THE PROPER VIEW OF THIS PASSAGE OF SCRIPTURE
In presenting the teaching of this passage of Scripture it will be treated under a threefold division. The provision for the sick in anointing and prayer appears first in the passage (James 3:13-15), followed by the power of the service of anointing and prayer (5:16.18), and concluding with the purpose of the service of anointing and prayer (5:19-20).
1. THE PROVISION FOR THE SICK IN ANOINTING AND PRAYER
Your matters of importance need treatment in developing this points (1) the audience for whom this is provided; (2) the affliction for which this service is appointed; (3) the anointing of the sick with oil; and (4) the healing of the anointed one.
(1) The audience (13, 14). The phrase "among you" appearing twice in these verses clearly identifies the group to whom James is writing. By going back through the epistle a full description of this group can be discovered. This group is clearly identified as Jews. The epistle was written "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1). Throughout the epistle the language and content clearly support the opening verse.
But further investigation in the epistle indicates that these are Christian Jews. James calls himself a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1). And then throughout the epistle identifies himself with the group to whom he is writing (1:18; 2:1; 3:1; 4:5 5:11). Such expressions as "brethren" (1:2, 19; 2:1), "begat" (1:18), and "worthy name" (2:7), indicate that these were Christians. When declaring that this group have "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ,” there is no other conclusion than that they are Christian Jews.
However, this epistle reaches out to all Christians. In 45 A.D. when this epistle was written, practically all Christians were Jews. And through this group the message went out to all gentile Christians as well. In this epistle the emphasis is so decidedly on the Christian element and not the Jewish, that this epistle was finally classed among the general epistles of the New Testament, and heads the list in the arrangement of the books of the New Testament from earliest times until the present.
Since this great physical provision has been made for Christians it clearly excludes those who have not yet come within the pale of the Church. Any wholesale effort to apply this to any and all who may be sick goes beyond the intent of this passage of Scripture.
(2) The affliction (13, 15). Perhaps no clearer description could be given than the words used by James in the original to diagnose the affliction for which this God-given provision has been made.
This affliction produces suffering which is sensuous (13). The word "afflicted" in verse 13 means the same as the words "suffering affliction" in verse 10, and the word "passions" in verse 17. This expression admits what every sober-minded person will admit, that there is bodily sickness which produces physical suffering and pain.
This affliction is one which leaves a person strength less (14). By the word "sick" in verse 14 James is describing one who is without strength, one who no longer has power within himself for recovery. It is interesting that this is the usual word for the sick. It is the same word used in John 5:7 translated "impotent" describing the man who could not help himself into the pool. He was without any power to do anything for himself.
This affliction is one producing a condition that is serious (15), as indicated by the words used in the next verse. The word "sick" is not the same one appearing in verse 14. It describes one who is prostrate and bed fast. The expression "raise up" indicates that such a one is lifted from his bed of illness by a power external to himself. It follows, then, that this provision for healing had been made for those who have illnesses of a more or less serious nature. Trifling matters, if there are such, are not to be considered here. This will cause the patient to reckon carefully with his illness, to determine that it is actual and of such nature that he needs the help of God.
(3) The anointing (14). The service of prayer and anointing involves at least three things the obligation resting upon the sick person, the elders who officiate in the service, and the order and plan of the service.
(a) The obligation. At the very outset of this verse the address is to the sick one and responsibility is placed upon him.
The initial step in a case of illness rests upon the one who is sick. "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church" (14). It is not the business of the elders of the Church to go scouting for the sick. And it is only logical that the one who is sick will be more apt to know about it and its seriousness before anyone else. It is therefore his responsibility to call the elders. If the Word of God is followed implicitly, and he calls the elders, this will present the possibility of divine healers moving in upon a community and rounding up all that are sick.
This is a command laid upon the sick one, as the imperative mode of the verb indicates. He should be just as faithful in carrying out this command as any other in the New Testament. And to fail in this command is just as much sin as in any other.
The elders of the Church are those in some places of position and prominence in the local congregation. Personal purity and special ability will characterize these men. That is the reason for their election to the eldership (BLAMELESS). In such cases of need, they are the sort of men who will minister comfort to the invalid, and who will be able to get the ear of God for help.
