Healing in the New Testament Epistles - Part II
Our study of James 5 will entail five observations.
1. The focus of the passage is prayer and the crucial role it plays in the life of the church. James mentions three kinds of prayer, or three circumstances in which prayer is the proper action to take.
a. First, there is prayer for oneself (v. 13). He asks, "Is anyone among you suffering?" The word translated "suffering" (NIV, "trouble") refers to any kind of harm inflicted on you from without. He does not specify either the cause or character of the suffering. This is a general reference to any form of oppression, persecution, emotional or spiritual anguish. Any discomfort of soul, spirit, or body is in view. When you suffer for whatever reason, pray!
b. Second, there is praying by the Elders of the church for the physically sick (vv. 14-15).
* Not everyone believes that James is talking about physical illness. Daniel R. Hayden 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." It is true that the word "sick" in v. 14 (astheneo) can mean "weak" in faith or spiritually fatiqued (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 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).
Two questions are appropriate:
(1) Why doesn't the person himself/herself simply come to the Elders? Evidently because this person is bed-ridden: (a) The verb literally means "to pray over" someone; this is the only place in the NT where this preposition ("over") is used with the verb "to pray". James envisions a person in bed or on a mat with the Elders surrounding him/her, praying "over" him/her. (b) The Lord will "raise him up", implying that the person was laid low by the disease/affliction. James is obviously addressing a situation of extreme, debilitating, perhaps even life-threatening illness. If the person were able to go to the Elders, he should do so. There is no basis here for concluding that the Elders are not obligated to pray for the sick unless they are called upon to do so. James is simply addressing the most serious and extreme case.
(2) Why are the Elders singled out? (a) They are representatives of the entire church. (b) When a sheep is wounded or in danger it most naturally seeks out the aid of its shepherd. Cf. 1 Pt. 5:1-2. (c) It is 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.
c. Third, there is prayer for one another (v. 16). You must never think that you are excused from praying for the sick simply because you are not an Elder. The "one another" is inclusive of all Christians.
· The praying of v. 16 is open-ended and general: anywhere, for any affliction, at any time.
· One reason why healing may not occur is because of bitterness, resentment, jealousy, anger, etc., in our relationships with one another, or any number of sins we may have committed against God. Hence, James advises us to "confess our sins to one another". This "confession" would probably take one of two forms: (1) confessing to the person against whom you have sinned, or (2) confessing to another believer your more general transgressions or violations of biblical laws. For a similar principle, see 1 Peter 3:7. How would this work out practically in terms of our model for praying for the sick?
2. The Elders are to anoint the sick with oil. Aside from Mark 6:13, this is the only passage in the NT that recommends the use of oil for the sick. Why "oil"?
a. Some believe he recommended it as a medicinal aid. See Luke 10:34. Oil was frequently used in the ancient world for medicinal purposes. This may account for James' use of the verb aleipho ("to anoint") which emphasizes the actual physical action of pouring. Another word that means "to anoint" (chrio) is usually employed when the purpose of the anointing is religious or symbolic. However, the distinction between these two verbs should not be pressed, for their meanings often overlap. But if the oil was strictly medicinal, why is it alone mentioned as a helpful remedy for the sick? Oil was certainly beneficial, but no one claims it was appropriate for every illness. Also, if the purpose of oil was strictly medicinal, why was it necessary for the Elders to do the anointing? Would not others, or perhaps the suffering individual himself, have already done this to alleviate his suffering?
b. Perhaps the oil has religious/spiritual significance in this passage. If so, it would probably represent the Holy Spirit and his ministry of consecration whereby an individual or some object is set aside to God's service (cf. 1 Sam. 16:13; Isa. 61:1; Acts 4:27). Most likely, then, the anointing here is a physical action with symbolic significance. We are probably to understand this as the consecrating or setting aside of this person for God's special attention.
3. What is the prayer of faith? This is not just any prayer to be prayed at will, but a unique and divinely motivated prayer. Note the definite article ("the") before both "prayer" and "faith" (hence, "the prayer of the faith"). Most likely God enables individuals to pray this prayer according to His sovereign purposes. It is a prayer prompted by the Spirit-wrought conviction that God intends to heal the one for whom prayer is being offered (surely the faith here is more than merely believing that God is able to heal; this appears to be faith that He, in this particular case, is not only willing to heal, but willing to heal now). The faith necessary for healing is itself a gift of God, sovereignly bestowed when He wills. When God chooses to heal, He produces in the heart(s) of those praying the faith or confidence that such is precisely His intent. The particular kind of faith to which James refers, in response to which God heals, is not the kind that we may exercise at our will. It is the kind of faith that we exercise only when God wills.
It may well be that the "faith" James describes is the "gift of faith" mentioned in 1 Cor. 12. The "gift of faith" is a special faith that "enables a believer to trust God to bring about certain things for which he or she cannot claim some divine promise recorded in Scripture, or some state of affairs grounded in the very structure of the gospel" (D. A. Carson). In other words, it is the "God-given ability, without fakery or platitudinous exhortations, to believe what you do not really believe, to trust God for a certain blessing not promised in Scripture" (Carson). Thus the "gift of faith" is that mysterious surge of confidence that rises within a person in a particular situation of need or challenge and that gives an extraordinary certainty and assurance that God is about to act through a word or action (cf. Mark 11:23-24).
4. What is the relationship of sickness to sin? James says that "if he [the sick man] has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (v. 15). James agrees with Jesus (John 9:1-3) and Paul (2 Cor. 12:1-10) that not all sickness is the direct result of sin. Sometimes it is (see 1 Cor. 11:27-30; Mark 2:1-12), but not always. The "if" in v. 15 is not designed to say this man may never have sinned. The meaning is that if God should heal him in answer to prayer, that is a clear indication that any sins of the sufferer, which might have been responsible for this particular illness, were forgiven. In other words, if sin was responsible for his sickness, the fact that God heals him physically is evidence that God has forgiven him spiritually.
5. We must take careful note of the example of Elijah (vv. 17-18). The argument has been made by cessationists that biblical miracles were clustered or concentrated in only three major periods of history: the days of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. The point of this argument is that Elijah and Elisha, for example, were special, extraordinary, unique individuals who cannot serve as models for us when we pray.
But James says precisely the opposite! The point of vv. 17-18 is to counter the argument that Elijah was somehow unique or that because of the period in which he lived he could pray with miraculous success but we cannot. James wants us to know that Elijah was just like you and me. He was a human being with weaknesses, fears, doubts, failures, no less than we. In other words, James is saying: "Don't let anyone tell you Elijah was in a class by himself. He wasn't. He's just like you. You are just like him. Therefore, pray like he did!"
Don't forget the context: James appeals to the example of Elijah to encourage us when we pray for the sick! As John Piper says: "The logic of the passage seems pretty plain: All of us should be praying for each other and our goal in praying should be to live and pray in a way that would have the same kind of healing effects as Elijah had when he prayed for rain after a three-year drought."