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James 5:13-20 Biblical Commentary
Chapter 5 started with warnings to the rich, who will soon “weep and howl for (the) miseries that are coming on (them),” because the Lord has heard the cries of the laborers whom the rich have defrauded (5:1-6).
In 5:7-10, James counsels patience until the Lord comes again––patience like that of a farmer waiting for the fruit to appear. He also warns his readers not to grumble against one another “so that you won’t be judged.” He holds up the prophets as an example of suffering and patience.
Now, in 5:13-20, James emphasizes prayer, confession, and the value of redeeming those who have wandered from the truth.
JAMES 5:13-15. THE PRAYER OF FAITH
13 Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises. 14 Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, 15 and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
“Is any among you suffering? Let him pray” (v. 13a). This verse has a prescription for both ends of human emotion. If suffering, pray. If cheerful, sing praises.
The suffering of which this verse speaks could be physical, emotional, or circumstantial (such as being sick or homeless). The antidote is prayer, not only for God to solve the problem, but also for the strength and grace to bear it.
“Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises” (v. 13b). Being cheerful depends as much on us as on our circumstances. Some people are perpetually gloomy, and others always have a smile on their face. Body chemistry has something to do with that. Some people are naturally sunny, and others less so.
But habits make a difference. Anna in The King and I sang:
“Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.”
Anna discovered that her deception not only fooled others, but it fooled her as well. She no longer felt afraid.
An old Gospel song gives similar advice:
“When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”
The Apostle Paul’s prescription was:
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks,
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
So pray, whistle a happy tune, count your blessings, rejoice, and sing praises to God.
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders (Greek: presbyteros) of the assembly” (Greek: ekklesias––church) (v. 14a). In Israel, an elder (Hebrew: zaqen) was typically an older man chosen for his maturity and wisdom to serve in a position of authority (as a representative of the people, governor, judge, or adviser). Scribes and Pharisees were New Testament examples––arbiters of “the tradition of the elders” (Matthew 15:2; 16:21; 26:3, 47, 57: 27:1, 3, 12, 20, 41; 28:2; Acts 4:5, 8, 23; 6:12).
The New Testament church continued that tradition. Peter referred to himself as “a fellow elder” (sympresbyteros 1 Peter 5:1), as did John (presbyteros 2 John 1:1; 3:1).
Peter exhorted his fellow elders to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, not for dishonest gain, but willingly; neither as lording it over those entrusted to you, but making yourselves examples to the flock,” promising that “when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the crown of glory that doesn’t fade away”(1 Peter 5:2-4). He exhorted younger people to “be subject to the elder” (1 Peter 5:5).
Some consider elder (presbyteros) and bishop (Greek: episkope) to be different names for the same office, but Paul treats them separately in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (episkope) and 5:17-22 (presbyteros) as well as in Titus 1:5-6 (presbyteros) and 1:7-9 (episkopos).
“and let them pray over him” (v. 14b). The first duty of the elders to the sick is to pray. James gives no instruction regarding the content of such prayers. Prayers for physical healing, emotional well-being, and spiritual discernment are all appropriate.
“anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (v. 14c). Olive oil was the most common, and was used for purposes both secular (food, lamp fuel, and medicinal ointments) and religious (anointing kings, priests, prophets; tabernacle/temple uses; purification rituals; and offerings and sacrifices).
James doesn’t give details regarding the type or quantity of oil to be used––or where it is to be applied. He says only that the anointing should be done “in the name of the Lord.”
In Exodus 30:22-25, Moses gave a recipe for anointing oil that included myrrh, cinnamon, cane, cassia, and olive oil that produced a batch of about a half liter (one quart). It was to be used only for holy purposes, and would have served for many applications.
Early in their ministry, the twelve “anointed many with oil who were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13).
Catholics and some others practice anointing the sick with oil––but most denominations don’t. Perhaps that is because this is the only place in the New Testament where Christians are specifically tasked with anointing the sick with oil. Perhaps it is because many New Testament healings didn’t involve anointing with oil. However, it would seem helpful to recover and encourage this practice.
Not everyone has the gift of healing, but Jesus did. Paul did. Other apostles did. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing is not still alive today.
