Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (4:8a)
The third command is to draw near in intimate fellowship and communion with the living, eternal, almighty God. Salvation involves submitting to God as Lord and Savior, but also brings the desire for a true relationship with Him. Seeking salvation is seeking God (cf. Ps. 42:1; Matt. 7:7–11).
One of the primary functions of Old Testament priests was to “come near to the Lord [and] consecrate themselves” (Ex. 19:22; cf. Lev. 10:3; Ezek. 43:9; 44:13). Our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who brings us to God, prayed to His Father, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3), and later affirmed and defined those who believe in Him, praying that they “may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (v. 21). Above all else, the apostle Paul sought to “know Him [Christ] and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10).
“Drawing near to God” was in the Old Testament a general expression for the one who sincerely approached God in penitence and humility. Through Isaiah, the Lord said of those who came near Him hypocritically and superficially, “This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isa. 29:13). But the psalmist declared, “As for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (Ps. 73:28).
David assures us that “the Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 145:18). He counseled his own son Solomon, “Know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him” (1 Chron. 28:9; cf. 2 Chron. 15:1–2; Zech. 1:3). Through Jeremiah, the Lord promised, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Because they are prompted by God’s own Spirit and accepted by the Lord Jesus (John 6:44, 65), those who seek to know, worship, and commune with God will be satisfied. As noted above, that was the Father’s will long before it was theirs (Rom. 8:29: Eph. 1:4–5). When they come to him like the prodigal son—in humility, penitence, and brokenness over their sin—the heavenly Father says to them, in effect, what that earthly father said to his son: “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:22–24).
Jesus told the Samaritan woman from Sychar, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24; cf. Phil. 3:3). The writer of Hebrews admonishes believers, “Let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.… Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 4:16; 10:22).
In his message to the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill, Paul said,
While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist. (Acts 17:23–28)
The redeemed heart longs for communion with God (Pss. 27:8; 63:1–2; 84:2; 143:6; Matt. 22:37).
Come Near to God (4:8)
When we hear “Come near to God,” we might think of public worship or private prayers. “Come near” is sometimes the language of worship (Lev. 21:3; Isa. 29:13; Heb. 7:19), but James has not been discussing worship. Therefore, “come near” could mean returning to God in covenant renewal after straying. For example, God speaks through Malachi, saying, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Mal. 3:7; cf. Zech. 1:2–3). In Hosea 12:6, the prophet links “return to your God” with “come near to your God.” It is certainly true that we may “come near” to God after sinning (perhaps after succumbing to temptation). But “come near” and “draw near” means more than “repent.” We come near to God to worship him, to serve him, to meet him, to seek help, and to gain assurance, as well as to repent. It is better, therefore, to conclude that James is offering a far-reaching promise, a promise that other gods do not make. When we draw near to God, he also draws near to us. As Moses asked, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deut. 4:7).
8 By contrast, James exhorts his hearers to “come near to God,” an action that has its own result: “and he will come near to you.” The concept of drawing near to God occurs in relation to approaching God in priestly service (e.g., Ex 19:22; 40:4–6; Lev 10:3), and new covenant believers can draw near because they have a better hope through Christ’s sacrifice (Heb 7:19). To draw near to God means to approach him in prayer, to turn toward him and not away from him. The result will be that God himself will respond by approaching the one who approaches him. In other words, a healthy relationship will be reestablished. As was the case in the old covenant system of worship, part of the process of drawing near to God involves cleansing, which James states in parallel fashion: “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” The images here, of course, are figurative and represent repentance from sin. The author has already mentioned the “double-minded” person in 1:8, and, as in that context, the double-minded people James has in mind are those with a divided commitment and questionable loyalties and therefore those who are unstable spiritually. These are “sinners” because they have not been committed resolutely to the ways of the Lord. Thus repentance is needed.
8 Originally draw near was used of the Jewish priest drawing near in worship (Exod. 19:22; Lev. 10:3; Ezek. 43:19; 44:13), and then by a natural transition, of any approach to God. “God goes out,” as the rabbis taught, “to those who approach him.” On the other hand, the NT emphasis on God’s moving even toward the undeserving is, as C. G. Montefiore perceived, without precedent in Judaism;50 but “God loves,” as St. Bernard said, “both more than you love, and before you love at all.”
The call to cleansing seems to be bound up with the call to God—two aspects of one action. Although the language is Levitical, it is used here, as often by the rabbis, of spiritual and moral cleansing: God himself was once compared to a purifying ritual bath. Here hands and hearts symbolize deeds and thoughts respectively. From David’s prayer for a clean heart (Ps. 51:11) it was concluded that his yetser was unclean. Repentance is the sinner’s first step toward God; the Greek word54 is the usual strong word for sinners, and double-minded56 indicates the fundamental defect of these professing Christians (see 1:8).
