Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50 Sermon by Ted Johnston from James 5:13-20 Drawing from commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Exposition Commentary), Peter H. Davids (New Bible Commentary) and Luke Timothy Johnson (James, Anchor Bible).
Let Us Pray!
In today’s reading in the Epistles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is wrapping up his letter to Christians. In doing so, he returns to one of his main themes: the power of the tongue. Having already mentioned that the tongue can be used for evil, he now shows how to use it for good by praying for those who are suffering, for those who are sick, for the nation, and for believers who have wandered. There are, of course, other prayer needs, but these four are particularly important ways for us to participate, by the Spirit, in the prayer life of Jesus. Let’s look at each one.
1. Pray for those who are suffering
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. (James 5:13a)
When we face trouble, how do we respond? A typical human response is to complain and even lash out at God and other people. But James says we should instead pray—asking God for his wisdom to understand our situation and to use it to his glory (also see James 1:5).
Prayer may lead to the removal of our trouble, if that is God’s will. But prayer may also lead to the grace to endure our trouble and use it to accomplish God’s will in our lives. Indeed, in the midst of our trouble, God may “give us more grace” (James 4:6).
This was the case for Paul when he prayed that God would remove a terrible trial in his life, but instead, God gave him grace to endure it—turning his weakness into strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was also the case for Jesus, who in Gethsemane prayed that his cup of suffering might be removed, yet it was not. Instead, the Father gave him grace needed to go to the cross for us.
Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5:13b)
Of course, not all Christians are currently going through trials. Some are experiencing blessings. God allows in our lives both suffering and joy and mature Christians respond in faith to either. They even sing while suffering, as Paul and Silas did in their Philippian jail cell.
2. Pray for those who are sick
Sickness is a common form of trouble experienced by all human beings, believers included. James encourages sick believers to not only pray for themselves, but to ask others to pray for them. What James says here reflects certain cultural practices of his day and should probably not be taken as a formula to be followed verbatim in the church in all times and cultures. Let’s note the specifics and draw some principles that apply to us.
The role of elders
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him… (James 5:14a)
Why call the elders? Frequently James rails against the wealthy and powerful who abuse the weak. This must not be so in the church. James makes it clear that church leaders (elders) are to be servants of all. The weak and sick in the church should expect church leaders to reach out to them with compassion in time of need. However, this does not mean that the sick must call on the elders or that only elders are authorized to pray for the sick. We should all pray for those in need, and non-elders may certainly exercise ministries of prayer for the sick.
The role of anointing with oil
…to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord… (James 5:14b)
The Greek word here translated “anoint” is a medicinal term. James may be suggesting the use of medical means for healing along with asking God for supernatural healing. God can heal with or without such means; but in any case, it is God who does the healing. In that culture, oil was a universal medicine—applied both internally and externally. It thus became a symbol of God’s healing touch—an appropriate symbol to be utilized to accompany prayers for deliverance from all sorts of ailments. But anointing the sick in prayer should not be seen as a commanded practice. Some churches use it and some do not, and people have experienced divine healing both with anointing and with prayer without anointing, In GCI, our practice is for our elders to anoint sick people with oil when they pray for their healing.
The role of forgiveness in healing
…the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14c)
Here James is apparently referring to a sinning church member who is sick because they are being disciplined by God. This may be the specific reason that the elders (who had responsibility for administering church discipline) were being called in: the person cannot go to church to confess their sin, so the elders need to go to them. In any case, this should not be taken as an indication that all illness is the direct result of the sick person’s sin. It may be (and if it is, the sin should be confessed), but it may not be. In some cases the sickness may be because of someone else’s sin.
When healing is needed for the whole community
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
The word “therefore” is important: “Confess your sins therefore to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (alternative translation). In this situation, sickness was the result of habitual sin, so the healing would come through the confession of that sin. Note as well that the sickness brought about by this sin was not only that of the individual but of the whole community. Here the word “you” (“you may be healed”) is plural. The community will experience healing through the exercise of prayer accompanied by the confession of sin.
It is not confession of sin that ‘earns’ healing, but healing here included reconciliation that comes through appropriate confession of sin that is impacting the whole community and through prayer of “righteous” people—people who are rightly related to God and to one another. In this way, healing is a community event.
