Power Through Prayer (James 5:13-18)

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I am of the persuasion that the James who penned the epistle so-named was James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Lord’s twelve apostles. He was the Lord’s “brother” in the sense of being a cousin: James’ mother and Jesus’ mother were sisters.

As an apostle, James would have spent three years day in and day out walking with the Lord. Amongst his many other apostolic privileges, James would have been privileged to see Jesus’ praying. When the disciples one day begged Jesus, “Teach us to pray,” James would have added his pleading voice to the request.

In addition to this, Jesus would have observed Jesus exercising His power to feed the multitudes, scatter demons, comfort the disheartened, forgive the fallen and heal the sick. Like the other eleven disciples, he would have experienced the misery of abandoning the Lord at His arrest, trial and crucifixion, but he also would have enjoyed the glorious privilege of hearing claim all authority in heaven and on earth after His resurrection. In short, James would have harboured no doubts about Christ’s power to make sinners whole.

With that experiential knowledge, James wrote the words that are before us in this study. He believed in the power of Christ, in His absolute authority, and thus he believed that His power could be experienced through prayer. He knew what it was to pray “in Jesus’ name,” and thus he exhorted the scattered Jewish church to do so.

Throughout this letter, James has hinted at the fact that prayer is to be a priority in the life of the believer and thus the life of the church 91:5; 4:3; cf. the implication of 4:7-8, 10). But in the verses before us, James returns quite explicitly to this theme. He mentions prayer, in vv. 13-18, no fewer than seven times. We have already seen that this letter is an intensely practical one. It deals with much that we as believers are to do in response to saving faith. That is, James argues that we are saved by a faith that works, and one such work is that of prayer. Saved people pray. Prayer is to be seen as a very practical activity of the Christian life.

In this study, we will consider James 5:13-18 with a view to understanding the passage that we might be doers of the Word, and not hearers only. Simply put, our goal in this study is that we will be people of prayer—effective prayer.

A Prayerful Response

“Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (v. 13). James begins by exhorting us that, in every situation of life, we are to remember God.

In Times of Pressure

First, James urges us to remember God in times of pressure. The word “afflicted” speaks of physical hardship or personal distress. It is used in this very same chapter to speak of the prophets, who were “an example of suffering affliction.” Paul used the word when he wrote, “I suffer trouble, as an evil doer, even unto bonds” (2 Timothy 2:9), and again when he exhorted Timothy to “endure afflictions” (2 Timothy 4:5).

Of course, James has addressed in vv. 1-12 those who have been oppressed, particularly servants who have been oppressed by their wealthy masters. And so, although he does begin a new section in v. 13, he has not left the context entirely. And so, to those who are suffering, James has a word of exhortation: pray!

In Times of Pleasure

Second, James addresses those who are enjoying times of pleasure. “Is any merry? let him sing psalms.” The word “merry” speaks of an inner sense of wellbeing. Paul used the word to exhort his fellows in danger of shipwreck to “be of good cheer” (Acts 27:22, 25, 36). The term “sing psalms” is translated in Ephesians 5:19 by the words “making melody.” It speaks of offering praise to God.

Of course, the singing of psalms is no less an act of prayer than is the prayer mentioned in the first part of the verse. As Douglas Moo notes, “The singing of praise was closely related to prayer (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15); indeed, it can be regarded as a form of prayer.” Both our prayers and our praises are directed to God, and thus both are a form ultimately of prayer.

And so, regardless of our situation, we are to be God-centred. Whether we experience pressures or pleasures, we must recognise our circumstances to be God’s working in our lives, and we must respond appropriately to Him. And thus, “through prayer, we hallow every pleasure and sanctify every pain” (Daniel Doriani).

An important principle came home to me as I was studying this text. Have you ever felt guilty because, as a Christian, you lack an inner sense of wellbeing? After all, are Christians not expected to be happy and smiling all the time? But James teaches us that such is not always the case. At any given time, you will find yourself facing pressures or enjoying pleasures, and both are ordained sovereignly by God. James does not tell those who have lost their inner sense of wellbeing to repent; he tells them to bring their petitions to God.

I do not mean to justify a complaining spirit, in which we cease to find our joy in the Lord. Nevertheless, James is quite clear on the fact that even our times of affliction are brought about by God and thus we do not sin when we lose that inner sense of wellbeing. Believers indeed experience seasons in life. Sometimes we experience the summer of pleasure, and at other times the winter of pressure. Yet in it all, we are to remain God-centred.