To the sick person. James exhorts the one who is ill to call the elders. "Let him call" translates a word in the original which means to call into the very presence of the sick one. Apparently the Holy Spirit knew better than any other the methods that would be used in succeeding years, and therefore this clear instruction. By following this word the great mass meetings where the wizardry and chicanery of divine healers are on display will be prevented.
(b) The elders of the church. So simply, and yet so clearly, a number of important features about the elders is set forth.
In number, more than one elder is to be called as the word "elders," in the plural, indicates. This prevision also serves as a protection against any false notions arising about the healing. Where there are two or more who officiate at such a service, it would be impossible for anyone to claim supernatural powers. For the healing will be the result of a combined ministry of anointing and prayer. In such cases, God alone will receive the glory that justly belongs to Him.
In sex, the elders are to be men and not women. The masculine gender of the noun "elders" makes no provision for the ministry of women. This is in accord with the duties and functions of women in the church as set forth in the New Testament. It is a protection also against the great number of women who through the years have advertised themselves as divine healers.
In locality, the elders should be members of the local congregation of believers. The word "church" can have no other meaning in this passage. No such thing as denomination was then known, and there was no such thing as office outside of the local assembly. There are several good things about this. In the first place, the elders will know the sick person, his life, testimony, the nature of his sickness, and whether personal sin is in any way involved. This will enable them to deal more accurately with the case and exercise a ministry for good. On the other hand, the sick one will know the elders, their position, prominence, person, purity, and powers. Knowing them as ordinary men, when healing comes, he will attribute it to God.
In position, these elders hold some office in the local church calling for qualifications of spirituality and ability. Being regarded with esteem by the members of the local congregation, they are also more apt to have power with God. For it is "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man" that "availeth much" (16). Again, one that is blameless. And it is a righteous man who will be more apt to help a sick man who is guilty of personal sin.
(c) Order and plan. A study of verses 15 and 16 provides one with other features of this service of which only a few are mentioned in verse 14.
Confession of sin on the part of the sick person should come first. The Brethren have doctrinal stances that allow for a man or woman to walk the walk of Jesus which was blameless and therefore be true to the words of Peter and Paul in 2 Pet. 3:14, Phil 2:15. We have the anointing service presented here, the threefolf communion service with the foot washing portion as well as 1 John 1:9. This is strongly implied, although not specifically stated in verse 15, "And if he have committed sins," and more specifically stated in verse 16, "Confess your faults one to another." In some cases the sickness may be due to personal sin, in which case healing will be withheld until the sin is confessed and forsaken. But though personal sin may not be the cause of the sickness, this will give a fine opportunity for the sick person to search his own heart and lay himself open and bare before the Lord.
Anointing with oil follows confession of sin. The tense of the participle "anointing" might well be translated "having anointed" him with oil. This should take place prior to the prayer. The oil becomes a beautiful symbol of the Holy Spirit who lives in and watches over the saint (James 4:5). The vigilance of the Spirit is not merely for the spiritual welfare of believers but also extends to the physical body which is His temple. His purpose with the bride is evident here bringing remembrance to the Savior and His words.
The authority of the name of the Lord is the order under which the elders are performing this rite. Thus the rite is not only performed as commanded by the Lord, but by being done in His name, the whole matter is placed in His hands, Here is implicit evidence that the healing of the saint is placed in the power and will of the Lord. His will above all else is sought, and if this should mean, for the good of the saint and the glory of the Lord, that healing be withheld, then the will of the Lord be done. (Matt. 28:18, John 13:3).
Prayer for the sick immediately follows. This is a prayer of worship and devotion, as the Greek word implies, and not a prayer of demand. It is a prayer that recognizes the plan of God, the wisdom of God, His will and His Word. From the construction of the sentence, all the elders pray for the sick one. And the emphasis is upon prayer and not upon anointing, as the following verse attests.
The word of caution should be added. While nothing is said about using the services of a doctor, certainly nothing in the passage prevents it. It may be that God will heal through the medium of medical attention. This may be the means God will use in answering the prayer of the elders. It is wise at least to employ every good means. And it is good theology to remember that while God may will and order the end, He also uses means to reach the desired end. Above all things believers should not limit God by making it impossible for Him to use medical skill.
(4) The healing (15). "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." It will be noted here that a number of factors all working together bring about the healing of the saint.
