James 5:13-20 – The Prayer of Faith (part two)

This week we’re concluding our study in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Today is part two of a three-day focus on James 5:13-20.

The prayer of faith

Today, James moves from the general exhortation to live a prayerful life (verse 13, yesterday), to a specific case – in which we pray for a person who is sick. James gives us a simple instruction:

5:14 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.

Note that James isn’t talking about ‘faith-healers’ with a particular gift of healing; rather, the elders of the sick person’s church. Even when healing is mentioned as a ‘gift’ elsewhere in NT, it’s plural. 1 Cor 12 refers to ‘gifts of healing’, suggesting that each act of healing is an individual gift, rather than someone being given a permanent ‘gift of healing’. Having said that, it’s obvious that there are some people who seem to exercise these gifts of healing more than others – nothing wrong with that – but James here is not talking about gifted individuals. He merely says to call for the elders of the church.

The oil is not mystical – it doesn’t have any special powers of its own. Some people think that the oil was medicinal – that is, they used olive oil as a kind of ‘cure all’ back then. The app for us is that we should seek the best medical care and pray.

But I don’t think James has this in mind here, especially as (v15) he says ‘the prayer of faith will make the sick person well’. The oil is most likely an anointing to symbolise God’s favour – like Samuel anointed King Saul and King David – and was still a normal custom in the first century. (So we don’t really need the oil, as it is not part of our culture. It was merely symbolic.)

So far, this is pretty straightforward. Call the elders to pray for the sick person. Use some oil, if you want to, although it may not be culturally appropriate today. But we hit a bit of a problem when we get to verse 15:

5:15 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.

What are we supposed to make of this? And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well? How does that tie in with our experience? What about people whom we pray for, but are  not healed – who stay sick for a long time?

This can become dangerous, as the following true story illustrates: 11 year old Wesley Parker was diabetic, so his parents took him to a healing service – they were convinced that Wesley had been healed. Wesley agreed and announced his own cure to his friends. His parents then denied him the use of the medicine (which he didn’t need, since he was cured, right?) even when the symptoms began to reappear. Wesley tried to use the insulin, but his father restrained him, telling him the symptoms were the work of the devil. After a while, even the father panicked, but his mother refused to allow him medication – at her prayer meeting she had felt reassured about his healing. Even after he died, the parents took part in a resurrection service, believing God would restore their son.

The Bible itself has similar instances of where instant healing didn’t take place – in 2 Timothy one of Paul’s companions has to be left behind in a town because he is sick; and Paul himself prayed three times that God would remove what he called a ‘thorn in the flesh’, but God didn’t.

It’s also important to note that we all die. In the 2000 years since James wrote these words, no-one has been permanently healed by God.

So that’s our dilemma. How do we relate what looks like a promise – God will heal – to these times where God doesn’t heal?

(Some people try to explain it by looking more closely at the Greek, as the Greek word for ‘heal’ also means ‘save’. So it could read ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up.’ That is, it refers to ‘salvation’ – being resurrected on the last day, and spending eternity in heaven. But this solution is a bit simplistic, since the word for ‘save’ also often  means ‘heal’. It also ignores the fact that we’re talking about a physically sick person, and the word for physical healing is used in verse 16. So that’s not terribly satisfactory.)

Why use Elijah?

Before we try to answer this, let’s have a look at what appears to be a side issue – why did James pick Elijah to use as an example of faith? And as we do, we’ll see it’s not so much of a side issue after all.

5:16-18 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. 17 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. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. 

Do you remember the story of Elijah from Sunday School? (See 1 Kings 18 if you want to read the full story.) King Ahab has led the people in the worship of Ba’al, so Elijah prayed that it wouldn’t rain, and it didn’t. This leads to a showdown with the priests of Ba’al as to which god could set an altar alight. When Ba’al fails and God triumphs (after making it more of a challenge for himself by having Elijah pour water all over the altar) the people acknowledged their error and turned back to God. So Elijah prayed for rain, and it did.

Why did James pick Elijah? His story has nothing to do with healing! Why not use Jesus, or Moses with the snake in the desert? Let’s have a look at the story of Elijah more closely, to see what we can learn about prayer:

  • Prayer is powerful – who can control the weather? Weather presenters pretend they do, when they say ‘we’ve managed to give you a great day today, we’ll see what we can do for tomorrow…’, but no-one can. Yet Elijah prayed, and it stopped raining – for three and a half years! He prayed again, and it started. Just like that. Prayer is powerful.
  • Prayer should be earnest – Elijah didn’t just pray, he prayed earnestly. This doesn’t mean we have to pray it loudly, or look like we’re in pain as drops of sweat drip off our forehead; nor does it mean we have to whip ourselves with birch branches to show how serious we are, or pray the same thing for hours at a time. It means, however, that we don’t treat it lightly. We pray wholeheartedly, and in some cases that may mean sacrificially – when we don’t feel like it, or we are busy. And we keep on praying for it. (Jesus teaches us to be persistent in prayer, see Luke 18:1-8). Prayer should be earnest.
  • The power of prayer is connected with a righteous lifestyle – Elijah is presented in the OT as someone who was righteous; who walked closely with God despite the fact that he seemed to be the only one doing it. Later on, after the Old Testament was written, Elijah became an even more revered figure in Jewish thought as a holy man. (Legends arose about his healings in the present – even that he could cure toothache!) James’ point is that for prayer to be effective, the one praying should be walking closely with God – that’s what this epistle has been about, the fact that faith alone is not worth anything unless our actions prove it’s real. So too, prayer alone is not worth anything unless we have faith – which must be demonstrated by our actions.
  • We should pray according to the will of God – Elijah prayed that it wouldn’t rain because it was God’s will. He didn’t just wake up one morning and think, ‘I might pray for a three year drought today!’ He knew his bible. He knew that drought was the prescribed punishment for idolatry – mentioned numerous times in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And when they repented, he prayed for rain – again, following God’s promises in the Torah.

That is, Elijah prayed in God’s will, which he knew from Scripture. This is also connected with his righteous lifestyle – one of the benefits of walking closely with God is that he was able to pray according to God’s will.

When I want to know what to buy my Mum for her birthday, I call Dad – why? Because he spends more time with her than anyone, he’s the most likely to know what she wants…. then I call my sister, just to check. The same principle is at work with God: the closer we walk with God, the more we’ll be able to pray according to his will.

Incidentally, of the numerous passages where the Bible seems to guarantee prayer, all of them (if you look at the surrounding context) are about God’s will; in particular, God’s will for the salvation of the nations. Even passages as bold as this one:

Mk 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

C.S. Lewis’ opinion is that this kind of faith occurs:

only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence… something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind.

Or, as Philip Yancey puts it:

One who works in close partnership with God grows in the ability to discern what God wants to accomplish on earth, and prays accordingly.

And John Piper:

Prayer is a wartime walkie talkie for spiritual warfare, not a domestic intercom to increase the comforts of the saints.

To think about

We’ll look at the issue of unanswered prayer tomorrow. For now:

What things do you regularly pray for? Domestic comforts? Or the advance of God’s kingdom?

Do your prayers flow from a close reading of God’s word?

Are your prayers accompanied by a righteous lifestyle?

Post responses and questions

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