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Bible Search
James #21 - chapter 5, verses 13-18
The Book of James
The Test of Righteous Praying
James 5:13-18
 
We return tonight to our study of the book of James.  We are almost through!  This is study #21 and I don’t know whether to be proud to finish that quickly or concerned about what I’ve left out and not covered.  But nonetheless, we’ll look tonight at chapter 5, verses 13-18 and then, if the good Lord is willing, we’ll finish it up next week with the last two verses.
 
I will tell you my study of the book this time has been very insightful for me as I’ve prepared to teach through it. It has helped to remind myself that it is written to Jewish Christians and James is helping them to authenticate their relationship with Christ by offering a series of tests or evaluation. 
 
That has helped me to lay aside some pre-conceived notions and traditional thought about the book and approach it more objectively.  That is certainly true of the passage before us tonight.  And I must say, I’m glad I started fresh with this section because it helped me with some struggles I’ve had down through the years with this section.    
 
This passage has been a battleground for interpreters through the centuries and still there are many people left in confusion as to its meaning. It is the passage that the Roman Catholic Church uses to support what they call the doctrine or the sacrament of Extreme Unction.
 
It is a passage that many would-be healers and advocates of modern-day healing use to support the idea that we have a guaranteed healing if we pray under the proper circumstances. It is a passage that is used for putting oil on sick people. It is a very intriguing passage. 
 
So let’s read it and then I’ll walk you through it.
 
James 5:13-18
 
Now immediately some questions come to mind.  When James talks about suffering in verse 13, what kind of suffering is he referring to? When he talks about sickness in verse 14, what kind of sickness does he have in mind?  Is it any sickness or illness? 
 
What is it that the elders of the church have to offer in their prayers that other people don't? Do they have a special access to God? And what is this anointing and why oil and what kind of oil and how much oil?
 
Does the prayer of faith always restore the one who is sick and allow the Lord to raise him up? And what does sin have to do with it? And what kind of healing is he talking about in verse 16? And why does he give an illustration of rain in the middle of a passage about healing?
 
Now those are some of the questions that I've always asked and found difficult to answer until this week when I decided that I would lay aside all my assumptions and presuppositions and try to figure out what this passage really meant.
 
To compound the confusion, most conservative scholars all say about the same things regarding this passage.  It’s almost as if nobody really understands what it means so we all agree to be in agreement in our confusion.
 
So if you will, allow me to offer a fresh perspective on these verses that I believe will bless you and help you, not just to understand it, but apply and use it. 
 
Now if you listen to me preach for very long, and many of you have been listening for a long, long time, it won’t be long until you hear me say something about the importance of context.  The key to interpretation of any passage is always the context.
 
That means every section of Scripture must be interpreted in the light of the whole book, the chapter it's in, including the paragraph before and the paragraph after. In other words, context is the neighborhood of thought in which a given passage resides.  And most of us understand that because we communicate using context.
 
If I said to you, "I just kept going up and down”, you don't have any idea what I'm talking about without context.  When I was pastor at Rubottom years ago, we had an old deacon there named Bill Auld.  Occasionally he and I would travel somewhere together and he’d get to thinking about a project or something we were doing and all of a sudden his eyes would light up and he’d say, “Preacher, I think that will work!”
 
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I’d just agree with him and go on!
So when I say, “I just kept going up and down”, I might be talking about my temperature, my weight, a roller coaster ride, driving my car up a hill, taking a walk, or flying an airplane (you know that’s not true!).  You need a context to understand what I’m saying because every conversation with any meaning has to have a context. In like manner, every passage of Scripture has an environment of thought in which it exists and makes sense.
 
So, the first thing I want us to do is think about the context in which this passage is written. James is writing this letter to an assembly of Jews. They are called in verse 1 those who were scattered abroad. They are a church, an assembly of Jews who name the name of Christ. They have been scattered out of Palestine, out of Jerusalem by the persecutions of Acts 7 and 8. 
 
So here is a group of Jews living in an assembly, naming the name of Christ, somewhere in the Mediterranean area. 
 
Because they are Jews to start with and most certainly because they are Christians and exalt the name of Christ, they find hostility. And so they are in a situation of tremendous stress. According to what James writes in chapter 1, they are experiencing various kinds of trials.  So James opens up by telling them that they are to learn how to be patient in their trials.
 