At the end of the day, prayer is simply a response to God. Thus, as we understand that God is the ultimate cause both of our pressures and of our pleasures, we will find ourselves naturally praying or praising, depending on our station in life.

A Promised Recovery

Verses 14-15 are some of the most difficult verses any interpreter can face, not only in James, but in all of Scripture. We must tread carefully in our interpretation of these verses, for many good and godly Christians disagree over their precise teaching. Let us first listen closely to what James says:

Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

(James 5:14-15)

Some interpreters hold that this passage applied to a unique dispensation in history (i.e. those to whom James directly wrote) and thus they do not apply to us. Others teach that a promise is implicit here that every ailment we have will be healed. Still others (or, at least, one other—John MacArthur) teach that these verses have nothing to do with physical sickness, but that they deal with spiritual weakness. And I am sure that many more interpretations could be added to the melting pot.

Precisely how do we deal with the text? I must admit that, when I first read MacArthur’s commentary, I was intrigued that he may be correct; that these verses do not speak at all of physical sickness, but only of spiritual weakness. He goes into quite some detail to explain his premise. But the more I studied the text the less convinced I became of such an interpretation.

Of course, let us admit that one reason for our struggle with these verses is that we have seen the process fail. If we have seen this put into practice, we have no doubt seen people healed; but surely we have all seen the elders pray for those who do not ultimately get better. I have heard and read well-known preachers and pastors who have expressed confusion over the precise meaning of this text for that very reason.

So how do we interpret the text? Do we set up a poll asking pastors to vote for how many times the process has resulted in healing, and how many times it has not, and then conclude that the majority rules? Of course not! The question is, what does the text actually teach? We must rightly divide the Word of God.

Our first step is to recognise the context. James is speaking here in the context (vv. 1-12) of those who are being afflicted. Because of the special reference in the earlier part of the chapter to those who were being mistreated by others, we should not too hastily cast aside MacArthur’s idea of spiritual weakness here, even though the text does seem to speak to something beyond that.

Second, let us admit that there do not seem to be any textual indicators which would limit these verses to the first century (even though the chapter does speak of “the last days,” which was a first century time period). In fact, if we carefully consider v. 13 we will conclude that the text certainly is relevant to our day, as believers still suffer both physical and spiritual weakness today. Additionally, the church of our day is expected to have “elders,” and so the passage most certainly speaks to us.

Third, we must do our best to lay aside our presuppositions. Of course, this is difficult, since we always tend to approach any given text with presuppositions. Nevertheless, we cannot argue, either way, based on experience as the primary test. At issue is, what does the text say?

With these guidelines in mind, let us consider the passage more closely.

The Requirement

James speaks in our text of those who are “sick.” If we will understand the meaning of the text, it is essential that we first establish what it means to be “sick.”

The Greek word translated “sick” is astheneia, which means “to be feeble.” Greek scholar Louw defines it thus: “to be sick and as a result in a state of weakness and incapacity.” It thus suggests a state of disability, incapacity or weakness. The one who is “sick” is unable, or at least limited in his ability, to perform his usual functions.

In the Gospels, the word is almost exclusively used of those who are physically sick (Matthew 10:8; 25:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; John 5:3-7, etc.). In Acts and the epistles, it is often used of physical illness (Acts 9:37; Philippians 2:26-27; 1 Timothy 5:23; 2 Timothy 4:20; etc.), but also sometimes of weakness in general, with a special emphasis on spiritual weakness (Acts 20:35; Romans 4:19; 8:3; 14:1-2, 21; 15:1; 1 Corinthians 8:9, 11-12). In fact, the trend from the Gospels to the epistles seems to switch somewhat: The Gospels use the word predominantly in a physical way, whilst the epistles predominantly use it to describe a spiritual state.

Overall, it seems to me that the word emphasises physical illness whilst not excluding spiritual weakness. Once again, in the context of James 5 it would not be unexpected for those living under oppression to feel spiritually weak, but as the word is generally used in the New Testament (and as the context here seems to demand) James is almost certainly speaking here of those who are physically sick. Moo summarises:

A physical restoration is all that the context requires, and we should be wary of adding an unnecessary reference to spiritual deliverance. Several elements of the text require a reference to physical healing; everything in the text makes sense as a description of physical healing. Probably, then, the meaning of the text should be confined to physical healing.

