Is James 5 for Me?
(Excerpts from ‘The Healing Promise’ by Richard Mayhue)
A casual reading of James 5 can raise more questions than it answers. Our challenge is to properly interpret this passage and then apply it in practical terms. To be successful, we will have to carefully examine every bit of the text. Here are some legitimate questions that James 5 raises: Is the passage limited to the first century or is it applicable today? Does it apply to all humanity or just Christians? Does it extend to all Christians or just some? Is its purpose to prepare people to die or to restore people to quality living? Does it refer to physical, emotional, or spiritual problems? Are the problems in James 5 severe or ordinary? Is the practice to be done in a public service or a private one? Does the intent involve medicinal or symbolic anointing? Is the healing miraculous or providential? Is the promise absolute or conditional?
Generally speaking, a picture is worth a thousand words. That is why James wisely used 30 percent of the text to illustrate his point (37 out of 130 words). Elijah and Israel (5:17–18) portray a parallel to the truth which James teaches in 5:14–16 and then preaches in 5:19–20. If we understand the illustration first, then we will have the key to unlocking the practical riches of James 5:13–20. Fortunately, the illustration is exceptionally clear.
The prophet Elijah lived a righteous life. He was a man with a nature (pathos) like ours, and his prayers accomplished much. Because of sin in Israel, Elijah announced that rain would be withheld (1 Kings 17:1). For 31/2 years the land suffered drought (James 5:17).
This is not unexpected if we understand the Old Testament context. God had promised disease on the land (including drought) if Israel forsook her covenant with Him (Deut. 28:23–24; 29:22–27). Later Solomon prayed with this in mind:
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against Thee, and they pray toward this place and confess Thy name and turn from their sin when Thou dost afflict them, then hear Thou in heaven and forgive the sin of Thy servants and of Thy people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Thy land, which Thou hast given Thy people for an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35–36; cf. 2 Chron. 6:26–27).
After King Ahab’s day, Israel experienced God’s curse on several more occasions (Jer. 14:1–9; Amos 1:2; Hag. 1:9–11). God chastised the nation physically because of prolonged patterns of unrepentant sin.
God told Solomon how the curse could be reversed: ‘If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain … and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land’ (2 Chron. 7:13–14).
James uses this exact experience of Israel as an illustration of what he is teaching on a personal level in James 5:14–15. King Ahab had sinned grievously without precedent (1 Kings 16:30, 33). So God chastised the king and his kingdom with drought (1 Kings 17:1, 7; 18:5). Not until after Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal and Asherah did the people repent—even to the point of slaying the idolatrous priests (1 Kings 18:37, 39–40). When the people turned back to God, the need for physical chastisement of the land no longer existed, so Elijah prayed and it rained (1 Kings 18:42, 45). God healed the land according to His promise to Solomon.
Now that we understand James’ illustration, let’s go back to James 5:13–20 as a whole and see what we can learn.
James writes in 5:13, ‘Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any among you cheerful? Let him sing praises.’ The word for ‘suffering’ in verse 13 should not be confused with the word for ‘sick’ in verse 14 (although sickness could be a part of the suffering). ‘Suffering’ is a general word that may involve either mental or emotional affliction or a combination of both. In context, it looks back to James 5:10, where the noun form refers to the prophets who suffered (cf. 2 Tim. 2:3, 9). James writes, in effect, ‘If you have a problem in your life because of circumstantial suffering, look to God in prayer. If everything is going well and you are cheerful, look to God with praise.’
Then James shifts to a new emphasis with ‘sickness’ in 5:14. The word for ‘sick’ involves the Greek word astheneia (literally, ‘without strength’), which has the basic meaning of being weak either emotionally, spiritually, or physically. Only context can give the author’s intended meaning, but what is important to note here is that the word means ‘to be weak.’ However, the term does not indicate the severity of the weakness.
Let’s look ahead now at verse 15: ‘The prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick.’ The word ‘sick’ is not the same Greek word as that used in verse 14—astheneia is used in verse 14 and kamnō is used in verse 15. It is the comparative use of those two words that helps us to identify the severity of the weakness
Kamnō in its most general sense means ‘fatigue,’ or something that is worn out or weary. It described documents that have become threadbare by frequent use.
From a broad survey of Greek usage, we learn that kamnō frequently meant severely sick in the physical realm; that is, sick to the point that death is imminent. Thus kamnō gives us the added dimension to understand that James is talking about a very serious problem, not just an ordinary occurrence. James 5 does not describe some generic ritual that Christians should engage in every time they encounter illness of any sort. That would trivialize what God intended to be sacred.
