On Sunday April 29th Somerville College Chapel hosted an alumna of the College, Helen Cowan and her husband, William Cowan, to speak about their work for Gideons International. William gave a thought provoking address about the work of the Gideons inspired by the Greek inscription on the outside of the Chapel: ‘A house of prayer for all the nations.’ William kindly offered the text of his address to be placed on this blog. It is reproduced below. In it he refers to Isaiah 56: 3-8 and Mark 11: 15-19 which were read in the service, and from which the inscription on the outside of the Chapel was originally taken.
“A house of prayer for all nations” is the inscription in Greek over the entrance to this chapel. As we heard from having the two passages read to us, the words are those of God through his prophet Isaiah, with reference to the temple in Jerusalem; Jesus quotes them when in the courts of that temple, during the climactic visit of his ministry, having come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival – “Is it not written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nation?” It is a jewel of a saying and I propose to consider three facets of its teaching – that God is personal; that God is universal; and that God has acted – and to consider how the truths taught govern and motivate what Gideons do.
From these verses we can be in no doubt that Jesus regarded the temple as God’s house. He quoted, “Is it not written, My house……”, God being the speaker. There were many temples in the ancient world, but only this one was God’s house. Unusually, perhaps uniquely, the temple in Jerusalem contained no physical representation of the deity to be worshipped.
The temple was God’s house not that He needed it, but in the sense that it was where He could be sought and prayed to. When King Solomon had built the first temple he said, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built?” The temple of Jesus’ time was the third temple in Jerusalem – Solomon’s having been destroyed by the Babylonians in the early 6th century BC; the returnees from exile having built a second in the late 6th century; and this one had been begun by Herod the Great, a cruel tyrant. But nonetheless for the time being the temple in Jerusalem was the place that God had appointed where men and women should pray: “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”
The designation of the temple as “my house” reminds us of the name by which God had revealed Himself to Moses: “I AM” or “I AM THAT I AM”. God is personal; he is self-existent; He is everlasting. Some think of God as a force. But God is personal: He speaks, He calls, He hears. Others think that God is personal in the sense of being a matter of opinion, something subjective, for private speculation and contemplation. But the temple was God’s house. He set the terms for drawing near. This verse tells us that God is personal in a sovereign, unchanging sense and that He is knowable.
Gideons are convinced that God is personal and that He has ordained the Scriptures read and understood as the means by which to know Him.
Our verse declares that: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations”. It thereby teaches us that God is universal in that He desires all peoples to pray to Him. In the original prophecy of Isaiah the point was that believing Gentiles were to be equally acceptable with the children of Israel. When Solomon prayed to God, after the construction of the first temple, he had as a priority in his thinking the stranger, the foreigner, who would pray towards the temple, to the God of Israel. That concern for the Gentiles drawing near to God was reflected in the layout of the temple, in that the outer part was the court of the Gentiles. It seems that this area, where all nationalities should have been able to approach God, was being obstructed and corrupted by dishonest traders. In 70AD, the Romans destroyed the temple. Two chapters later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that there shall not be left one stone of the temple upon another, that shall not be thrown down. The gospels indicate that Jesus understood Himself to take the place of the temple, fulfilling the sacrificial terms on which unholy worshippers could approach the holy God; and later in the New Testament Christ’s church is spoken of as God’s temple or dwelling place. For now, the point is that God’s house is for all nations.
Some are inclined to think that the God of the Bible is only for certain people groups, or certain countries. God’s intention stated here, was and is that all nations should call on and pray to Him –city-dwellers and rural populations; hill-dwellers and those on the plains; communities whatever their level of development.
The Gideons are persuaded that God is universal, desiring all nations to pray to and worship Him, and so we seek to disseminate the Bible all around the world.
Finally in this passage we see that God has acted. Jesus got rid of the traders and traffic in the temple courts – driving out those who sold and bought there. What Jesus did was not intemperate; it was deliberate and considered for He had looked round the temple the day before.
Much of what was going on in the temple courts was for religious purposes; to allow worshippers to change their own currency into coinage that was acceptable in the temple; to provide them with doves for sacrifice. But the effect – and what aroused Jesus’ righteous indignation – was to get in the way of Gentiles and Jews drawing near to God.
“By what authority do you do these things?” asked Jerusalem’s chief priests and elders at the end of this chapter. Jesus declined to answer them, but for the reader of the gospel the answer – that Jesus acted with God’s authority – is clear enough.
By taking this action, Jesus aggravated the hostility of the religious authorities which would lead them to plot His death on a Roman cross. Such was His zeal that men and women should come to God in prayer and worship, that Jesus endured persecution and death.
Do you think or assume that God is indifferent to or inactive towards humanity? Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem is a taste of God’s radical action in sending Jesus the Messiah – to bring to pass the vision of Isaiah 56 that God should make the nations “joyful in [His] house of prayer”.
For Gideons, because God has acted, now is a time for us to act by making Scriptures available far and wide, because they tell of what God has done.