Drawing Near to God (4:8a)
“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” This command, like the previous one, brings in its wake a promise. Both Testaments texts cited above speak of drawing near to God in the context of the flight of the evil one, so it is likely that James is drawing upon a traditional idea. In context, this line stands in dramatic contrast with 4:6b. Opposition to the proud stands in contrast to God’s drawing near to the one who draws near to God, which implies that drawing near is a dimension of humility, submission, and resisting the devil. The metaphor has several connections, not the least of which is to the prophetic summons for God’s people to draw near to God to hear him, to establish covenant relationship, and to turn from sin:
The spirit of God came upon Azariah son of Oded. He went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you abandon him, he will abandon you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law; but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them (2 Chron 15:1–4).
Therefore say to them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (Zech 1:3).
Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts (Mal 3:7).
Other connections, and less likely in my opinion, would be the cultic expression of drawing near to the God of the Temple cultus even though the connection of drawing near and consecration is clearly at work in our text (cf. 4:8b). Thus, Exodus 19:22: “Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them” (see also 24:2; Deut 16:16). Drawing on the cultic experience but closer to what James has in mind is Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (cf. 7:19). Prayer, too, is sometimes described as confessional, elective drawing near to God and God being near to the one praying (Deut 4:7; Ps 145:18), but an important warning is that physical and verbal proximity is no substitute for inner vulnerability to God (Isa 29:13).
Drawing near to God, then, is about a person’s inner repentant disposition of vulnerability to God’s will (cf. Jas 1:21) and is combined with the attentive behaviors of doing God’s will. In short, it is repentance leading to holiness, faith accompanied by works, and hearing and doing. However it is understood, the act of God drawing near is God’s choice of restoring the relationship with those who have fractured the relationship. This language of drawing near to God and God drawing near to us reminds one of the powerful covenant formula of the Old Testament: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (e.g., Gen 17:2, 4, 6–8; Exod 6:2–8). James is speaking to teachers who have fractured the messianic community and is calling them to repentance in terms of drawing near to God if they wish to have God draw near to them.328 What that drawing near of God would look like is not clear, but surely James would be thinking of peace in the community and compassion for those in need—both emerging from a leadership that has been renewed through repentance.
4:8 / Full repentance will mean purification. There is both promise and demand in the call Come near to God and he will come near to you. As a promise, there is the reciprocal promise of God: Turn to him and he will turn to you (Mal. 3:7), return to him and he will return (Zech. 1:3). God is a loving father waiting for the chance to respond to his children in forgiveness, but the demand states that they must repent and come near. This term normally indicates an activity of worship: All their church’s worship is not a coming near, for their community disharmony rooted in preoccupation with worldly success makes it unacceptable. “Come near,” calls God. “Worship me truly! Worship with obedience!” (cf. 1:27).
Continuing the metaphor, James cries, Wash your hands, you sinners. Worship in the Old Testament required cultically clean hands, so they were ritually washed before certain parts of the worship (e.g., Exod. 30:19–21). These Christians are at present unfit for worship because of their sin. The term sinners is strong, for James will not accept any excuse. Their actions are sin—plain, inexcusable sin. They will change their behavior (wash … hands) only when they accept this fact.
James moves from behavior to the inner problem when he demands: Purify your hearts, you double-minded. Again a ritual term from the Old Testament is selected (cf. Exod. 19:10), but the defilement now is not outward (e.g., from having touched a dead body) but inward. The nature of the purification necessary appears in the term double-, the same term found in 1:8, meaning, not a person consciously hiding his or her real motives but one who has divided motives. On the one hand, they wish to follow Christ and be good Christians; on the other hand, they are not willing to give up the world (cf. Rom. 6:8; 2 Cor. 5:11–17). They excuse their following worldly patterns of influence and money making (cf. 4:13–17). But James has already stated that God will not share them with the world; he wants them all (4:4). Thus they need to cleanse themselves inwardly from their worldly motives and to seek Christ and his kingdom alone.
4:8 Come near to God … Wash your hands … purify your hearts. See Psalm 24:3–4. Hands represent actions, and hearts represent attitudes. Those who are engaged in envy and quarrels must both stop their contentious actions and change their proud attitudes. “Wash” and “purify” represent the holiness and separateness that are required for drawing near to God. See also Matthew 5:8; 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; Hebrews 10:22.
double-minded. The same word is used in 1:8 to speak of the person who is of two minds as to whether God will answer the request for wisdom. Here the immediate context is of readers who have been adulterous by being friends with the world while belonging to God. Many adulterers are of two minds as to what will truly make them happy, their spouse or their lover. James is accusing his readers of being of two minds as to whether following God or their own desires is the best way to achieve the blessings of life.
