This last section of James works very well as a sermon outline. The massage of this passage is one of intercession for sickness and intervention for sin. The passage is a great encouragement to cultivate community in the local church, so that life can be shared with one another at such a level as to make deep caring and strong correction realities, helping to bring maturity among believers.
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
James turns away from the issue of economic oppression to the issue of suffering and sickness. The idea seems to be that there are trials of various kinds (cf. 1:2) and that if one has not been a victim of economic oppression it would still be very possible that they would fall into some sort of physical illness. The ancient world was one in which people regularly faced sickness and disease. Life expectancies were much lower. Medical treatment was much less advanced. So almost everybody would face the kind of physical suffering James is talking about. At the same time, there were also occasions for cheer. The reality of James’ time is similar to that in third world countries today. In the times I’ve had the opportunity to visit such places, I have found both more tragedy and more joy than I find in the more economically advanced places I’ve been. There is often joy even in the worst physical circumstances. So we should not be surprised that James in his day reflects these dual realities of suffering and joy. This is the human experience, a beautiful and broken world.
The responses to suffering and joy in this verse are instructive. Suffering should bring prayer, joy should bring singing. This, of course, is not the only response we can hae to either reality, but these things are to be a big part of our response. When we are suffering, we need to turn to God in prayer. When we are joyful, we need to return thanks to God.
14 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.
The phrase “among you” reminds us that James is speaking to a body of believers and that these believers do not live separate lives from one another. They are intimately linked by their commitment to Christ to deep fellowship with one another. So when one is sick, it is taken seriously. Now it seems clear here that the sickness in view is very serious, so that the instructions given here are probably not for when church member John has a head cold but are for a more grave and threatening condition. The reason I say this is that the person being prayed for seems to be seriously ill. The person can’t go to the elders he has to call the elders to him. He doesn’t pray for himself, the elders pray for him. The elders are praying over him, giving the impression that the sick person is bedridden. In other words, this sickness seems to be beyond the everyday kinds of sufferings we face and seems instead to refer to a more serious illness. So the elders of the church are not called to pray over every single sickness in the church, but there are times when they are called to pray in this way, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. This anointing with oil is not a magic spell but is a sign. Oil was the sign of God’s presence and the Spirit’s power in the Old Testament, and is used here as a reminder that God is with the one who is sick and that His power to heal is present. Since we do not see this practice of anointing with oil in the New Testament on a widespread basis we should remember that anointing oil is not required whenever we pray for healing but it may be useful reminder of God’s presence and power in times of serious illness.
15 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.
This verse on the surface tends to point toward the healing of the one who is prayed for, if the prayer is one of faith. This verse stands as a great promise but it is one which is either diminished or overemphasized. There is great encouragement here to pray boldly but there is also no direct promise here that physical healing will come. The language is open to the view that both spiritual and physical healing are in view here. The use of the word “save” rather than “healed” is one clue that a more holistic view is in James’ mind. Further, the idea that the Lord will “raise him up” carries both the idea of getting out of the sickbed and the idea of spiritual growth. Finally, the sentence immediately following the promise has to do with the forgiveness of sins, again bringing a spiritual dimension to this verse. With all of these caveats, the reader may be tempted to dismiss or diminish the promise. But this would be as great a mistake as overemphasizing the power of my faith to effect physical healing. This verse is a clear promise of healing in response to the prayer of faith, but the method and means of that healing are in the hands of God. Sometimes God will raise up the person physically, sometimes spiritually, and sometimes both things will happen. Surely we should not focus on these verses in a purely spiritual way, since the context of the passage is physical illness. But we would also be wrong to diminish spiritual healing, which is fundamentally deeper and more significant than any physical healing. It is also clear from this verse that sickness and sin are related. All sickness is indirectly related to sin through the corruption of creation that has come through the fall but this verse also seems to indicate that sometimes specific sicknesses are related to sin. While I think it not wise for us to probe the souls of others for sin (like Job’s unwise friends) but that we should consider our own hearts to some degree in times of sickness does seem wise. And if we find any sin at the heart of our sickness, we should confess it, not simply for physical healing but for the more important spiritual healing which may be at the heart of our struggle with physical illness.
16 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.
The forgiveness of sin is not an automatic by-product of the prayer of faith for the sick body or soul, but it comes in the context of confession and the context of community. This confession of sin is not only to God but it is also to one another. Confession, coupled with prayer, brings healing. This Greek word for healing is not the word “save” of verse 15 but carries the idea of ‘wholeness’ or ‘wellness.’ I believe the confession here is probably not first and foremost some grave moral failure as we usually think when we consider confessing sin. I think it is likely that the sins being confessed are the very ones James addresses so often in his letter: relational sins. I can see people among the believers James is addressing going to one another in confession, asking forgiveness for grumbling, for ignoring needs, for fighting with each other selfishly, for cursing one another, for all manner of relational sins. One great need of the church in James is relational harmony. There are envious factions. There is verbal and perhaps even physical conflict. James’ solution is confession and prayer in community. Humility and faith are great instruments of healing. And that is basically what James means at the end of 5:16 when he speaks of the fact that prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. He is telling us, when it comes to the conflicts that so often rule and ruin our lives, prayer works. Just recently, a friend facing illness told me that the prayers of fellow believers meant more to him than the words of the doctors. Prayer makes a difference.
17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Once again James roots his teaching on prayer in the Old Testament. He illustrates the principles he is teaching. In the case of Elijah, we see an ordinary man (“a nature like ours”) who had an extraordinary prayer life. He prayed fervently. He prayed specifically. And God answered. God’s answer came not because Elijah had magic powers or because he was sufficient in himself. Answers came because Elijah humbly trusted God. But the answer was not instant. And this may be why James chose to highlight Elijah’s prayer about the drought rather than his confrontation with the prophets of Baal or some other more direct working of God. Elijah’s prayer relating to the drought and the rain took years to unfold. Thus the familiar theme of patience throughout James’ letter comes forth in this illustration. In addition, the whole episode with the drought was centered on calling Israel to confession and repentance and ultimately restoration to God, so it fits well with the whole context of this last part of James.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
These last two verses are a fitting conclusion to the letter, though the conclusion is rather abrupt. The focus of these verses is on intervention and its spiritual benefits. We are not only called to intercede in prayer for our fellow believers, we are also called to intervene when we see on wandering from the truth. The word “wanders” has always struck me, because it seems consistently in the Bible that spiritual weakness is a slow process. Most people don’t run from the faith, they wander from the faith. They slowly become enamored with other things. They begin to pull away from relationships. They forsake activities in which they once participated enthusiastically. James encourages his readers to bring back into the fold of faith those who have wandered in this way.
The intervention in view here is most unnatural in our day. Surely it is true that efforts in this direction can sometimes be harassing or overbearing. But we are much more likely to err in the direction of inaction than we are to err in the direction of overbearing intervention.
I believe most of the time when one wanders away from fellowship with God and the church it is most often the case that one has relational conflict in some form. If this is true and if we note the context here in James 5, it would seem that the intervention here may be over relational sin (cf. Matthew 18) rather than some particular individual sin (drunkenness, for example). I don’t think this means that believers should not intervene in individual issues of morality, I only mean to say that perhaps James’ focus on intervention is different than we often think. The multitude of sins that we often focus on comes from relational dysfunction with God and with other believers. When we help people be reconciled to God and one another, we save them from a death-giving lifestyle and bring them to life and we cover a multitude of sins through our love.