On Coming to Bethel: Conditions for Fellowship with God

By Elder Enoch Ofori

(Sabbath, 6th April, 2012)

"Arise, Go Up to Bethel"

Wearing a staid but respectable countenance, he sits resplendent in a gold-studded traditional attire surrounded by sub-chiefs and sword-brandishing courtiers. The whole palace echoes with his appellations set to traditional drum music played rather vigorously.  The mere presence of the man exudes dignity and awe in an atmosphere charged with royal pomp and pageantry. The man is, of course, the ‘Asantehene‘,  the king of Asante Kingdom of Ghana;  no unkempt, shabbily dressed man will be ushered into his presence.

God is similarly particular about those who appear before Him, if not more. Bethel, Hebrew for ‘House of God’, is the place of our appointment with God. The first person to be associated with the place was Jacob, and it’s through him that God lays down His rules for those seeking fellowship with Him at Bethel. The rules are found in Gen 35. 

By this time, some thirty years had elapsed since Jacob encountered God at Luz where he had slept overnight on his way to his uncle Laban, partly to flee from his brother Esau after ‘stealing both his birthright and birthright blessing’ and partly to look for a wife from his uncle’s family (see Gen. 25:29-34 & 27:36, 41-45; 28:1-5). While asleep on the bare floor with a stone for a pillow, Jacob had a dream in which a ladder stretched from earth to heaven with the holy angels descending and ascending on it. At the top rung of the ladder stood the LORD who spoke to Jacob and reaffirmed to him His covenant with Abraham together with all its blessings. In furtherance of His covenantal pledge, God further promised to protect Jacob and give him success (Gen. 28:10-15).

Startled out of his sleep, Jacob said,"’Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it’. And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.  So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.  He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘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, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you’" (vv. 16-22 ESV).

Several days later, Jacob arrived in Haran and was warmly received by his uncle. True to His promise, God made Jacob prosperous in his 20-year stay with Laban—14 years used in serving Laban to pay the bride price for his two wives, Leah and Rachel, daughters of Laban, and 6 years used to tend his flocks for wages (Gen. 31:41-42). But to all intents and purposes, Jacob had forgotten the vow he made to Yah at Bethel, reflecting a common human tendency to forget God when the going is good. It’s at Genesis 35 that God issues him a strong reminder: 

"Then God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and live there, and make an altar there to 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 which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments;

“and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.”

“So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem.

 “As they journeyed, there was a great terror upon the cities which were around them, and they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.

“So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him.

“He built an altar there, and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed Himself to him when he fled from his brother" (Gen. 35:1-7 NASB).

An About Turn for a People Meeting God for the first Time

Essentially, Jacob’s order to his household was to divest themselves of all pagan influences and to be holy as they prepared to meet God at Bethel.  In compliance with the order, the household, comprising his wives, children, concubines and slaves, "gave to Jacob all the foreign gods which they had and the rings which were in their ears, and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem".

It’s instructive to note that all the members of Jacob’s household had pagan backgrounds.  In fact, Rachel had stolen Laban’s household idols (teraphim) and hidden them under her camel seat as Jacob fled from Haran with his family and possessions back to Canaan (Gen. 31:30-35). Moreover, it appeared that Jacob himself had stumbled in the faith over the long period of his separation from his father’s house and that explained why he allowed his family to keep idols and other pagan objects. But now they were Bethel-bound: it was time to appear before Yah in His house. Ya’acov would no longer brook acts abhorrent to God, and his household went along with him.  He was their ‘priest’, mediating between them and God, and they were to obey him to be a holy congregation to God.      

The action of Jacob and his household represents the proper response to God’s call to spiritual fellowship with Him in Bethel. It’s the right way to prepare to worship God in His house. The preparation involves: (1) Disposal of alien gods; (2) Purification, and (3) Change of garments before meeting God in His house (‘Bethel’) to be dedicated to Him (‘altar’) in appreciation of His goodness.

In complying with Jacob’s order, the members of his household did indeed give up their idols as well as  their earrings,  and in all probability put on clean clothing (see Ex. 19:10).  The outcome would be a holy people. For Jacob, it meant a permanent break with paganism for his household, who were now converted to the worship of the God of Abraham.  Thus he hid the idols and earrings under an oak tree to ensure that they never went back to their pagan ways. 

But why turn in "the rings which were in their ears"?

"The earrings buried by Jacob under the oak near Shechem", according to Holman’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, "may have been amulets (Gen. 35:4). Such amulets were violations of the commandment not to make graven images" (2003, p. 915). 

In the time of Moses, ear boring and earrings were also considered tokens of slavery. If a man had his ear pierced, it amounted to a legal declaration by him to serve his master till death (Ex. 21:1-6).  Either way, the wearing of earrings certainly doesn’t have any godly or noble origins.   