Next we find out they are under severe temptation and persecution so James is writing to them in the midst of the stress and hostility and persecution and temptations and trials that the world is bringing to bear on them to exhort them to stay faithful.
At the same time, some of them need to examine themselves to see if they're even saved. The ones who are genuinely Christians need to remain faithful in a very difficult situation and those who aren’t saved need to get right with God. 
 
So throughout this entire letter, we find James returning to this theme of endurance and patience.  In chapter 1, they are to do it without wavering, without being unstable, without doubting, to look past the pain and the persecution to the glory, to look for what he calls the crown of life.
 
Then in chapter 5 he returns to that same theme. Look at
 
verses 7-11
 
Now that is what he rights immediately before this passage we’re considering tonight.  He is calling them once again to be faithful in persecution.  So it’s really no surprise when we get to verse 13 and once again asks, “Is any among you suffering?”
 
That doesn't surprise us because that's exactly what he's been talking about. And with that question, he introduces this teaching about prayer in the following verses. 
 
And if you erew paying attention, you may have noticed that prayer is mentioned in every single verse from 13 to 18.  And what James is saying is the very heart of endurance is prayer.  If you want to be able to endure what you’re going through, then pray.   Draw on the divine resources you have available as a child of God.
 
Now, with that context in mind, we can now say with assurance this passage is about prayer. It's not about healing, it’s about prayer.  In fact, I am convinced this passage has absolutely nothing to do with physical sickness or disease at all.
 
There is no compelling reason at all in this text to think that James has dropped in here a section on physical healing. And if he did, he sure did it in an odd place!  The passage before would never cause you to expect that. And the final two verses wouldn't cause you to expect it either. It would absolutely out of sinc with the context.
 
But a section on how to help people who are spiritually weak and broken and embattled and bruised and wounded and hurt and have lost the victory, that makes sense. And that’s what it’s all about.  So let’s see what it teaches about prayer. 
 
It divides very neatly into four sections and each one builds off the other. And he not only covers four features of prayer but he fits everybody into it. In verse 13 he talks about the individual believer, then in verses 14 and 15 he talks about the elders, the pastors, the leaders of the church. And finally in verse 16 he talks about the whole congregation, the one anothers.
 
So he embraces the whole church in its prayer life and also speaks about the wonderful features of prayer that benefit the life of the believer.
 
 
 
 
 
 He begins with
 
  1. Prayer and Comfort
 
Verse 13
 
"Is any among you suffering?" He is talking about the same situation he has been addressing since the opening verses.  It means to suffer evil treatment. Are any of you being persecuted or abused?  Any of you being abused? Treated wickedly? Have you been beaten?  Are any of you in distress?
 
If so, then pray!  Turn to God for comfort. That's the idea. Peter put it this way, "Casting all cares on Him because He cares for you." That's the spirit. Pray. Take it to the Lord.
 
Jonah knew what it was to be in deep trouble and in Jonah 2:7, he said, said, “While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord and my prayer came to Thee." That's the spirit.
 
The word here in the Greek means a continual pleading. When life isn't going the way it ought to go and you're weary with the battle and you're weak in faith and you've begun to sort of get crushed under the whole thing, ask God for comfort and help.  That's a basic truth. It's just so basic but so easily forgotten.
 
From the time I was a little kid, I grew up singing, “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer." That's right. "What a friend we have in Jesus."
 
And then he adds, maybe with a little bit of tongue in cheek, “Is anyone cheerful?”  It’s hard to imagine that anyone in those circumstances was, but if so, sing a song!  The word “cheerful” is very interesting.  It means "the principle of life, or the principle of thought, or the principle of feeling."
 
What he's saying is anyone who is well in spirit, well in soul, any one who has a happy attitude, should praise God for it. 
 
So on the one hand, we have the person who is deeply troubled physically and has a suffering soul and on the other hand is the one who is on top of the world and has a rejoicing soul.   
 
And in both cases the source of comfort is God and He is accessed through prayer and praise. 
 
