Does the Bible Actually Say 'Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness?'

Christian holy water with crucifix cross background. Purity water for ritual.
Purity water for ritual. Lemon_tm / Getty Images

"Cleanliness is next to godliness." Almost all of us have heard the saying, but where did it originate? While the exact phrase is not found in the Bible, the concept is clearly expressed.

Actual and spiritual purification, ablutions, and washings featured prominently in Old Testament Jewish ceremonial rituals. For the Hebrew people, cleanliness wasn’t “next to godliness,” but was absolutely part of it. The standards God established concerning cleanness for the Israelites touched on every aspect of their lives.

Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness and the Bible

  • Personal hygiene and spiritual purity are intricately linked in the Bible.
  • Cleanliness, both ritual and actual, was fundamental to establishing and preserving holiness in the Israelite community.
  • Circumcision, handwashing, foot washing, bathing, and baptism are some of the many purification practices found in Scripture.
  • Careful attention to personal hygiene is essential in the climate of the Near East, particularly as a safeguard against leprosy.

John Wesley, co-founder of Methodism, may have been the inventor of the phrase "cleanliness is next to godliness." He often emphasized cleanliness in his preaching. But the principle behind the rule dates back long before the days of Wesley to the worship rituals laid out in the book of Leviticus. These rites were established by Yahweh to show sinners how they could be cleansed from iniquity and reconciled to God.

Ritual purification was a matter of extreme importance in Israelite worship. God required his people to be a pure and holy nation (Exodus 19:6). For the Jews, holiness had to be reflected in the way they lived, giving utmost priority to the moral and spiritual virtues that God had revealed in his laws.

Unlike all the other nations, God had given his covenant people specific instructions concerning hygiene and cleanness. He showed them how to maintain purity, and what to do to regain it if they lost it through carelessness or disobedience.

Handwashing

In Exodus, when God gave instructions for worship in the wilderness Tabernacle, he instructed Moses to make a large bronze laver and place it between the tent of meeting and the altar. This basin held water that the priests would use to wash their hands and feet before approaching the altar to make offerings (Exodus 30:17–21; 38:8).

Illustration of the Bronze Laver
Sweet Publishing 

This hand washing ritual of purification came to represent God’s loathing of sin (Isaiah 52:11). It formed the basis of the Jewish practice of washing their hands before specific prayers and before meals (Mark 7:3–4; John 2:6).

The Pharisees adopted such a careful routine of handwashing before eating food that they began to equate having clean hands with having a pure heart. But Jesus didn’t give much weight to such habits, and neither did his disciples. Jesus considered this pharisaical practice to be empty, dead legalism (Matthew 15:1–20).

Foot Washing

The custom of foot washing was not only part of the purification rituals in ancient times, but also one of the duties of hospitality. The humble gesture expressed respect for guests as well as attentive and affectionate regard for weary, travel-worn visitors. The roads in biblical times were not paved, and thus sandal-clad feet became dirty and dusty.

Foot washing as a part of hospitality appeared in the Bible as early as the days of Abraham, who washed the feet of his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18:1–15. We see the welcoming ritual again in Judges 19:21 when a Levite and his concubine were invited to stay in Gibeah. Foot washing was performed by slaves and servants as well as by members of the household (1 Samuel 25:41). Ordinary pots and bowls would have been kept on hand to be used for this purpose.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of foot washing in the Bible occurred when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples in John 13:1–20. Christ performed the lowly service to teach humility to his followers and to demonstrate how believers are to love one another through acts of sacrifice and service. Many Christian churches still practice foot-washing ceremonies today.

Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet
"Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet (John 13). Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1877. ZU_09 / Getty Images

Baptism, Regeneration, and Spiritual Cleansing

The Christian life begins with the washing of the body through baptism by immersion in water. Baptism is symbolic of the spiritual regeneration that takes place through repentance and forgiveness of sin. In Scripture, sin is associated with a lack of cleanliness, whereas redemption and baptism are linked with washing and purity.

Washing is also used figuratively for the believer’s spiritual cleansing through the Word of God:

“… Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25–27, NIV).

The apostle Paul described salvation in Jesus Christ and new birth by the power of the Holy Spirit as spiritual washing:

“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, NIV).

Cleanliness Quotes in the Bible

Exodus 40:30–31 (NLT)
Next Moses placed the washbasin between the Tabernacle and the altar. He filled it with water so the priests could wash themselves. Moses and Aaron and Aaron’s sons used water from it to wash their hands and feet.

John 13:10 (ESV)
Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”

Leviticus 14:8–9 (NIV)
“The person to be cleansed must wash their clothes, shave off all their hair and bathe with water; then they will be ceremonially clean. After this they may come into the camp, but they must stay outside their tent for seven days. On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair; they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean.

Leviticus 17:15–16 (NLT)
“And if any native-born Israelites or foreigners eat the meat of an animal that died naturally or was torn up by wild animals, they must wash their clothes and bathe themselves in water. They will remain ceremonially unclean until evening, but then they will be clean. But if they do not wash their clothes and bathe themselves, they will be punished for their sin.”

Psalm 51:7 (NLT)
Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Psalm 51:10 (NLT)
Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

Isaiah 1:16 (NLT)
Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways.

Ezekiel 36:25–26 (NIV)
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Matthew 15:2 (NLT)
“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”

Acts 22:16 (NIV)
And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’

2 Corinthians 7:1 (NLT)
Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God.

Hebrews 10:22 (NIV)
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

1 Peter 3:21 (NLT)
And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

1 John 1:7 (NIV)
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

1 John 1:9 (NLT)
But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

Revelation 19:14 (NIV)
The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.

Sources

  • “Numbers.” The Teacher’s Bible Commentary (p. 97).
  • “Foot-Washing.”Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 3, p. 615).
  • Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies.
  • The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 12 Volumes (Vol. 1, p. 68
  • “Clean, Cleanness.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 308).
  • The Bible Guide (1st Augsburg books ed., p. 423).
  • The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (p. 644).