Prayer, The Church, And The Next Great Awakening
The following is edited from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2013 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A. Used by permission.
In the Bible the naming of something or someone is of great significance. A name takes on even more significance when God Himself gives it to something that is His, something deeply meaningful to Him. The Bible tells us that God has chosen a name for His own house: "…My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" (Isa. 56:7). Solomon had prayed during the dedication of the temple, "Now, my God, may Your eyes be open and Your ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place" (2 Chr. 6:40), and God answered that He would indeed give special attention to the prayers offered there (2 Chr. 7:15).
Jesus took very seriously this naming of God’s house. All four of the Gospel writers record that Jesus cleansed the temple in reference to Isaiah 56:7. In the first three Gospels, Jesus directly quotes the passage (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), and in the fourth Gospel, He personalizes it to "My Father’s house" (John 2:16).
The very fact that the cleansing of the temple is the only recorded time in which we see Jesus demonstrating such godly anger indicates how central the Father’s house as a house of prayer is to God’s plan on earth. Jesus believed that those who are a part of God’s house ought to live in accordance with the name that God has given.
This becomes especially relevant when we understand that God’s house is in no way limited to the temple. His house existed long before the temple (and tabernacle), and it exists even now and will continue when this age is over. His house is an eternal house and it will be forever a place of communion between God and His people.
We Are God’s House
As we consider the Scriptures regarding God’s house, it becomes clear that we, as Christians, both individually and gathered as the church, are called to be a new temple, God’s house. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "In Him [Jesus] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit" (Eph. 2:21-22). In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes, "Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16); "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you…" (6:19). And he continues in his second letter, "…For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people’" (2 Cor. 6:16).
Peter takes up this same theme in his first letter: "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…" (1 Pet. 2:5). In the Book of Revelation, John records Jesus’ promise, "Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of My God" (Rev. 3:12). Remember as well the words Jesus spoke to the disciples, and to us, "If anyone loves Me, he will obey My teaching. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home [our dwelling] with him" (John 14:23).
God’s house, therefore, was not confined to a building in the Old Testament, though that was intended to be a picture for us of what God desired to do. The dedication of both the old and new temples provides a great illustration of this truth. You recall that God directed the construction of the original temple and gave very specific commands regarding what it was to look like and how it was to be used. On the day of dedication, Solomon stood before the temple with all of Israel behind him, and he prayed a wonderful prayer of dedication. When he finished praying, fire from heaven came down and the shekinah glory of God filled the temple. The people saw the glory of God!
Move from that point in time to a thousand years into the future and you come to the dedication of a new temple on the Day of Pentecost. Once again there came the shekinah glory of God, the flame of God. This time it came over the heads of the believers. As believers we are God’s house, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. And do you know what has not changed? The name. The name is the same. God declared it: "…My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations." It is too important for us to let go.
The Church’s Identity
I believe this has great significance for the church today. There is such confusion in the church. When I go into a congregation I ask people, "How should this congregation be known in the community, what should it be known for?" I do not get just one answer, but dozens and dozens of answers. We have an identity crisis.
My friends, God has made it so very, very simple. He has called the church to be a house of prayer for all nations. We are to be known for prayer. It is not that other issues are not important, because they certainly are. But when we line things up in God’s order, when we learn to button the top button first, everything else begins to match up and begins to work. We are a house of prayer. Get the name right and everything else begins to fall into place.
Why Is Prayer So Significant?
But there is a second question and it is much harder. It is the "why" question – Why is prayer so important that God would name us a house of prayer? I am convinced we are dealing with something of supernatural significance here. The reaction of Jesus to the lack of prayer in the temple gives a clear indication of the significance of this in the eyes of God. The godly anger of Jesus could only be accounted for by the fact that it was His response to something that was totally opposed to His Father’s plan for His people.