So verse 13 talks about comfort. If you're in deep spiritual pain and your soul is broken, pray. If your soul is rejoicing, praise and that message is for every child of God.
 
In verse 14, he sharpens the focus. He moves beyond the one who is suffering to the one who is losing the battle.  Here we have a fallen soldier, a wounded warrior, an exhausted weary depressed defeated Christian.  And there we find what James has to say about
 
  1.  Prayer and Restoration
 
Verse 14
 
 
 
Now I looked that verse up in a number of translations, perhaps 10 or more, and without exception, every one of them uses the word sick.  Even the Amplified, which adds additional, clarifying words for the elders and the oil, doesn’t offer anything other than sick. 
 
The translations have always said "sick." As a result of that, everybody assumes that he's talking about sickness. But when I looked the word up in the Greek, the very first definition it gives is
 
1. to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless
2. to be weak in means, needy, poor
3. to be feeble, sick
 
It occurs 35 times in the King James Bible and only ten times is it translated sick. Most of the time, it is used to speak of spiritual weakness. In Romans 4:19, in Romans 14:1 and 2, in Romans 14:21, it is used of being weak in faith. In 1 Corinthians 8:9 and also in verses 11 and 12 of that same chapter, it is used of spiritual weakness. In Romans 5:6 it is used of spiritual weakness, the impotence of the unsaved.
 
Notice one in particular found in 2 Corinthians 12.
Paul is talking about his persecutions and difficulties and he says that he has a thorn in the flesh which he prayed that God would take away. And He never did.
 
Verses 9-10
 
He’s talking about the weaknesses that come in human flesh as a result of the difficulties of life.
 
Now, here in James 5:14, if we translate it consistent with how it is most often used in the New Testament,  it would read this way: “Is any among you weak?”
 
Now suddenly, we have a whole different sense of what James is saying and it is consistent with the contest of the letter.  “I know some of you are suffering and you need to pray.  But if you're in the middle of the battle, you're fighting for your life, and you’ve become so weary and weak that you’re about to go down, then call for some help. 
 
You've got to find somebody else to pray. So who do you go to?  Well, if you’re spiritually weak, you want to go to someone who is spirituall strong.
 
So James says, “call for the elders of the church.  They will have the spiritual strength you need.  You can draw on their strength.”
 
After all, what do we read in verse 16?  The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. When you're down at the bottom, you want to find a righteous man. You want to go to an elder or the elders. Call then alongside you. 
 
If you're suffering, pray. If you've hit bottom and you're weak and the power is gone out of your life and your prayers and you're overwhelmed with the persecution and the trials and the struggles, then go to the spiritual strong and let them pray over you.
 
Well that makes so much sense, and it is so consistent with Scripture. 
 
 
In Acts 6, the early church was instructed to select some men to do the daily ministry tasks of the church so the Apostles could devote themselves to prayer the ministry of the Word.
 
It doesn’t say that would preach and do counseling.  I don't know how it happened, but somewhere along the line, pastors stopped being men of prayer and started doing counseling.  We have come to the place where pastors think their role is to preach the Word on one hand and counsel on the other. That's not what Scripture says.
 
You don't go to the spiritually strong to hear their worldly wisdom, you go to the spiritually strong when you've hit rock bottom to get on your knees with them and be strengthened by the power of their righteous prayers.
 
Whatever happened to that ministry? Where did it go? And who put in its place this anemic kind of substitute where people who have no power in prayer have become the experts on helping everybody with their problems?
 
God has called us to a ministry of prayer.  And the older we get, the better we ought to be at it.  And the more recognized we should be for it. We are to come alongside the wounded warriors, the broken soldiers, the broken hearted people who are at the bottom and they don't even have the strength to call on God out of their own heart. That's the ministry of prayer and restoration.  It is to come alongside that weary Christian who is defeated without strength and on behalf of that individual, lift up prayers to God for them so they can return to the battle.
 
So what about the next part of the verse?  Why does James tell the elders to anoint with oil in the name of Jesus? 
 
We may not appreciate it the phrase, but the Jewish audience that was listening to James knew exactly what he was talking about.  The word used for oil here means to rub or oil.  The best way to translate this would be, “rubbing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” And literally the text says, "After having oiled him."
 
