Understanding the Bible

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'Is any of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.'   James 5: 14,15.


[4 A4 pages when printed]

Introduction This passage in James describes a ministry in which the elders of the church visit a sick member to pray for healing. It contains an important promise, but raises some equally important questions. 

(This is a very personal question for me as I have been diagnosed as having an incurable cancer of the bone marrow and blood (non-Hodgkins Lymphoma). So I am very keen to work out if the passage in question affords me an appropriate way for prayer to be made for my condition. I am putting the results of my investigation on the internet in case someone else is wondering about the same thing. The reason that the verses need to be investigated is that they say things that are not immediately obvious to understand. They also contain some unusual features.)

Past Experience In the 1980’s and 90’s my wife had a large number of operations for cataracts and for orthopaedic problems. After her first cataract operation it went wrong in a very rare and distressing way. It needed heroic treatment to preserve her sight in that eye. So when the time came for the same operation on the other eye our minister asked if she would like to receive prayer according to James 5:14-16. She (and I) approached this provision with thankfulness wanting to put her into God’s hands. “Healing” in its normally accepted meaning did not apply: we were not asking for her cataract to be healed so the operation wouldn’t be needed but to pray against the complication that had happened before. So a time was arranged for elders from our church to come to our house and pray. They all laid hands on her. However, after the operation exactly the same problem arose as before. This was, of course, very puzzling. Had we lacked faith, or what? This happened during the time when there was a lot of emphasis on healing in charismatic circles and it was being taught that when healing did not take place it was because there was not sufficient faith. We were not charismatics and we had never been happy with this explanation.

After much prayer and thinking we concluded (a) that it was not God’s Will that the problem should be removed and (b) that nonetheless my wife had certainly been in God’s hands during it all. She certainly testified to feeling that. When my wife later had her orthopaedic operations prayer was again offered according to James 5, and although things did not always go perfectly she felt totally in God’s hands throughout. (During some of this time we had moved home and in another church fellowship) But did being in God’s hands depend on following James 5? Is that not the condition of all who trust in Christ? Of course, throughout these operations and consequent stressful periods members of our church fellowship were praying for her in church and at home. So what is the special role of the process described by James? - that is my question.

Current thinking about it I suppose most Christians simply take James 5:14-16 at its simplest face value (as we did before) but my attention has been drawn to an alternative view which I find to be held by a number of experienced Bible teachers whom I respect. They do point out some curious aspects of the passage. I will try to take us through the thinking. (By the way, all protestant commentators declare that these verses do not warrant the Catholic practice of ‘Extreme Unction’ or ‘Last Rites’ which can only be performed by a priest - but this is not the issue of my enquiry)

Several textual details must be noted. First, the Greek used for ‘is any of you sick?’ uses a word which means ‘the weary/the worn out one’. This appears to indicate that the illness is well advanced or “serious”. This presumably is the reason the elders go to him/her, not the other way round. Second, the oil has not been especially consecrated in any way. Third, it is the faith of the elders which is operative, not the faith of the sick person. Fourth, the NIV translation has included a measure of interpretation - v.15a ’And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up’ is better as (KJV) ’And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up..’ Is there any significance in this difference? Fifth, in v.16 ‘faults’ is better than ‘sins’ - suggesting that this refers to mutual confession between close individuals and not confession meetings where everyone describes their sins - generally reckoned to be unhelpful and unhealthy. Seventh, there is no mention of laying on of hands, which is normally included in modern practice. Perhaps this has arisen from the bidding to ’pray over’ the sick person (v.14), but this may simply refer to the likelihood that the patient is in bed. Eighth, curiously, it is the sick person who will be ‘saved’ (v.15) and the sinful person who will be ‘healed’ (v.16). What is going on here?

Jensen and Birkett In ‘The Implanted Word’, a set of Bible study notes  (pub. by the Good book Co) draw attention to the curious reference in v.15b ‘If he has sinned he will be forgiven’. These words are written in the context of the church fellowship (note the involvement of the elders) , which James, in this part of his epistle, is so keen to preserve. What does that v.15b refer to? What is the connection between being healed (15a) and forgiveness (15b)? 

These writers draw attention to the obvious fact that if the promise in v.15 were to be always effective why should any Christian ever be seriously ill, or die? So is it a hollow promise? James does not add qualifications to the promise.