Think about this. This was not an off-the-cuff response. Jesus was really angry, but I suggest to you that Jesus was perfectly under control when He cleansed the temple. Mark’s account helps us understand this: "Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve" (Mark 11:11). Jesus carefully examined what was going on, left for Bethany, and came back the next day to say, "Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you made it a ‘den of robbers’" (Mark 11:17). Rather than a spur of the moment flare-up, it was a carefully considered move that came about at the direction of the Father.
God has invested something of great significance in prayer. Prayer is His way of bringing many sons and daughters to maturity and accomplishing His will on earth. As we understand His purpose and His ways, it will not only change our perspective on prayer, but our perspective on the church – who we are intended to be, what our focus should be, and how we are to be spending our time and our energies.
It is important to stress that the plan for us to be a house of prayer is God’s plan, an outworking of His sovereignty. I say this because sometimes it sounds as though we are saying God is not going to do anything unless we pray, therefore it looks like we are the ones in charge. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only a completely sovereign, omnipotent God could devise this amazing plan of prayer by which His power is poured out and at the same time He brings His children to maturity. He could have devised any plan He wanted to bring about His purposes on earth, but in His sovereignty and wisdom, He chose prayer as His strategy. He chose to give mankind a role in accomplishing His purposes on the earth.
As we most always do, we have it wrong. We have made prayer about us. We have looked at prayer as our way of getting things from God. If we pray long enough…if we believe enough…if we get enough people to join us…then just maybe we will get what we want from God. That never has been, and never will be, the purpose of prayer. We have turned prayer on its head and wonder why it does not work well for us. We have not understood the purpose of prayer.
Prayer is from the beginning about God. All true prayer originates in the heart of the Father and is communicated through the Spirit to His people, those whom He has called His children. Then we, having spent enough time with Him to know His heart and to listen to His Spirit, through the name and authority of Jesus take that prayer back to the Father and He begins to act. It is all about Him. Consider this, here is God the Father, God the Spirit and God the Son – three-fourths of prayer is God.
There is, however, another part, an absolutely critical part, and you and I step into that role. It is the place of the church to make that connection and see God’s power poured out. The Father is so amazing. He could have done it Himself, yet in His sovereignty and wisdom He chose to bring us into the process of prayer to train us in spiritual matters. According to the Word of God, we are going to reign with Christ. In some ways we are even now seated with Christ in the heavenlies and we have begun that process. In his classic book, Destined For The Throne, Paul Billheimer wrote that prayer is on the job training for reigning with Christ. When you think about it, what do you do that touches the spiritual realm? Ultimately it is prayer that touches the spiritual realm. And so God has invested deeply in prayer because it is on the job training for us. It helps us grow in these spiritual matters so that we are ready as the Bride of Christ to rule with Christ.
The Father is not going to short-circuit our training. There are things that God wants to do on earth but He is waiting for us to spend enough time in His Word with Him to know His heart so that we know what to ask for. There are other things that God does not want to have happen, but may well happen unless we rise up and take our place as the house of prayer, praying those things that are on the Father’s heart. We must learn to pray as Jesus taught us that God’s kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
God Searches for Someone to Stand in the Gap
One of the best biblical examples of this perspective on prayer as God’s strategy is found in Ezekiel 22:30 in which God says, "I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before Me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none." When we see the all-powerful, sovereign, Creator God looking for someone, we better pay attention. God was looking for someone to pray.
The imagery here is drawn from a city wall designed for protection. Spiritually speaking, the nation of Judah had experienced continued decay, and their rebellion and unconfessed sin had chipped away at the wall. God’s protection began to erode and a gap developed, a hole in the wall. Such a gap is a dangerous place through which the enemy can come and bring destruction.
God makes it very clear, however, that His will is not to destroy His people. He always wants confession and repentance. He wants His people to turn back to Him and be restored. He wants revival.
But in Ezekiel’s day this had not taken place, and God was looking for someone who would literally put themselves in the gap before Him on behalf of the nation. This is a picture of someone interceding with God on behalf of the people. God was looking for someone to build up the wall with prayers of confession and repentance to turn the people back to their God. But He found no one and Jerusalem was destroyed.
