Whether suffering or not, Christians should be prayerful people (for ourselves and for each other), especially when sickness or sin are involved, because God delights in restoring life to those who are broken spiritually and physically.
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Introduction – James 5:13-20 is the last passage in the letter that James wrote to the scattered church. James is concerned with right belief, but more importantly that we do the right thing based on a right belief. We’ve learned that James is like the book of Proverbs—it is highly practical. That is why it is such a popular book among Christians. James concludes his message to the Church in this letter by teaching on the most practical of topics: prayer, particularly the prayer for healing. Does it seem strange to you that James thinks prayer is practical? We usually write “prayer” at the top of our to-do list for living the Christian life, but we often cross it off last. Why is it that Christians believe prayer is powerful in theory, but we seldom put that theory into practice? Everyday life experiences (suffering, joy, sickness) have a way of keeping us away from God by stifling our confidence in God’s desire to heal and restore our (and our neighbor’s) lives. Whether suffering or not, Christians should be prayerful people (for ourselves and for each other), especially when sickness or sin are involved, because God delights in restoring life to those who are broken spiritually and physically. Do you believe prayer is powerful? Whether you believe it or not (or are not so sure), James would also like to ask you a few questions.
A. Are You Sick? God Answers the Prayer of Faith (vv 13-15a).
1. No? God still answers prayer regarding your suffering.
Those who are suffering trials are experiencing external troubles. James uses the word “suffering” to link this passage to the previous one (Jas 5:10), where the prophets serve as examples of those who suffered. In this passage James is effectively saying, “Remember the suffering of the prophets? You will suffer too, so you better learn why prayer will help you through it.”
2. Not suffering or sick? Then praise God in song.
Those who are joyful, happy, and cheerful should sing songs of praise, which are a form of prayer to God (1 Cor 14:15). Notice that suffering and the lack thereof both tempt us to spiritual apathy. When we are suffering, our devotion to God tends to shrivel because we think God has abandoned us. When we are doing well and cruising happily along, our spiritual life tends to dry up because we think we don’t need God. James teaches us that for all circumstances of life, we should pray, either crying out to him or giving joyful thanks. To put it another way, we must always be mindful of God and our relationship to him. All our communication with God follows two broad guidelines: song and prayer.
3. Yes, a little? Then pray since God really does heal.
Those who are sick are experiencing internal troubles. God heals supernaturally and naturally, instantaneously and gradually, with and without medicine. God is sovereign and chooses to heal or not according to his perfect will.
4. Yes, very sick? Then call for your church elders to pray over you.
What kinds of sickness does James have in mind that requires summoning the elders of the church? Probably severe sickness that prevents the person from worshiping in community. James might even have in mind terminal illnesses.
What is this “anointing oil”? Anointing oil was used for medicinal purposes in the ancient world (cf. Lk 10:34), but since the elders of the church are the ones applying the oil, its primary significance is probably a symbol of the healing power of the Holy Spirit. The oil applied to the sick symbolizes that the person is being set apart for God’s special attention and care. Nevertheless, we must keep in mind that James does not want us to focus on the anointing oil, but rather to focus on prayer. Prayer is his topic of concern, not the permissible practice of anointing with oil.
Why should I call for the elders—can’t I just pray for myself or ask my family and friends to pray for me? It is appropriate that the elders do the anointing because it signifies the divine authority they hold to anoint and pray for the sick under their care. Note that James recommends the elders to anoint the sick with oil, but anointing with oil is not necessary for healing to take place, and it is not required in order to set the sick person apart for God’s special care. A plurality of elders in the local church is assumed. It is also assumed that Christians are connected to a local assembly of believers (church) and that they have a relationship with the elders of their church community (so they can call on them for personal prayer). It is also assumed that it is the elders of the church who are ordained and set apart for the overseeing of the church, including this ministry of praying for the sick. In other words, no person with the “gift of healing” need be present. James says it is the men who hold the particular office of elder who are to anoint and pray for the sick.
