desires the Father’s house to be a place of divine meeting. Ultimately, it is out of love that Jesus enters the Father’s house and clears away that which negates one’s experience of God. May we all uncover the reality of God’s presence as we pray with our local church, as we pray in our own homes, and as we cultivate a life of prayer within ourselves.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.