Some have suggested that James 5:14–15 does not deal with the physical at all, but rather with emotional or spiritual distress. However, when you consider 1) the very normal use of astheneia in the Gospels and Acts, 2) the fact that kamnō refers to serious physical illness, and 3) the illustration of Elijah in James 5:17–18 (which unquestionably establishes the problem as physical chastisement), then the suggestion that James 5 doesn’t deal with the physical is less than compelling. Undoubtedly the author’s word choices in James 5:14–15 combined with the illustration in James 5:17–18 led the kjv, nasb, and niv translation scholars to unanimously use ‘sick’ in both 5:14 and 5:15 to translate both astheneia and kamnō. Bible commentator Doug Moo writes:
James’ language makes it impossible to eliminate the physical dimension. First, while astheneō can denote spiritual weakness, this meaning is usually made clear by a qualifier (cf. Rom. 14:2, ‘in faith’; 1 Cor. 8:7, ‘in conscience’) or the context. Moreover, in the material that is most relevant to James, the Gospels, astheneō almost always refers to illness. The same is true for kamnō. And iaomai, when not used in an Old Testament quotation, always refers in the New Testament to physical healing. Beyond this, it is significant that the only other mention of ‘anointing with oil’ in the New Testament comes in a description of physical healing (Mark 6:13).
The Process of Healing
It is clear from James’ frequent use of ‘brethren,’ a common New Testament term for Christians, that he is writing to believers. James also writes of his readers’ faith in Jesus Christ (2:1). So we know that James 5 applies to Christians today, and is not limited to the Jewish church of the first century only.
James says to the one who is physically sick in a severe way, ‘Let him call for the elders’ (5:14). ‘Call’ (proskaleō) means to summons or to call to one’s side. The sick one is to ask the elders to come to him; he is not (most likely prevented by physical infirmity) to go to them. Therefore, anointing services that are held in the front of the church—the kind to which the church invites the sick—are foreign to the language and meaning of James 5. In fact, James 5 does not support the idea of any public meeting for healing. The rite is prescribed only for members of the church; no public invitation is given indiscriminately to the sick and afflicted of the world.
Who are the elders? They were the men whom God appointed to oversee the church. The qualifications for eldership are found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. Three words in the New Testament describe the office, with each describing a different aspect of it. ‘Overseer’ refers to the basic function of leading; ‘elder’ indicates the maturity of one’s life; and ‘pastor’ implies the role of daily activities. These are righteous men of prayer and spiritual leaders like Elijah.
The sick Christian is to call for the elders to come to him. The arriving men will first anoint with oil and then pray over the person. Unmistakably, confession of sin plays prominently in the process. James 5:15–16 strongly implies that an unconfessed pattern of sin in the life of a believer is responsible for the weakened physical condition. And in the immediate context, James focuses directly or indirectly on sin in each verse of James 5:15–20.
Notice also that the sick believer calls for the elders, not someone with ‘gifts of healings’ (1 Cor. 12:9, 28, 30). When sin is the problem, sickness can follow from guilt over a sin (as with David in Ps. 32) or directly from the sin itself. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul said that some of the Corinthians were weak and sick and some of them even slept (were dead) because they made an abomination of the bread and the cup. There is even sin unto death (1 John 5:16). James focuses on spiritual problems that lead to God-imposed physical infirmities.
The question has often been raised as to whether the anointing is medicinal or symbolic. In the first century, oil was used in a medicinal sense; the ancients believed that oil had a healing effect on people. The Samaritan picked up the man who had been mugged and poured oil and wine on his wounds (Luke 10:34). The apostles anointed people and healed them (Mark 6:13; cf. Isa. 1:6).
The expected word for symbolic anointing, chriō, is not used here. The word in our text, aleiphō, is normally used in extrabiblical Greek literature to speak of anointing with oil for medicinal purposes. But three times in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint translation—Gen. 31:13; Exod. 40:13; and Num. 3:3) the Greek verb that was used translated the Hebrew word where symbolic or ceremonial anointing was meant. Therefore, whether the anointing in James 5 is used in a medicinal or symbolic sense must be determined by the context, not by linguistics alone.
Let us ask this question: ‘If the oil were understood in a medicinal sense, how would it cure cancer, tuberculosis, arteriosclerosis, or a myriad of other diseases?’ Actually, we know that oil provides no medicinal aid for any of these problems. If it did, then there would be no need for the elders’ prayer and the Lord’s power. Further, the view that oil represents medical care does not take into account the remainder of James 5.