Do you regularly worship with this congregation (or another) but hesitate to become a member? You have placed yourself one step away from the care of the elders (and the healing power of God through the elders). Are you an ordained elder in this congregation (serving on the session or not)? You have a responsibility to be ready to pray when one of your sick sheep calls on you for prayers of healing. Are you comfortable with that? Are you ready? Are you comfortable anointing the sick with oil to bless them with the symbolic presence of the Holy Spirit? You need to be, and you should be delighted to participate in such an intimate assignment.
How can James be so certain that God will heal and raise the sick up? Some qualify this promise, arguing it only applied in the apostolic age when the gift of healing was still existing. So presumably the elders called to pray for the sick person had the “gift of healing” and thereby were empowered by the Holy Spirit to a supernatural healing ministry. But nowhere in Scripture is the “gift of healing” required for eldership. Others argue that it is the “prayer of faith” that brings certain healing from God, and that prayer cannot be faithful if it is not offered in accordance with the sovereign will of God, who may not will for the sick person to be healed. The reasoning goes like this: if a prayer does not match the hidden will of God for the sick person, then it cannot be a prayer of faith. While this question is difficult considering James’s choice of words, I suggest that it is possible for truly faithful prayers to be offered which the Lord may choose not to answer as we request. Such prayers should always include explicitly (or at least implicitly) the notion that we desire God’s will to be done, and not our will if it is God’s purpose to not heal. Also we must remember that James urges patience in suffering (Jas 5:7-12). Surely the patience he urged earlier applies to our prayers, for God answers prayers in his own timing: sometimes “yes”, sometimes “no”, sometimes “not yet”, sometimes “we’ll see”.
Shouldn’t I just visit the doctor since that is the way God most often chooses to heal today? Regarding medical doctors and medicine, we must not be fooled that they are outside of God’s providential care for our illnesses. Neither should we avoid seeking “non-spiritual” care, but only utilize the care of the church. There really is no such thing as “non-spiritual” healing. All healing, whether it comes through the means of prayer (with our without anointing oil), or modern medicine, is the work of God’s Spirit. No one should ever seek healing from a doctor or drugs without also seeking healing from God through prayer. God is the one who saves the sick and raises them up!
B. Are You Sick and also Sinning? God Hears the Prayer of Repentance (vv 15b-18).
1. How are sin and sickness related?
James does not teach that sickness is always caused by sin (cf. Job 6:28-30; Jn 9:1-3), but that it may be caused by sin (cf. 1 Cor 11:29-30). James says that the elders should pray for the sick, and that if there is sin involved, then the sick person should confess his sin and thereby be forgiven. Also note that God is the one in control over sickness and healing. Because it is God who chooses to heal or not according to his perfect plan, it is not the fault of the elders who faithfully pray or the sick person if healing does not come. But the kind of faith that God often choose to bless with answered prayer is the kind of faith that recognizes that the will of God is supreme. “Not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42b). We must recognize that it is not always God’s will to heal (cf. 2 Cor 12:7-9). And it is rare when circumstances are such that God clearly reveals his will for a person’s sickness.
But James understands that sickness and sin are not necessarily related. “If he has sinned, he will be forgiven” shows that James expects some sickness is causes by sin, but not all. It is possible that James links sickness and sin because Jesus often healed people physically and forgave their sins. Examples of Jesus healing people and the Bible’s teaching about his role as the suffering Christ are the best indicators of how sin and sickness are related. We learn from the gospel stories that Jesus was an extremely effective healer. But his healing miracles recorded in the Gospels are of a certain kind. We don’t find Jesus performing the kinds of unverifiable “healings” that traveling or TV faith healers routinely claim to do—lengthening legs, or curing contagious diseases, or ridding people of migraine headaches. It’s not that Jesus didn’t bother with the unspectacular. He may have done all these things for people who needed help. We just don’t know. Rather, what we read about is Jesus healing ailments that served as signs that point from physical to spiritual brokenness.
