Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Prayer for Healing in James 5

This time of year tends to make us more vulnerable to sickness. Colds, fevers, flus, and worse take their toll on people and communities. Of course, sickness and disease afflict us all year round and can range from being mildly irritating to being fatal. God's word is not silent on such matters. It recognizes sickness and disease as one of the unnatural effects of the curse on humanity, rooted in our rebellion in Adam. It grieved Jesus to see sickness and death afflicting mankind. He taught that it is a way people serve Him and show themselves to His disciples when they serve His brothers and sisters who are sick (Matt. 25:31-46). The Apostle John highlights the value of physical health when he says "Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). The Apostle Paul even gives brief health advice to sickly Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23. Yet one of the key passages that addresses how Christians ought to address sickness is James 5:13-18. Here is the passage:
"[13] Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. [14] 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. [15] And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. [16] Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [17] Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. [18] Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit." (James 5:13–18)
This can be a somewhat debated passage, which has perhaps led to its neglect. More could be said about this passage, but I want to make a few observations to help us apply it.

1. This is a serious and debilitating illness, though it does not need to be life-threatening.

What kind of sickness is in view? Ought one to call for the elders for every runny nose? The Greek word used here for "sick" is often used of serious illnesses that hinder a person. “The verb asthenein means to be weak, as in some limb (Ps. 108:29) or organ (Plato, Lysis 209E; Ps. 87:9)” (Johnson, 330). The word is used in John 5:3, and in that text, “blind, lame, and paralyzed” are given as examples of being "sick." This is not the occasional cold that will run its course in a few days. It would seem to be a rather debilitating illness from the fact that the sick person has to call for the elders to come to him, rather than going to them himself, and from the fact that the elders pray “over” him, the sick person being in bed. On the other hand, the word used does not require that this be a life-threatening illness. Rather, it is a debilitating illness, and probably one that is not short-term.

An additional aspect to be considered is the extent to which this illness is impacting the sick person spiritually. Sickness can be a rather isolating and depressing time. We will see in my fifth point that the physical and spiritual can be connected in various ways. If the physical sickness is not serious, but it results from or causes spiritual distress, this too would be a good reason to call for the elders.

2. The sick person is here responsible to initiate the process.

The commands in this passage can be veiled by the translation "let him…" This is probably better translated "he should" (Blomberg, 241). Praying and singing are not merely allowed in verse 13. They are what you should normally do in those circumstances. As a sickness gets more serious and debilitating, the sick person should call and the elders should pray. The elders are not prohibited from initiating the process, but the sick person is the one responsible to make the call in this passage.

3. The oil is symbolic, not medicinal (and is also not the main thing).

Perhaps the biggest question many people have with this passage regards the “anointing with oil.” Is this oil used medicinally or symbolically? And if it is being used symbolically, what is the intent of the ritual?

In surveying biblical references to anointing with oil, Luke 10:34 does refer to a medical use of oil. Mark 6:13 refers to anointing with oil in coordination with miraculous healing, though in an unspecified way. Oil is also used to consecrate or purify persons and things in Scripture (Gen. 28:18, 31:13, Ex. 28:41, 40:9-15, Lev. 8:10-13), including healed lepers (Lev. 14:1-32). While oil was used medicinally, the usual use for oil in the Bible is ritualistic in nature. “Thus, this evidence leads us to think that the elders were to anoint the sick person’s body to consecrate and purify it as an act of devoting it to God for God’s work of healing” (McKnight, 439). There is difficulty with the medical view. First, oil is not a cure-all – it only fits certain illnesses. In fact, in biblical and extra-biblical usage, oil was usually used for wounds or refreshment, rather than sickness (Varner, 540; Vlachos, 185). Second, it is not doctors who are to administer it (nor, incidentally, miracle workers with the gift of healing), but the elders of the church. Third, the verb used in Luke 10:34 is not “anointing” but “put on.” While oil is used medically, “anointing” is never used in the Bible to describe what is clearly medical healing.

The oil is also not the main focus. The main responsibility of the elders is to pray, and prayer receives most of the attention in this passage. Not only prayer, but faith in God which is expressed by prayer is central.

4. Healing is the expected outcome, but it is not immediate or certain in this life.

Verse 15 seems to have an impossible optimism about the healing effect of this prayer. We might find in our experience that not everyone who is prayed for in this manner is healed. There are at least three explanations that have been used: (1) the prayers must not have had faith, (2) being "saved" and "raised up" refers to spiritual salvation and future resurrection, or (3) this passage contains a general promise of effectiveness, but does not guarantee perfect health and never-ending life in this age.

