Weekly Devotional 5-15-20
Praying for The Sick / James 5:14-15
“14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.”
Many of our day understand these verses to be talking about physical restoration rather than spiritual restoration, but is that correct? For an answer, I begin with the following background of the Book of James.
James, the half-brother of Jesus and the first elder of the church at Jerusalem, was led by the Holy Spirit to pen a letter to Christian Jews who had been dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. He meant his letter to be instructional and as an encouragement. All of these new Christians were struggling with Judaism as they tried to escape it’s clutches, Many, if not most were suffering great persecution by their countrymen who thought them to be apostates of Judaism, they were struggling with Roman suppression, and of course they were being buffeted by the suggestions of Satan. James himself had been struggling with these same issues until coming to maturity in the faith. He knew how these struggles could and were affecting many of his readers and addressed many of those issues, encouraging them in their faith. Before closing his letter, he encouraged the more mature in the faith to pray for the less mature knowing that they (the mature and the less mature) were most vulnerable when beat down by these many struggles.
Having given this as a background James’ letter I turn to John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary), and John Walvoord (Editor of The Bible Knowledge Commentary) for their insights concerning these verses.
John MacArthur writes: At first glance it appears to be teaching that sick believers can expect physical healing through the prayers of the elders. But such an interpretation is out of harmony with the context. And as noted in the previous point, the suffering James has in view is evil treatment, not physical illness.
It is true that, apart from the present verse, astheneō is translated sick eighteen times in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 10:8; 25:36, 39; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; John 4:46; Acts 9:37). But it is also used fourteen times to refer to emotional or spiritual weakness (Acts 20:35; Rom. 4:19; 8:3; 14:1-2; 1 Cor. 8:11-12; 2 Cor. 11:21, 29; 12:10; 13:3-4, 9). Significantly, in all but three (Phil. 2:26-27; 2 Tim. 4:20) of astheneō‘s appearances in the epistles it does not refer to physical sickness. Paul’s use of astheneō in 2 Corinthians 12:10 is especially noteworthy, since it there describes weakness produced by the sufferings of life—in a similar context as its usage in the present verse.
Translating astheneō “weak” here in keeping with its predominant usage in the epistles allows us to view this verse in a different light. James moves beyond the suffering believers of the previous point to address specifically those who have become weak by that suffering. The weak are those who have been defeated in the spiritual battle, who have lost the ability to endure their suffering. They are the fallen spiritual warriors, the exhausted, weary, depressed, defeated Christians. They have tried to draw on God’s power through prayer, but have lost motivation, even falling into sinful attitudes. Having hit bottom, they are not able to pray effectively on their own. In that condition, the spiritually weak need the help of the spiritually strong (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:14). That help, James says, is to be found in the elders of the church. They are the spiritually strong, the spiritually mature, the spiritually victorious. Weak, defeated believers are to go to them and draw on their strength. They are to call (from proskaleō, “to call alongside”) the elders to come and lift them up. It is the same thought that the apostle Paul expressed in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” The wounded, exhausted, broken sheep are to go to their shepherds, who will intercede for them and ask God for renewed spiritual strength on their behalf.
The anointing with oil in the name of the Lord done by the elders is not a reference to some symbolic ceremony. Aleiphō (the root form of the verb translated anointing) is not used in the New Testament to refer to a ceremonial anointing. Noted Greek scholar A. T. Robertson comments, “It is by no means certain that aleiphō here… means ‘anoint’ in a ceremonial fashion rather than ‘rub’ as it commonly does in medical treatises” (Word Pictures in the New Testament [reprint, 1933; Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.], 6:65). Richard C. Trench agrees: “[aleiphō] is the mundane and profane, [chriō] the sacred and religious, word” (Synonyms of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 136-37). Aleiphō in the New Testament describes anointing one’s head with oil (Matt. 6:17; cf. Luke 7:46), the women’s anointing of Jesus’ body (Mark 16:1), Mary’s anointing of the Lord’s feet (John 11:2; 12:3), and anointing the sick with oil (Mark 6:13). Perhaps the best way to translate the phrase would be “rubbing him with oil in the name of the Lord”; it literally reads “after having oiled him.”
It may well have been that the elders literally rubbed oil on believers who had suffered physical injuries to their bodies from the persecution (cf. Luke 10:34). Medical science was certainly in a primitive state and there were few trustworthy doctors. It would have been a gracious, kind act on the part of the elders to rub oil on the wounds of those who had been beaten, or into the sore muscles of those made to work long hours under harsh treatment.
Metaphorically, the elders’ anointing of weak, defeated believers with oil conveys the responsibility for elders to stimulate, encourage, strengthen, and refresh (cf. Luke 7:46) these people. Speaking of Israel, Isaiah wrote, “From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil” (Isa. 1:6). Lacking godly leaders, the people of the nation had not had their spiritual wounds treated. David expressed God’s gracious, compassionate, spiritual restoration of him in these familiar words: “You have anointed my head with oil” (Ps. 23:5).
