Healing in James 5:7-20
The following is provided as supplementary material to a sermon Jonathan preached on James 5:7-20 in September 2021. It considers the issue of prayer and healing in the context of James 5:14-20.
I would like to consider briefly three areas: the problem, the practice and the promise.
1. The problem: sickness or sin?
Firstly the problem. We are introduced to a situation where someone is, according to verse 14, “sick”. The word used here is astheneo which literally means ‘weak’. It is the usual word in the New Testament for physical sickness but it is also used to denote moral incapacity and even sin. That there is, at least sometimes, a relationship between sickness and sin is suggested in the following verses.
This is a difficult area to consider briefly, but suffice to say that it is the biblical view that sickness is sometimes caused by sin. Jesus himself suggested as much when he healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda and warned him to “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (Jn 5:14b). But it is also true that there is no simple correlation and much sickness is not caused by sin – at least not by the sin of the individual affected. Again, Jesus himself made this point when his disciples asked of the man born blind whether it was he or his parents who has sinned. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (Jn 9:3).
In modern medicine it is recognised that bad lifestyle choices can lead to ill health, and it is obvious that illness and disability can be inflicted on others by, for example negligence or lack of concern.
Sickness is also a powerful metaphor for sin and Jesus himself used the healing of sickness to dramatically demonstrate the authority he had to bring about the spiritual healing that comes from the forgiveness of sins, e.g. in healing and forgiving the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends: “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins....” (Mt 9:5-6a). This brings us to consider the practice – to what it is to be done in response to the problem.
2. The practice: the “prayer of faith”
There are two situations discussed in this passage, the summoning by a person who is sick of the elders of the church who then anoint them with oil and pray, and the mutual confession of sin and praying for one another. Anointing with oil was both a medicinal activity and a symbol of God’s activity and grace – but it was not that which made the difference. What is efficacious is what the NIV translates the “prayer offered in faith” (5:15), or more literally, the prayer of faith.
Elijah is given as an example of what it means to pray the prayer of faith, in other words to ask God to give to us according to his will. Elijah’s prayer was granted to him not because he was special – in fact we are told that he was a man just like us – but because he prayed in line with God’s will, in line with what God had said he was going to do. (If you need convincing of this, read carefully 1 Kings 18:1, 42-45 – Elijah only prays for rain at the end of the chapter because the Lord tells him at the beginning that that is what he is going to do). Elijah did not pray presumptuously, but humbly and from what he knew of God’s will. That is the prayer of faith and it is that which is powerful and effective (cf 5:16b) – in fact it is quite unstoppable.
The prayer of faith is to pray to God “thy will be done”. And it has to be said that it is not always God’s will to heal in this life or to remove suffering. Many of us here have asked for God to heal or relieve suffering, but he hasn’t. Paul asked for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, but it wasn’t. Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for the cup to be taken from him, but only if it was God’s will – but it was not. “Prayer,” said Robert Law, “is not getting man’s will done in heaven. It’s getting God’s will done on earth.” And that is ultimately what is best: many Christians can testify along with Jean Ingelow that ‘I have lived to thanks God that not all my prayers have been answered’.
We should only expect God to do what he has promised to do. That is what it means to pray in faith: any other prayer is wishful thinking at best, or presumption at worst. So what has God promised? This brings us to our final area.
3. The promise: ‘healing’ or ‘salvation’?
According to the NIV, the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person ‘well’, but the original Greek word used is exactly the same as in verse 20 which speaks of salvation, sozo. We have an English word ‘salve’ that reflects the ambiguity. The promise is that both the prayer of faith of the elders and the act of turning a sinner from the error of his ways leads to the individual being saved or rescued, in some cases from physical illness and physical death, and in others from spiritual illness and the judgement of spiritual death. Another ambiguity is the use in the same verse of the term ‘raise up’ (egero, verse 15), which can again have this double sense of either rising up as from a sick bed, or rising up from death, as in resurrection.
The sure promise we have is for those who put their faith in Jesus, and who persevere in troubles and turn to God in faithful prayer. They will experience the ultimate spiritual healing and resurrection from the dead that is modelled by the physical healing that God sometimes brings about. The rising up from the sickbed prefigures that great rising up, the harvest of the righteous, that will occur on the Last Day when he Lord returns. It is with patience and prayer that we face our troubles as we look forwards to that promised season of unalloyed joy and abundant fruitfulness.