Suffering, Healing, and the Prayer of Faith - Part Three
We’ve been looking at James 5:13-18 and the subject of prayer and healing. Continue reading . . .
We’ve been looking at James 5:13-18 and the subject of prayer and healing. Let’s look again at the text before we continue:
“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) Why are the Elders called on to pray for the sick rather than the “Healers” or those with the spiritual gift of healing? People we refer to as cessationists, who don’t believe that miraculous gifts like healing and prophecy still exist today, make much of this. Their argument goes something like this:
“The fact that James calls for the Elders to pray rather than the Healers or those with the spiritual gift of healing proves that this particular supernatural power was already on its way out from the life of the church. It proves that God only intended for divine healers to operate in the life of the early, first-century church. Or if healing does continue today, it happens only rarely and never through a particular person with the spiritual gift of healing.”
My response to that is something I’ve said many times before: There is no such thing as “the gift of healing.” There never has been.
I say this both because of the way Paul describes this spiritual phenomenon and the misconceptions surrounding it. The significant thing about 1 Corinthians 12:9,28 is that both the word “gift” and the word “healing” are plural and lack the definite article, hence the translation: “gifts of healings” (unfortunately the ESV renders it in both instances as “gifts of healing”). Evidently Paul did not envision that a person would be endowed with one healing gift operative at all times for all diseases. His language suggests either many different gifts or powers of healing, each appropriate to and effective for its related illness, or each occurrence of healing constituting a distinct or separate gift in its own right. I like the way John Piper explains the significance of this double plural, “gifts of healings.” He says that Paul most likely means that
“at different times for different sicknesses God gives to different people different ‘gifts of healings.’ In other words, you might find yourself drawn to pray for one person with remarkable, expectant faith and see that person healed, but then pray for others and not experience that same gift.”
I’ve had the opportunity on numerous occasions to meet people who have what appears to be a healing anointing for one particular affliction. Some are able to pray more effectively for those with back problems while others see more success when praying for migraine headaches. This may be what Paul had in mind when he spoke of “gifts” of “healings”.
One of the principal obstacles to a proper understanding of healing is the erroneous assumption that if anyone could ever heal, they could always heal. But in view of the lingering illness of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30), Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and perhaps Paul himself (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 4:13), it is better to view this gift as subject to the will of God, not the will of people. Therefore, a person may be gifted to heal many people, but not all. Another may be gifted to heal only one person at one particular time of one particular disease.
When asked to pray for the sick, people are often heard to respond: “I can’t. I don’t have the gift of healing.” But if my reading of Paul and James is correct, there is no such thing as the gift of healing, if by that one means the God-given ability to heal everyone of every disease on every occasion. Rather, the Spirit sovereignly distributes “a” charisma or “gift” of healing for a particular occasion, even though previous prayers for physical restoration under similar circumstances may not have been answered, and even though subsequent prayers for the same affliction may not be answered. In sum: “gifts of healings” are occasional and subject to the sovereign purposes of God.
Few doubt that Paul had a “gift” for healing. But his prayers for Epaphroditus weren’t answered, at least not at first (see Phil. 2:25-30). Clearly, Paul could not heal at will. Aside from Jesus, no one else could either! And there is doubt if even Jesus could (read John 5:19; Mark 6:5-6). Some would conclude from Paul’s failure to heal his friend that “the gift of healing” was “dying out” at this juncture in the life of the church (in spite of the fact that late in his ministry, in Acts 28:9, Paul apparently healed everyone on the island of Malta who came to him). It seems better to conclude that healing, whenever and wherever it occurred, was subject, not to the will of man, but to the will of God. No one, not even Paul, could always heal all diseases. If Paul was distressed that Epaphroditus was ill, almost unto death, and that initially his prayers for him were ineffective, I doubt seriously if the apostle would have drawn the same conclusions that modern cessationists do. Paul understood the occasional nature of gifts of healings.
The fact that healing is an expression of divine “mercy” (Phil. 2:27) means that it should never be viewed as a “right”. Healing is not the payment of a debt. God does not owe us healing. We don’t deserve healing. I believe we should have faith for healing. But there is a vast difference between faith in divine mercy, on the one hand, and presumption based on an alleged right, on the other.
The word “mercy” is the same one used in the gospels to describe why Jesus healed people when he was on the earth. God’s motive for healing hasn’t changed! The primary reason God healed through Jesus prior to Pentecost and why he continues to heal after Pentecost is because he is a merciful, compassionate God. God is no less merciful, no less compassionate, no less caring when it comes to the physical condition of his people after Pentecost than he was before Pentecost.
(2) The Elders are described as “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (v. 14c). Aside from Mark 6:13, this is the only passage in the NT that recommends the use of oil for the sick. Why "oil"?
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?
More likely 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). In other words, 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 and a way of directing everyone’s faith to the power of the Holy Spirit.
To be continued . . .