And Doriani adds, “To some extent, then, spiritual health engenders physical health, and spiritual troubles beget physical sorrows. Certainly, chronic physical illness can afflict the spirit. Yet James chiefly refers to the sick that need physical healing.”

Of course, if we were simply to interpret the text in terms of spiritual weakness, it would be far easier, for it would make things far less awkward when the elders pray and God does not heal. The text, however, does not allow for such an interpretation. Physical illness seems to be the emphasis.

A related question, however, is just how sick a person needs to be to call on the elders of the church. That is what James commands here. He does not tell the one suffering to go to a faith healer . He exhorts the one suffering to call on the elders of the church. But under what circumstances?

It seems to me that the circumstances under which this is to be done are somewhat extreme. In fact, it seems that the person must be so sick that he cannot go to the elders; he must ask them to come to him. (This, of course, is another indication that James is referencing physical illness, for it is only as you are terribly afflicted in a physical way that you will be unable to go to the elders.) Furthermore, the elders are seen here to be praying “over” the sick person, which may indicate a posture of bed-riddenness. Even the term “raise him up,” says Moo, “is used here to describe the renewed physical vigour of those who have been healed … Thus the picture is of the elders praying ‘over’ the ‘sick man’ in his bed and the Lord intervening to raise him up from that bed.”

James is not, then, advocating church members calling upon the elders of the church, and expecting them to come pray over them, for every common ailment. Should you wake up tomorrow with a headache, I am sure that your pastor would be quite happy to pray for you, but such an instance will not warrant the activity of the elders described in this text.

Let us observe that the elders come to pray over the one who is sick. The commentators who insist that this injunction was applicable uniquely to a time in the first century do so on the basis that the miracles described in the New Testament were unique to that time. Whilst I agree that God no longer gives particular people the particular spiritual gift of healing or miracles, we must note here that it is prayer that is used as a means to healing, not miracles. Prayer for the sick is certainly still a valid spiritual discipline today.

Before we draw any conclusions from the text, we must understand what is meant by a second clause in the verse: “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” The word here for “oil” speaks of olive oil, and the Greek word for “anointing” means “to rub with oil.” There are two Greek words in the New Testament for “anointing,” and the one used here (aleipho) is never used in the sense of a ceremonial anointing. The great Greek scholar, A. T. Robertson, notes, “It is by no means certain that aleipho here … means ‘anoint in a ceremonial fashion’ instead of to rub. At bottom we have God and medicine, God and the doctor, and that is precisely where we are today.”

Let us note briefly how the word is used in the New Testament.

  • Matthew 6:17—“But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face.”
  • Mark 6:13—“And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.”
  • Mark 16:1—“And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.”
  • Luke 7:38—“And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”
  • John 11:2—“It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.”
  • John 12:3—“Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.”

There seems to be an unusual, ceremonial use of the word in Mark 16:1, but otherwise the word has the idea of refreshment in the sense of alleviating discomfort. “What James may be saying then,” concludes Moo, “is that the elders should come to the bedside of the sick armed with both spiritual and natural resources—with prayer and with medicine.” Doriani concurs, writing that “the anointing stimulated the faith of the sick person.”

And so it seems that the “oil” here is a reference to some sort of medicine. At the same time, let us observe that olive oil would hardly have effective medicinal value for every type of ailment. Yes, it was used as medicine in a wide range of instances in New Testament times, but the text is not suggesting that olive oil has miraculous power to heal any type of illness with which humans are afflicted.

The olive oil in this instance, rather than having pure medicinal value, seems also to be something visible designed to aid the sick person’s faith. Jesus used a variety of means when He healed people. At one point, He spat on the ground, made mud, and rubbed it in a blind man’s eye. Another time He commanded lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. And yet, in at least one case, Jesus healed a centurion’s servant without even going to see Him. Jesus could have healed everyone with a simple touch, or a word, but He used a variety of means, no doubt as something visible to strengthen the suffering person’s faith. Their faith ultimately had to be in Him, but He still gave them something visible to help them.

That is no doubt one possible use of the oil here. We have already concluded that olive oil is not a divinely ordained medicine to cure every ailment known to mankind. But in this text it is used as a visible means to strengthen the faith of the one who has called upon the elders. And yet at the same time the medicinal value of olive oil cannot be denied.

