Uniform 04.06.2014: Caring for Sacred Space

Isaiah 56:6-7; Jeremiah 7:9-11; Mark 11:15-19

Like many people, I can get pretty sentimental about buildings. When an old, unused gym on my college campus was torn down to make way for green space, I was saddened that people would no longer get to see the tiny gym where the Mercer Bears played basketball for many years. I was devastated when a tornado razed the farmhouse my great-grandfather grew up in, and I will never get used to the golf course clubhouse that sits in its place. I yearn to revisit houses I lived in as a small child.

Many kinds of buildings hold meaning for me: family homes, college chapels, libraries, and churches. Especially churches. Some of my favorite memories of growing up in church involve exploring the many nooks and crannies of church buildings without adult supervision. I remember the distinct smells of nurseries, Sunday school classrooms, and fellowship halls. I can still trace the outlines of favorite stained glass windows and see the people who belong in each pew.

Christians today recognize that church is more about a community of believers than it is about a building, but that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the value of sacred space. We only allow certain activities to take place on church grounds, and we have staff and committees dedicated to maintaining and beautifying our buildings. While we affirm that worship can happen anywhere, we uphold the importance of a space set apart for that purpose.

In Isaiah, God explains that the temple was intended to be “a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:7). This simple purpose statement can still direct our congregational lives. We are charged with making our houses of worship places to which anyone can come and encounter God.

When Jesus arrives at the temple in Jerusalem, he discovers that God’s plan for a house of prayer has devolved into “a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). More than disappointed that God’s house is being misused, Jesus is outraged that people undermine the worshipful atmosphere of the temple with their trade. In his commentary on Mark, Alan Culpepper argues that Jesus recognizes three poisons being spread in the temple that day: “using worship as a means to something else,” recognizing social differences in God’s house, and hypocrisy (see Reference Shelf for more information). The buyers and sellers in the temple are not just ignoring best worship practices; they undercut God’s plan for the temple and threaten to make all worship there meaningless.

We might not be changing money or selling doves outside our sanctuaries, but we can still be guilty of poisoning our worship. Respecting and caring for the sacred space where we meet God each week is the first step in creating the house of prayer Isaiah tells us about.

I hope that church buildings continue to be special places for the next generation of children growing up in Christian community. I look forward to the day when my son shows me some little corner of our church that I haven’t discovered yet, and I’m eager to help him understand the value of that building where our church family worships together.


1. What kinds of buildings do you care most about? When do you become upset or disappointed by the way these buildings are used?
2. What are your favorite features of your church building? How does the church’s physical space help you enter new spiritual spaces?
3. What is the intended purpose of your church building? Is that how it is primarily used? If not, why? What steps do we need to take to make sure our churches live up to God’s plans for them?
4. What poisons threaten the purity and sincerity of our worship? How can we avoid or cure them?
5. How can we uphold the importance of sacred space while still encouraging finding God in all kinds of places?

Reference Shelf

The ecology of worship is a central concern of every minister. The proper setting, music, liturgy, word, and spirit are all vital if the drama of worship is to lead to a true encounter with the divine. But even when the details have been attended to, worship may not occur and the drama may be merely playacting. For every worship leader, then, the threat that worship may be rejected is profoundly disconcerting. Imagine the Lord appearing in his temple and rejecting the worship of his people! It is tempting to read this text as a limited judgment directed only at Jewish worship, but if the “temple not made with hands” is not free from the offenses that led to the condemnation of the Jerusalem temple, will it fare any better? While this question may not have been consciously intended by Mark, the Gospel continuously communicates “thou shalt not be like those whom Jesus rejects.”

From the beginning, Jesus’ ministry threatened the wineskins of Jewish worship. The conflict is launched by a scene in the synagogue at Capernaum (1:21-28) that is structurally similar to the temple cleansing. He casts out those who defile the temple and he exorcizes the unclean spirit from the man in the synagogue. In both scenes he teaches, and the crowd marvels at his teaching […]. In the synagogue Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with that of the scribes, and in the temple the scribes react hostilely (cf. 11:18 and 3:6). In both synagogue and temple, the new wine of Jesus’ teaching and presence cleanses corrupt worship and threatens its structures.

The conflict continues with Jesus forgiving sins (2:1-12), eating with outcasts (2:15-17), plucking grain and healing on the Sabbath (2:23–3:5), and rejecting the tradition of the elders (7:1-23). Dramatically the tension builds as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and repeatedly tries to tell his disciples what will happen there. The scene at the temple, therefore, is the climax of Jesus’ conflict with the structures of worship in his day.

The Son of God has appeared at his Father’s house (Mal 3:1-2). The opponent of ritual and tradition has entered the sanctuary of the ritual observers and ceremony makers. Mysteriously Jesus looks around and leaves without a recorded word, but it is clear to Mark that the evening of the temple has come (11:11). On the morrow it will be condemned and within a generation it will be destroyed.

