Practically Speaking, Conclusion

Prayer, Faith, Responsibility:  James 5:13-20

The connection of this last section of James to the letter as a whole is not instantly clear.  Because of this, these verses are interpreted in different ways.  This is unfortunate because depending on how you view these verses, you will either find them very encouraging or a great disappointment.  Some scholars see them as a bunch of unrelated closing thoughts, others see them as a logical progression of thought.

My own thought is that this closing section on prayer is somewhat connected to the preceding passage, specifically verse 12:

Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.

Prayer, not careless words, should be the believer’s response to suffering of any kind.

1.  The power of prayer and praise, verse 13

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

The theme of verses 7-12 is proper Christian behavior in the midst of suffering.  The Greek word used in verse 10 and translated “suffering” is essentially the same word used in verse 13 and translated “trouble,” kakopathei.  You may have noticed that Christians have problems just like everybody else, but James tells us that Christians have a privilege and a duty that unbelievers do not.  In those time times of “trouble,” Christians may commune with God.   It is an ignorant believer who has not learned that:

[I]n all things God works for the good of those who love him.  (Romans 8:28)

If we can remember that, we won’t complain and grumble or make foolish promises when trouble comes.  Indeed, the Christian, who needs patience, will be find it in abundance if he prays.   As Burdick observed so succinctly:

Patience comes from God, and prayer is a good way to obtain it.

Human nature being what it is, James adds:

Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

Christians are very forgetful in good times.  We forget about God.  James gives us the proper perspective:  we are to be connected to God all the time, in good times and bad.  That is our privilege, and that is our duty.  He is a mighty resource in times of trouble and prayer is a way to tap into those divine resources.  He can give us, not only patience, but grace and the knowledge that we are not alone.  But not only that, when we behave properly and pray the moment problems come, others will see how what we are doing, whether we want them to or not.  And that will  bring glory to Him.

The same is true when we are praising Him.  God can make the good times in our lives even better and more meaningful and others, perhaps who are having problems, will be encouraged when they see and hear us praising the Lord.

2.  The power of faith, verses 14-16

These verses are terribly misunderstood, yet they are so simple when broken down to their basic components.

  • Is any one of you sick? Sickness is one form of “trouble,” and it’s one that all believers will face at some time.  This is why James is mentioning it here.  There are other forms of trouble not common to all believers.  Some of us will never lose all our possessions.  Some of us will never be involved in a car accident.  But all of us will eventually be sick.
  • Call the elders of the church.  The sick person, or someone at their request, must call the elders of the church.  The office of “elder,” presbyter, was one of the very first offices instituted in the church after it was founded.  An elder in the New Testament was one who represented the congregation (Acts 11:30; 21:18), and were men of impeccable character who exercised pastoral oversight of their congregation (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).  They were appointed by the pastor (a senior elder), not elected, in the New Testament (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
  • Pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  This is part of the verse that people misunderstand.  Two points need to be considered first:
  1. First, the emphasis is not on the oil, but on prayer.  Anointing the person with oil is to be considered a secondary act.  We know this because “pray” is the verb of emphasis, while “anoint” is a participle.  Also, the very next verse deals with prayer in more depth but we never read of anointing the person with oil again.
  2. Second, the application of oil probably has more to do with medicinal reasons than ceremonial.  The word James uses for “anoint” is aleipsantes, and is not the customary word used in the New Testament for the sacramental or ritualistic anointing of a person (Burdick).  In various places in Scripture we see that the Jews viewed olive oil as having special medicinal properties (Luke 10:34; Mark 6:13).  In James’ time, olive oil was to his people like an aspirin is to us today.

Some have viewed anointing the sick with oil as a symbolic act when combined with prayer.  This may be the case, however, it should also be noted that throughout the  book of Acts the apostles healed many people without anointing them with oil (Acts 3:6; 5:15-16; 9:34; 14:8-10; 16:18; 28:8-9).  This suggests to me that the admonition of James is not to be taken as a pattern for all time to be followed when praying for the sick.  In our modern vernacular, we might say, “If you are sick, call for the elders of the church to come and pray for you, and take your medicine.”

  • The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.  Again, this is one of those statements that, if taken the wrong way, leads to a world of disappointment.  James is not giving his readers a promise or a guarantee that the one who is prayed over will recover.  While the Bible does indeed teach the doctrine of divine healing, and while many of us believe that from time to time God does intervene in the affairs of man to perform miracles of healing and restoration, what James is saying here is simply this:  If the sick person recovers some time after being prayed over, it was the Lord who caused this to happen. All healing, whether instantaneous or gradual, whether with the use of medicine or without, is the result of God working in the human body.  No person can heal another person any more than a farmer can make the seed he planted in the ground grow.  All the farmer can do is create the conditions whereby the seed will likely grow.  This is what Christians are called to do:  both the sick person and the elders are to create the conditions whereby the Lord can, if it be His will, heal the person.
  • If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  It was a common habit among the Jews to view all sickness as a result of sin.  Of course, we know this is not necessarily the case.  Although, in a general sense, all sickness is the result of living in a sinful and sin-cursed world.  The fact is, James seems to indicate that there are times when an illness may be the result of some sinful behavior.  The promise is clear; if this is the case, after the sin is confessed, healing will come.