But more important, has God effected a change to His rules for meeting Him at Bethel?  

Know How to Behave in the House of God

The invitation and the reminder is still on, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and make an altar there for Me’.  As in Jacob’s time, God still demands that we put away all idols in our possession, and purify ourselves and put on clean clothes.  The conditions for fellowship in Bethel still apply.

The Apostle Paul told Timothy at the end of a list of instructions on how the principal officers of God’s Church ought to conduct themselves: "But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15 ASV).

The ‘house’ is God’s and is further clarified as ”the church of the living God", described as "the pillar and ground of truth". The house of God is founded on truth and rests on truth. Those who live there, who make up the household of God, must live up to the standard of behaviour established by the Master of the house. 

The Age of the Unseen Idol

As your first preparatory step to meeting God in Bethel, you are required to put away all idols in your possession.  In the context of present-day society, you might consider the requirement an issue beside the point.  After all, how popular is idol worship these days? Granted, idolatry may be on the decline or at least not as openly practiced as before, but in practical terms an idol is anything which competes with God for attention or veneration. Covetousness is one (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). 

In Ezekiel 14 God accuses some elders of Israel of being idol worshippers–not of physical images but of idols set up in their hearts:   

“Then some elders of Israel came to me and sat down before me. 2 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 3‘Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all? 4 Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Any man of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will be brought to give him an answer in the matter in view of the multitude of his idols, 5 in order to lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel who are estranged from Me through all their idols.”’

 6 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations. 7 For anyone of the house of Israel or of the immigrants who stay in Israel who separates himself from Me, sets up his idols in his heart, puts right before his face the stumbling block of his iniquity, and then comes to the prophet to inquire of Me for himself, I, the LORD will be brought to answer him in My own person. 8 I will set My face against that man and make him a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from among My people. So you will know that I am the LORD" (Ezek. 14:1-8 NASB).

The LORD passionately detests the worship of objects as He passionately does the idolatry of the heart.  The effects are the same: both one who harbours a ‘pet sin’ or an abomination which he refuses to give up because it’s so precious to him and one who physically worships an idol have separated themselves from the true God Yah and will equally be punished with destruction. 

So, thoroughly examine your heart as you go up to meet God at Bethel: what ungodly attitudes do you find it difficult to stop? Are they petty jealousies, gossip, anger, backbiting, conceit or sensuality? These are behaviors strangely but typically found among many supposed ‘believers’ as was the case among the brethren at Corinth (2 Cor. 12:20-21). But it’s time to chuck them out and hide them under the nearest oak tree!   Don’t sit on idols stolen from your ‘old father’s home’ (Satan, John 8:44); uncover them to ‘Jacob’, your pastor, especially if they are besetting sins or it’s a problem demonic possession.  He’s best placed to dispose of them with the power of God in a more permanent manner.  Bethel would not countenance them.

David asks and answers in Ps 24:

"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.

"He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

"Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah" (vv. 3-6 ESV).

Higher Purity

The second condition to meet is "purify yourself".  The first step is to repent and then believe in the sanctifying blood of Jesus to be cleansed from all your sins (1 John 1:7; Heb. 13:12). This cleansing is infinitely superior to the ritual purifications of the OT system of animal sacrifices, in that through the instrumentality of "the eternal Spirit" it’s able to "purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God", thus assuring us "eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12-14).  

A ‘cleansed conscience’ (for which David prayed for in Ps 51:10) would inspire and produce only ‘clean’ thoughts and holy actions—or it’s not cleansed.  Therefore it will necessarily reflect in outward behaviour. This is the ‘clean clothing’ called for. It denotes a complete change of lifestyle from one of iniquity to one of righteousness, a truth dramatized in vision in the life of Joshua, the post-exilic high priest of Judah:

"Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments.

"And the angel said to those who were standing before him, "Remove the filthy garments from him." And to him he said, "Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments."

"And I said, "Let them put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by.

"And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua,

"’Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here’" (Zech. 3:3-7 ESV).

In Ezekiel 36, God promises us a cleansing that will bring about conformity to His law:

"… I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances" (Ezek. 36:25-27 NASU).

The holy lifestyle reflects a cleansed conscience and a purified heart, both undertaken by God.  What’s then left for you as a purified child of God is to preserve your holiness (clean clothing) through continual obedience.

The Lord Jesus told His disciples in John 15:3: "Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you". In 1 Pet. 1:22-23 we read: "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23 for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:22-23 NASB).

Interestingly, one way of ‘obeying the truth’ is to put on godly dressing devoid of suggestive styles and ornaments, thus somewhat making the command to "change your garments" more literal than figurative.