Looking for clues, Jensen and Birkett then go on to look more closely at the example of Elijah, whom James goes on to mention, in vs.17,18, as a man of great and effective prayer. Elijah’s ministry was to bring back a sinful nation, thereby covering a multitude of sins (v.20), and thereby saving the people. So, they postulate, could it be that James is referring to the particular instance when God sends sickness to a congregation for the sin of its members? If the congregation is behaving badly - judging one another, complaining, etc (see 2:1-4, 3:10, 4:1 and 11, 5:1-6 and 9) then God might send sickness as a discipline. There is an example of it in 1 Cor.11:27-30 where Paul claims that many of them are weak and sick (and have even died) because they have misused the Lord’s Supper. So according to this interpretation the root problem is in the church fellowship: that’s why James bids them call the elders, not physicians.

On the other hand, Jensen and Birkett go on to say, some sickness may be the result of sin, and the godly person will ask first - 'is this a judgment on me for unrepented sin?' We note that James says if he has sinned …’. Of course, the sick person has sinned because we are all continuing sinners. So James must mean any particular sin which might be the cause of the sickness.

Finally, Jensen and Birkett stress that when we are sick it is a good time to examine our consciences and confess and pray. They write “You may or may not be healed [of your sickness] but you will have taken God more seriously which is what James is challenging us to do.”

So, in summary, Jensen and Birkett believe that the process of James 5:14,15 is only applicable to the specific case of illness due to sin in the congregation. But see further comment later.

Alec Motyer -in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on James. I strongly respect this commentator because he is a faithful scholar of the Scriptures and as far as I know has no axe to grind. Jensen and Birkett are part of the evangelical group in the Diocese of Sydney who have been very influential in recent years in helping us in this country to be better at expounding the Bible. So their view is not to be sniffed at. But it could be observed that in Jensen at least there is sometimes a tendency to have strong convictions admitting no contradiction. Also Jensen is strongly anti-charismatic so his view may be influenced by a desire to play-down the practice of prayer for healing and subsequent lame explanations when there is no healing.  Nonetheless I sincerely want to find the truth, no matter who leads us to it.

Motyer dispenses with any ecclesiastical superstition, and advocates the use of modern medicine as a gift from God. He agrees that in these verses something serious is wrong with the sick person (not just some passing illness). In connection with ‘if he has sinned he will be forgiven’ he suggests that the sick person in his sickness may become aware that it is the result of some specific sin. Or the seriousness of the illness provokes the sick person to want to be right with God generally and forgotten sins may come to light. They may have no bearing on the illness, but the occasion is a prime opportunity for repentance.

However, Motyer is surprisingly strong that any modern-day ministry to the sick following the James 5 process should definitely not include laying on of hands, because there is no mention of it in the text.

He also tackles the question of what went wrong if the person is not healed. He refutes any explanation which seems to be a ‘get out’. He writes extensively on the meaning of the phrase ‘the prayer of faith’ (in the KJV mentioned earlier). He points out that James uses a phrase not found elsewhere in Scripture, employing a different Greek word for faith. In summary, he concludes that the phrase (the prayer of faith) has a very strong orientation towards the elders’ conviction that it is God’s will to heal the sick person. He emphasises the utter seriousness of the elders’ approach to the ministry exercised in this passage. Presumably the good of the fellowship they represent can also be an important element of the elders’ conviction.

Nonetheless he confirms that all prayer must be a commitment to the will of God. He points out (and it had already occurred to me) that the definite way that James writes is also the way the Lord’s speaks about prayer eg Mark 11:24 ‘Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’ Motyer adds that although Jesus does indeed speak like this, it is by no means ALL that there is to say about prayer. In the majority of our prayers we do not even know what to ask for. In John 14:13 Jesus says ‘Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.’ But Motyer teaches that while this way of speaking encourages us to come to God in prayer, it does not encourage us to come in a stubborn frame of mind that insists we know what is best. And, for example, Jesus even responded to uncertain faith - see Mark 9:24 - ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.’ But most important of all, we cannot ignore the over-arching concern that God’s will must be done. If Jesus Himself subjected Himself to that limitation in the Garden of Gethsemane, then who are we to expect anything different?

