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 of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
Now we come upon what are possibly two of the most controversial verses in the whole book of James. Bible scholars have scratched their heads over this section for centuries. So before we get into what I believe this passage is saying to us, let’s get the controversies out of the way. There are two.
Controversy Number One: That Oil
The injunction to “anoint with oil” seems to come out of nowhere. There are no precedents for it in Acts, and nowhere else in the Epistles do we find any reference to such a thing. There is one occasion where it is used in the Gospels within the context of the healing of the sick, and that may provide a window into it’s significance here. Mark tells us:
And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.
My take, based on the usage in Mark: the anointing with oil was a part of the process people expected, culturally, when they were being healed. We might compare it to when a British monarch confers knighthood on a subject, and taps each shoulder with a sword. It’s hard for us to imagine someone becoming a knight without the sword-tapping, just as it would have been hard for a first-century Christian to imagine healing without being anointed with oil.
Controversy Number Two: The Prayer of Faith Saving the Sick
At first blush this phrase gets uncomfortably close to the “health and wealth”, “name it and claim it” message that has infected such a large part of modern evangelicalism. Here it is helpful, I think, to realize that the Greek word translated “will save” here is “σώσει”. Some versions translate the word “will heal”. The NIV phrases it “will make the sick person well”. And it is important to note that the word CAN mean “will heal”. But it is also most commonly translated “will save” (as in the NKJV that we use for this series). And there is a perfectly good word for heal (ἰαθῆτε – “will be healed”, used in verse 16) which refers specifically to physical illness.
How is this helpful? I believe that James uses “will save” instead of “will heal” here to be deliberately ambiguous. He has been around long enough to know that Christians get sick and die, even when an entire church is praying fervently for them. He is not going to make a promise that literally nobody else in the Bible makes…that if you pray God will heal you. BUT, if you pray, God might heal you physically, and he WILL heal you spiritually. In the same vein, the phrase “the Lord will raise him up” could mean “he will get up from his bed” or “he will be raised up in the Last Day.” In other words, God might answer your prayer to heal you physically, or he might not. But if you are a believer God will most certainly raise you up in the resurrection. One way or another, you will be “healed” and “raised up”.
Now that we have gotten those two controversies out of the way, let’s look at the points that James is stressing here. There are, I believe, at least four.
When facing a serious illness, a believer should not only seek out the medical community. He should also seek out the community of faith.
The words used here – “let him call”, “pray over him” indicate someone with a serious – possibly even life-threatening – illness. I don’t believe that this text excludes the calling of medical professionals and the use of modern medicine. But it is important to notice that there is to be a church-involvement in the life of a sick believer. And notice that especially the elders are mentioned. This goes up against the notion that pervades some circles that the pastor’s only ministry to his flock is to preach. Being present and having a ministry of prayer in the lives of the those who are suffering illness is also part of the job description.
Praying for the sick is important.
I have heard pastors complain that some prayer meetings turn into “organ recitals”, with each request dealing with some physical infirmity. This text would suggest that praying for physical infirmities is one of the ministries Christians can have for each other. Prayer is powerful, and praying for the sick can have effects beyond the mere physical illness. Several years ago an elderly man, husband to one of our charter members, came to Christ. Part of what brought him to salvation was watching the church family unite in prayer over a physical ailment he had, and seeing God deliver him from that ailment.
There’s nothing wrong with praying for a sick person to get better.
This passage actually encourages it.
Some sicknesses can be caused by sin.
This is the clear implication of the statement at the end of verse 15:
And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
In this modern age of medical solutions to sickness it has become decidedly uncool to suggest that a physical problem might just have a spiritual cause. Now, let me hasten to say that this text does NOT say that all illness is the result of personal sin. Note the word “if”. But it definitely COULD be that God is using the sickness to draw attention to a spiritual problem. And what a marvelous comfort James gives us: regardless of what happens to our physical bodies, that sin is forgiven!
Stay tuned for our next devotional, because James continues this discussion with some very practical thoughts on prayer.
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