However, as noted above, the use of olive oil in the New Testament seems to carry the idea of refreshment in the sense of alleviating discomfort. Thus, to put it simply, perhaps the primary force of James’ injunction is, “Elders, do whatever you can to make sure that the person is comfortable.” In a New Testament context, that would involve anointing with olive oil. In our context, it might involve a softer pillow, or an extra blanket, or, yes, some pain killers.

Importantly, this is done “in the name of the Lord.” This phrase means that the actions (both the prayer and the anointing) are authorised by God. In similar terms, Jesus said in the context of church discipline, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). In other words, when church discipline is carried out correctly, it is authorised by Christ Himself; He stands with the church in the disciplinary decisions it makes (see also 1 Corinthians 5:4-5).

It is not as if “in the name of the Lord” is a magical formula to be invoked (any more than the anointing with oil is); instead, the command is to pray out of obedience to the Lord’s commands. The elders, called to the bedside of the sick, are to pray in submission to the Lord. They do not come on their own authority, as divine faith healers, but they come under the authority of Christ.

Before we move on, let us admit that no one will call on the elders of the church if they are rebelling against the elders. The sick one who calls on the elders recognises by that action that the elders are God’s ordained authority in the church. No one who rebels against the elders can call the elders to their bedside when they are sick and expect God to heal them. The necessary implication here is that there is a relationship between the sheep and the shepherds.

The Result

This result is pretty straightforward: “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (v. 15). The one who has fulfilled the requirements of v. 14 and who is then involved in the prayer of faith shall be healed. Furthermore, if they have been guilty of sin (which led to the illness) they will be forgiven.

Again, MacArthur concludes based on the word “save” that this must refer to spiritual weakness. He argues that the Greek word sozo is used in the New Testament to speak of salvation. Whilst this is true, that is not the only way in which the word is used. In Acts 4:9, for example, sozo is translated as “made whole” when Peter speaks of the lame mean that he and John and physically healed in the previous chapter. (See also Matthew 9:21 and Mark 6:56 where the word is also used in a physical sense.) Thus, sozo can speak as legitimately of restoration from physical sickness as it can of regeneration.

Should we conclude from this that all who call for the elders to pray for their weakness or sickness can expect to be healed. Actually, no. Note that there is a condition here: “the prayer of faith.” What precisely is “the prayer of faith”? Does this mean that if the person for whom the elders pray does not recover that they elders failed to pray in faith? Does the prayer of faith necessarily fill you with a warm, tingly sensation? Do those who are involved in this prayer necessarily know that they have prayed in faith, as this text defines it?

I can remember a recent incident, in which the elders of our church gathered around the bedside of a church member to pray. As we walked away from his house that night, I had no feeling whatsoever that God would heal the man, and yet that is precisely what God did!

This is a difficult text, but I would conclude that “the prayer of faith” is the prayer that is offered to the Lord, in dependence upon Him, which He has initiated. In other words, when God gives the faith—whether the elders feel it or not—God answers that prayer. I have prayed for people before whom I just knew would be healed, and yet they died. Similarly, I have prayed for some whom I thought would not be healed, and they were healed. The basis, then, is not the emotions of those who have prayed; God knows when the prayer of faith has been prayed, and He responds accordingly.

We know that there are certain prayers that God will answer in the affirmative and from what we know of Scripture, true prayer is initiated by God. Since we are not good judges of the Spirit’s prompting we should simply pray relying on God’s wisdom to hear and heal if that be His will. And that, to me at least, seems to capture some of the significance of praying “in the name of the Lord.” Our submission to His will is an acknowledgement of God’s rightful and right authority. And when God answers the prayer of faith, the elders do not get the credit; God gets all the glory!

We should also note that the text implies the need for faith on behalf of both the elders and the one who is sick. “The prayer of faith” speaks of the prayer both of the sick person and of the elders whom he has called to his bedside. It is an act of faith to obey this text in the first place and call upon the elders, and certainly the one who has called for the elders should pray with them for healing, trusting God to answer the prayer of faith for His glory.

James adds here that “if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” There is an erroneous, damaging, ignorant theology that teaches that all sickness is the direct result of specific sin in the life of the person who is sick. James recognises that sickness can be the result of sin, but note carefully: “if he have committed sins.”

When Jesus healed the lame man in John 5 He plainly attributed the man’s physical ailment to sin: “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (v. 14). Paul recognised the same dynamic in relation to abuse of the Lord’s Supper: Because they had partaken in an unworthy manner, “many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:28-30). Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead because they had lied to the Holy Ghost.