The elders’ ministry of intercession and restoration is to be done in the name of the Lord. Any truly biblical encouragement must be consistent with who God is (which is what His name represents). To do something in the name of Christ is to do what He would have done in the situation; to pray in the name of Christ is to ask what He would want; to minister in the name of Christ is to serve others on His behalf (cf. John 14:13-14).
The blessed result of the elders’ comfort and ministry of intercession is that their prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick. Again, sick is misleading and not the best translation of kamnō, which in its only other New Testament usage (Heb. 12:3) clearly does not refer to physical illness. As has been noted, James speaks here of a spiritual restoration of weak, defeated believers. Nor does sozō (restore) necessarily refer to physical healing; it is most commonly translated “save” in the New Testament. The idea here is that the elders’ prayers will deliver weak, defeated believers from their spiritual weakness and restore them to spiritual wholeness. Those prayers, of course, are but a channel for God’s power; it is the Lord who will raise up the weak. Egeirō (raise up) can also mean “to awaken” or “to arouse.” Through the righteous prayers of godly men, God will restore His battered sheep’s enthusiasm.
James’s note that if one of the spiritually weak believers has committed sins, they will be forgiven him provides further evidence that this passage does not refer to physical healing. The Bible nowhere teaches that all sickness is the direct result of an individual’s sins. Spiritual defeat, however, is often both the cause and result of sin. When that is the case, the antidote is to confess those sins to God and obtain His forgiveness. “I acknowledged my sin to You,” wrote David, “and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). David’s son Solomon echoed that comforting truth: “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion” (Prov. 28:13). In the familiar words of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If sin has contributed to or resulted from the spiritual weakness and defeat of a fallen believer, that sin will be forgiven him when he cries out to God for forgiveness. The elders can encourage him to confess, help him discern his sins, and join their prayers for his forgiveness to his. That is an essential element of their ministry of restoration.
John Walvoord writes: James asked a third question and then answered it fully. Is any one of you sick? A great deal of misunderstanding has resulted from these verses. Some seem to teach from this passage that full physical health is always just a prayer away. Others have found in this passage justification for “extreme unction” (a practice begun in the eighth century). Still others have tried to relate the process outlined by James to the modern practice of invoking God (“pray over him”) and using medicine (“anoint him with oil”)—prayer plus a physician.
The heart of the problem lies in just what James meant when he referred to the “sick.” Actually there is no reason to consider “sick” as referring exclusively to physical illness. The word asthenei literally means “to be weak.” Though it is used in the Gospels for physical maladies, it is generally used in Acts and the Epistles to refer to a weak faith or a weak conscience (cf. Acts 20:35; Rom. 6:19; 14:1; 1 Cor. 8:9-12). That it should be considered “weak” in this verse is clear in that another Greek word (kamnonta) in James 5:15, translated sick person, literally means “to be weary.” The only other use in the New Testament (Heb. 12:3) of that word clearly emphasizes this same meaning.
James was not referring to the bedfast, the diseased, or the ill. Instead he wrote to those who had grown weary, who had become weak both morally and spiritually in the midst of suffering. These are the ones who should call for the help of the elders of the church. The early church leaders were instructed (1 Thessalonians. 5:14) to “encourage the timid” and “help the weak” (asthenōn).
James said that the elders should pray over him (the weakened one) and anoint him with oil. It is significant that the word “anoint” is aleipsantes (“rub with oil”) not chriō (“ceremonially anoint”). The former is the “mundane” word and the latter is “the sacred and religious word” (Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, ninth ed. Reprint. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950, pp. 136-7).
“Therefore James is not suggesting a ceremonial or ritual anointing as a means of divine healing; instead, he is referring to the common practice of using oil as a means of bestowing honor, refreshment, and grooming” (Daniel R. Hayden, “Calling the Elders to Pray,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138. July-September 1981:264). The woman “poured” (aleiphō) perfume on Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:38). A host “put oil” (aleiphō) on the head of his guest (Luke 7:46). A person who is fasting should not be sad and ungroomed, but should “put oil” (aleiphō) on his head, and wash his face (Matt. 6:17). Thus James’ point is that the “weak” (asthenei) and “weary” (kamnonta) would be refreshed, encouraged, and uplifted by the elders who rubbed oil on the despondents’ heads and prayed for them.
For the fallen, discouraged, distressed weary believer, restoration is assured and the elders’ prayer offered in faith will make the sick person (lit., “weary one”) well (i.e., will restore him from discouragement and spiritual defeat), and the Lord will raise him up. That the restoration is spiritual, not physical, is further clarified by the assurance, if he has sinned, he will be forgiven. End of Transcriptions.
Thank you, Lord for Christian brothers and sisters who continually hold us, up in prayer, especially when we are spiritually weaken by various trials and tribulations.
Transforming power; The Work of God on Behalf of Man