4:8. Come near to God involves approaching God in worship and commitment. Those who approach God in the obedience of worship find that he comes near to them. As our knowledge of the Lord deepens, we learn more fully his strength, power, and guidance for godly living.
4:8. On the other hand draw near to God and He will come near in response. To draw near to God, however, demands His cleansing. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Both “wash” and “purify” are verbs that refer to ceremonial cleansing, a figure that spoke eloquently to Jewish converts. The need for cleansing is clear from the way James addressed his readers, “you sinners” and “you double-minded” (dipsychoi; cf. 1:8).
4:8 Next we should draw near to God. We do this by prayer. We must come before Him in desperate, believing prayer, telling Him all that is on our heart. As we thus approach Him, we find that He will draw near to us. We thought He would be far from us because of our carnality and worldliness, but when we draw near to Him, He forgives us and restores us. The fourth step is: Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Hands speak of our actions and hearts represent our motives and desires. We cleanse our hands and purify our hearts through confession and forsaking sins, both outward and inward. As sinners we need to confess evil acts; as double-minded people we need to confess our mixed motives.
4:8. But it was not enough simply to reassert one’s commitment to obedience and to resisting temptation. Repentance needs to have a personal dimension in which a Christian’s fractured fellowship with God is renewed. Therefore James enjoins his readership to draw near to God, knowing that such action will be reciprocated: and He will draw near to you. Of course, as the Apostle John makes clear (1 John 1:9), confession of sin is the first step in drawing near to God again. But renewed prayer and meditation on Scripture are also appropriate steps. God will respond to such steps, not only with forgiveness, but with other tokens of His nearness. He is always more eager to bridge the gap between believers and Him than they are. Restored closeness, therefore, between God and James’s readers is precisely what James is aiming at here. God would meet them more than halfway.
As gracious as the invitation to draw near to God is, however, it could not be done apart from candid and painful renunciation of sin. When even dedicated Christians get into the Lord’s presence, their wretched condition becomes acutely painful to them (see Isa 6:1–5; Rev 1:17). James’s readers could hardly expect to genuinely draw near to God without similar feelings. Thus they are now exhorted to cleanse [their] hands from sin and to purify [their] hearts from their double-minded mentality. They must put away any evil thing their hands were doing. Also, they must renounce the split loyalties they had, which drew them aside to worldly concerns.
4:8 Draw near. Pursue an intimate love relationship with God (cf. Php 3:10). The concept of drawing near to God was associated originally with the Levitical priests (Ex 19:22; Lv 10:3; Eze 44:13), but eventually came to describe anyone’s approach to God (Ps 73:28; Is 29:13; Heb 4:16; 7:19; 10:22). Salvation involves more than submitting to God and resisting the devil; the redeemed heart longs for communion with God (Pss 27:8; 42:1, 2; 63:1, 2; 84:2; 143:6; Mt 22:37).
8. Draw nigh to God. He again reminds us that the aid of God will not be wanting to us, provided we give place to him. For when he bids us to draw nigh to God, that we may know him to be near to us, he intimates that we are destitute of his grace, because we withdraw from him. But as God stands on our side, there is no reason to fear succumbing. But if any one concludes from this passage, that the first part of the work belongs to us, and that afterwards the grace of God follows, the Apostle meant no such thing; for though we ought to do this, yet it does immediately follow that we can. And the Spirit of God, in exhorting us to our duty, derogates nothing from himself, or from his own power; but the very thing he bids us to do, he himself fulfils in us.
In short, James meant no other thing in this passage, than that God is never wanting to us, except when we alienate ourselves from him. He is like one who brings the hungry to a table, and the thirsty to a fountain. There is this difference, that our steps must be guided and sustained by the Lord, for our feet fail us. But what some cavil at, and say, that God’s grace is secondary to our preparation, and as it were the waiting-maid, is very frivolous; for we know that it is no new thing that he adds new to former graces, and thus enriches more and more those to whom he has already given much.
Ver. 8.—Draw nigh to God (ἐγγίσατε τῷ Θεῷ) A phrase used of approach to God under the old covenant (see Exod. 19:22; 34:30; Lev. 10:3). Equally necessary under the new covenant is it for those who draw near to God to have “clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4). Hence the following injunction: “Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded.”
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