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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.
James spent much time praying in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple activities formed his thought process and colored his language. So when he spoke of purifying the heart, there can be no doubt that he pictured the laver in the temple and had received divine revelation as to its spiritual meaning and application in a New Covenant setting.
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) which 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 came from heaven above, and it also symbolized the removal, or washing 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 would serve to change the hearts of men, rather than merely their outward behavior. John himself acknowledged this in Mark 1:8, saying,
8 I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
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. Hebrews 9:10 says,
10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [Greek: baptismos], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
In His Great Commission, Jesus told the disciples to baptize people (Matt. 28:19). And so we find many being baptized after the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, including the 3,000 who were converted on that day (Acts 2:41). Later, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized (Acts 8:38) in order to fulfill the very word that he was reading when Philip met him.
The eunuch had been reading Isaiah 53, and this passage actually began in Isaiah 52:13. So there is no question that the eunuch had already read Isaiah 52:15, and that Philip then appeared and gave him understanding of this.
15 Thus He will sprinkle many nations, Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them, they will see; and what they had not heard, they will understand.
The Ethiopian eunuch was one of the first to fulfill this prophecy when he was baptized by Philip. What he had not heard, Philip told him and gave him understanding. The eunuch was then baptized. Though we are not told specifically the mode of baptism that was administered, the law of Moses established baptism by sprinkling or pouring in order to symbolize “living” water.
The Hebrew term for running water is living water. Hence, the laver was meant to portray the water of life, being poured out from above (heaven) to cleanse our hands (our actions) and feet (our walk). The baptism of the Spirit is also poured out from on high (Joel 2:28; Isaiah 32:15) to purify our hearts.
The prophet Ezekiel, of course, would later prophesy that the house of Israel would be baptized by water and the Spirit in order to give them clean hearts. Again, the prophet acknowledged the mode of sprinkling found in the law. Ezekiel 36:25-27 says,
25 Then 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 And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.
Water baptism was applicable to priests in their approach to God, but also to the house of Israel as a nation as well as the “many nations” of Isaiah 52:15. It was also the common custom (“tradition”) that men should pour water over their hands before eating. 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.
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: baptizo] their hands when they eat bread?
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. Keep in mind that baptizing one’s hands before a meal had nothing to do with dirt or germs. They poured water over their hands to cleanse them ceremonially. Matt. 15:2 (above) refers to this as a baptism, as does Heb. 9:10.
No amount of water, regardless of how it was administered, was able to cleanse the heart. Those daily baptisms in the temple were only types of a greater baptism that only Jesus could introduce.
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 in the temple represented a vow of obedience, which promised a change of lifestyle and habits. By it, men 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 water could cleanse the heart. Thus, a change of heart is required, so that a man goes beyond forced obedience. A genuine heart change agrees with God and gladly lives in conformity to His will.
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,” agrees whole heartedly with the divine law, confessing that it is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). Baptism is a symbolic portrayal of washing away—or separating from—the old man, Paul says in Rom. 6:3-6. In effect, this crucifies the old Adamic man. 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.