Healing and “prayer offered in faith”
And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)
Prayer for healing is effective when offered in faith (confident trust in God). This is so because it is not anointing or prayer that heals, but God. The apostle John notes the importance of confidently trusting God:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)
A “prayer offered in faith” is one offered in assurance of God’s will in the matter. Here James calls elders to seek together God’s will for the sick and sinning person and to pray for that individual accordingly. Note that James’ example is not of one individual praying for the sick person, but of the whole body of elders praying together on behalf of the whole church.
As we seek God in prayer on behalf of those who are sick, we may not be able to know the specifics of God’s will for them. But it is always appropriate to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, heal your child.” Those who claim that God heals every time, and that it is never his will that his children suffer illness, deny both Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience.
3. Pray for the nation
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)
Here Elijah is given as an example of a “righteous man” whose prayers released power. The background is 1 Kings 17–18 where wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, his queen, had led Israel away from the Lord and into the worship of Baal. God punished the nation by holding back the rain for 3 1/2 years. Then Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long the priests cried out to their god, but no answer came. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah repaired the altar and prepared the sacrifice. He prayed only once, and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He had proven that Jehovah was the true God.
But the nation still needed rain. Elijah went to the top of Carmel and fell down before the Lord in prayer. He prayed and sent his servant seven times to see if there was evidence of rain; and the seventh time his servant saw a little cloud. Before long, there was a great rain, and the nation was saved.
Does the nation we live in today need God’s blessing? Of course. “But” we might argue, “Elijah was a special prophet of God.” To that James replies, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17)—he was not perfect; in fact, right after his victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away. “But,” we reply, “he was a ‘righteous man.'” But so are we, for our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, and our prayers are given through him, and the faith is his. Prayer for whole nations is the privilege of all of God’s children, not just some imagined “spiritual elite.”
Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him he would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1). You cannot separate the word of God and prayer, for in his word God tells us his will—he defines his promises, which we then claim confidently in prayer.
Elijah, in praying, not only believed; he was also persistent. “He prayed” and “again he prayed” (James 5:17–18). We sometimes give up in prayer too quickly. It’s true that we are not heard “for our much praying” (Matt. 6:7); but there is a difference between vain repetition and believing persistence in prayer. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, and Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh might be taken from him. We should not hesitate to ask and keep asking that God’s will be done.
Elijah “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17). The literal sense of the Greek text is “he prayed in prayer.” Sometimes we don’t really pray in our prayers. Maybe we haphazardly recite religious-sounding words, but our hearts are not in it. But “tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (James 5:16, Phillips translation). Elijah, a good, but not a perfect man (just like us), prayed for his nation, and God answered. Let us pray for our communities and whole nation too—pray that God will bring conviction and revival, and that “showers of blessing” will come. Paul says that one of the first responsibilities of a church is to pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–3).
4. Pray for believers who have wandered
My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
Though James did not specifically name prayer here, it is implied. If we pray for the suffering, the sick, and the nation, surely we must pray for a brother or sister who has wandered from God’s truth. And we also must take other action to help restore them.
The verb “wander” suggests a gradual movie away from God’s will. Sometimes a brother or sister is “caught [overtaken] in a sin” (Gal. 6:1); but usually sin is the result of slow, gradual spiritual decline. Such a condition is dangerous for the offender. They may face discipline from God (Heb. 12) and may be in danger of committing “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16–17). Such wandering is also dangerous to the whole church. Offenders can lead others astray: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18, NASB). This is why members of the church must step in and help the person who has wandered away from the truth.
The “truth” in view here is the truth of God’s word. “Your [God’s] word is truth” said Jesus (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to this truth, they will start to drift. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, NASB). The outcome of this wandering is “sin” and possibly “death” (James 5:20).
What are we to do when we see a fellow believer wandering from the truth of God’s word? We should pray for them, to be sure; but also seek to help them directly. They need to be turned back (converted) to the right path. Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Let us do so as well.
Remember that we should always approach a wandering brother or sister in an attitude of love, “because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both James and Peter learned this principle from Prov. 10:12—“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Love not only helps the offender face their sin and deal with it, but love also assures them that those sins, once dealt with, do not need to be remembered any more.
May we hear and heed the admonition of the apostle James, who has given us these ways to use our tongues for good by being people of prayer.
Let us pray!