There is another story about a gap in the wall that took place earlier in Israel’s history at Mount Sinai. Moses was on the mountain with God and the people were in the valley worshiping a golden calf. God was very angry and basically said to Moses, "I’ve had it. Get out of the way, Moses. I am going to destroy them and start over again. You will be the new Abraham. We will start with you." But Moses stood in the gap. He interceded. Psalm 106:23, referring to that occasion, states, "So He said He would destroy them – had not Moses, His chosen one, stood in the breach [that is the same word for ‘gap’] before Him to keep His wrath from destroying them." God was looking for someone who would stand in the gap and He found someone. It was Moses.
Could God have done all of that on His own? Could He have just stepped in regardless of what those in Ezekiel’s day did or what Moses did? No, because God has invested deeply in prayer. Prayer is the way that God has chosen to accomplish His will on earth. Our prayers make a difference!
Revival Comes in Response to Prayer
Do you see now why Jesus was so upset regarding the temple? It was not just a matter of some dishonest merchants – Jesus was surrounded by dishonest merchants in His day. What upset Him was the perversion of the place of prayer. He and the Father had committed to prayer as the way they were going to work on earth, and the temple was the picture of that, designed to teach God’s people for all time His intentions for prayer. If it was not going to be a place of prayer there was no purpose for it at all. That statement is a little scary when you consider that we are now the house of God. I think there are only two choices: We are either a house of prayer or a den of thieves. I see no in between. It is to my sorrow to say that in many congregations we have stolen of God’s glory, and we have stolen from His purpose. We have tried to do it in our own strength and in our own way.
Before the temple there was the tabernacle, and before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting that Moses erected (see Exodus 33:7ff.) – all intended to be places of prayer. For thousands of years now the Lord has been trying to make the point that prayer is central to His purposes. So here we are today crying out for revival, longing for revival, believing that God wants to awaken His people. We understand that revival does not happen just because we want it, but is heaven-sent. It is something that God does. And how does God do His work on earth? He works in response to the prayers of His people. It is time, Church, to live up to our name!
When we look at the church in America, we see that we are not a house of prayer. But I rejoice to report that the church in a number of nations is increasingly becoming a house of prayer. The underground church in China is an amazing praying church. The same is true in many places in India, South Korea and some other countries as well. Indonesia is the largest Muslim-populated country in the world, but the church is exploding. Well over ten percent of the population is Christian, and some suggest as high as twenty percent (the government will not allow the figures to be released). My wife and I visited there last May and we saw why the church is growing so dramatically – there are over 500 prayer towers, places of day and night prayer. Christians in Indonesia are praying day and night. Prayer is the key to what God is doing in Indonesia. This is happening around the world, and I long for that here in America as well. We must become that house of prayer if we are to see God manifest His power in the church in this nation.
Revival only comes to a desperate people. As I travel, I am finding a greater sense of desperation. Those of us who are leaders in the body of Christ need to help God’s people move that desperation into prayer that focuses on the presence of the Lord in the midst of His people. The solution for this nation is not political or economic, but is in another Great Awakening.
I believe revival is coming. The Lord is putting the burden of prayer for revival into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of us, if not millions, because He is getting ready to do something. But to the extent of it – where, when, how, and what it will look like – that is all in His hands. And the extent that revival happens in our nation may well depend on how we respond.
Father, we thank You for this gift of prayer. We are grateful that through the blood of Jesus Christ, You give us free access into the throne room of heaven. Thank you, Lord. We come with gratitude, but also with boldness because of who You are and because ultimately it is all about You and Your purposes. We come today seeking to know that and to know how to pray. Like the disciples so many years ago we would say, "Lord, teach us to pray." Show us how to pray in a way that releases Your power and brings fresh honor and glory to Jesus and extends Your kingdom. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dave Butts is co-founder and president of Harvest Prayer Ministries. He also serves as the chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee and president of Gospel Revivals Inc. (Herald of His Coming).