The following is from Way of Life’s Advanced Bible Studies Series course on the Epistle of James.
I've followed the practice of James 5 and I’ve seen it practiced by others for 40 years, and it is a great blessing. In fact, I don’t know if I can recall a case in which God didn’t heal in response to the anointing of oil and the prayer of faith for the sick in according with these instructions (though I don’t believe that He is obligated to do so or that He always does heal in such cases). I’m just talking about my own experience with this matter.
I don't understand why so many seem to ignore the passage. Perhaps because the charismatics have so abused it.
1. Miscellaneous introductory points
a. The Bible nowhere condemns doctors and medicine, but it does condemn trusting in man rather than God (2 Chron. 16:12)
b. This passage shows that the apostolic gift of healing would pass away. Here the elders of the church are called rather than someone with the gift of healing. The elders do not lay hands on the person or rebuke the sickness or cast out devils, but they simply anoint him with oil and pray for him. The gift of healing was associated with the apostolic age, and God gave the apostles sign gifts to authenticate their calling (2 Cor. 12:12). See Mark 3:14-15; Acts 2:43; 4:33; 5:12, 15; 19:12. The apostles laid the foundation for the church (Eph. 2:20), and when they died their sign gifts ceased. If the sign miracles were operative throughout the church age, they could not have been effective as apostolic sign gifts.
Even in the early churches, all Christians could not do the sign miracles of the apostles. The only exceptions were a few men upon whom the apostles had laid hands. There was no general miracle-working experience among the first churches. If there had been, Paul could not have pointed to his miracle-working ability as a special sign. His would have been just another miracle-working Christian ministry if all could have performed such things; but all could not. If all could have performed miracles as a matter of course, the Christians would not have called for Peter to come and raise Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:36-42). Peter’s miracle that day was the “sign of an apostle.”
c. James begins by saying that the afflicted should pray and the merry should sing psalms (Jam. 5:13). We see that God’s people are not required to pretend to be something they are not or to try to “work up” any certain condition. When I attended Pentecostal meetings as a young Christian, I felt great pressure to act out something I did not feel. There was pressure to be exuberant in praise and to exhibit various “gifts” such as tongues, but James does not support that type of thing. If I am afflicted, I am not instructed to be merry, and if I am merry, I am not instructed to be afflicted. If I am afflicted, I need to pray and seek God’s face for wisdom and strength. If I am merry, I need to sing and glorify the Lord. This does not mean that the merry should not pray or the afflicted should not sing, but James is showing what should be emphasized in each particular situation.
d. James isn’t referring merely to healing in a case involving sin. He doesn't say, “Is any sinning among you, let him call for the elders” or, “Is any sinning and in need of healing among you, let him call for the elders.” He simply says, “Is any sick among you, let him call for the elders.” The mention of sin comes later. So sickness in general, regardless of the cause, is the first issue he deals with. Only later, after describing the anointing with oil and the prayer of faith saving the sick, does he say, “AND if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” The sin matter is a separate issue, though it can be related because sickness can be a result of unconfessed sin. But the first matter that the passage deals with is the healing of sickness.
2. Instructions for praying for the sick (Jam. 5:14-16)
a. Consider the sickness
The word “sick” in verses 14-15 does not refer to a minor thing like a cold. Two different Greek words are used in these verses. In verse 14 it is astheneo, which means “diseased” or “impotent” or “without strength.” In verse 15 it is kamno, which is elsewhere translated “grow weary” and “faint” (Heb. 12:3). Verse 15 indicates that James is referring to a type of sickness that causes one to be bedridden, because it says “the Lord shall raise him up.” You don’t have to be “raised up” unless you are bedridden or otherwise have a pretty serious illness.
b. Consider the call (“let him call,” Jam. 5:14). The sick person must take the initiative in this matter. James does not give support for the elders running around with their oil anointing all and sundry.
c. Consider the context (“call the elders of the church,” Jam. 5:14). This is not a healing ministry or campaign. It is not a sacrament performed by a priest. The practice described by James assumes membership in a church. Those who despise pastor-elders and think they don’t need to be members of a church are shut out from this practice.
d. Consider the procedure (Jam. 5:14-16)
The sick person is to confess his faults (Jam. 5:16). Sin can bring sickness. See John 5:14; 1 Cor. 11:29-30.
Observe that we are instructed to confess our faults, not our sins. The standard Greek word for sin is harmartia, but that is not used here. Instead, James uses the word paraptoma, which refers to “a side-slip, lapse, deviation, or error” (Strong). Elsewhere it is translated “fall” (Rom. 11:11), “offence” (Rom. 4:25), “trespass” (Mt. 6:14). James is instructing us to confess those faults that are committed against other brethren. He is not asking us to confess our deepest sins that we have committed against God. Those are confessed to God directly. “The confession referred to is for ‘faults’ with reference to ‘one another,’ that is, where one has injured another; and nothing is said of confessing faults to those whom we have not injured at all” (Barnes). Modern versions such as the NIV and NASV erroneously read “sin” instead of “faults” in James 5:16 because they follow the corrupt Westcott-Hort Greek text which replaces the word paraptoma with hamartia.
The open confession of faults can bring spiritual victory. When I was a young Christian I was struggling to quit smoking and had been defeated many times. Finally I stood up during a Wednesday prayer meeting and confessed this to the church and asked them to pray, and I have never smoked since then.
