James 5:13-18 – An Emphasis on Prayer
“Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”
So many ridiculous teachings have come out of this passage. This is the text that the Roman Catholic Church uses to justify the sacrament of Extreme Unction. This is where the so-called faith healers go to support their ability to heal the sick and infirm. But what if I told you that this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with sickness, illness, or physical maladies? Take the time to observe the text. What word keeps popping up time and again? Prayer. The word prayer appears (as a noun or verb) in every single verse in this section. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest to you that these verses address not the church’s response to ailing members, but the scope, need, and power of prayer.
The Scope of Prayer (v. 13)
“Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray.”
What does this word “suffering” mean? To what does it refer? James helps us out here by repeating the same word he used in v. 10: “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” The word used here is not closed off to only describing sickness or ailments, but all sorts of suffering. Particularly the suffering associated with persecution. James’ audience is quite familiar with suffering. As Jewish Christians in the diaspora (1:1) they have been living between a rock and a hard place ever since their conversion. This is a rhetorical question. This is akin to addressing those who leapt from the deck of the Titanic and asking, “Is anyone cold or wet?” The answering being a resounding YES! James expects this. Notice his reply: Then he must pray.
Are you in the midst of suffering? The source or reason is not relevant. What is appropriate response? Prayer. This is not a suggestion. James uses an imperative here. The force is that of habitual prayer as a pattern. Start praying and keep on praying. But this is only half of the scope or parameters of prayer.
“Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.”
One can almost sense the irony here. Is there any one of you sufferers who is also cheerful? Well if you are, then sing praises. Once again there is no option given. Once again the habitual force of the command is present. But understand that the command is not focused solely upon the singing of Psalms or hymns. The command is to direct praise to God. That’s still in the realm of prayer. To pray is to commune with Almighty God. Singing His praises in adoration and love for Him is certainly within that sphere. James’ point in this verse is very simple. Taking the worst of times (suffering) and the best of times (cheerfulness), the command is one and the same to the Christian: Pray.
The Need For Prayer (vv. 14-16a)
“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”
I know what you’re thinking. I made a very bold statement at the beginning by suggesting that this text has nothing whatsoever to do with physical healing. How then do we get around what seems to be a text that is clearly referencing physical healing? Let’s make a few observations.
Observation #1: We’ve already stated that the clear flow of this text revolves around prayer. The word appears in various forms seven times in six verses (eight times in the Greek) and at least once in every single verse. That alone should direct our focus to prayer rather than healing.
Observation #2: The verb in v. 14 (ἀσθενεῖ) and the participle in v. 15 (τὸν κάμνοντα) should not be translated as “sick” but “weak” (v. 14) and “weary” (v. 15). What the NASB translates as “sick” in v. 14 is a term that could either mean “sick” or “weak.” But time and again this word pops up in other epistles with the consistent context of spiritual weakness (Rom. 4:19; 8:11, 12; 1 Cor. 8:11, 12; 2 Cor. 11:21, 29; 13:3, 4, 9). The term in question in v. 15 is only used twice in the entire New Testament; here and again in Hebrews 12:3. Physical sickness is nowhere in sight in that context.
These verses have nothing at all to do with physical illness and how to treat it “biblically”, but rather give direction and instruction on the necessity of prayer for the spiritually weak and weary.
Prayer is Necessary for Spiritual Restoration
Let’s substitute the preferred translation: “Is anyone among you weak? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”
The picture here is not of a person who is physically infirm, but spiritually infirm. Someone who has been beaten up, chewed on, and spit out. Maybe someone who has suffered (v. 13). Someone who is to the point that they cannot bring themselves to obey the imperative given to pray. What are they to do?
He must call for the elders of the church
This is yet another imperative, another command. This is not given as a habitual command but as a strong simple action. Do you find yourself too weak to pray? Call on the elders of the church! Call upon those who are strong in the faith, and whose duty it is to care for the sheep. And what are these elders to do?