“and the prayer of faith will heal (Greek: sozo) him who is sick” (v. 15a). It isn’t simply the prayer that opens the door to healing, but “the prayer of faith.”
The word sozo can mean heal, but it can also mean save. Perhaps James intends his readers to understand both as true. He says that the sick person, if a sinner (which all of us are) will be forgiven. Therefore, I understand sozo in this verse to mean that the person will be healed of illness––and will also be saved from sin.
“and the Lord will raise (Greek: egeiro) him up” (v. 15b) Jesus used this same Greek word to speak of his own resurrection (John 2:19-22), and Paul used it to speak of our resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:15; 2 Corinthians 4:14). This is another place where we could interpret James in two ways: (1) that the sick person will be raised from his sickbed and (2) that the door is open for his resurrection. I believe that both interpretations are legitimate.
“If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (v. 15c). Spiritual healing is as important as physical healing. Prayers of faith can accomplish both.
JAMES 5:16-18. CONFESS YOUR OFFENSES AND PRAY FOR EACH OTHER
16 Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it didn’t rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 He prayed again, and the sky gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.
“Confess (Greek: exomologeo) your offenses (Greek: hamartia––sins) to one another” (v. 16a). The word exomologeo means to confess or to profess or to agree. It (and the related word, homologeo) can be used for a profession of faith (1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15) or a confession of sin (1 John 1:6). It is the latter that is meant here.
The word hamartia means sin––an offense––missing the mark with regard to truth or duty––failure to meet the standard. Our sins are by their nature sins against God, but they are also sins against our neighbors or fellow-believers.
Confession of sin can be (1) to God alone, (2) to the person against whom we have sinned, (3) to a spiritual adviser, or (4) to the entire church (Jacobs, 759).
James’ requirement in this verse that we confess our sins to one another suggests that we are to confess sins committed against the people against whom we have sinned. Confession to the entire church would usually be reserved for a situation in which we are guilty of a public scandal that has besmirched the reputation of the church at large. Confessing our sins to one another doesn’t preclude also confessing them privately to God. Both are needful when we have injured our neighbor.
Confessing to Christian brothers or sisters that we have sinned against them can begin the healing of relationships. It needs to be done with sensitivity, and in the case of a serious breach might be best done with the advice and help of a trusted spiritual counselor. For instance, confessing to a man that we have had sexual relationships with his wife might create more problems than it could ever resolve.
“and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective” (v. 16b). Now James returns to the theme of prayer, which permeates this entire passage. Keep in mind that prayer is the second step of a two-step process, the first step being confessing to one another.
In this verse, James calls us to pray for one another. That can be difficult, and implies forgiveness. Once again, this step is important to healing, both physical and spiritual.
James promises that the “insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.”
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it didn’t rain on the earth for three years and six months. He prayed again, and the sky gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit” (vv. 17-18). James uses the example of Elijah to illustrate his contention that the prayers of a righteous person have great power. The incident to which he alludes is recorded in 1 Kings 17-18, which also tells the stories of the healing/resurrection of the son of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah’s triumph over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel.
Oddly, the account of drought and rain in 1 Kings doesn’t mention Elijah praying. The stories of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah’s triumph over the priests of Baal do.
JAMES 5:19-20. TURN HIM BACK & SAVE A SOUL
19 Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins.
“Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth (Greek: aletheia), and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins” (vv. 19-20).
Aletheia (truth) is that which is real, untainted by falsehood. There are different kinds of truth. A person who avoids telling lies will gain a reputation as truthful. That is critical to our Christian witness.
However, the greater truth is that in which we believe and on which we have staked our lives. For Christians, that means Jesus. Jesus is truth personified––“the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus promised, “If you remain in my word, then you…will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
The promise is that, when people stray from the faith and we help them to find their way back to faith, we will have helped to save their souls from death. While this could refer to physical death (because some sins put a person’s physical life in jeopardy), the more significant salvation is spiritual and eternal.
The promise is also that turning a sinner from the error of his ways “will cover a multitude of sins.” Are these the sins of the errant person or the one who leads him/her back to the fold. Quite possibly both (see Ezekiel 3:21; 1 Timothy 4:16).
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