There is no reference to dotting a forehead with a little dab of oil. It means rubbing. It literally means to crush over. It's used of an outward anointing of the body and in this case, it is a reference to using olive oil. 
 
So when you are spiritually defeated and weak and can’t pray, go to the pastor and let me rub you down with olive oil in the name of Jesus.  I know of some who’ve tired that and got arrested!  And it’s not symbolic where you just put a little dot on the forehead to remind us of the Holy Spirit.  This word is never used in Scripture to speak of ceremonial anointing. 
 
It is literally rubbing someone down with oil.  We see it with the Samaritan who washed the wounds of the man beside the road and poured oil in them.  The oil was a soothing agent.  It only was good for a topical or external application. Athletes were often rubbed down with oil because of the soreness of their muscles. 
 
 
On two different occasions, Jesus showed up at a home where a woman anointed his feet with oil.  In fact, in the case of Mary, she started with his head and it went all the way to His feet.  That oil was both symbolic and literal. 
 
It was intended, in typical Middle Eastern fashion to soother the feet of those who had traveled int eh dust and dirt.  Their feet would grow parched and dry from walking in the heat of the day and to have the feet anointed was very refreshing.
 
She was also symbolically anointed His body for burial. And in like manner, in the setting of James, there is perhaps both a physical and spiritual application to this verse. 
 
If a believer who was weak and weary and wounded and crushed and broken in the battle and maybe even physically persecuted came to a trusted elder of the church, he was to be ministered to in both a physical and spiritual way as those men in gracious kindness would pray over them and with them and perhaps take some oil out and rub the sore muscles of that weary believer who in the service of Christ. 
 
And notice the result of that in
 
Verse 15
 
Once again the word “sick” is used, but it’s not the word for sick.  It is the word “wearied.  It is only used one other time in the New Testament and that is Hebrews 12:3 where it is translated correctly as the word "weary."
 
.
And by the way, the word “save” is best understood as “restore” or “rescue”.  And the result is this beautiful thought of this ministry of compassion and prayer and ministry resulting in the restoration of the weary. 
 
In fact, James says, “The Lord will raise him up”. 
What a precious thought!  Here’s a person who has faithfully been serving the Lord, perhaps at great cost and peril to his own life, and he’s grown weary and been hurt and now tired, and worn out and about to give up, he makes his way to aa trusted spiritual leader and asks for prayer.  And as he is ministered to in the name of the Lord, God does a work to strengthen and renew and rebuild and restore and excite and awaken. What a beautiful picture and a precious promise.
 
And notice the last part of verse 15
 
“if he's committed sins, they'll be forgiven him.”
 
There we discover another indicator that he’s not talking about physical sickness.  Not all disease is related to sin. But if it is the case that your weariness and spiritual defeat is a result of sin, then cry out to God in confession and He'll forgive you.
 
Quickly, James goes to a third point and that is
 
  1.  Prayer and Fellowship
 
Verse 16
 
 
 
Verse 16 seems to be given in light of what has just been said in verse 14 and 15.  He’s just said, “If you're weak, go get alongside someone spiritually strong and let him pray for you. And if your heart is sincere, and you're there because you want God to reach out and restore you, then He'll do it.
 
So, if the prayers of a righteous man have that kind of potential, then take full advantage of that opportunity and possibility by confessing your sins to one another and praying for one another so that you may be healed."
 
So this is to the congregation. Don't wait till you get to the bottom. Maintain a relationship with other believers where you're always praying for one another. It's a general element of fellowship. It's a marvelous thing.
 
Obviously it doesn't mean to pour out every bit of garbage in your life. But it also doesn’t mean it’s okay to ignore your sin and hide your evil.  Sin wants you alone.  Sin wants to isolate you. Sin doesn't want anybody who shouldn't know to know. And as long as it's private and secret, you can nurse it and nurture it and feed it. And God wants it open and out and exposed among people who love you.
 