There is no support in this passage for the Roman Catholic practice of “auricular confession” (confession in the ear of a priest). “This passage is one on which Roman Catholics rely. The doctrine which is held on that point is, that it is a duty to confess to a priest, at certain seasons, all our sins, secret and open, of which we have been guilty; all our improper thoughts, desires, words, and actions; and that the priest has power to declare on such confession that the sins are forgiven. But never was any text less pertinent to prove a doctrine than this passage to demonstrate that.
First, the confession here enjoined is not to be made by a person in health, that he may obtain salvation, but by a sick person, that he may be healed. Second, as mutual confession is here enjoined, a priest would be as much bound to confess to the people as the people to a priest. Third, no mention is made of a priest at all, or even of a minister of religion, as the one to whom the confession is to be made. Fourth, the confession referred to is for ‘faults’ with reference to ‘one another,’ that is, where one has injured another; and nothing is said of confessing faults to those whom we have not injured at all. Fifth, there is no mention here of absolution, either by a priest or any other person. Sixth, if anything is meant by absolution that is scriptural, it may as well be pronounced by one person as another; by a layman as a clergyman. All that it can mean is, that God promises pardon to those who are truly penitent, and this fact may as well be stated by one person as another.
No priest, no man whatever, is empowered to say to another either that he is truly penitent, or to forgive sins. ‘Who can forgive sins but God only?’ 1 Kings 8:38-39. Who can put himself in the place of God, and presume to pardon the sins which his creatures have committed against him? Seventh, the practice of ‘auricular confession’ is ‘evil, and only evil, an that continually.’ Nothing gives so much power to a priesthood as the supposition that they have the power of absolution.
Nothing serves so much to pollute the soul as to keep impure thoughts before the mind long enough to make the confession, and to state them in words. Nothing gives a man so much power over a female as to have it supposed that it is required by religion, and appertains to the sacred office, that all that passes in the mind should be disclosed to him. The very thing which a seducer would desire would be the power of knowing all the thoughts of his intended victim; and if the thoughts which pass through the soul could be known, virtue would be safe nowhere. Nothing probably under the name of religion has ever done more to corrupt the morals of a community than the practice of auricular confession” (Barnes).
The sick person is to be anointed with oil in the name of the Lord (Jam. 5:14).
By invoking the name of the Lord, James is saying that this procedure is to be done by the Lord’s authority. To anoint in the name of the Lord is to acknowledge that only by His power are people blessed; we have no power in ourselves and there is no power in religious rituals.
The fact that the sick is anointed in the name of the Lord shows it is not a matter of using oil as a remedy for sickness (as in Luke 10:34). It is a matter, rather, of anointing with oil ceremonially, as a symbol of the Lord’s healing power. In the Old Testament the anointing of oil was symbolic of the Holy Spirit. “Oil was a fitting symbol of the Spirit, or spiritual principle of life, by virtue of its power to sustain and fortify the vital energy; and the anointing oil, which was prepared according to divine instructions, was therefore a symbol of the Spirit of God, as the principle of spiritual life which proceeds from God and fills the natural being of the creature with the powers of divine life” (People’s Bible Encyclopedia).
Since James does not say what kind of oil is to be used or how the anointing is to be done, this is up to each church to decide. It could be olive oil, baby oil, or vegetable oil. The elders might anoint the head, the forehead, or the head, hand, and foot. If the exact type of oil and exact type of anointing were a necessary part of the procedure, the Bible would have been more specific.
The sick is to be prayed for (Jam. 5:14).
Prayer is mentioned seven times in James 5:13-18; thus, the emphasis is on prayer rather than on the oil or the anointing.
What is the prayer of faith? It is not faith that God will surely heal but faith that God will accomplish His perfect will. Compare Hebrews 11:6. God requires that we believe that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. This is what we must believe. The prayer of faith is faith in God’s goodness to do what is right and best in His perfect will in that particular situation. The first principle of prayer is that it must be submitted to God’s will (1 John 5:14-15). This is what Jesus taught (Mat. 6:9-10).
Faith obeys even when it does not understand everything.
e. Consider the promise
This is not a promise of healing in all cases. As we have seen, the first principle of prayer is to accept God’s will (Mat. 6:9-10). To properly interpret the Bible, we must compare Scripture with Scripture, and elsewhere we see that God does not always heal sicknesses.
Timothy was not healed supernaturally of his often infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23).
Trophimus was not healed when he was sick in Miletum (2 Tim. 4:20).
Paul was not healed of the sickness described in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. The Greek word for “infirmities” (2 Cor. 12:10) is elsewhere translated “sickness” (Jn. 11:4) and “disease” (Acts 28:9; 1 Tim. 6:20). Three times Paul asked God to take away this affliction, but the Bible says He refused to do so. Paul was told that this infirmity was something God wanted him to have for his spiritual well-being. Upon learning this, Paul surrendered to God’s will and wisely said: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). This is a perfect example for Christians today. We should pray for healing and release from other kinds of trials, but when God does not heal and does not release us, we must bow to His will and accept that situation as something from the hand of God. This is not lack of faith; it is wise obedience to the sovereignty of Almighty God.
Further, James does not promise immediate healing. James does not say when or how God will do this.
Observe that James does not say God will “heal the sick”; he says God will “save the sick” (Jam. 5:15). There is more to saving the sick than merely healing his physical body. In Isaiah 63:9 it refers to all that God does for us. There is also spiritual healing (Heb. 12:13). God saved Paul in the situation described in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 by giving him wisdom to accept the trial. We know that God often does heal the sick, but biblical prayer is asking rather than demanding. If the “prayer of faith” always healed the sick, no believer would die, whereas we know that every single believer in the past 2,000 years has died. Further, Paul looked upon death as an advantage (Phil. 1:23).
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