Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:13–16 NIV 2011)
James teaches that prayer is the answer for suffering. Is there any among the congregation who is suffering? Let that person pray. The suffering that James is referring to is not that we are having a bad day at work. Look back to James 5:10 and we see that this suffering is a reference to the suffering the prophets endured for the Lord. The prophets suffered for their stand for righteousness and God’s truth. They suffered for speaking the messages of God. They suffered for engaging the wicked world. After pointing out the suffering of the prophets, James turns his attention to his audience and tells us that when we suffering for what is right, we need to pray. When the apostles suffered at the hands of the Sanhedrin, notice that the first thing the apostles and the Christians in Jerusalem did was pray for boldness (Acts 4:29-31). When we are not suffering for righteousness, then our prayers must be songs of thanksgiving to God.
Verses 14-15 are considered complicated verses. I strongly believe that James is speaking about physical sicknesses in this section. I will very quickly show you the reasons why.
(1) This word astheneo translated into English as “sick” always refers to physical illnesses in the gospels. Further, when this word is used by Paul to speak of spiritual sickness, a qualifier is always given. For example, Paul speaks of being “weak in faith” (Romans 14:1-2) and “weak in conscience” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Paul adds the words “in faith” and “in conscience” so that we know the sickness is spiritual in nature.
(2) Part of the response for the sick is that they are anointed with oil. Anointing with oil always refers to physical ailments in the New Testament. We never read of using anointing oil for sins, spiritual weaknesses, or spiritual sicknesses. However, we know that oil was used medicinal (consider the parable of the Good Samaritan) and oil was widely used for a variety of ailments and afflictions.
(3) This sickness is different than a person caught in sin (vs. 15). If the person is afflicted with spiritual sickness, then the second sentence in verse 15 is redundant. Of course this person has committed sins. That is why he is spiritually sick! Rather, James is talking about physical sicknesses so that James can add that if the person has committed sins, they will be forgiven as well.
(4) If this is spiritual sickness, then the elders must go with oil to everyone who is weak in the faith and have fallen into sin. But what is the oil going to do? What is the value of the oil for those who are in their sins? Further, there are no examples of using oil to deal with people’s sins.
(5) We are told that the prayer of faith (contextually: prayed by the elders) will save the sick. The elders can certainly pray for your sins. But you will not be saved from your sins by their prayers. Their prayers are for your heart to change so that you will pray for forgiveness. The text makes more sense to say that the elders will pray for your physical sicknesses and that God will hear those prayers.
It is evident from the passage that James is referring to a very serious illness, not simply when we have our usual, run of the mill sicknesses. Here are a couple of reasons why. First, calling for the elders implies that this person is physically unable to go to the elders or go to worship. The elders are called to this one who is severely sick. Second, James says that the elders will pray over the sick one. People today use this phrase, “to pray over,” in a way foreign to the scriptures. This is the only place in scripture where the phrase, “pray over” is used. James is simply describing posture. The person is so physically sick that he or she is laying on their mat on the floor and unable to get up. Therefore, the elders are praying over them in posture because the sick on is on the floor. It would the similar to the posture in the hospital where the person sick is laying in the bed and cannot get up or go to the elders. The elders go to them and pray for them. They are pray over them in posture as they are standing or sitting or kneeling, while the sick person is laying down.
Further, James is not saying that the elders have special powers of healing. James is simply recognizing as we all recognize that the elders are representatives of the congregation. They represent the church as a whole. Also, one should not be thrown by James saying that the sick will be healed and raised up. James is not giving an absolute promise. How could he? He would die. All the apostles would die. Everyone must die. The point is not to teach that if you will pray for a person that person will always be healed of their sicknesses and diseases. Don’t forget the point of this paragraph. James is teaching us the power of prayer. Prayer is powerful even in our physical sicknesses. Prayer is not exclusive to our spiritual needs. Prayer is effective and powerful for our physical sicknesses.
Therefore, verse 14 is telling us to come armed with spiritual and natural resources for healing. Do not neglect God when you are seriously ill. There is power in prayer. However, do not neglect natural resources for healing. James instructs the elders to pray and secondarily to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. As we already mention, rubbing oil was a common way to treat illnesses. We must not neglect what God has made available for healing. There is such a mistake today made by religious people who believe God must heal outside of any medicinal intervention. People will not take medicine or have surgeries believing that God will heal the person miraculously. Beloved, God has given us medicine as part of our treatment. What we have for treatments today are very much a part of the ways God can answer prayer. However, we must not put all our trust in the treatments forgetting there is power in prayer for healing. Come armed for healing through spiritual and natural means.
Not only does prayer have power for our physical sicknesses, but also our spiritual sicknesses. Sins can be forgiven through prayer. We see clearly in the apostle John’s first letter. John writes to Christians and says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). Further, we are to confess our sins to each other so that we can pray for each other. When we are struggling with weaknesses, temptations, and sins we can ask for the prayers of one another. Please notice that James does not say to only confess your sins to the elders or a particular group of people within the church. We are all on equal footing when it comes to sins and all of us need the prayers of one another in our fight against Satan.
This is why James can make such a dynamic, powerful statement at the end of verse 16. The prayer of the righteous person is strong when it is exercised. We need to be exercising prayer because it is a powerful tool that works in a variety of circumstances. Prayer works when we are suffering for righteousness. Prayer works when we are severely ill. Prayer works when we confess our sins to God and brings forgiveness. Look at what can be done when prayer is exercised! Prayer causes things to happen!