So James says, “Just be honest with one another.  Let it out.  Share your struggle.  Let people know you're in a battle so that you don't become weak and defeated and weary and exhausted and wounded and victimized. Open up, share, seek forgiveness with one another.  Confess to one another.  “
 
 
 
Then he says, “Pray for one another.” Tell someone else where your battle is and then pray for their battle.  Share your life so that you may be healed.  Again, I don’t think the reference is to the physical.  The same word is used in a number of places to speak of spiritual healing.  We find that in Matthew 13:15, John 12:40, Acts 28:27, Luke 4:18, 1 Peter 2:24 and Hebrews 12:12-13.
 
So, the point is this, if you're suffering, keep your prayer life hot. If you hit the bottom through persecution, compounded by your own sin, you go to the spiritually strong men who come alongside. They massage you with comfort and love and care and they carry your petition to God on your behalf. You get the sin out. You confess it to God.  And God promises that He'll lift you up.
 
And to prevent you ever getting to that kind of situation, share your burdens with each other and pray for each other so you're always fresh with the Lord and freshly dealing with those issues in your life.
 
It's fine to pray alone, that's the first point. It's pretty desperate when you have to come and have the godly men come around because you're so spiritually weakened. It's wonderful if you just stay warm to your own needs by sharing with someone else and praying with them.
 
Then he closes with a word about
 
  1. Prayer and Power
 
Verse 16b
That's why you go to the elders. That's why you share with another believer because a person rightly related to God who is praying for you has tremendous power. The word effective in the Greek is the word from which we get our word energy. The energetic empowered prayer of a righteous man who has no sin dealings in his life is going to have a tremendous impact.
 
In fact, the phrase "can accomplish much" literally says "is very strong." That's the Greek. The energetic prayer of a man who is dealing with sin in his life and living righteously before God is very strong. You know what that tells me? There's such a thing as weak prayers. And weak prayers come from weak people.  That's why weak people have to go to strong people.
 
Then to nail it all down on this issue of power, he gives an illustration.
 
Verses 17-18
 
Now to most Jews, Elijah was perhaps the most intriguing person in the Old Testament.  Everybody knew about him. Now James says Elijah was a man just like us.  He had the same passions and nature.  HE dealt with the same temptations and trials. He was just like we are.
 
You can go back and read his story and find out he got hungry, he was afraid and he got tired and angry.  He also had a sarcastic side to him.  He was 100% human.
 
 
But, unlike many, “he prayed earnestly." That is an amazing Greek phrase which literally says, “He prayed with prayer.”
 
He really prayed. Some people pray but they don't really pray. They talk to God as if He was a divine waiter and they were just giving Him an order or a divine secretary and they're just dictating or a divine teacher who is listening to a memorized speech. But Elijah really prayed.
 
And James references an Old Testament story found in 1 Kings 17 when he says, “Elijah prayed that it wouldn’t rain.”  And guess what? It didn't rain for three and a half years. He was a man like we are. He was a righteous man. And his prayers were so powerful it didn't rain for three and a half years. Then he prayed again, and the sky opened up and it rained and the earth produced its fruit.
 
So what’s the point?  Well, if you read 1 Kings 17, it doesn't say anything about Elijah's prayer. It doesn't say anything about the three and a half years of drought. The only thing we know about the prayer is what James tells us and the only thing we know about the duration of the drought, three and a half years, is what James tells us.
 
Now because of the inspiration of Scripture, we know both things are accurate.  There was a 3 ½ year drought and Elijah really did pray.   But the point is Elijah was a man just like we are, and yet in response to his prayer, look at what God did!  His prayers literally affected heaven and earth.  God literally delayed and sent the rain in response to his prayers.
 
Now if this passage is all about physical healing and anointing with oil, then this is a very strange illustration to use. In fact, if he wanted to illustrate physical healing, there were all kinds of better stories to tell! 
 
But if he wanted to illustrate how God sends down refreshing rain on dry parched land, this is a perfect illustration.  After all, what he's been talking about is the weary, weak, exhausted, parched soul of the wounded warrior who needs an outpouring of the refreshing rain of the blessing of God.
 
And in that regard, it's the perfect illustration because just as God sent the rain in response to the prayers of a powerful righteous man, so in response to the powerful righteous prayers of men today does he send the restoring, blessing, joyful refreshment to the parched, dry, weary, exhausted, weak, struggling believer who needs so desperately a refreshing touch from heaven. Such is the ministry of prayer.
 
Let's pray. 
 
 
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