(a) The Divine source. This is clearly set forth in the words of verse 18, "And the Lord shall raise him up," All healing comes from the Lord, not matter what mediums may be used, or what prayers may be offered, or what gifts may be exercised. The Lord is the one who heals, for He is the Great Physician. He may do so immediately, with or without means, or He may do so more remotely, with or without means. He may do so instantly or over a period of time. The words "shall raise up,” denoting simple future time and expressing certainty, do not indicate how soon the healing will take place. But when the healing comes it may be concluded that whether by supernatural intervention or providential means it is from the Lord.
(b) The human appropriation. James expresses this in these words: "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick." There are three important things about the prayer of the elders that should be noted here.
First, there is a prayer of worship and devotion; displaying the motive of those who pray. Such is the meaning of the word in the original for prayer. Since the definite article is used with this word, it is "the prayer," one which recognizes God as high and holy and good, who will not withhold any good thing from His own, when it falls within the center of His perfect will. This prayer is one which recognizes God's plan and purpose and displays a desire to find the exact place within that plan and purpose. It is a prayer like this that God hears and answers.
Second, this prayer is according to the will of God, seeking that thing which pleases Him. The original reads, "the prayer of the faith." The definite article used with faith makes it mean more than just mere personal faith. Its first meaning is the body of truth known as "the faith." The prayer of the faith is one in harmony with the revealed truth of God, and is according to the will of God (1 John 5:14). God answers such prayer. But a prayer that is according to the will of God is also one of personal faith, and in this case personal faith on the part of the elders. God not only supplies the foundation for faith, but gives faith to place on the foundation (Eph. 2:8, 9), And God honors such faith.
Third, this prayer is one wrought within by God Himself, thus indicating the manner in which the prayer is prayed. Verse 16 adds a thought that is for the most part misunderstood by the average reader of the English Bible. It reads, "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Upon the basis of this reading the value of the prayer depends upon the righteous man. But upon closer investigation it will be found that the Greek participle rendered "effectual fervent" has been construed as a middle voice, whereas in the other 18 uses of the same word in the New Testament, the same form is always passive. This leads one to believe that it should read, "The prayer of a righteous man, which is energized (wrought) in him, accomplishes much." This reading makes the value of the prayer depend upon God, who energizes the prayer in the elders. Phil. 2:13 will verify this point, "for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."
(C) The physical effect. Such a prayer has power with God and will bring physical healing to the saint.
Such prayer will be the means of bringing recovery from sickness. "Save the sick" means deliverance from sickness, and this point to the healing of the body.
The Lord Himself is the absolute source bringing about restoration to service. "The Lord shall raise him up" means raising from a bed of illness, weariness, inability to do anything, and placing on his feet and putting him back into service.
The certainty of this event is guaranteed in God's time and it will be a reality to the sick. "Shall save" and "shall raise up" are in the simple future tense. Absolute certainty is guaranteed by this tense. But the exact time is not specified. It may be soon or over a period of time. Where healing does not follow, it is evident that God has not given "the prayer of faith."
(d) The spiritual blessing. The matter is not finished, as some might conclude, if one considers the closing words of verse 15, "And if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." This means in the final analysis that every relationship with God is for the purpose of bringing the soul in closer touch with Him. Therefore they stand blameless before Him, His intent for actually saving, having furnished one of the fore mentioned methods for bringing this blameless state about (2 Pet. 3:14; Phil. 2:15).
It is implied, although it is not specifically stated, that personal sins may be the cause of the illness. They sometimes are (John 5:14). And where personal sin is the cause of sickness, those sins must be confessed and put away, if healing is to come from the Lord. Confession of sin will bring the saint into a new light and place of blessing with the Lord. He will catch a new vision of the Lord and will see sin in its blackness as never before.
Where personal sin is not the cause of sickness, this service will provide an opportunity for the sick person to consider anew the holiness of the Lord and the sinfulness of sin, and will be one factor in bringing him closer to the Lord. Confessing faults one to another which expresses itself in prayer.
Whenever sin is confessed, whether it is the cause of sickness or not, it will be forgiven (1 John 1:9). If it is the cause of the sickness, the cause being removed, healing will follow. But best of all, the sin being removed will bring the believer into a new appreciation of fellowship with his fellow Christians and with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is nothing more precious than this. If this service will accomplish this for the saint, he can well thank the Lord that He allowed sickness to come into his life so that his actual state may be diagnosed and healed. (Matt 5:48)