Both the well-known use of the term ‘anoint’ and common sense point to a symbolic use of the oil. But if the oil is symbolic, what does it represent? In light of the context of physical weakness and the symbolic use of aleiphō in James 5:14, the most normal sense from a well-known Old Testament usage would be to picture what is promised in the passage—physical well-being (cf. Ps. 23:5; 133:2). Oil symbolized health and well-being, which is what James promised would be forthcoming (5:15). So the elders picture the outcome of physical well-being by symbolically anointing the repentant Christian with oil ‘in the name of the Lord’ (James 5:14). It is by the Lord’s authority (‘in the name of the Lord’) that they act.
After the anointing comes prayer: ‘Let them pray over him’ (5:14). Who does the praying? The elders. A ‘prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick’ (verse 15). So whose prayer and whose faith is it? It is the elders’ prayer and faith. The faith of the sick person actually has little, if anything, to do with the restoration (cf. Matt. 8:10, 13; Mark 2:5). He has already expressed his faith by calling the elders. This truth once and for all exposes the error that says if a person has enough faith he will be healed, or that if a person is not healed at a healing service, it was because of his lack of faith. These common assertions do not square with James 5. The effective prayer of righteous elders, like Elijah, accomplishes much on behalf of the sick one.
The End Result
‘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’ (5:15). The link between the physical and the spiritual could not be clearer!
Note that the instrument for raising up the sick person is not his prayer but that of the elders. The power that raises him up is not the elders’ power; it is the Lord’s intervention. This passage superbly illustrates 1 John 5:14–15, where God promises to answer prayer that corresponds to His will.
This becomes the point of James 5:13–20: A believer has wandered off into sin and has remained in sin. God has chastised him by bringing sickness into his life to bring him back to Himself. When the believer recognizes that God has brought an untimely and severe illness to incapacitate him, he is to call for the elders of the church. The elders are then to come. He is to confess his sin, and they are to anoint him with oil and pray over him. If sin is the cause of the sickness, then God will raise him up.
The healing is never said to be instant or miraculous, but it will be complete. Because sin is cared for through confession, there will be no further need for chastisement. So God takes away the chastisement and the believer is restored to physical health. This is the absolute promise of James 5:15 in context and in harmony with the point of the Elijah illustration in James 5:17–18. When the condition of physical chastisement for unrepentant sin is dealt with according to James 5, the repentant Christian will be healed because there is no longer a need for physical chastisement. We might consider this the ultimate form of a divinely imposed church discipline which ends with restoration (cf. Matt. 18:15–20).
Those who use James 5 to advocate a restoration of physical healing ministries to the church miss the whole point. James emphasizes dealing with sin, not securing physical healing. What the church needs today is a renewed emphasis on confessing and dealing with sin.
James 5:19–20 amplifies the previous verses on healing. Verses 19 and 20 say in effect, ‘My brothers, if any believer among you strays from the truth and another believer turns him back so that he returns to the straight and narrow, let him know that he who turns a sinning Christian from the error of his way will save his soul from physical death and will restore him from the consequences of a multitude of sins.’
Yet doesn’t the saved person already have his soul redeemed? Once again a look at the Greek language helps. The text here literally reads ‘will save his soul.’ The word for ‘soul’ is frequently used to describe the person—the whole human being. Physical restoration, not redemptive salvation, fits best here. The niv translation accurately catches James’ thrust: ‘will save him from death.’ It is not unlike Ezekiel’s exhortation in Ezekiel 18:24–29. The use of sōzō (‘to save’) in both James 5:15 and 5:20 strongly suggests that James 5:19–20 summarizes what James has just written in 5:14–18.
The redeemed sinner will be saved from the physical death which can come through God’s chastising discipline. James writes in the spirit of Matthew 18:15–20 and Galatians 6:1, with the goal of restoration in view. We can draw at least three conclusions from James 5:19–20:
- God asks believers to be responsible for restoring straying brothers and sisters in the faith.
- To continue in unchecked sin can result in death because the believer has disqualified himself from representing God or accomplishing His work.
- Restoration is possible even if the sins are frequent and serious; confrontation will cover a multitude of sins. We cannot sin so badly that God cannot forgive us, but for God to forgive us we need to turn from our sin back to God.
If James 5 does not apply to your own physical situation, what should you do? How can you biblically face sickness whose cause is not a pattern of sin and whose source is not the chastising hand of God? Very simply, look to the Lord in prayer. Invite your pastor, your family and your Christian friends to pray that God’s will be done and that God’s glory be manifested through you. Prayer always remains in season.