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Cleansing your hands and heart

Apr 10, 2012

In James 4:7 and the first half of verse 8, he gives his readers an exhortation to draw near to God. Then he continues, saying,

(8) . . . Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded.

In the law, the priests were commanded to cleanse their hands and their feet at the laver before drawing near to God in the Holy Place. Exodus 30:18-20 says,

(18) You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing; and you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it. (19) And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet from it; (20) when they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to minister by offering up in smoke a fire sacrifice to the Lord.

Moses was instructed to build a laver of water, by which the priests could cleanse and purify their hands and feet before approaching God. This carried over into the New Testament in the ceremony we know as baptism. The main difference was that the Old Testament priests had to be baptized as often as they approached God, whereas in the New Testament, the outward ceremony did not need to be repeated daily.

Likewise, the sacrifices had to be repeated twice daily under Moses, but when the better Sacrifice had come, it was "once for all" (Heb. 9:12). We also now have a better High Priest who does not die, nor can He be replaced.

Hebrews 9:10 speaks of the "various baptisms" (Greek: baptismos) that were commanded under Moses, telling us that these were "regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation." While the Greek word is said to mean immersion or dipping, the Septuagint uses the word as the equivalent of the Hebrew terms that refer to priestly washing and cleansing at the laver. Heb. 9:10 does the same.

It is known that the laver had faucets built into it, so that the priests washed their hands and feet with running water, that is, "living" water being poured from above. This acknowledged that cleansing was only possible if it come from heaven above, and it also symbolized the removal, orwashing away of sin.

As a priest under the Old Covenant, John the Baptist extended this baptismal ceremony to the people at the Jordan River, rather than in the temple in Jerusalem. To him, it signified "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin" (Mark. 1:4) and required "confessing their sins" (1:5). There was, of course, a greater baptism yet to come--the baptism of the Spirit--which John himself acknowledged in Mark 1:8, which would serve to change the hearts of men, rather than merely their outward behavior.

Hence, when James says (4:8) to "cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded," he was speaking of two baptisms. Water baptism was given under the Old Covenant to cleanse one's hands (actions, behavior), while the baptism of the Spirit was given to purify our hearts from being double-minded.

For this reason, some have argued that water baptism is not necessary under the New Covenant. I do not agree with that, but it is a well established fact that water baptism began with Moses, and not with John the Baptist. Hebrews 9:10 makes this clear.

Water baptism was not only applicable to priests. It was the common custom ("tradition") that men should pour water over their hands before eating. We read in Matt. 15:2 how the scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus' disciples for neglecting to do this.

(2) Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash[Greek: baptizotheir hands when they eat bread?

It had long been a tradition to do this, even though there was no such commandment in the law. In 2 Kings 3:11 we read that Elisha "used to pour water on the hands of Elijah." He was Elijah's servant who helped him with this cleansing ceremony.

Jesus defended His disciples on the grounds that this was a tradition of men and not a commandment in the law. It was more important to cleanse one's heart than one's outer body parts. James certainly understood this, as he used Matthew's gospel most extensively. Hence, when James admonished sinners to "cleanse your hands," he was using Old Covenant terminology to express a New Covenant concern for the heart condition.

The "hands" signify one's actions. Cleansing the "feet" signify one's daily walk with God. The ceremony of water baptism represented a vow of obedience, which the law required. It promised a change of lifestyle and habits by which the sinner agreed to conform to the mind of God (Christ) and adopt His standard of righteousness.

James goes on to include the baptism of the Holy Spirit, saying, "and purify your hearts, you double-minded." Recall from James 1:8 that a double-minded man is a doubter that lacks genuine faith and is "unstable in all his ways." Without a cleansing of the heart through Spirit baptism, no amount of washing of hands and feet will suffice. Thus, a change of heart is required, so that a man goes beyond forced obedience. A genuine heart change recognizes that His character, as expressed in the law (word), is to be our own standard of righteousness.

Being double-minded is James' way of expressing the two natures within us--that is, the old man (Adam) and the New Creation Man. We are double-minded as long as both are alive within us, because each has a mind of its own. It is only as we put to death the old man that we become single-minded, because a dead man has no mind.

Though Paul has far more to say about this topic than James does, it is important to take note that these two Church leaders are in agreement. James does not discount the New Creation Man; neither does Paul discount the role of the law, writing in Rom. 7:22, "For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man."

Both are fully agreed that the New Creation Man, which is "Christ in you," is in full agreement with the divine law, confessing that it is "holy and righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12). Baptism is a symbolic portrayal of putting to death the old man, Paul says in Rom. 6:3-6. When the old man is dead, then the New Creation Man rules supreme and we are single-minded in our love for God and our agreement with everything He says or commands.

This New Creation Man, being "Christ in you," is also characterized by humility, rather than self-righteousness. James says in 4:9 and 10,

(9) Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. (10) Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

This is not an admonition to be miserable and gloomy throughout life. It is a reference to Joel 2:15-17, where the prophet says, "Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly. . . Let the priests, the Lord's ministers, weep between the porch and the altar." It describes the Day of Atonement and its prophetic significance--the great day of National Repentance. James applies it more personally, no doubt, but like the book of Joel, his letter was addressed to the twelve tribes as a whole.

The Day of Atonement is the preparation day for the feast of Tabernacles, in which that final outpouring of the Holy Spirit will take place, "the early and latter rain" (Joel 2:23). So James calls the twelve tribes to cleanse their hands and hearts, that they might be delivered as the prophets foresaw.


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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