Jesus gave the blind sight because it proves he opens the eyes of the spiritually blind to see the glory of God. He made the lame walk because it shows he makes broken sinners unblemished before God. He cleansed leprosy because he cleanses the souls of sinners to make them holy. He made the deaf hear because he opens the ears of the spiritually deaf to hear God’s call of repentance unto eternal life. He raised Lazarus and others from the dead so we would believe he is the resurrection and the life. His works of healing, along with his preaching the gospel to the poor, show that Jesus stands ready and able to heal our diseases, the greatest of which is original sin, our sinful nature that everyone inherited from our first father Adam. Jesus is not just a great healer, but he suffered alongside us, and for us. The crucified and resurrected Christ won for us healing of body and soul that comes only through the gospel (Isa 53:4-5). On the cross, Jesus bore in his body and soul the brunt of both sickness and sin, for his people, that we might be healed and forgiven. He is the only sin and sickness bearer appointed by God for your healing and restoration (physical and spiritual).
2. What kind of confession does James have in mind?
Not the kind of admittance of sin to a friend, or in a small group with other believers, or to a priest so as to clear one’s conscience. The biblical pattern of confession and repentance is the one who sins must confess to the offended person(s). Secret sins confessed to God alone. Private sins confessed to the person(s) who were sinned against (including God). Public sins confessed publically to the church and to God (and in extraordinary situations to the general public if the general public is included in the offended party). This is good news because God can forgive all sins, even sins confessed to others who refuse forgiveness. (Note that it may be wise to seek spiritual counsel from elders or other trusted believers on how to think about sin, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Just remember this falls short of biblical confession.)
3. Errors to avoid.
(1) Do you have to be extraordinary like Elijah for God to answer your prayer? No, James says that Elijah was just like us, implying that God hears the prayers of ordinary and extraordinary believers.
Elijah was not an OT priest, but an ordinary believer (yet called by God to be a prophet) with a nature just like believers today. He fought common human maladies such as depression, failure, fear, and physical limitations (1 Kgs 19:1-8). But Elijah was counted as righteous because he trusted in God for his salvation, and he also had a measure of righteousness that described his character and integrity because God was working grace into his life. It is amazing that James uses Elijah as his example for all believers to emulate. Elijah was revered by Jews and early Christians in the first century as a super-saint. His ministry was filled with spectacular miracles. The man didn’t even die, but was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot! God’s people anticipated Elijah’s return (Mal 4:5-6) as the dawn of the messianic age. If anyone’s faith was unlike that of ordinary believers, it was Elijah. Yet James makes the audacious claim that Elijah had a nature like ours! James is not dragging Elijah down to the realm of ordinary believers. No, James is elevating ordinary believers by teaching that we all have the same nature as Elijah, and that the prayers of ordinary, faithful Christians are offered up to the same all-powerful God who Elijah prayed to. All believers today—pastors, elders, deacons, and non-ordained people (young and old)—can pray powerful and effective prayers. Prayers of healing, prayers of confession, any kind of prayer.
(2) If God chooses not to heal, it does not necessarily mean the sick one (or the prayer elders) don’t have faith—although that is a possibility. Better to believe Jesus who taught that even a small amount of faith has the power to move mountains, rather than blame the sickness on sin and faithlessness.
(3) Some Christians think that James teaches there is a particular kind of prayer (a “prayer of faith”) that will surely bring physical healing. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church uses this verse to support its sacramental doctrine of “last rites” or “extreme unction” as prayers for the dying. This verse does not support either of these interpretations. Contra the RC interpretation, the anointing and prayer for the sick in James is for healing, not in preparation for death. Contra the “prayer of faith” interpretation, the righteousness and faith inherent in the elders are the necessary ingredients for a faithful prayer, not the form of words. James is simply saying that the prayer of faithful elders will make the sick well because the Lord is able to raise the sick from illness.
