Wash First, Then Worship
by Shane Scott
When I was a little boy my grandparents would take me to church on Sunday morning. The routine never varied. After we all bathed and dressed, we would go by the retirement home and pick up Sister Begley. I always enjoyed sitting in the backseat with her because she invariably gave me two quarters; one for the collection basket and one for me. Then on the way out of town we would go by the local carwash, and Pop would drive the car through one of the automated washers. Finally we would be on our way to church. I always wondered why Pop washed his car every Sunday morning. Maybe it was all part of putting on our “Sunday best.” Or maybe it was just an easy way he remembered to wash his car. Anyway, the order was: wash first, then worship.
In the Old Testament, the priests who served in the tabernacle and later the temple had to prepare themselves by washing in the laver, or “basin of bronze” as it is called in Exodus 30:18. As the Lord told Moses: “When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations” (Exodus 30:20-21).
This physical washing obviously signified that God expects those who worship Him to be pure, and later in Psalms the imagery of washing is used to describe the spiritual purification that must take place if we are to worship God acceptably.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4)
“I wash my hands in innocence
and go around your altar, O LORD,
proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.” (Psalm 26:6-7)
The New Testament picks up on this theme of inner spiritual purity as a necessity for worship as well. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). “And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:21-22).
On a practical level, what this means is that in order to prepare ourselves for worship we should examine ourselves and confess our sins to God. Over and over the prophets of the Old Testament rebuked Israel for thinking that merely showing up for worship was acceptable, regardless of how they lived.
“Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil” (Isaiah 1:14-16).
It also means, as Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount, that if we remember that our brother has something against us that we should leave our gift before the altar and “first be reconciled” to our brother (Matthew 5:23-24).
Sunday mornings in your home are probably a lot like mine – frantic and hurried as everyone rushes to get ready. But let’s all remember that the most important thing any of us can do before worship is to truly cleanse ourselves spiritually as we prepare to come to praise the Lord. Wash first, then worship.