Tasker, in his Tyndale commentary, says ‘..the prayer of the elders on behalf of the sick man, expressing as it did his belief and their belief in the sovereignty of Almighty God, was prayer such as God would not fail to listen to. All prayer, however, is subject to the reservation “Thy will be done”; but provided this limiting condition is always in the mind of him who prays, Jesus promised “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for.“ ‘ (Matt.21:22).

Motyer sums up his meaning like this “In the prayer of faith, our faith is not that ‘the promises’ will be fulfilled just like that; it is the faith which rests trustfully in the will of a sovereign, faithful and loving God. Neither the sick person nor any of the elders is there to insist that his or her will be done, but to put the sick one within the total, eternal security of the unchangeable and unchangeably gracious will of God.”

As far as I can tell, Motyer does not say whether he thinks this ministry should be used today.

Douglas Moo in his Tyndale commentary comments on the lack of any mention of the James 5 process anywhere else in the NT, and on the issue of anointing, he says that since ‘many other healings were accomplished without it, shows that the practice is not a necessary accompaniment to the prayer for healing‘. (Mention of healing in Paul is rare. Only in 1 Cor.12:9,28,30 does he mention 'gifts of healing'. ) Moo suggests that since anointing in the OT frequently symbolised consecration of persons or things for God’s use, here in James it reflects a setting apart for God’s special attention and care. He further comments on the ‘prayer of faith’: ‘A true prayer of faith, then, always includes within it a tacit acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty in all matters; that it is God’s will that must be done.’

John Blanchard - who would not call himself a theologian, but is certainly a thinking Bible teacher - in his commentary on James 'Truth for life', spends 13 or so pages comprehensively considering these verses. He first comments on the strange fact that the modern church does not appear to give these verse the same recognition as others - such as Paul's words about the Lord's Supper. He also observes that the apparent certainty with which James declares that the sick person will be raised up is not always confirmed in practice. After examining several assertions based on these verses, Blanchard says he is convinced we have to concentrate on the two phrases 'in the name of the Lord' and 'the prayer offered in faith'. On the first he concludes that the sick person needs to have ' a thoughtful, spirit-directed conviction that it is right to call for the elders and that they will likewise have a similar 'conviction that the course of action is right'. On the second phrase he looks for a general principle and notes 7 other times in the NT when the phrase 'in my name' is associated with the will of God - namely  Matt.18:19,20; John 14:3; John 14:14; John 15:6; John 16:23; 1 John 3:21,22; 1 John 5:14. He concludes that 'to be successful, prayer must be according to God's will.' - with which surely all earnest Christians will concur. So the 'prayer of faith' must acknowledge that God is sovereign.  

There seems to be much  agreement between the various writer we have consulted.

So what should we do? I can see (from Jensen and Birkett - and other reliable Bible teachers who agree with them) that there are valid doubts about whether the process of James 5:14,15 is applicable in all cases of serious sickness, as opposed to the particular case of sickness as a result of sin in the church. 

However, I am not totally convinced. The apparently cast-iron promise of healing in James 5 is consistent with the way Jesus speaks. Jensen need have no more concern about the explanation when healing does not occur on the basis of James 5, than he need when there is no healing after following Jesus' similar assertions. 

The error would seem to be to follow the process of James 5 and expect that in every case healing would definitely follow irrespective of the Lord‘s will. It is the failure of healing in all cases and the question as to why Christians need ever be seriously ill, that leads Jensen and Birkett to look for another explanation.

However, the NT is surprisingly lacking in prescribing how the church should undertake its ministry apart from proclaiming the Gospel and faithfully teaching the Word. Otherwise there appears to be freedom as to what form ministry should take, provided it does not contradict or distort what Scripture teaches. So, subject to the attitude defined by Blanchard,  what is wrong with a seriously ill church member asking the elders to come and pray for him/her in their own home? It would be both an expression of the seriousness the elders place on the sickness of their friend and also requires of the sick person a self-examination for repentance of sin. The laying on of hands, while again not prescribed in Scripture, nor afforded any magical properties, would be a further expression of the serious ministry of the elders. In one sense it could all happen at the church prayer meeting but would then lack the ‘special-ness’ of the gathering at the sick person’s home and in any case the sick person may be too sick to go. So the “idea” in the broadest sense would have been taken from James 5, but the process would not be copied in detail. From all we have seen about believing prayer, it would certainly be that the Lord’s will would be done, what ever it is.

I would welcome further comment on the issue.

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