Restoring the One Who is Sick
"Is anyone among you suffering? Let him sing praises. 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; and the prayer offered in
faith will restore such a 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, that you may be healed. The
effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much." (James 5:13-16)
There have been various ideas about the meaning of this passage. Some of it's
words are used in more than one way in the Bible, and their meaning must be
determined by the context. There are some religious groups which engage in
"healing services" today, and use oil to anoint the sick to produce a miracle.
They appeal to this passage as their reason for doing so. Of course, an
assembly of the whole church is not being discussed here at all. Among our
brethren, some agree that this passage deals with miraculous healing of the
physically sick, buy add that the age of miracles has passed and therefore so
has this particular procedure. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)_
Others agree that the passage deals with physical sickness, but not miraculous
healing. The idea is that the elders pray for the sick and apply oil for its
medicinal effect. Then the Lord responds to prayers of faith by providing for
natural recovery. While the Lord is directly involved, He uses natural
processes instead of superseding laws of nature to bring about healing. Then
there are those that contend that the passage is not discussing physical
sickness at all, but rather spiritual sickness! As we read our English
translations, one will first think of physical illness. So from where do these
folks get this idea of spiritual sickness from? You are about to find out,
because I am one of those people.
The Suffering and the Sick
"Is any one suffering? Let him pray ...Is anyone among you sick?... the prayer
offered in faith will restore the one who is sick..." (James 5:13-15). Looking
at how these words are used in other passages will help us narrow down there
possible meanings as used here:
1. Suffering (kakopaqei; kakopathei): Suffer hardship; endure affliction. Of
the four times this verb is used in the New Testament, it is always used with
reference to hardships that come as a result of being a Christian. Paul told
Timothy to "Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus." and
later in the same chapter said, "...for which I suffer hardship even to
imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned." (2 Timothy
2:3,9 cf. 4:5)
2. Sick (asqenei; asthenei): To be sick, weak, unhealthy; be in need. This
word occurs thirty-six times in the New Testament. In the gospels it always
refers to physical sickness. However, in the epistles, in at least eight of
the times it is used it refers not to physical sickness, but rather spiritual
sickness; "And without becoming weak in faith"; "For what the Law could not do
in that it was weak through the flesh..."; "Now accept one who is weak in
faith... but he who is weak eats vegetables only."; "But take care less this
liberty of yours somehow become a stumblingblock to the weak..." (Romans 4:19;
8:3; 14:1,2; 1 Corinthians 8:9; cf. 11,12). So then it must be determined by
the context which sickness or weakness is meant; physical or spiritual.
Instructions to the Sick
"...Let him pray...Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them
pray over him, anointing with oil in the name of the lord... Therefore,
confess your sins to one another and pray for one another..." (James
5:13,14;16). These instructions are given to those who are "suffering," "sick"
and who may have also sinned in their weakness. As we have already seen, this
suffering (affliction) is hardship brought on by our faith. The pressures
mount as trials come, persecution rears it's ugly head, loss is suffered, and
one begins to feel as if he is slipping. He wonders why this is happening to
him. Is God concerned at all? He considers giving up. He needs help.
First, he is told to pray. James has already dealt with what kind of prayer
should be offered in trial if one is to endure. (James 1:2-8).
Second, he is told to call for the elders of the church. It was not a
requirement that elders of the first century have the gift of miraculous
healing. Nor was it a requirement that they be skilled in treating the
physically sick with good doctoring. But it was a requirement that they have
qualities that would allow them to protect, guard and feed their flock;
including the spiritually weak:
a. Qualifications of elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Able to heal? No.
Able to teach and exhort? Yes.
b. Responsibilities of elders (Acts 20:28-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy
5:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Spiritual care and guidance.
This would explain the meaning of "anointing him with oil in the name of the
Lord" to be figurative, as it is in Psalm 23:5 and Hebrews 1:9. But what does
it symbolize here? What would be the spiritual medicine used to anoint the
spiritually sick? Consult the Great Physician! Jesus used the word of truth to
bring about spiritual healing (Luke 5:31,32). The medicine needed when a
brother or sister is weak in faith is to anoint them with the oil of words of
encouragement and exhortation. To remind them of the promises of God and His
dealings with others in similar situations in the past (like Job and the
prophets; James 5:7,8). These kind words and prayers of faith are exactly what
the doctor ordered!
Third, he is to confess his sins. Again, the assembly and a public confession
is not in this passage. Neither is making a confession to a clergyman who will
absolve you of your sins. It is done so prayers of faith can be offered and
help can be rendered.
"...will restore such a one who is sick, and the Lord will raise up, and if he
has committed sins, they will be forgiven him... so that you may be healed."
(James 5:15,16). This action will have the effect of strengthening one who is
weak and tired. It is the Lord's method to raise a stumbling brother or sister
up and to renew their vigor. It is accomplished by the power of His gospel
(Romans 1:16). It is to be done in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1,2).
We are the strongest as a body when we share concern for the weak. "Therefore,
strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make
straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put
out of joint, but rather be healed." (Hebrews 12:12,13). It is not necessarily
so that one will sin when he is weak. But certainly there is more of a risk of
falling than there is when we are strong. What about the times when a brother
or sister has also sinned. Perhaps because of doubt, or fear, they have not
been what they should have been. The answer: "confess and pray for one
another... and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him... so that
you may be healed."
"Be patient, therefore brethren... strengthen your hearts, for the coming of
the Lord is at hand... as an example, brethren, of suffering and patience,
take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord... you have heard of the
endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the
Lord is full of compassion and merciful... My brethren, if any among you
strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns
a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will
cover a multitude of sins." (James 5:7,8; 10,11; 19,20). The context plainly
shows that it is spiritual trials and suffering, spiritual weakness, sin, and
being saved from such is under consideration here. Disciples of James' day
were being put to the test. The epistle mentions several forms this pressure
was taking. It is times such as these that we need the Lord's help more than
ever. "Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount
up with wings like eagles. They will run and not get tired. They will walk and
not become weary." (Isaiah 40:31).
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 20.3; March 2013