By Weldon E. Warnock
“Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).
The preceding verses raise several questions. What is the sickness? Is it physical or spiritual? Why call for the elders? What is the significance of anointing with oil? What is the prayer of faith? On what basis are the sins forgiven of those who are sick? Do these verses apply today? We will endeavor to briefly answer these questions.
Several schools of thought are espoused as to the correct interpretation of these passages.
1. The Catholic position is that James is teaching extreme unction. They tell us that extreme unction is a sacrament through which the priest, by prayer and anointing with oil, gives comfort, strength and forgiveness to the soul of the dangerously ill. Unction means anointing or rubbing with oil and this anointing is called extreme or last.
But James said “call for the elders” – not the “priest.” Too, nothing is said about anointing those in preparation of death, but rather anoint those who are sick and the prayer of faith shall save them or make them well. The anointing was toward life, not toward death. Furthermore, the doctrine of extreme unction came along centuries after James penned his epistle.
2. Some claim that spiritual sickness is under consideration. In other words, the person is guilty of sin. But James says of the sick, “if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” The “if” indicates that the sick person may not be guilty of sin. However, the individual to be visited by the elders was sick. Hence, the sickness was not sin.
3. A few maintain that the sickness is weariness of heart. There are two Greek words translated “sick” in these texts. In v. 14 the word is astheneo and in v. 15 it is the word kamno. Though these words can mean “to be weary and despondent in spirit,” the thought there is physical illness.
Arndt and Gingrich define astheneo, “of bodily weakness be sick, and list James 5:14 under the definition (A GreekEnglish Lexicon, p. 115). Thayer says of the same word, “Specially of debility in health . . . simply, to be feeble, sick” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 80). Both lexicons define kamno, “to be sick, be ill.” We conclude that bodily, corporal sickness is intended.
4. A very prevalent view is that miraculous healing was the reason for calling the elders. Guy N. Woods wrote: “It seems quite clear from all the facts in the case that the elders contemplated here were miraculously endowed . . . and were thus enabled to participate in miraculous healing in the manner described” (James, p. 303). Concerning the “anointing” Woods said: “It appears quite clear here that the use of oil was symbolic, and not medicinal; and thus served as a token of the power of God by which healing was accomplished” (p. 301).
5. Another view is that James Is referring to ordinary prayer and the use of oil as a medical means or as a custom. H.E. Phillips wrote: “There is nothing in this passage that indicates the need for miraculous powers on the part of elders in performing their duty. The example which James gives points out the fact that the elders of the church were expected to visit those in need and administer to their needs, either physically or spiritually. . . . Oil was normally used for medicine and would not indicate a miracle in the use of it here” (Scriptural Elders and Deacons, p. 208).
Of the five above positions, only the last two have any merit. The first one, extreme unction, is totally unscriptural. The second position, spiritual healing, is untenable as already shown. The third point, weariness of heart, does not meet the definition of the word “sick.” Of the latter two, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be absolutely sure which one is correct. However, the weight of the evidence makes number five more plausible to me. The reasons are:
1. There is nothing in the text that forces an interpretation of miraculous healing. Though there was a miraculous endowment of faith (1 Cor. 12:9), one has to assume that the “prayer of faith” is that particular gift. The “prayer of faith” could well be the “asking in faith, nothing wavering” (Jas. 1:6).
2. It is assumed that elders had the gift of healing. Nowhere is this taught in the Scriptures.
3. The context seems to favor ordinary prayer. Verse 16 states: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” James then proceeds to give Elijah as an example of a man whose prayers were answered. If God heard Elijah, he will answer our prayers, even the prayers for the sick (v. 15).
4. The Greek word in v. 14 for “anointing” is “from aleipho and it is the word that refers to the common use of oil, while the word chiro (anoint) has reference to the sacred and symbolic. This is significant. Oil is used, therefore, by James in the common usage, meaning to “oil the body” or “rubbing the body with oil.”
Vine says that aleipho is “a general term used for anointing of any kind, whether physical refreshment after washing . . . or of the sick, Mark 6:13; James 5:14, or a dead body, Mark 16:1. ” He said that chiro “is confined to sacred and symbolic anointings.” James would have apparently used chiro instead of aleipho if the oil was only symbolic.
Olive oil was used widely in the biblical world for medicinal purposes (see Isa. 1:6; Lk. 10:34). Josephus relates that Herod was bathed in a vessel full of oil when he thought he was near death (Ant. 17,6,5).
“The principle taught here is that the elders should first pray that God will forgive and restore health and strength to the man, and that they should use ‘oil,’ or supply medical treatment as is necessary to the sick man’s recovery. . . . .This does not mean that elders are physicians, but they must provide either doctors or medicine that is needed” (Phillips, op. cit., p. 209).
R.C.H. Lenski wrote: “But the use of olive oil upon the body was not restricted to physicians; the Good Samaritan was not a physician, nor did he administer a sacrament. To rub the body with oil was a common practice” (The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James, p. 662). Elders as shepherds of the flock were to minister to the saints as the needs and opportunities arose and today is no exception.
Sins were not (and are not) forgiven or absolved by the elders (v. 15), but if the sick person has committed sins, God will forgive the sins if confession and prayer are offered (v. 16). Saving the sick (v. 15) is the physical healing or curing of the body. A.T. Robertson said: “By ‘save’ here James means ‘cure,’ as it often does in the Gospels (Mark 5:23; 6-56t- 8:35)” (Studies in the Epistle of James, p. 191).
5. The purpose of miracles were confirmatory (Mk. 16:20; Heb. 2:3-4), and not accommodative. To say that elders were called by the sick in order to be miraculously healed changes the revealed purpose of miracles. Miraculous healing would then be accommodative instead of confirmatory.
Admittedly, there are difficulties in the foregoing position, but I feel the evidence tilts the balance toward my conclusion.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 14, pp. 419-420
July 21, 1988