“God said to Jacob, ‘Arise and go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel’” (Genesis 35:1-3, ESV).
Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel, had a history with the place called Bethel. It was there, on his way to Padan-Aram to seek a wife and to escape from the vengeful Esau, that he slept using a stone for a pillow. During the night he saw a vision of a ladder or stair case going into heaven, with angels ascending and descending and God at the top. When he awoke he declared the place to be “the House of God” (Genesis 28:16) and named it accordingly. In Hebrew the name was “Bethel” whose meaning is “House of God.”
In Padan-Aram Jacob married the daughters of Laban (Leah and Rachel, and also their servants Zilpah and Bilhah) and they bore to him twelve sons and one daughter. Twenty years after his departure from Canaan Jacob returned with his family, servants, and possessions. It was then that God called him to revisit Bethel and worship him.
There are conditions to be met if one desires to come into the presence of God. John states, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6). Many hundreds of years before John’s time, Jacob understood those conditions. When he was called to God’s House he gave three commands to his family and servants.
First, “Put away [your] foreign gods.” The patriarch anticipated the lessons of Jesus with this command. The Lord taught, “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:34). On his previous stay in Bethel twenty years earlier Jacob had vowed, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). At the time of the story in Genesis 35 God had kept his word; now it was time for Jacob to hold up his part of the covenant. God, the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac, was to be Jacob’s (Israel’s) God exclusively, with no idols or false gods to be tolerated.
Christians today trust in one Lord, one Spirit, and one God (Ephesians 4:4-6), rejecting all other gods (1 Thessalonians 1:9). In order to come into God’s House, the Church (1 Timothy 3:15) genuine faith in God (Hebrews 11:6), and his Son as Lord (Romans 10:9) is required. Idolatry in any form is sin and separates such worshippers from the living and true God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Second, Jacob commanded his family to “purify yourselves.” In everyday activities there is much which will defile and stain, rendering fellowship with God impossible. Some 400 years later Jacob’s descendants would receive the Law of God delivered through Moses. That law contained specific rituals designed to purify the children of Israel so that their worship would be acceptable.
Today, under the law of Christ, Christians receive purification through the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:10) and through baptism (Acts 22:16), repentance, and prayer (1 John 1:8-10). Only Jesus can take away those things that defile us (Romans 7:24-25; 8:1). To enter into God’s spiritual house we also must purify ourselves.
Finally Jacob instructed his family to “Change your garments.” Under the Law of Moses, those who entered the Tabernacle (the “House of God” at that time) were required to take off their normal clothing, wash themselves, then to put on the special attire of the priesthood (Exodus 40:12-15). Those articles of clothing were to be worn only in the tabernacle and for the purpose of their priestly ministry.
Why Jacob wanted his people to change clothing is not revealed, nor the nature of the clothes they took off or of those they put on. It is significant however that Jacob made this demand. Approaching God requires careful preparation. Some things in our lives and in our outward or physical aspects are not appropriate for divine communion. Even Adam and Eve, after gaining the knowledge of good and evil, recognized the need to change or conceal their appearance when meeting their creator (Genesis 3:7, 10).
New Testament writers impose a “dress standard” not of physical clothing, but of character and good works (1 Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Peter 3:3-6). One who would draw near to God must be adorned with modesty, humility, and “a gentle and quiet spirit” among many other characteristics. One who has come to God in faith and obedience to the Gospel cannot live as he or she did in the past nor as people of the world live, but must be transformed (Romans 12:2) and live a life that is righteous and holy (Ephesians 4:24).
Just as Jacob recognized the importance of faith in God alone, purity, and appropriate appearance, so we today must prepare ourselves to remain continually in fellowship with our heavenly Father. We also must put away all that competes for our allegiance, must be cleansed from our sins, and must live outwardly in a manner acceptable to God.