Good morning friends!
Following his discourse on the value of individual prayer no matter the circumstances, James then turns his attention to the prayers of the elders. Verses 14 and 15 are some of the most controversial and highly debated passages in his letter.
“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. 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.”
James has now segued to one of the most universal trials people face in life – sickness. In this scenario, the praying ministry is completed by the elders of the church and two “promises” are given: the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well and if sin is involved, they will be forgiven.
This passage is much easier to understand if one remembers that God is sovereign over everything, our circumstances, our health and our healing.
This passage is controversial in light of the various interpretations that can be applied to it. Rather than delving into those various interpretations associated with the concept of a “healing ministry” and the anointing of the sick, which became a highly debated topic in the Council of Trent in 1545, allow me to share the conclusion of the Council: “the tradition that these prayers and this anointing are the origin of the Church’s ‘Sacrament of the Sick’ was endorsed by the Council” without any further explanation regarding the requirement of needing to be ordained by a bishop, etc.
It is important to conclude that James is not proposing that the anointing of oil carries with it any spiritual efficacy and does not confer grace or result in the forgiveness of sins. James’ emphasis in this passage is only on healing the sick and he refers to sin only as something which MAY sometimes be involved. It would be inaccurate to conclude that anointing of oil convers forgiveness. While the sacrament of anointing with oil at the point of death became widely exercised, this passage is dealing with anointing that results in healing and restoration of health not the death of an individual.
There are three elements to this passage on prayer: the sick person and their request; the elders and their ministry; and the prayer of faith and its outcome.
The implication is that serious illness was a concern in their world. They did not have the medical technology or expertise that exists in the world today. It should be noted that all the medical progress the world has enjoyed has also been developed through the providential goodness of God. While He may choose to use techniques, medicine, surgical processes, etc., God is still the author of all healing.
Since they were unable to “run to the doctor,” it would have been natural for followers of Christ to turn to God for their healing. This was usually accomplished by turning to the elders of the church. It should be noticed that the elders are called to the sick man, he doesn’t go to them. The implication is that this sickness is serious enough to confine a person to their home/bed. Notice also who does the praying….the elders. (Naturally, the man would have also probably been involved in individual prayers to God as the sovereign power He placed his faith in.)
There is another unusual feature of this passage. It says that “If they have committed sin, they will be forgiven.” It is vitally important to remember that praying for a person does NOT result in automatic forgiveness of sin. So, what is James attempting to say?
There are several possible explanations. First, it is possible this person may be aware that his condition is the result of some personal sin. While the Bible does not teach that every sickness is the result of personal sin, it does teach that some sicknesses are the result of punishment or a warning. Jesus warned a man whom He had healed. “Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
Another example is recorded in scripture in Genesis chapter 12. When Pharaoh took Abraham’s wife, Sarah, into his haram, the Lord protected Sarah by afflicting Pharaoh and his household with great plagues. It is also possible that during a season of serious illness that causes one to become bedridden, that season frequently provides an opportunity for self-examination of one’s life. Death bed confessions are not uncommon, even if they are not related to the specific illness one is struggling with.
The third possibility is that followers of Christ, those who put their complete faith in God also know that healing involves the entire person. To be “whole” includes being wholly right with God. While there may not be an awareness of a specific sin, or even any memory of sins, there may still exist a desire to be fully reconciled to God. In our contemporary world, we would define that as a “rededication” of someone’s life.
The second facet of this passage is the elders and their ministry. When they arrive, their ministry is to do two things: pray over the sick and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. In New Testament times, oil was used for medicinal purposes. Remember the Good Samaritan. He used oil and wine to treat the man who had been attacked and beaten. Mark records the practice of using oil to anoint the sick: “They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (6:13)
The followers of Christ during that time would have been very familiar with the miracles of Jesus Christ. He used saliva to heal the deaf and the blind. He raised Jarius’ daughter back to life. He turned water into wine. He healed many from demon possession. It seems the assuring aspect of the anointing of oil didn’t come from the ingredient itself as much as it came from the fact that it was delivered in the “name of the Lord!”
When Peter healed the lame man at the temple gate, he specifically acted in the “name of the Lord.” “Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6)
The message is that as the elders pronounced the name of the Lord over the sick, it was in their faith that the healing power resided in Jesus’ name that resulted in their healing.
Regarding sin, it seems to be mentioned only incidentally. It is possible the elders would have sought to ask if there was any sin that needed to be confessed and forgiven. Keep in mind most people, even followers of Christ, believed that if a person became ill, it was because of some sin in their lives. Remember, that was the accusation Job’s friends levied against him. The concept that sin leads to illness would have also been maintained by those who became ill and the possibility of eager confession to the elders is highly probable.
The third facet of this passage is the prayer of faith and its outcome. The next phrase has also generated a great deal of discussion: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” For it is possible we are all aware of situations where the ministry of the elders has been faithfully carried without healing occurring. Would this be the failure of the elders to have faith or the failure of the sick person to have faith? Remember, this passage is dealing the prayer of the elders offered in faith! What James is suggesting is that the faith exercised in the prayer is based on a complete and absolute commitment to the Lord and offered by one totally loyal to Him. Remember the passage James shared earlier about being double-minded. Total commitment in loyalty to Christ means that we desire for God’s will to be accomplished at the expense of our self-gratification.
The conclusion, the prayer of faith is faith that is demonstrated as a commitment to the will of God, and all true prayer exercises its truest faith in patiently waiting to see what God has determined to do.
The “prayers of faith” are in line with what scripture says about prayer. In Mark, we find the words of Christ in regarding to praying and faith: “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, Go, throw yourself into the sea, and does not doubt in their heart but believes that whey they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-24)
“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20)
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask for me anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
These verses, which record the promise of Christ, are intended to bring us into a place of prayer with confidence that God can do all things. He is generous in granting good things and He is always open to receiving our prayers. But it is important to identify the critical condition these promise include and what they do NOT promise.
Notice these passages consistently share that whatever is asked should be asked in the name of the Lord/Son, etc. The point is that we are to seek God’s will through our requests. These are not indications that OUR will is to realized. If that were the desired outcome, we would be praying in OUR name.
So, the prayer of faith is not that “the promises” be fulfilled just because we have asked. It is the “faith” that rests in the will of a sovereign, faithful and loving God.
In closing, think about this encouragement: To say ‘Thy will be done’ is to take away our knowledge of what our needs are. It means that we will place ourselves without hesitation into the hands of the One who holds infinite wisdom, love and power….our heavenly Father!
Have a great day. We will continue looking at James’ conclusion tomorrow.