Clothing styles are not morally neutral. Prov. 7:10 clearly classifies some types of clothes as "the attire of an harlot" (see also Gen. 38:14-15; Jer. 4:30; Ezek. 23:40). On the other hand, there’s modest holy dressing which does not emphasize gaudy, worldly ornamentation but godliness.

But what is the particular problem with ornaments?

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery explains: "When the natural human impulse to beautify by means of jewelry becomes excessive, it’s an index of materialistic and misguided values, and as such it is the object of God’s judgment. Thus Isaiah 3:18-23 is a catalog of jewels and finery that God will take away in His judgment against a spiritually bankrupt nation preoccupied with false values" (p. 451).

In 1 Tim. 2 the Apostle Paul prescribes the holy Christian dressing for Christian ladies, in which certain dressing styles are clearly disallowed in favour of the ornament of "good works":

"In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array;

"But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works" (1 Tim. 2:9-10; see also 1 Pet. 3:1-5).

Linked with public prayer (vv. 1-8) in which Christian women will participate (Acts 1:14) but not lead (v. 11-13), the command to dress modestly "with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array" is meant to guard against the tendency for Christian ladies so dressed to be puffed up with pride and to draw others’ attention to themselves and thereby cause general inattention at the time of public worship.     

Thus we see that ornaments take attention away from God causing people to focus on vain human looks which do not glorify God but may even arouse sensuous desires.  The opposite however is the case when we appear before God without the forbidden worldly ornaments: we draw attention away from ourselves to God, making Him the focus of our meeting and indeed the centre of attention.  This was why after the Israelites sinned against God in the abomination of the golden calf made with gold from their earrings (Ex. 32:1-4) and God said He would no longer accompany  them personally to the Promised Land, the people, to show their sorrow and humility before God, put off their ornaments and Yah indeed commanded that they did so:

”When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments.

”For the LORD had said to Moses, "Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you’.

”Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward” (Ex. 33:4-6 ESV).

In 1 Cor. 11:10, Christian ladies are instructed: "And so, because of this [submission to man], and also because of the angels, a woman ought to wear something on her head, as a sign of her authority" (CEV). The "angels" mentioned are the "ministering spirits, sent forth to do service for the sake of them that shall inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14 RV).  They are holy spirits and so are put off by crass displays of ungodliness and immodesty in dressing.

Bethel would not receive worldly dressing.  God’s house is not the place to literally let your hair down, ‘dressed to kill’ with heavy Jezebel-like make-up (2 Kings 9:30) and provocative clothes.  ‘Know how to behave in the house of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the ground and pillar of the truth’. As a Christian lady who truly seeks God in Bethel, dress decently and modestly to the house of God with your hair covered.  Paul’s instruction to Christian sisters to adorn themselves in "modest apparel" stands for a ankle-length robe as John Gill explains in his commentary:

"that women adorn themselves in modest apparel: the word rendered "apparel" signifies a long robe, which reaches down to the feet; and the word translated "modest" signifies that which is clean, neat, and decent, yea, beautiful and ornamental; and the sense of the apostle is, that he would not have them to come to public worship in rags, and in dirty and filthy garments, but that their bodies should be covered with clean and decent raiment; so the Israelites washed their clothes that they might be ready to meet the Lord at Mount Sinai, Exo_19:14. The Jews always appeared in their best clothes on the sabbath day; this is one of their rules: (n).

"for the honour of the sabbath, every man must be clothed, כסות נקייה, "with clean or neat apparel" and clothing on the weekday must not be as clothing on the sabbath day; and if a man can make no change, he must let down his talith (or upper garment, his cloak); so that his clothing may not be as the clothing of the weekdays, when that was girt up about him” (John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible).

In God’s house "all things" should be done "decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:40).  

But of greater significance, the people are not just guests or tenants but form the very building blocks of the house.  We read in Eph. 2:19-22:

"Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;

"And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;

"In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:

"In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit".

Precisely because God lives in this spiritual building constructed with believers, it’s holy and should be kept holy. Apostle Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:16-17:

"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

"If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are".

The basic nature of God’s temple has been defined: it’s "holy", i.e. set apart and consecrated to the LORD.  You and I are that holy temple of God.  It’s in this temple that we carry out Yahweh’s command to ‘build an altar to Him’, just as He instructed Jacob. The altar represents our life of dedication to God in holiness and service using our bodies as our  "living sacrifice" to God:  "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" (Rom. 12:1).  

It’s for this overarching noble purpose that you cannot approach God in Bethel on your terms but only on His.  "Go up to Bethel", He still says to us.  But be sure you have no ‘treasured’ sins in your heart, you are purified from all your sins and uncleanness and that this inward, spiritual purification is reflected in outward behaviour down to your mode of dressing.

That is how to enter the presence of the Holy One of Israel to build an altar of dedication to Him. May He grant us His grace to live in His sight forever more. Amen!