Suffering, Healing, and the Prayer of Faith - Part Two
James 5:13-18 is an extremely rich and densely packed passage. In the previous article we looked at v. 13. Today we turn our attention to vv. 14-15. Continue reading . . .
James 5:13-18 is an extremely rich and densely packed passage. In the previous article we looked at v. 13. Today we turn our attention to vv. 14-15. Here is the entire passage:
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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 one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:13-18).
(1) “Is anyone among you sick?” (v. 14a). The fact that James singles out the “sick” here in v. 14 assumes that he has something in mind different from the “suffering” he just mentioned in v. 13. This person is extremely ill, most likely bed-ridden. We see this in three things.
First, he/she must “call for the elders” to come to him/her. This person is evidently unable to go to the elders himself and is thus most likely in extremely bad shape.
There is a second reason we are right in thinking so. It’s found in the phrase, “let them pray over him” (v. 14b). This is unusual. We don’t typically read in the NT about praying “over” someone. The preposition translated “over” is a separate word in the original text. It isn’t included in the verb to pray. In fact, this is the only place in the entire NT where the preposition “over” is used in conjunction with praying for someone. You can pray “for” someone and not necessarily pray “over” them. The word “over” suggests that this person is bed-ridden, lying on their back, unable to initiate any movement toward other people or the elders of the church.
The third reason I think James is talking about an extraordinarily serious affliction is because of what he says in v. 15, namely, that “the Lord will raise him up.” This suggests that the person was laid low, as it were, or is stretched out on a bed. If they are healed it involves raising them up from where they were lying prostrate.
One more word of qualification. There is no reason to think that Elders are not responsible to pray for people unless they are called upon to do so. James is simply addressing the most serious and extreme case. The Elders here at Bridgeway meet on the first Sunday morning of every month to pray for the sick and others who are struggling. We also pray for the people of our fellowship on the third Monday night of every month at our regular Elders’ meeting. And we communicate often with each other via email and by phone to keep everyone up to date on specific cases where prayer is needed most. We are also available every Sunday morning before, during, and after every service to pray for people who are in need.
(2) The nature of the sickness in view here is physical or bodily. You might think that goes without saying, but such is not the case. You won’t find many defending the view that this is “sickness” of a non-physical nature. Most who argue for it are cessationists who are uncomfortable with the reality of healing and how this applies to the church in our day.
One author suggests that James has in view "emotional distress and spiritual exhaustion experienced by God's people in their deep struggle with temptation and their relentless battle with besetting sin” (Daniel R. Hayden). It is true that the word "sick" in v. 14 (astheneo) can mean "weak" in faith or spiritually fatigued (cf. Rom. 14:1-2; 1 Cor. 8:11-12; 2 Cor. 13:3), as is also the case with the other Greek word translated "sick" in v. 15 (kamno; cf. Heb. 12:3). It is also true that the Greek words in vv. 15-16 translated "restore" (sozo), "raise up" (egeiro), and "heal" (iaomai) may legitimately refer to the restoration or renewal of spiritual and emotional vitality.
However, when astheneo means spiritual weakness usually the context or a qualifier such as "weak in faith" (Rom. 14:2) or "weak in conscience" (1 Cor.8:7) makes that clear. Moreover, in the material most relevant to James (the four Gospels), astheneo almost always refers to physical illness. The same is true for kamno. And iaomai, when not used in an OT quotation, always refers to physical healing. As far as sozo and egeiro are concerned, both are appropriate descriptions of physical healing (sozo in Mt. 9:21-22; Mk. 5:34; 6:56; 10:52; Lk. 7:50; 17:19; and egeiro in Mk. 1:31; 2:9-12; Acts 3:7).
That being said, James would not want you to think that if your affliction is emotional or spiritual in nature that you should not ask for others to pray for you. We already saw in v. 13 that regardless of the nature or cause of one’s affliction, prayer is appropriate.
(3) Why are the “Elders” singled out? Most likely it is because they are representatives of the entire church. When a sheep is wounded or in danger it most naturally seeks out the aid of its shepherd, which is how Elders are described in 1 Peter 5:1-2. It is also assumed that the Elders of a church are men of maturity, spiritual insight, prayerfulness, compassion, etc. As such they would be likely candidates (but not the only ones, of course) to receive from God the necessary gifting to minister healing to the sick.
There is another qualification to put on this statement. Don’t ever conclude from this passage that only Elders are to pray for the sick. Don’t ever think that other believers, both male and female, of all ages can’t or shouldn’t pray for one another. Notice down in v. 16 that James exhorts all believers to “pray for one another.” Some of the most powerful and effective intercessors and prayer warriors that I have known were never Elders or Pastors in a local church.
So remember this: if an Elder isn’t available you aren’t falling short or missing a thing if you ask other Christians to pray that you might be healed. That is why here at Bridgeway we have trained prayer ministers who are available after every service. All of us, regardless of whether or not we hold office or are or are not on staff at a church are responsible to pray for others.
To be continued . . .