Verse 16 is another verse often misunderstood.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  This sentence should not be taken as a universal practice, but should be understood in its context:  the confession being made by the sick person of the previous verse and the prayer by the elders.

Having established the strict context, there is a broader application to be made.   Unconfessed sin hinders our prayer life and has the power to block God’s blessings.  Unconfessed sin is also an obstacle in our relationships within the body of Christ.   Common sense would indicate that in order to have a healthy relationship with both God and man, there should be nothing coming in between either of them.

While the text says “confess your sins to each other,” this should be exercised with discretion.  If we have sinned against an individual in the church, it is to him, then, we confess.  Curtis Vaughn writes:

Whereas the Roman Catholics have interpreted confession too narrowly, many of us may be tempted to interpret it too  broadly.  Confession of all our sins to all the brethren is not necessarily enjoined by James’ statement.  Confession is “the vomit of the soul” and can, if too generally and too indiscriminately made, do more harm than good.

  • The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  Who is the righteous man?  Some see him as the sick one who has confessed his sin and been forgiven.  His prayer is now able to heard by God, unhindered.   Others see a broader meaning here; the “righteous man” is the one who is in a right relationship with God and member of the body of Christ.  There is another, more ominous reading of this sentence; ominous for those who do not know God.  The only prayer of the unrighteous heard by God is the prayer for salvation.  Therefore, be default, any prayer prayed by a child of God will be powerful and effective, not because of our righteousness or merit, but because of Christ.

Before moving on to the next verse, it would be wise to interject at this point the obvious.  All our prayers must be prayed with the understanding the God’s will must be respected.  Suppose the sick person does not recover.  Is it because of a lack of faith?  Is there unconfessed sin?  Perhaps, but not always.  Recall an incident in Paul’s life, who definitely had the gift of healing.  He seems to have been unable to heal his friend Epaphroditus from a long illness that almost killed him (Phil. 2:27).  There is also a statement in 2 Timothy 4:20 to be noted:

Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.

It’s hard to imagine Paul leaving anybody sick without praying for them first!

3.  An example, verses 17-18

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Again, human nature being what it is, tends to view people within the church who seem to be righteous and seem to have their prayers answered all the time as “spiritual giants” or as extraordinary people.  James gives us an example of an average man, Elijah, who had no super human powers, yet his prayers yielded amazing results.   The prophet’s prayers were answered, so says James simply because:  (1)  he prayed “earnestly” and (2) he was a righteous man.  James’ point:  all believers are capable of such a prayer life.

4.  Our responsibility, verses 19-20

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James begins his closing exhortation the same way be began his first:  Brothers.  Although last two verses seem to be independent of the rest of this chapter, they are, in fact, tied together.

The theme of sin and confession is continued; this could relate  back to the sick person who has asked for and received forgiveness;
The ministry of restoring one to the faith is carried out with the same fervent prayer he referred to earlier (Harper)

This section gives us a clue to what is on James’ heart.  Correcting a believer in danger–setting them right–is the responsibility of all believers.   The words “one” and “he” indicate that this loving ministry of “personal evangelism” is something all members of the body of Christ should be engaged it.

The final words of this letter are taken from Proverbs 10:12,

Hatred stirs up dissension,
but love covers over all wrongs.

These words are also quoted by Peter in his letter, 1 Peter 4:8.  What exactly is James, and Peter, saying exactly?  In Proverbs, this verse indicates the sins covered up are the social consequences of sin.  Hatred, as the Proverb says, causes all manner of problems.  Love has the opposite effect, it covers,and  prevents, those problems from happening.  Peter wrote that love covers or prevents anger and retaliation in the other person.  In both Proverbs and Peter’s letter, the action of the righteous man in response to the the sins of the other person is seen having the effect of nullifying the results of the sin of the erring one.  Instead of bullying a fellow believer who has wandered from the truth, if we work to restore that person, we might be able to head off any dissension or other problems.

James’ closing sentence is a fitting way to end this most practical of all Biblical writings.

Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

Tasker wrote this:

No duty laid upon Christians is more in keeping with the mind of their Lord, or more expressive of Christian love, than the duty of reclaiming the backslider.

Many Christians  are “long on theory but short on practice.”  Those of us like that would do well to study James’ writing and put into practice the what we have learned.

(c)  2008 WitzEnd

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