By Bobby R. Holmes
I am grateful for the opportunity of being a part of the discussion concerning “Difficult New Testament Pas-sages.” I have been assigned James 5:13-16, however, I believe the context of this section of Scripture continues through verse 20, thus we will include those verses as well. I make no claim of knowing all there is to know on the subject. I have wrestled with these passages in the past and after prayerful, careful study, I have arrived at the conclusion that the overall theme in these passages is the power of prayer for those in sin. All I do is invite and encourage each of you to study with me.
Verse 13: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” Through out this book, James has discussed the suffering of Christians. The first twelve verses of the first chapter ad-dress the subject of suffering and the profit that comes to those who endure with patience. Note verse ten of the chapter before us. “My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience.” What is one to do when suffering? The answer is given, “Let him pray.” James tells us how we are to pray “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8, NKJV). Next in the verse he asks, “Is anyone cheerful?” and then tells us what to do, “Let him sing psalms.”
Verses 14-15: “Is anyone among you sick? 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 will save the sick; and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The question that comes to mind here is this, is the “sick” here referring to a physical sickness or is it spiritual in nature? Many have asserted it to be a physical illness but I believe that is assumed. I pose some questions for consideration. Why call for the elders of the church to pray for a physical illness? It is said that it was because they had the spiritual gift of healing, but that is assumed. Not all had this gift and being elders did not automatically grant them this gift. One real important question that has led me to believe the sickness here was spiritual in nature is in regard to the work of elders.
What is the purpose and work of elders? When we consider the following passages I believe we must conclude that their work is spiritual in nature. “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NKJV). “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb.13:17, NKJV).There are many others but these will suffice to show the purpose and work of elders is spiritual in nature. Yes, elders are to be concerned about the physical welfare of the saints as well but, in reference to the context before us and in view of lack of evidence that all elders had the gift of healing (and for the verses to have any import all elders would have had to have the gift of healing else the verses lose their meaning), I believe the “sick” referred to are those spiritually ill. In addition, the word “sick” can be used to refer to one who is “made weak” according to Strong’s Concordance. And in verse 15 the word “sick” is used “faint, sick, be wearied” (Ibid. 39). There are other questions that pose a problem if the sickness here is physical in nature. What of the churches that had no elders? Who would the elders call if they are sick? Are not all members of the church to pray for the sick and not only the elders? In case someone should make the point that all members are also to be concerned about and pray for the spiritually sick I state here that I heartily agree and though we are not to the verse yet, I refer you to verse 16 that encourages this very thing. “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Let us go back to verse 14. What about “anointing him with oil”? Anointing with oil was a common practice in the Old Testament. It was used in two ways. As a ceremonial way as found in 1 Samuel 16:13. This served to symbolize an event. It also was used for medicinal purposes as found in Isaiah 1:6. Since the con-text must decide the purpose of the anointing let us look carefully at it. Looking at verse 15 it says, “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Strong says that the word “save” as used here means “to save, i.e., deliver or protect (lit. Or fig.) heal, preserve, save, be (make) whole.” Thayer says “to make well, heal, re-store to health (all understand this as including spiritual healing)” and refers to James 5:15 as one of the verses.
Verse 16: “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” The context alone would demand that the subject dealt with is spiritual in nature but to add to this thought, Thayer tells us that the word “healed” here means “to make whole i.e., to free from errors and sins, to bring about (one’s) salvation. James 5:16.” Again, when left in context, the passages are discussing prayer for spiritual healing. Lest I be misunderstood, I certainly do also believe in praying for those sick physically. I am simply discussing what I believe these passages in James 5 are talking about.
Verses 17-18: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.” The example of the faith of and fervent prayer of Elijah is used here to show Christians both of the first century and today the power of prayer. He is not saying that one should or could pray that the earth be stayed from rain for three and a half years, but rather uses this Bible example to give us confidence in the power of prayer from a godly person that prayed fervently. Contextually, it is used in connection with praying for those caught up in sin. The lesson shown here should serve as a deterrent to the lack of faith that some have in the assurance from God that he will forgive us of sins when forgiveness is sought in the proper way. Too many have expressed doubt in such statements as, “I wish I could be sure that God has forgiven me of such and such sin,” etc. These passages in James, when truly believed and heeded, will eliminate such lack of faith.
Verses 19-20: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.” These verses simply encourage us to reach out to our erring brothers and sisters with loving hands and bring them back to the fold of safety. I trust that this brief study will help some to better understand the exhortations and promises from our Lord.
Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 19-20
February 15, 1996