It is very important that we take time to prepare our hearts to worship God before we set foot in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. God made this clear amid the awesome circumstances of the giving of the law in Exodus 19. God called the people to prepare to come into His presence, or near His presence, but not actually onto the mountain where He would speak to Moses.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” (Ex. 19:10–11)
God wanted the people of Israel, before they came near to Him, to get ready to come near to Him, to prepare themselves for an encounter with Him.
Our church service begins at 10:30 a.m. At 10:20, we turn the lights down and begin the prelude. This is the signal for our people to begin preparing for worship. By contrast, God gave Israel two days to prepare. He required them to be consecrated and to wash their clothes. These preparations were appropriate for what was about to happen. If I told my congregation that in three days God was going to appear visibly and that He wanted them to wash their clothes for the occasion, I am sure they would do it. It would seem to be an insignificant requirement for the awesome privilege of standing in God's physical presence.
Exodus 19:14 tells us that Moses did exactly as God commanded; He went down and sanctified the people. The people also obeyed by washing their clothes. They took the time to prepare for worship. We should do the same by reading God's Word and praying for His assistance to worship Him rightly.
Part of our preparation for worship ought to be reminding ourselves of who God is—the holy, sovereign Lord. Turning again to Exodus 19, we read in verse 16:
Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.
When the trumpet sounded and the moment arrived for the people of Israel to draw near to God, every person in the camp trembled. Unfortunately, few people respond to God in worship like that anymore. Many have forgotten how to tremble before Him, for they do not regard Him as holy. How different their response would be if they could see Him as He revealed Himself to the Israelites:
And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now, Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. (Ex. 19:17-18)
Over and over again God invited the people, “Come near to Me.” But that invitation was balanced by what God said following the deaths of Nadab and Abihu: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy.” We are commanded by God to come into His presence—to come near to Him. Not only that, we may come boldly into His presence, as Hebrews 4:16 makes clear. But there is a difference between coming boldly into the presence of God and coming arrogantly. When we come boldly into His presence and draw near to Him, we must always remember that we are to regard Him as holy.
We also must remember that we have no right to come into God’s presence on our own. No amount of preparation that we can do is enough to make us fit.