James 5:14

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Is anyone among you sick? 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. James 5:14

James now prescribes treatment for those who are sick. He first asks a question concerning the matter, “Is anyone sick among you?” It is a general question directed to his readers. It cannot be that he is only speaking to the people alive at the time because the epistle is included in the Bible. However, this does not mean that it is an all-encompassing thought which can expect universal results. This is evident from other parts of Scripture.

However, as a general rule, he gives guidance concerning the sick person by saying, “Let him call for the elders of the church.” The word here is presbuteros. It signifies an elder, a mature man who is wise in judgment. The feminine singular of the word, presbytera, does not occur in Scripture. The feminine plural, presbyteras, is seen once in 1 Timothy 5:2, and it is referring to older women in the church, not women in a leadership capacity.

Noting these elder men here, however, does not mean that churches were bound to a certain type of structure. Variations of church structure are noted in Acts and in the epistles, and none is placed as the premier example of how a church is to be structured. In this case, James cites what he knows is the case with his audience, probably because the churches whose attendees were mostly Jewish would be structured in a manner similar to the synagogues.

And so, he continues by saying of the elders, “and let them pray over him.” Prayer is a thing which obviously assumes free will in man. These elders are told to pray, and they may do so or not. If they pray, their prayers are expected to be heard. And if heard, there will be hopes of a favorable result. God knows the end from the beginning, and the outcome of all things are known to Him in advance. And yet, if we are told to pray, then it means that God must have factored in the prayers of people before they were ever uttered.

James then says, “anointing him with oil.” This is a practice referred to in Isaiah 1:6, where he speaks of soothing wounds and bruises with ointment. Jesus referred to it in Luke 10:34, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Mark again notes this in Mark 6:13, where it says that the apostles “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.”

James then adds in that the oil is to be anointed “in the name of the Lord.” This is then in conjunction with the prayers themselves. The people are to pray, the afflicted area (or the afflicted one) is to be anointed with oil, and the name of the Lord is to be invoked in the process. James is relying on this means of treatment, combined with prayer, to obtain an expected result. That expected result will be seen in the next verse.

Life application: James’ words in this verse and the following two produce lots of tension and disagreement in denominations around the world. A conservative reading of these and all such verses is probably the best approach. Oil was used in ancient times as a healing agent just as Neosporin or Vicks VapoRub is today. This is the significance of Jesus’ words in Luke 10:34, referred to above. There it says –

So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

Therefore, when it says that the elders of the church are to take the actions given in the verse, they should be read in the context of the time and situation. They were to pray over the afflicted person as indicated. Prayer is the Christian’s single most effective tool in the battle against illness. No matter how potent the medicine, no matter how skilled the doctor, no matter how tender the hands of the nurses – without the Lord’s providential blessing, then no healing will result.

Concerning the oil, however, as this is shown to be an ancient remedy for healing, then the symbolism of the gesture is that, in addition to prayer, effective medicines are to be given to the person. To assume that an application of oil is definitely going to produce the healing effects will lead to over-spiritualization of the account and even to disappointment and confusion if healing is not effected.

Oil of whatever type does not have any particular magic qualities, so be careful that the credit for any healing is directed to the Lord and that appropriate medical attention is given as well.

Christians need to exercise wisdom concerning illness, disease, and physical trauma which may occur. We are not to forsake the intelligence we have been given concerning seeking out trained doctors and other health-care officials. Likewise, we should not discount medicines which have been produced to bring about healing. Above all, however, let us never forget that prayer should be our first and last offering during the healing process.

Lord God, help us to be wise in seeking out cures for the healing of our afflictions. May we not assume that a supposed “faith-healer” has the answer to whatever ails us. Your word tells us to pray for healing, and we shall do so. But we also have the obvious responsibility to seek out those things which have been developed for our healing as well. Give us wisdom concerning the care of our bodies when such times arise. Amen.

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