But Scripture by no means suggests that all sickness is the direct result of specific sin in the life of the one who is sick. The disciples assumed that the blindness of the man in John 9 must be the result of sin in his life, or in his parents’ life, but Jesus said, “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him” (v. 3).

There is an implicit responsibility placed upon the elders to exhort the sick one to examine his relationship with God. It is always a wise thing, when we fall ill, to examine our lives for any unconfessed sin. But we should never assume that there must be sin in our life if we are sick. If there is sin, it should be repented of, and God should be trusted to heal; but if there is no sin, the person who is sick should never be placed on a guilt trip.

There is a need for transparency between the elders and the sheep. MacArthur recalls a young man coming to see him and asking him to pray for his spiritual weakness. In his study, MacArthur knelt beside the young man and began to pray. As they were praying, MacArthur felt the young man literally lay his body on top of him, symbolically beseeching his shepherd to take the weight of his burden. MacArthur relates that the man later graduated from their seminary, and today has a fruitful ministry in another church. What a precious illustration of a sheep casting his burden onto his shepherd before the Lord! I am certain that far more of this needs to happen in our local churches.

Whilst the specific context here is that of physical illness, there is certainly an application here to all burdens: spiritual, emotional, financial, etc. Are you searching for employment? Ask your elders to pray for you! Have you been praying to God for a long time that He would allow you to fall pregnant? Ask your elders to pray with you! Recognise that all these things are in God’s power alone to grant, and call upon those in the church who stand as God’s representatives to pray for you!

A Proper Relationship

Having dealt with a prayerful response and a promised recovery, James now shifts focus slightly and deals with a proper relationship within the body: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). He is still dealing with the theme of prayer and recovery but now he extends the focus from a praying eldership to a praying church. And just as it is essential for one to have a healthy relationship with the shepherds (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12); so it is essential that the weak believer have a healthy relationship with the sheep. And the best time to develop both is before you are sick!

There is more here than we can afford to deal with in this particular study, and we will return to these verses in a future study, but let us for now focus upon one aspect of this injunction.

Notice the progression in these verses. First, “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray.” This seems to be a private prayer between the individual and God. Then, “Call for the elders of the church.” Now a select group of God’s representatives become involved in the process of prayer. But it expands still further: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another.” No longer are the elders alone involved in prayer; now it is the entire church body that is praying. And the need for corporate prayer is specifically in the context of confession.

I do not believe that James wants us to stand up in church and begin to publicly enumerate our sins of the past week. That would be inappropriate. That being said, if you have sinned publicly against the body then public confession is necessary. If you have sinned privately against a particular member of the body, then private confession is necessary. However, the focus here is that you are involving others in the body when you recognise a struggle in your life. It is not as though they have special access to God that you do not have, but the Bible does call for us to have such a relationship with one another in the body so that we will bear each other’s burdens. We need to be honest with others in the church and admit when we are in need of help. And, significantly, when this transparency is taken seriously, and we pray with and for others in the church, the result is that “ye [will] be healed.” The “ye” here is plural, and implies that the entire body—including but not limited to the struggling individual—benefits when sin is confessed! Simply put, our individual behaviour affects the body!

James assures us that “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” Remember that he has shifted focus from the prayer of the elders to the prayer of the body. The “righteous man” then is not a description of the elders, but of every believer who has been justified by faith alone. Those who are saved are “righteous” and there is great power available to all believers through prayer!

Do you want to have a stronger church? Then corporate prayer is an absolute necessity. The church must be a place of healthy interpersonal relationships, in which believers together cast their burdens on the Lord and trust Him to send healing.

Those who cut themselves off from the fellowship of the body necessarily cut themselves off from the prayers of the body. But those who are transparent in their relationship with the body will confess sin, request prayer, and find that there is glorious power through prayer. We must build relationships within the body if the body will be healthy. The body must take responsibility for healing itself by each individual member committing to be a healthy and active part of the whole.

A Positive Reinforcement

James closes this section with some wonderful words, which we cannot hope to fully examine in this study.

Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

(James 5:17-18)

Consider that: Elijah, the great prophet, was a man just like us! He was no supersaint. He was a believer who prayed, and God heard him. His prayers were effective because he was a “righteous man,” and all those who are righteous through the imputed righteousness of Christ can have great confidence that God hears their prayers.

Let us be encouraged to faithfully lift our prayers to the One who has all authority in heaven and earth, for He delights to answer the prayer of faith for His glory and honour.