Prayer in time of sickness: Understanding James 5:13-16.
Verse 13 covers all human situations. In affliction, God calls His people to pray. In those times that make God’s people merry, they are called to “sing psalms,” which are musical prayers in as much as God’s people sing “psalms ... to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). In bad times and good, prayer is always in season. But it is the bad times, especially times of sickness, which is such a personal concern, that remind us of our weakness and our dependence upon God. Therefore, beginning with verse 14, the book of James turns its attention to the place of prayer in times of sickness.
In the phrase, "Is any sick," the word "sick" can mean physically sick as in Mark 6:56 or John 11:1. Other times it can mean spiritually weak as in Romans 4:19 ("being ... weak" in the faith) or Romans 14:1 ("that is weak" in the faith). As we shall see, we do not have to choose one meaning over another because both meanings will fit into the logic of the verses for at least two reasons. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that even if a man suffers from physical illness, he always has a spiritual need that must be met. Maybe his physical illness was induced by a spiritual problem. Or it could have been that the spiritual need existed before and the physical illness exacerbated it. In any case, spiritual encouragement is always needed to help a man sustain his Christian witness amid physical illness. Secondly, we must recognize that no matter what the physical situation may be, the job of the church is to provide what no other organization in the world can or desires to provide, the spiritual balm that soothes the sin-sick and discouraged soul.
The counsel of James 5:14 is to "call for the elders of the church." Why? What can they do? A better question is, "What should they do?" That is, "What does God expect them to do?" One thing that they must do is "pray over him," for they know that in all situations, including physical ones, the most important concern is the establishment and strengthening of a man's walk with God. The expectation is that the elders have the wisdom that only God can give, that as men who are saved they seek the Lord's will in all things. Although the elders do not know what the outcome of the sickness will be, they trust God in this situation and pray that the man who is sick will also learn to humbly trust in God's will, a trust expressed in James 4:15 by the words "if the Lord will.” Incidentally, with this in mind we can look ahead and understand the opening lines of James 5:15 as, "if the Lord will, the prayer of faith shall save the sick (man).”
The elder wants both for himself and for the man who is sick an attitude of rest and patience. Therefore, the word "them" properly refers to the elders and the man who is sick. The goal of the elders is that the sick man will pray with them to God who does all things well. If the man is physically sick and not saved, the elders ought to pray that God will use the sickness to bring him to his spiritual senses and eventually to salvation. If the man is physically sick and saved, the elders ought to pray that God will comfort the man as He allows him to recover or as He brings him home to heaven, according to His will. If the man is not physically sick but spiritually sick, then the elders ought to pray for the Lord's grace if he is unsaved, or for spiritual strengthening, if he is saved. In all cases, it is the hope of the elders that their prayers and the prayers of the man to whom they minister match each other.
James 5:14 states that the elders must also anoint the man with oil. This verse has been used to support the idea that a man who is about to die can obtain some last minute spiritual benefit by being physically anointed. But the anointing in view here has nothing to do with physical anointing. Comparing this verse to Luke 4:18, we arrive at the conclusion that to anoint means to bring the gospel. In keeping with our view of the elders' spiritual job, we arrive at the idea that their first responsibility is to bring the message of the gospel to a man who is facing a crises in his life. Elders must bring the oil of gladness, the spiritual balm of Gilead that comes only out of the word of God. If the sick man is facing a physical crisis, then the elders must help the man examine himself to be sure that he is saved, in as much as his illness may mean that he has only a few days to be sure he is right with the Lord. If the sick man is facing a spiritual crisis, the gospel is his comfort and guide out of fear and depression.
The words "prayer of faith" in James 5:15 refer especially to the prayers of the sick man who is responding to the spiritual message brought to him by the elders, in a time he is most sensitive to spiritual issues because he is facing either a physical crisis, a spiritual crisis or both. Verse 14 does call the elders to pray, but in verse 15 the prayer of the sick man is in view. The words "shall save the sick man" fit into our line of thinking if we understand that God saves the souls of only those who cry unto Him, for only those who seek Him will surely find Him (Jer. 29:13, John 6:37, Heb. 11:6). No one is saved by the cry of a proxy who prays on his behalf, even if that proxy has the authority and reputation of a faithful elder. Instead, a person must pray to the Lord on his own in order to find grace in time of need.