They are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord
The elders, those spiritually strong in the faith are to come to this one who is weak and pray over him and comfort him. This statement carries another strong and simple command for the elders, but only one command: Pray over him. Prayer remains the focus. But what of this “anointing with oil”? What in the world does that mean?
First, understand that this action is occurring at the same time as the praying, but is separate from it. There’s nothing magical about the oil that makes the prayer more effective. Second, it’s important to know that this “anointing” is nothing more than a rubbing of oil. The term used (ἀλείψαντες) can be in the context of a special/sacramental kind of pouring oil, but is more commonly used of a more routine application of oil that amounts to basic hygiene (2 Sam. 12:20; Ruth 3:3). Olive oil was commonly used as a moisturizer, perfume, deodorant, and muscle relaxer. The application of oil was so common that it became known as a metaphor for comfort. This statement is simply commanding the elders who are called upon to pray over this spiritually weak individual and comfort him in the name of the Lord.
This is the obligation of every shepherd. What did Peter request in Acts 6:4? We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. Preaching and praying is the God-given task of the elders. But this ministry is met with assurance.
And the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
The prayer offered in faith refers to the prayer offered by the elders. When they come to a brother or sister who calls upon them for spiritual help, three things are promised. They will be restored. The Lord will raise them up. And if his/her spiritual weakness is due to sin, it will be forgiven them.
How can you read that last statement and consider that this is a text about physical sickness? The text is so simple. Prayer is necessary. If you find yourself so distraught that you cannot pray, call upon the elders of the church. They will pray with you, for you, over you, and Christ will restore you. Does scripture make any such promises about physical maladies? Not at all. But does Scripture make similar promises to the redeemed? Romans 8:28-30, 10:9-11, and 1 John 1:9 come to mind.
Prayer is Necessary for Christian Fellowship
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”
“Therefore” points back at what James has already said. In light of the knowledge of prayer’s effectiveness, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.
The idea of confession is an admission of guilt. To confess is to call sin for what it is and plead “guilty.” The idea is specific and not a general admission of being a sinner. If you have sinned against your brother, confess as much to him personally.
Praying for one another should be a no-brainer after hearing the preceding instruction. Prayer is necessary for restoration. THEREFORE, lift up each other in prayer so that you may be healed. By this time we should not be thinking of only physical healing. Pray for restoration!
The Power of Prayer (vv. 16b-18)
“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”
Yet again we see prayer taking center stage. What is interesting is that in these verses (5:13-18) James uses three different terms that English translations level out and translates all of them as prayer/pray. But this “prayer” of a righteous man is more descriptive. It focuses in on petition, request, and even begging. Other than the basic meaning of the word, there is only one thing that modifies it: The fact that this prayer/request/petition is coming from a righteous man. I think that it’s safe to assume that this man is righteous, not on his own merit, but because of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. But given the context of James this should be seen as also a believer who lives an active life of obedience. The prayer of an obedient believer can accomplish much. We need to look no further than vv. 17 and 18 for an example of one such righteous man.
Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.
In reality, Elijah was nothing special. He was simply a man just like any other. He possessed no super-human abilities. He suffered in the same way you and I suffered, yet when he prayed things happened. But is this a prescription to pray for climate change? Not hardly.
The point is that this righteous man was so in tune with the will of God that his fervent prayer was 100% in lock step with God’s will. You can read the inspired record for yourself in 1 Kings 17 and 18. But apostate Israel had long since departed from God and with that departure came the cessation of blessings, like the seasonal rains (Deut. 11:14). The righteous man is a man who knows and follows his God to the point that he prays in full accordance with God’s revealed will. James guarantees that prayers with this level of agreement with God’s will would always be answered in the resounding affirmative.
This text has nothing to do with faith healings. The doctrine of Extreme Unction is a mystical, farcical, unbiblical heresy. This text focuses upon prayer. The scope of prayer. The need for prayer. And the power of prayer. There is restoration for the weak and weary through prayer. So Christian, get busy praying or get busy calling your elders to pray over you. Restoration is at stake.