The temple cult, like the fig tree, appeared to be healthy. Yet, the message of Palm Sunday is not that the people rejected their king, but that the king rejected the worship of his people. Why was their worship rejected? It might not be wrong to observe that we have become more sensitive to the ecology of the world than the ecology of worship. In many churches it is easier to arouse interest and indignation over the ways we poison our world than the ways we poison our worship. We know what we have done to our physical space. What have we done to the spiritual space in which we live? What poisons led Jesus to reject the temple? The text does not say why Jesus condemned the temple, but the offenses that led to the condemnation may be inferred from what Jesus said and did in the temple.

First, there was the poison of using worship as a means to something else. The merchants of piety were buying and selling inside the temple. They found worship to be a reliable means to prosperity. Pilgrims came from faraway places with their foreign currency, currency with human images that had to be exchanged before the pilgrims could buy a sacrificial animal. Then too, because it was so difficult to bring an animal in sacrificial condition, most pilgrims bought their animals in Jerusalem. The laws regulating worship, therefore, ensured the merchants a lucrative trade. Moreover, since the most direct paths through Jerusalem from east to west went through the temple, people took the shortcut through it and carried their vessels through the temple on their way to other places. The sacred area was treated like any other place when its space was used as a means to something else. When he cleansed the temple, therefore, Jesus purged it of the poison of worship for profit, for convenience, or for any other end besides the praise of God.

We have long since ceased to buy and sell in the church, but we are still using it as a means to inappropriate ends. A new breed of chief priests hypes the gospel on national television every Sunday to build their own reputations and evangelistic associations. Pop music groups are also cashing in on the gospel. But most people use worship for their own ends in other ways: by going to church to enhance their social status in the community or so their children will receive religious training. These pursuits may not be bad in themselves, but when one attends church for any reason other than the desire to worship, he or she uses it as a means to something else rather than as the essential activity for maintaining one’s spiritual life. Like the people who carried vessels through the temple, many have profaned the sacred space of life by trampling through it on the way to other places. Treating worship as a means poisons it and leaves it as barren as polluted waters or a fruitless fig tree.

The second poison that led to the condemnation of the temple was the poison of observing social distinctions in God’s presence. The temple itself was designed to enforce social exclusivism. Most of its forty-two-acre area was designated as the Court of the Gentiles. This outer area was the only part of the temple in which Gentiles were per- mitted. Yet, the Jews had taken the only area in which the Gentiles could worship and turned it into a place of commerce.

In contrast to the distance enforced upon Gentiles by the temple architecture, Jesus sought them out and brought them near (cf. Eph 2:13-18). He crossed the Sea of Galilee, restored the Gadarene demoniac to his right mind, and launched the Gentile mission by sending him to preach throughout the Decapolis (5:1-20). In contrast to Matthew (10:5-6), Mark (6:6b-13) does not limit the mission of the Twelve to Israel only. In the next chapter Mark tells of Jesus’ ministry in Tyre and Sidon; he found faith in Tyre and opened the ears of a Gentile in Sidon (7:24-37). The feeding of the 4,000 follows immediately. Well before the explicit command in Mark 13:10, therefore, it is clear that the kingdom, the family of faith, the temple not made with hands, will embrace Gentiles as well as Israelites.


The entire structure of the temple was therefore calculated to enforce social distinctions of race, sex, and family status. Jesus viewed the observance of such distinctions in the presence of God as obscene. The Jews took pride in their heritage as Israel and trusted in their birth within the elect for their hope for the future, but Jesus refused to recognize privilege based on birth (cf. John 3:3).

Today the poisons of social distinctions are named but not neutralized. People of other races are still frequently kept at a distance, though often in subtle rather than official ways. Women are admitted, but in some churches it is still only the men who have access to the court of Israel, the deacon council. And we have only begun to be aware of the effects that tearing down the dividing wall of hostility between lay and clergy would have on the ministry of the laity and the priesthood of the believer. We still come to worship to watch the priests whom we pay to do our ministry for us while we sit and watch. Part of the message of the condemnation of the temple, as of all the rest of Jesus’ ministry, is that God accepts persons as persons apart from any of our labels or social distinctions. Yet, social exclusivism still poisons worship.

The third poison that permeated the temple was hypocrisy. People sought to use worship to appease God. They recognized their sinfulness but resolved to continue in it. They worshiped merely to attempt to placate God and so perhaps find sanctuary for their sinfulness in God’s house. Jesus consequently charged that they had made God’s house “a den of robbers.” A den or cave was the place to which bandits and brigands retreated for safety between their assaults, so by calling the temple a robber’s den Jesus condemned the people’s failure to repent.

For this failure God had destroyed the ancient places of worship. God destroyed Shiloh, God condemned the temple, and God destroyed Jerusalem. Shall we dare say, while we poison our worship with the age-old poisons, that God will not destroy our temples also? God demands worship with a broken and contrite heart and a firm resolve to rid ourselves of the poisons that have polluted our lives, our world, and our worship. The choices are clear: purge the temple or be destroyed. The chief priests and scribes chose the second option (11:18; 14:1). What will we do about the ecology of worship?


R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008).

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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