March 10, 2023
Is prayer a nice thing to do? Something we resort to when we are in a serious situation? A word to describe one of the disciplines of the Christian life? Secondary, but not really all that essential? Something we do as a segue between songs on a Sunday morning?
Or is it the essence? The foundation? The fragrance that is to pervade everything for the serious follower of Jesus? The ultimate pathway to communion with God and the source of life and power for all we are and do?
A COMMUNITY MARKET
Jesus was in the last days of His life. As He passed through the temple mount area he was enraged that it had become a common market. A place designed by God for a sacred purpose had declined into merely a convenient, worldly merchandising hub with no thought of its glorious intent.
In His holy zeal, he wrecked the place, overturning tables and stopping traffic. And then He told them why. He reminded them of the sacred purpose of the temple environment.
My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a robbers’ den. (Mark 11:17)
The temple was designed with Divine precision: an outer court, an inner room, and the Holy of Holies. Without describing the details, each section was created to bring a person deeper and deeper into the presence of God. The sacrifices in the outer areas were constantly burning for the sins of the people. (Imagine the incredible aroma as the sacrifices were burned, like a fine outdoor barbecue). It was filled with fragrances of repentance and humility. Of a recognition that we can only approach God through the sacrifice of the Messiah.
Outside the Holy of Holies was a room with a continual light burning, the “bread of the Presence,” and the table on which incense burned incessantly. The innermost part of the temple represented the presence of God. It contained the Ark, which David had returned to Jerusalem. The Ark represented God’s presence, from which everything flowed: His Word, His provision, His life.
What was the purpose of this place? It represented everything about how God and man connect. It was a place for Old Testament people to encounter God and commune with Him. To find the forgiveness needed and the relationship with the Father through His Son that covers and empowers everything. As we read the Bible, we find righteous people in Jesus’ day continually going “up to the temple” for one purpose: to enter His presence through sacrificial faith and prayer.
Jesus was righteously angry when He saw that the temple was corrupted because this was His Father’s house. It was sacred and holy. Its purposes were being ignored and prostituted. There were others places to house a market. This was to be a consecrated place where something Divine happened every moment of every day.
Prayer is a side experience for most of us today. But notice one word that described all that should have been happening at the temple in Jesus' day (and ours): PRAYER. This was the word Jesus used about this place. This word summed up the essence of the temple and the essence of our relationship with God.
THE NEW TEMPLES
In the New Covenant (New Testament) age, a shift occurred. Paul speaks of the temple in two ways: individually and corporately. He speaks of our bodies:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Corinthians 6:19)
The believer’s physical body fulfills in one way what the temple in Jerusalem represented. We have three parts, just like the Jerusalem temple (body, soul, and spirit). And the great activity that once was done alone in the temple in Jerusalem has now shifted to us. We are to enter into His presence through the sacrifice of Christ and commune with God. We are to live with unceasing prayer. Our spirit is the place, eternally joined to His Spirit, in which the highest and holiest occurs. Prayer is the vehicle that allows us to consciously experience His presence.
How can we commune with Him and be used by Him if we are not in unceasing prayer? If the incense is not constantly rising from our lives, we have missed our purpose. This should represent a radical change in our thinking. Scripture-fed, Spirit-led prayer is not A thing, but THE thing. It is the vehicle by which our everyday lives fulfill the purposes of the temple—incense rising and being consumed with the presence of God.
But Paul also speaks of our churches as a temple.
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16)
Our gathering places for the Body of Christ can be many and varied. Around a tree in an African tribe, a humble church in a rural countryside, an elaborate building in a city, or a home in a persecuted country. We are scattered at times, but then we are called (and drawn by God) to gather.
But, if we are not careful, we can lose the intent of God about His church as we gather. The primary function of the gathered church is singular: like the Jerusalem temple, it is to be a place of prayer. This is why Jesus described it not as a place of community, or of preaching, or of worship, but of prayer. Both our bodies and our church gatherings should be filled with the fragrance of sacrifice and prayer. Our gatherings are the sacred spots where we encounter God corporately, continually, and deeply.
I have been in the gathered church when it is filled with the presence of God and the aroma of heaven. The loud noise of a lost world is outside, and our mission field is there. But among Christ’s gathered Body, the sweet aroma of intentional prayer is everything. Our hearts are focused on the throne as everything flows from His presence. Rosalind Rinker said the great purpose of prayer is to make God the center of our attention and forget everything else. This should say much to us about what we do and the environments we create when we gather as one in the church.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer” came from both the lips of Isaiah and Jesus (Isaiah 65:7; Mark 11:17), reminding us of the primary importance of prayer. We are to pray without ceasing. We are to bring everything to God in prayer. Prayer is our means of connection with God and our source of abiding relationship and power. It is not a peripheral piece of true Christianity. Just as the temple held the highest place of prominence in Jerusalem and was the center of the city and of life, so our communion with God must be the same.
If prayer is a side room to us—both individually and collectively—we have missed the heart of the spiritual life. Notice that our greatest Christians were increasingly involved in elevating and illustrating prayer. They lived and moved in unceasing prayer, which was the source of their Christ-filled lives and effectiveness.
