Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Mark 11:17)
One of Christ’s criticisms of the Jewish Temple and religion was that the Jews had failed to make the Temple a place of prayer for all nations. Instead, they limited the Temple to be a space for Jews alone and then turned it into a fundraising bazaar to benefit the religious leaders. The Temple was meant to mark a center point for the entire world and to be a house of prayer for all nations because it represented God’s presence with His human creatures. However, because Israel saw the Temple building as a unique sign of their being the chosen people, the Gentiles were excluded from it. This resulted in the God of all being reduced to a tribal god of the Jews alone. Instead of the Temple being the place where all humans could come into God’s presence and seek God’s mercy, it became a sign of the Gentiles exclusion from God’s presence. The Jews made the Temple like the Cherubim with the flaming sword which God appointed to keep humanity out of Paradise (Genesis 3:24). It was exactly opposite of what the Temple was meant to signify or be.
Christ’s ‘cleansing’ of the Temple showed this reduction of the Temple to be an offense to God which God wished to sweep away. God didn’t live in a Temple building but in His people. The cleansing indicated that the Jerusalem Temple was inadequate to be God’s house of prayer because the people of God were to be this house, not a building. It was the Temple being reduced to a building which excluded the Gentiles that necessitated the creation of temples, shrines and idols so that the ‘Gentiles’ could also pray to God. Thus, the Jews through their exclusivist attitude reinforced by their idea of the Temple as a building were contributing to the spread of paganism by excluding the nations from praying in the Temple which they were supposed to be (not some building however marvelous it might be).
Biblical scholar David Instone-Brewer comments on how Jewish prayer customs changed through the time of Christ and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE:
Before 70 CE, prayer was normally a private matter, even when it was performed in a synagogue. People went to the synagogue, but they each prayed by themselves, starting at different times according to when they arrived. . . . After 70 CE, prayer was increasingly a communal activity, conducted by a prayer leader in the synagogue, especially on a Sabbath when work did not prevent people attending. With this development came the assumption that someone who did not attend synagogue was not performing his prayers. (TRADITIONS OF THE RABBIS FROM THE ERA OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 65)
After the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, Judaism moved away from being a religion of One Temple and became more local synagogue-based, its prayer customs changed, becoming more communally oriented. But their exclusivity in prayer continued as they continued to view themselves as the ‘chosen’ and thus different from non-Jews and so refused to pray with them. Christians were to embrace a more inclusive attitude in prayer – prayer with and for all peoples as Christ reformed humanity into one new people instead of two (Jew vs Gentile). Now, in Christ, all people could pray to God. Christ becomes the house in which we all can pray.
In Orthodoxy on the feasts of the Nativity of the Theotokos and of her Dormition, we read from Proverbs 9:1 which in the Septuagint version says “Wisdom built for herself a house” which seems to refer to Christ’s own incarnation and forming for himself a body in the Virgin’s womb. Thus, Christ is that house of God in whom all can pray. Hebrews 3:6 identifies us believers as the house of God as does 1 Peter 2:5. In the Old Testament “the house of David” was also a reference to the people of God, not a building. God’s true house is His people and His people were to include the prayers of all the peoples of the earth since there is only one God for all the nations. Judaism through its own reductionism lost its role as the house of prayer for all nations. The Temple was destroyed as an inadequate symbol. Christ and Christianity were to become this bold vision of a house of prayer for all people.
It is up to us believers to make the Church God’s house of prayer for all people. We have to work to make this a reality and we should pray for it to happen in us. Rather than focus on our church buildings, we are to be God’s temple and to bring the prayers of all people to God.
O Maker and Benefactor of all creation! Receive your Church which approaches you. Bring about all that is best for us. Lead everyone to perfection. And make us worthy of your kingdom. By the grace and mercy and love for man of your only Son with whom you are blessed together with your all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. (Prayer of the Entrance, Codex Barberinus 336, 8th century) (Paul Harrilchak, THE LITURGY, p 26)