Now the absence of faith or repentance can hinder prayers, but Scripture also emphasizes the effectiveness of even a little faith (Luke 17:6). This first explanation does not explain the times when elders offer prayer with faith and yet the sick person is not healed. And there will be such times, for we all die. Death is the last enemy, and it will not be permanently defeated until the resurrection. Assuming a lack of faith is not warranted, nor is it good pastoral practice. God's explanation in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 to Paul concerning his "thorn in the flesh" is applicable here. And yet, the second option, a purely spiritual explanation of the healing, is also unsatisfactory, since verse fifteen indicates that forgiveness is only potentially part of the situation ("if he has committed sins") and is something additional to the "saving" of the sick man.

It is best to receive the promise of verse 15 as a promise of general effectiveness, but with the caveat that we do not receive all that is promised in this life. This is not the only place in Scripture where God promises blessings in the context of this present life and yet leaves much to be fulfilled in the life to come (e.g. Heb. 11, Ps. 73). Verse 15 does not say when the healing will take place. Perhaps it will take time. Perhaps it will not happen until the resurrection. There will be a tension between promise and fulfillment until all is fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth. Christ healed on earth, and He can continue to heal miraculously today, yet death is the final foe only to be fully defeated on the last day (1 Cor. 15:26, Rev. 21:4).

But the main emphasis in this passage is that we are justified in our hope that God will hear the prayers of the elders and heal the sick person, even if this does not happen on the spot. This can happen through the work of doctors and medicine, which are not to be neglected by Christians, but God can work without them as well.

5. Sickness can be connected with sin; true confession is good for the body and soul.

The conditional clause in verse 15 ("And if he has committed sins...") not only introduces the fact that there may be sins that need to be addressed, but also alludes to the fact that unresolved sins can lead to illness. Verse 16 teaches us to confess our sins and pray for one another so that we may be healed. There is a great deal of biblical support for this idea: Deuteronomy 28:1-68, Ezekiel 18:1-29, Proverbs 3:25-28, 11:19, 13:13-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:29-30. Johnson (p. 333) also notes that this connection was commonly made in extra-biblical sources such as Ben Sira 1:12-13, 3:26-27, and rabbinic tradition. He also notes that there are biblical passages that nuance the connection: Job, Ecclesiastes, and John 9:1-3. Sin is not always the cause of sickness, and to assume that it is the cause can lay burdens on people when comfort is needed. And if sin is the cause, is it not necessarily a sign that the sick person's sin is notably worse than those who do not suffer (Luke 13:1-5). But the connection is possible, and physical curses like sickness should cause us to examine ourselves and to repent. And this confession, as well as the prayers, should be made with faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, believing that "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).

In this case of the sick person who calls for the elders, this confession would be made to the elders, since they are the ones praying on his behalf. Verse 16 seems to draw a general principle from this occasion, a principle of confession and prayer that goes beyond the elders to "one another." The elders are not the only ones to whom you can go to confess and seek prayer from. But neither is this a call to confess indiscriminately (it should be a mature or "righteous" person, 5:16, the elders ideally matching this description), nor it is a requirement to confess all your sins to another person. Confession is primarily made to God (Ps. 32, 51).


This passage helps equip us for a common earthly predicament, that of sickness. “Christ’s worshippers are not exempted from sickness, no more than any other affliction” (Manton, 450). Commenting on these verses, Calvin remarks that “such is the perverseness of men, that they cannot rejoice without forgetting God, and that when afflicted they are disheartened and driven to despair” (354-355). It is easy for us to simply think of medical solutions without also turning to our relationship with God to address our sickness.

This passage also equips us to act as a Christian community. Johnson points out that “Sickness then creates the opportunity for social alienation…It is not an accident, I think, that James here for the first time uses the term ekklesia [church], for it is the identity of the community as community that sickness threatens” (343). Sickness can be very lonely and isolating. In this midst of this suffering, our ears and prayers, particularly those of the elders, are especially needed.

Our care for the sick is a witness to the compassion of Christ for the suffering that was seen during His life on earth. A community that sings praises, that cares for the weak, that prays for one another, that repents and seeks forgiveness, is a great contrast to a world that exemplifies pride, distance from the weak, and self-righteousness. May the world see Christ among us as we seek to obey His commands in this passage.



Blomberg, Craig L., Mariam J. Kamell. James. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005 [1551].

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Letter of James. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Manton, Thomas. A Commentary on James. A Geneva Series Commentary. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988 [1693]. 

McKnight, Scot. The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011.

Varner, William. James. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014. 

Vlachos, Chris A. James. B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Pub., 2013.

For more on the symbolism of oil in the ceremony for the healed leper in Leviticus 14, see the eighth paragraph in the entry "oil" in the Encyclopedia Judaica, available online here:

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