Washed—So That You Will Not Die

In medical settings hand washing is crucial—sometimes a life and death matter. God instructed Moses to make a basin for the courtyard of the Tabernacle, as Exodus 30:17-21 points out. It’s use was important enough that he described it as a life and death matter: the priests “shall wash their hands and feet so they will not die” (verse 21).

The basin was for washing. God had Moses make a basin for the courtyard of the Tabernacle. It was made from the bronze mirrors of the Israelite women, donated for that purpose. Parents teach children to wash hands so that they don’t spread or ingest germs. But sanitation and microbiology were not the reasons for the basin in the courtyard. Not just the hands, but also the feet of the priests were to be washed. Leviticus 1 tells us that at least some of the sacrifices were washed as port of their being presented to God. Interestingly, we are given far fewer details about the basin in the courtyard than we are about other items, such as the altar or the furniture in the Tabernacle. Solomon’s Temple seems to have been built and furnished like the Tabernacle, but on a much grander scale. 1 Kings 7 records the bronze sea, which along with ten smaller basins, provided water for cleansing in that building.

Purity is essential for living in God’s presence. How important was washing? Important enough that the priests had to do it lest they die. God was teaching his people that he is holy. Sin contaminates. Even the priests, set apart as his special servants, had to wash lest they perish in the presence of the holy God. If the priests had to wash, and if even the sacrifices had to be washed, God’s people had to realize that their sins brought them under God’s righteous anger and judgment. The penalty for sin, ever since the Garden of Eden, has been death. Not only the guilt of sin, but also its contamination, have to be removed if God’s people are to live.

You are washed—and you live! You need cleansing. Paul makes that point as he writes to the Corinthians. God’s kingdom is contrasted with the wicked. The so-called “kings” of 1 Corinthians 4:8 are in danger of being excluded from the kingdom! “God” and “the wicked” are juxtaposed (in Greek) for the sake of contrast. Sin violates God’s character and nature. Will you inherit the kingdom? Paul lists especially notorious sins. He focuses on the extremes, but the Corinthians were moving in that direction. And we live in a culture where these sins have become so accepted that “sin” is an almost unknown term. The culture affects the church. All Christians (this side of heaven) are guilty of sin. The sins Paul lists are sins which tend to control and characterize the sinner. Paul’s language is explicit. “The sexually immoral” translates the word from which we get “pornography.” Drunkards are among the sinners, see Ephesians 5:18. Today even where these activities are opposed, they are often excused as innate or hereditary problems. It may well be true that a tendency towards some of these sins, or a special susceptibility for them is inherited. But giving in to those tendencies or desires is sin. (After all, as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve we all have an innate tendency to sin.) The Word of God treats these as sin, as behavior which the believer must avoid. Don’t limit what Paul says to sexual immorality. Idolatry is included, and the (what we think of as) “little” sins of slander and swindling. When you remember the penalty for all sin, you are less likely to single out certain sins as being really bad. God excludes these from his kingdom. You cannot violate God’s law with impunity. Don’t make excuses for these or any other sins. Remember that Paul makes a smooth transition from the self-centered “give me my share” greed of the Corinthians who were taking one another to court and cheating one another, to the list of offenses that exclude one from God’s kingdom.

You have been washed so that you can live in the presence of God. You used to be this way. That is what some of you were. Not all of the Corinthians had been characterized by these particular sins—any more than all of you. But some of them had been exactly those kinds of sinners. The church of Jesus Christ is composed of forgiven sinners. God does redeem sinners. The list is not only a warning, but also a comfort, because it is proof that God can and does change the lives of sinners. There is hope in Jesus Christ, see 1 Corinthians 10:13. Do not rob the sinner of hope by making him ill (which he can’t change) if the problem is sinful behavior (which God can and does change). The word “but” gives you hope. You are no longer what you once were. A change has taken place. The church of Jesus Christ must be willing to accept repentant sinners, without holding their past against them. You have been washed. Paul may well be thinking of baptism, the external washing which symbolized union with Christ, Romans 6:4-7. That union has both forensic and subjective effects. The change in your life has taken place in the name of Christ and through the Holy Spirit. The entire Trinity is involved in your salvation. Avoid the view that baptism works automatically (this is a union by faith), but also avoid dismissing baptism as “just a sign” of the real baptism. The sign and what it points to are connected. The sign is a seal, authenticating what God has done. “Baptism . . . signifies union with Christ, purifying from the pollution of sin by regeneration of the Spirit, and purifying from the guilt of sin by the blood of Christ. . . . The sign and seal of baptism can be no pledge or guarantee to us of that which baptism signifies except as we are mindful of God’s covenant, embrace its promises, discharge its obligations, and lay hold in faith upon the covenant faithfulness of God.” (John Murray, Christian Baptism, pp. 89-91).

You were sanctified. Christ, who was made sin for your redemption, is no longer in sin’s realm. You, too, have been set free from sin’s bondage, Romans 6:6. You, who were slaves to these sins, are free.

You were justified. Christ has been declared just as the second Adam. You are just, not guilty, in him. Note the repetition of “but” for contrast and emphasis. Not only are you God’s people, cleansed by the his Son through the work of the Spirit, but in the new heavens and earth, for all eternity, you will be those who have been washed by the work of Christ: Revelation 7:9-14; 19:6-8; 22:14.

The basin in the courtyard provided symbolic cleansing. You who trust in Jesus have experienced what it pointed to. You have been washed, not just with water, but with what the water of your baptism points to—the cleansing work of Christ. Your challenge this week is to live as one baptized into Christ.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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