Praying for the Sick – James 5:13-15

James 5:13-18 briefly mentions several kinds of prayers for those who are suffering or rejoicing (5:13). Those who are suffering ought to pray. The verb James used for suffering (κακοπαθέω) is rare in the New Testament. Paul used the word in 1 Tim 2:9 to describe his own suffering, bound in chains like a criminal. In 2 Tim 4:5 it is one of the final commands to Timothy (endure hardship). This is not necessarily that people being oppressed by outsiders (such as the wealthy of the previous section). This word can refer to any sort of affliction (even the sickness in verse 14).

Image result for anoint the sick with oilAlthough the verb is the common word for prayer, James makes a clear parallel with “cheerful singing” in the next line. It is at least possible James wants the one who is suffering to pray a lament Psalms. There are many examples of prayers in the Psalms where the writer is lamenting because of suffering and oppression.

In contrast, the cheerful ought to “sing praise.” The verb “be cheerful” (εὐθυμέω) and the related nouns have the sense of “in good spirits” (BDAG), as in Acts 27:22, 25, 36 where Paul encourages those about to be shipwrecked to “take heart.” This word does not refer to someone who is bubbly and happy, but rather someone who may be suffering but rejoices anyway. In James, the readers all seem to be suffer in some way.

Although there is no organized persecution, there is some harassment at the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Since the verb for singing (ψάλλω) is related to noun for a psalm, perhaps James wants the cheerful to respond to the Lord with thanksgiving or praise drawn from the Psalter. The believer is to respond in worship whether they are enduring some suffering or enjoying a time of relative peace.

A second kind of prayer in this paragraph is prayer for the sick (5:14-15). The elders are to pray over the sick and anoint them with oil. It is important to understand “elders of the church” in the context of James as a very early letter. This is not the office of elder in the fairly structured church of the Pastoral Epistles. Some scholars see this as a distinctively Christian phrase. Sophie Laws, for example, “This is one phrase which gives a specifically Christian colouring to the epistle” (Laws, James, 225).

An elder (πρεσβύτερος) referred to the older, wise men of a community. For Jews, these were the men who were respected in a town and synagogue. As the church developed certain men were appointed to function as official guardians of faith and practice, but in the earliest Jewish communities, the elders were analogous to the older men of the synagogues. By church (ἐκκλησία), James refers to the Jewish Christian communities in the Diaspora, more or less equivalent to a synagogue. This is not the universal church, the body of Christ.

The elders also anoint the sick with oil. Although anointing with oil is used for a variety of things, it is associated with treating wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan puts oil on the man’s wounds, for example. But in the ancient world there was nor a clear distinction between a miraculous healing and medical science. “A distinction between remedies based on superstition and remedies based on science would have been foreign even to the practitioners of Greek medicine” (Laws, James, 227).

The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can! Dibelius thought the command to pray “in the name of the Lord” is an allusion to exorcising a demon who was responsible for the sickness. This would reflect the Second Temple view that demons caused illness, but there is little in this text to support an exorcism.

The sick person also confesses their sin. This may reflect the Jewish view that sickness and sin are related. It was common in the Second Temple Period for Jews to connect physical illness and sin. For example, Sirach 18:19-21 and 38:15 makes confession of sin a requirement for healing and good health (Laws, James, 229).

Sirach 18:19–21 (NRSV) Before you speak, learn; and before you fall ill, take care of your health. 20 Before judgment comes, examine yourself; and at the time of scrutiny you will find forgiveness. 21 Before falling ill, humble yourself; and when you have sinned, repent.

Sirach 38:15 (NRSV) He who sins against his Maker, will be defiant toward the physician.

In John 9, Jesus’s disciples ask of a man who was born blind had sinned, or of his parents had sinned; in Mark 2 the Pharisees considered Jesus’s pronouncement that a lame man’s sins were forgiven to the blasphemous since the man was still lame.

It is surprising James makes no reference to laying on of hands, a common practice in healing. This may imply this is not a “traditional healing.” The impression from the two verses is that a person with an unusual illness can call one or two of the community leaders to their bedside and confess their sins. These elders will pray for them and tend to their illness in some real tangible way.

Like the first two commands of this paragraph, the sick person confessing sin is often found in the Psalms.

Psalm 35:13–14 (ESV) But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. 14 I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments his mother, I bowed down in mourning.

Psalm 41:1–3 (ESV)  Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him; 2 the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; you do not give him up to the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord sustains him on his sickbed; in his illness you restore him to full health.

The prayer of these elders can “save them” and the Lord will raise them up. This appears to refer to healing, although this is not necessarily the sort of miracle Jesus did, nor the apostles in Acts. But regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.

By way of application, these two verses are not related to modern healing at all, they reflect Jewish practice in the first century. James is describing a practice which should be as obvious as praying at times of suffering or cheerfulness.