(4) Confession of sin is not optional! The words, “I’m sorry, please forgive my sin against you” are perhaps the hardest words anyone can utter because everyone is prideful. Yet there is no other kind of Christian except a confessing, repentant Christian. Conversely, there is no other kind of Christian except a gracious, forgiving Christian. If anything is more difficult than confession and repentance, it is granting true forgiveness.
C. Is Your Brother Sinning? God Honors the Work of Restoration (vv 19-20).
1. The action point of the entire epistle.
These verses are a summary and purpose statement for the entire epistle. James has been addressing Christians who are being led astray, who have wandered in some way from the truth. Some stumble over words. Others over wealth. Others over pride, faith without works, oppressing/abusing their brothers, generosity to the poor, partiality, judgmentalism, worldly trials and temptations, worldly wisdom, patience in suffering. Now James reminds believers to turn their wayward brother back to the truth to rescue him from eternal death and cover many sins. This is the loving thing to do. If James has taught us anything, it is that right doctrine cannot be divorced from right behavior. Rather than condemning your brother, seek to restore him.
There are at least two ways that believers may be led astray from the truth. (1) A person may fall into a sinful pattern of behavior, and (2) a person may begin to exhibit the absence of saving faith. The first is not the same as Christians committing sins and then repenting, even when the same sin is committed over and over but there is evidence of repentance and a continual struggle with that sin. The second is not the same as expressing questions or doubts about aspects of Christian doctrine or practice that are not essential to the faith, or apologetics questions about why Christians believe such and such. Such questions and doubts, if a person raises them in a spirit of faith seeking understanding, are inevitable for most believers during the course of their lifetime walk with God.
2. A matter of life and death (spiritual and sometimes also physical).
While it is the loving and right thing to do, this is also one of the most difficult and emotionally painful things to do (especially for church leaders). It’s just not pleasant to confront a brother or sister with sin, and frequently angry, hurtful words are exchanged, misunderstandings abound, and a long-lasting toll accrues to our joy of fellowshipping with the Church. Yet James says it is important for all of us to be engaged in the oversight of souls. The only way for a believer to bring a wayward brother or sister back from wandering from the truth of God is for each of us to remain engaged in each other’s lives. You are your brother’s keeper. You must be vigilant to notice when fellow believers are being led astray so you may bring them back to right relationship with God and the church. It is vitally important in the sense that it is literally a matter of life and death (spiritually and sometimes even physically if the sin is bodily destructive). When you lovingly confront a fellow believer caught up in sin, it is the primary means whereby the Holy Spirit brings conviction, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. The sense of “cover” in v. 20 is that love covers over all wrongs (cf. Pr 10:12; 1 Pet 4:8). Instead of stirring up rumors and strife in the church “pot”, love each other by putting the lid on the church “pot”. We do not put a lid on sin by hiding it or ignoring it, but by lovingly and patiently addressing the sinner and actively seeking to turn him back to the truth of God (cf. Mt 18:15-20). James does not mean that bringing a wayward brother back to the truth actually atones for sin, since only God can atone for sins by granting forgiveness through Christ (Ps 32:1; 85:2). Rather he is reminding the faithful that is it our privilege to be fellow workers with God as he seeks the repentance of sinners.
Conclusion – It is certainly a biblical idea that the one who turns a sinner from his error will experience blessing (Ezek 3:21; 1 Tim 4:16). But I think James is reminding us that when you turn a sinner from his error, it is most importantly the sinner who experiences God’s blessing by escaping judgment. It is fitting that James closes his letter written to churches (not just individual believers) by exhorting us to be doers of the word and to be deeply concerned that other believers are doers as well. So pray, people of God! Pray and ask for prayer. Confess your sins to one another. Go after your believing friend who is wandering from the truth of God. For the Lord delights to restore new life—life in Christ—to us. Beloved, it doesn’t get more practical or powerful than that!