Question Box: Prayer of faith saving the sick

Question or Topic Scripture
Prayer of faith saving the sick James 5:14-15

What are your thoughts concerning the practice described in James 5:14-15: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

Answer


The practice that is recommended by James is difficult for us to understand. Our western minds are not conditioned to the customs that were prevalent in the Middle East during the first century. The advice centers on ministering to the sick, but we are not told specifically whether James is referring to a natural or spiritual ailment.

Anointing with Oil

We will begin our consideration by looking first at one of the key elements in the account; the use of oil to anoint the sick person "in the name of the Lord". There are two very different situations in which oil is used to anoint in scripture. One is a ceremonial anointing, such as when the high priest or the king was anointed (see Exodus 29:7 and II Kings 9:3). This act of anointing was for the purpose of consecration, or sanctifying of the individual.

The other use of oil is simply the rubbing or pouring of oil on a person who was sick. In Mark 6:13, for example, we read: "And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them."

Jesus had sent out his disciples, as we are told in verse 7: "And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits." It would appear that oil was rubbed on the sick and then they were healed with the power of God. The practice suggested in James may have been related to this example.

The type of oil that was most often used in both types of anointing was olive oil. Olive oil is known to have medicinal as well as many other practical benefits. It was used in the healing process before modern medicine found more sophisticated methods. Even today, people rely on olive oil and other oils as natural remedies.

The situation in James involved a person who was sick and not one that was being consecrated. It would have been common practice in that day to rub a person with oil who was sick, or who needed refreshing. Jesus alluded to the use of oil for refreshing in Matthew 6:17. He taught that one should anoint themselves with oil when fasting, so as not to appear to others that they had been weakened by hunger.

Prayer

The other element of the account in James is the prayer of the elders. The sick person was anointed with oil and then they would pray for him. The anointing process may have represented the best known natural remedy for a sick person in that day. It may seem primitive when we compare it to our own experience.

The addition of prayer was to ask for God's blessing, so that the attempt at natural healing with the oil might prosper. They prayed so that the power of God might be manifested through the cure. Such would not be too far removed from the process involved when the disciples were allowed to use the Holy Spirit to heal those whom they had anointed with oil.

Today, we can imitate the principles of the same practice by taking advantage of the best possible medical attention. Then we would certainly add our own prayers, (as well as the prayers of the brethren), so that God would guide the physician involved and use his power in accordance with his will to bless both the treatment and the healing process.

The oil was administered in the name of the Lord. Today, we must remember to approach God through the name of Jesus for help in all of our ways. This is especially true whenever we are subjected to the risks that are associated with the treatment processes of men. We are convinced that when God is responsive to our prayers and is willing to help, the servants of God in any age will be healed. It matters little what practice is involved, or how clumsy the efforts of the healers may be.

Sin Committed?

We can not escape the implication in James that the sickness may be the result of sin. ("if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.") It is consistent with other teachings that sin may result in sickness. Jesus identified this connection in one particular case as we read in Matthew 9: "And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee" (Matthew 9:2).

There is a similar implication in I Corinthians 11:29-32:

  1. I Corinthians 11:29-32
  2. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body.
  3. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
  4. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
  5. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.

(This passage is subject to a variety of opinions. We may use it as the basis for a future discussion in this column.)

When we build a case for the relationship between sickness or affliction and sin, we must be very careful. The friends of Job are only one example of those who make the mistake of judging one who is being afflicted as a sinner.

We do well to take a careful look at our own ailments. Is there any potential that we are in need of a lesson from God? "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth" (Hebrews 12:6).

Conversely, when we are considering a brother's affliction, it would be a mistake to assume that God is trying to get his attention. We should always be willing to provide others with the benefit of doubt. Many trials are obviously a function of time and chance. God may monitor all of our reactions to these events, and even intervene in accordance with his will, but he may not have instigated them as a form of punishment.

Confession

James takes care to cover the possibility that there is a need for confession. He points out first, that the individual who is sick should initiate the healing process: "Let him call for the elders of the church" (James 5:14). He then adds (in verse 16), "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed."

The implication is that men ought to judge themselves during their own infirmities, and then, when it is appropriate, to ask for the elders to help us through a healing process. A repentant individual may also choose to confess his sin to others as part of a sincere desire to humble himself, as he seeks the blessing of God on his recovery.

We may want to keep in mind that it would be a mistake to consider our Ecclesial serving brethren as today's equivalent of the first century elders, who were ordained by the Apostles. Those whom we may consider to be elders in this dispensation are seriously handicapped. They are without either the endorsement or the guidance that was associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the time of James.

Conversely, our limited qualifications should not be an excuse for any brother to shirk his responsibility to provide support to those who may be seeking their help in the provision of the "patience and comfort of the scriptures."

Spiritual Application?

The health of the natural body is often directly connected to the health of the spirit. There is no need to limit our application of the practice in James strictly to physical conditions. Spiritual sickness or weakness in the faith is a natural extension of the lessons indicated in the account. A person who is weak in the faith and struggling spiritually should find guidance in the practice suggested by James. He may be "weak and sickly" through depression or loneliness rather than a physical ailment, but he can still benefit from anointing and prayer.

The Word of God

A weak individual may well recognize that his problems are the result of his own foolishness. His vessel may be almost empty and his lamp is on the verge of going out. The oil of anointing that he needs for his recovery is the word of God. The elders (or any of his brethren) may be asked to help him to fulfill his need for the comfort of the scriptures. Their accompanying prayers will be a logical part of their assistance.

Depending on his own circumstances, he may also choose to use this visit as an opportunity for confession. James wrote: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (James 5:16). Confession of our sin to our Heavenly Father, (through our mediator) is an essential part of the process for forgiveness. Confession to others is only to be considered as a willing and voluntary option, not as an obligation.

Conclusions

The practice suggested in James may be used for either natural or spiritual sickness. The advise is certainly sound and whether the treatment is natural medicine or the word of God, prayer is a fitting companion for it's application.

The one key that we should remember is the importance of individual responsibility in the desire for treatment. We must first recognize that we are sick. This is usually much easier in natural sickness then it is in a spiritual weakness. In either case, we must be willing to seek help in the process of healing.

Humility is important when we look for recovery, especially when we are aware that our own sin is related to the problem. Our pride is abased when we ask for others to help. God gives his grace only to the humble. His blessing is essential so that after the oil and the prayers, the Lord may raise us up.

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