While we have been generously allowing the possibility that the man whom the elders visit may have a physical sickness as well as a spiritual sickness, we must recognize that only a spiritual sickness is in view in James 5:15. Unfortunately, James 5:15 has been used to justify the idea that believers can expect miraculous physical healing by God in response to their faith. This idea has even led to the accusation that a man's failure to obtain physical healing is an indication of the weakness of his faith or the deficiency his prayers. However, this notion cannot be supported by the Bible. The word "sick" in the phrase "shall save the sick man" is not the same word found in verse 14. It is, instead, a word used only three times in the Bible, here, in Hebrews 12:3 ("be wearied") and in Revelation 2:3 ("hast ... fainted"). The sense of the word is spiritual weariness or fatigue. This thought, in turn, fits well with the phrase "and the Lord will raise him up." We can think of this phrase as referring to salvation by comparing it to Colossians 2:12,13, 3:1, or to the promise of the bodily resurrection at the end of time by comparing it to John 6:39, 40,44, 54: 11:24 and II Corinthians 4:14. Verse 15 completes the thought by saying that a man who is saved, who has the promise of the resurrection, now in his soul and eventually in his body, is a man who has all of his sins forgiven.
Verses 14 and 15 can be understood together to mean that whatever may be troubling a man, the elders must be called to deal with the spiritual issues of his life. If he heeds the gospel call that they bring, then he will receive the best medicine, escape from condemnation and eternal life in the Lord Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is the best possible news for anyone who is sick, physically or spiritually. That is the cure that all men ought to seek. That kind of remedy is eternally lasting.
At this point we ought to set aside a possible misunderstanding. We are not implying that the elders do not have to be sensitive to or sympathize with the physical distress of people in the church. The question is "What is the most important thing to do when someone is sick, physically or spiritually? What is the commandment of God for the elders?" One thing is for sure, the elders are not meant to fill the role of a medical doctor. They are called to help a man face the urgent spiritual issues of his life during times of physical and spiritual crises. In fact, it is the time of physical crisis that the spiritual issues are especially important. If the elders do not help the man spiritually, who will? Maybe a Christian friend or relative will, but it is the duty of an elder to guide people to the Lord. The point of these verses is "call the elders," for others will call the doctors.
Verse 16 continues the thoughts of the previous verses. The word translated "confess" is a combination of a prefix that means "of (or, "from") the same" and a root that means "logic." We could render the words "Confess ... another" as "say to one another the same things about your sins that God does." In other words, the idea of verse 16 is not that we must confess our faults to other people in public, nor that we must tell a person how we have sinned against him, even if it is a secret sin of which the person is not aware. Rather, the idea is that we must say to others the same things about our sins that God says in His word. We must agree with God that "I am a sinner" as the publican did. Any specific statements about sins are between God and His wayward children. There is a private life of sin that we confess to God. And there are Biblical statements of sin that we agree to in public. Anything more than that leads to a public focus upon self, even if it is upon a person's sins, that promotes pride rather than repentance.
We could add that James 5:16 has been used to support the idea that a man ought to confess his sins to other men. In fact some people even extend this idea, teaching that men ought to confess their sins to someone who can in turn bring their penitent plea to God on his behalf. This is a terribly distorted and harmful view of what the Bible teaches (I Tim. 2:5).
The call to prayer in verse 16 is similar to verse 14. The objective is the spiritual restoration of people, for that is how we must understand the word "healed," as it is used in Jeremiah 17:14 or I Peter 2:24. The words, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” in the last part of verse 16 is a comment on this call to prayer. This phrase does not imply that the prayers of a man who is a particularly strong Christian are especially effective, even more effective than the prayers of other Christians. The words “righteous man” refer to someone who is righteous before God. Who is that? Anyone who is saved, anyone whom God has made righteous by His gospel. A saved man desires in his heart that God’s be done. While he resides in his flesh on earth he prays imperfectly to that end. But in his heart and soul a saved man prays earnestly that God's will be done. The fact is that God's will is always done. Therefore, verse 16 is saying that a believer, any believer, has the same spiritual interest in others as God does, and his spiritually centered prayers will be effectively answered in God's time and way, as God fulfills His spiritual plan for all men. For some men the plan includes salvation, which in its highest sense is a plan that "availeth much."
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