CLEANSING THE TEMPLE
What do we learn from Christ’s zeal for His Father’s house and His Father’s purposes?
First, we must make our lives a house of prayer. When people encounter us, they should smell the incense and the sacrifices and encounter the presence of God. Our lives were made to experience God and to draw people to God. When people brush across our lives, they shouldn’t notice the smell of the world but the overwhelming and life-changing fragrance of Christ. We should aggressively cooperate with God to make this a reality. And unceasing prayer is the foundation.
Secondly, the places we gather to worship Him corporately should be designed for communion with the Father. They should be filled with prayer. We should approach our gatherings just as a godly Jew would approach the temple in Jerusalem.
When did we stop praying? When did we begin to believe that we could build churches without talking with the Head? It is an undeniable and shameful fact that we have swallowed this lie, evidenced by the non-existence of prayer in most of our churches. This demonic thought cuts us off from God’s presence and power. We have elaborate wineskins, but little Wine. How did we get there, and what must we do to return to the unceasing lifestyle of prayer that exploded the early church?
There should be something about our gatherings of corporate worship that are atmospheric with the presence of God. I have been in places where to enter there is almost certainly to encounter Him, but sadly, I’ve also been in many gatherings where this is not the case. These churches are lifeless, void of His presence. We should think deeply about how to adjust our churches to make prayer the highway and His presence the goal.
As we enter, all of our attention should be upon Him (which is the essence of prayer). No worship team nor pastor should be our focus. They must be human leaders taking us into the Holy of Holies. The worship should lead us in. The testimonies of God’s people should take us in (a lost element). Corporate prayer should take us in (another lost element). The Lord’s Table should take us in.
The preaching should lead us in. The essence of all preaching should not be the brilliance of our exposition or oratory, but the glorious presence of Christ. This is not to degrade preaching, but to infuse it. The endgame of our proclamation should be a greater encounter with God’s presence.
And, since God designed His church to be a house of prayer for ALL nations, any person from any background should be welcomed and overwhelmed there too. And all nations should be on our hearts and in our prayers just as they are with Christ.
And what would the result be if an unbeliever walked into our gatherings filled with His Presence?
… he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
And when a Presence-filled gathering occurs, we will leave those places and tell everyone about Jesus. We will find that we cannot help but speak about what we have seen and heard. Our witness will no more be a duty but an overflowing delight. We will want to bring everyone into an encounter with Him. Prayer does not keep us from the other vital functions of the church. It empowers and informs them.
A REVIVAL OF PRAYER
Asbury has informed us. And for the seeking hearts, it is reviving us, bringing us back.
If you entered Hughes auditorium at Asbury college during the sixteen glorious days in February 2023, you entered an incensed-laced room filled with Scripture-fed, Spirit-led, Worship-based prayer. Christ was at the center of it all. The veil was torn, and the room was alive with His presence. Nothing else mattered, and to be there was to encounter God.
This is why you could not leave. People who could only be there for an afternoon were frustrated that their time was limited, for heaven had come to Hughes. It was an approximation of the ultimate consummation (as David Bryant says). A taste of heaven because the people were being cleansed and communing with God. The roof was off, the walls were down, and the glory of God was covering the place like waters cover the sea.
And Christ turned over some tables to get us there. Schedules were interrupted, other priorities overturned. Time meant nothing. Money meant nothing. Food meant nothing. The pleasure of the world seemed ridiculous in light of His presence. Sins seemed foolish and were repented of gladly at the altar of prayer. The pull of the world was meaningless. People got on planes and came from overseas. Tables flipped over everywhere to make a highway so the King of glory could come in.
When the Lord gave a similar outpouring in the church I pastored in 2011 that led to five weeks of spontaneous gathering 3-4 hours a night, it was identical. The same fragrance and the same components were there. I have often said that this season at our church was a five-week continuous prayer meeting. We call it revival, and it was. It was God interrupting our schedules, waking us up from our spiritual lethargy and distracted Christianity, and bringing us back to where we should always live. He brought us back to unceasing prayer, allowing His presence to dominate everything. And we have never been the same.
AND NOW …
How can we cooperate with God today to make our lives and churches houses of prayer? It is the singular description Christ used, and it should be the one description we use. It should be the passion of every believer and every church leader to make such a highway. As we look at Asbury and see the beauty of God’s holiness in bold relief, we should not seek the exact particulars of Asbury but the purpose: to prepare a highway so God can manifest Himself and return His house to a house of prayer for all nations. To remove every boulder, both spiritually and structurally, that is an impediment on this highway.
Remember: Jesus is zealous about this. He will turn over tables to return His Father’s places—individually and collectively—to their rightful purposes. He wants us in the temple with Him so that we will go to the nations with our faces glowing with His presence.
Father, may unceasing prayer make my life and the places I gather with other believers filled with Your fragrance and presence. And may we encounter You and help others encounter you in unceasing communion. Help us make any and every adjustment today to see that Your house is cleansed from the world and consumed with unceasing prayer.
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