11 thoughts on “Praying for the Sick – James 5:13-15

  1. James explains the nature of the faith that saves. Karen Jobes textbook, “Letters to the Church,” says, “A faith that can look on others in need of food and shelter and pronounce a blessing without doing something to help provide their physical needs is not the kind of faith that saves” (Jobes, 2011, pg. 174). A faith that saves is one that has to do with character. It is the faith that transforms your life and behavior by the deeds of social justice. The people who were praying for the sick and anointing the sick were demonstrating this faith. Jobes gives the examples of Abraham and Rahab and how they had this faith. Abraham was faithful in obeying God against human reason. Rahab was willing to sacrifice her life. A faith that saves has a transformed character by the fruits of the spirit. James, in talking about praying for the sick, discusses the need for saving faith.
    -McKenzie McCord-

  2. I am a new follower of your blog, and I profit from much of your commentary. On what basis do you say the practice of praying for the sick has no application?

    • Perhaps that was not as well written as I would have liked. Praying for the sick has no application in modern “faith healing” movements, televangelists who sell holy with special “healing properties,” etc. James is not describing a semi-magical practice we ought to follow exactly today that guarantees healing.

      As I say in the last line before my application paragraph, “regardless of the activity of these elders, it is the Lord who raises the sick person from their sick bed.” I think the Christian should pray for the sick and God does heals them. We all know stories of people who have experienced God’s hand in a sickness. But often he uses medical technology, skilled doctors and therapists in the process. He likely does not use the wealthy so-called healer getting rich off the elderly.

  3. As far as the idea of application, I don’t see this as praying for healing of literal illness, but more for an analogy for those who are sinners and those who are spiritually ill. Jesus in His ministry throughout the bible preaches praying for the sick, and He also spent a lot of His time with the “broken” or the poor. We as Christians are called to pray for those who have not been saved, who are spiritually dry, and to try and help save as many people as humanly possible.

  4. The Christology of James is quite high in that he applies “the name of the Lord” (YHWH) unto the Father in James 5:10, and then unto the Lord Jesus in James 5:14.

  5. This concept of praying for the sick is something that is so common in today’s Christian culture. It appears that it was also quite common in the time of James. Although as you wrote about, praying for the sick was done by the priest and elders of the church and it was done with anointing and praying in the name of the Lord. It is interesting to hear about how the early believers had the belief that sickness was a result of sin and that they believed that if the individual who was ill confessed their sins that they would be healed. People today, mainly those who are not believers, feel as though an individual is sick because they have done something wrong and them being sick is a type of bad karma or something along those lines. Non-believers often times question why an individual who is a good person becomes ill. True believers know that the presence of sin does not result is sickness. This may be why James wrote this passage. His purpose was to reassure believers because of their false perception of why people got sick. Although, James writes about how confession will lead to healing, James was also under the illusion of sin=sickness. There is, however, power in prayer and praying for healing for the sick. Karen Jobes makes the connection in “Letters to the Church” James’ reference to Elijah at the end of chapter 5. Elijah was proof in the power of prayer and God answering prayers.

  6. Prayer is not only a Christian activity. Prayer is found in many religions if not most religions. Judaism is no different. Prayer is throughout the Scriptures. That being said, when James writes to the “dispersion” (the Jews) and charges/encourages them to pray in suffering, cheerfulness, and sickness this would be a common activity for the Jews to practice and they would understand it full-well (James 1:1, 5:13-14). Jewish-Christians, those whom James is writing to, would have a very Jewish mindset on how they pray, who an elder is, and why they are needing to pray.
    In comparison to the Gentile Christian community that Paul writes to, both are encouraged to pray continuously and James is clearly doing the same to his readers (1 Thessalonians 5:17). James is making a statement in which these circumstances encapsulate all of life. Suffering and joyfulness are the ends of the spectrum of life and James writes to pray in both circumstances.
    In contrast with the Gentile Christian community that Paul writes to, James’ audience has a few differences that play a role in interpreting this passage. James’ audience seems to have a blessings and curses mindset and comes from their Jewishness. If someone is sick and needs prayer and oil then there is usually some sin attached to sickness. This is not how Gentile Christians would see this. An illness in a Gentile Christian community would stir up prayer and the laying on of hands and miraculous healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Jews would see the need for God (the Father’s) mercy rather than the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. The healing needed and desired would have seems medicinal to the Jewish and miraculous to the Gentiles. It seems to me that one people group (the Jews) is seeking the power of prayer directly from God himself. The other people group (the Gentiles) is seeking the power of prayer through the Holy Spirit who dwells in them.
    This is why James cannot be read from a Christian perspective. When reading James the context matters when understanding what he meant by elders, prayer, oil, and such things. Our practices now do not always line up with their practices then.

  7. Jobes in the letters to the church says, “A faith that can look on others in need of food and shelter and pronounce a blessing without doing something to help provide physical needs is not the kind of faith that saves” (Jobes, 2011, pg. 174). James 2, being more specific, James 2:17, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). The people that were praying for the sick, they were exercising faith. They had faith that God can heal the sick. They could have just had faith and say, God will heal the sick and that would have been ok because its faith. But as a believer and follower of Christ, they knew that Jesus had ascended to heaven already, He was not about to walk there and heal the sick. They knew they had to take a step and act, they started praying for the sick. Healing of the sick was the faith they had that God can do it, praying for the sick was the action that moved them to exercise faith. Jobes gives the examples of Abraham and Rahab and how they had this faith. Abraham was faithful in obeying God and was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Rahab was willing to sacrifice her life. Faith is believing and trusting that it will work, but the work needs to be done for the results to be seen. Faith is an action word.

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