“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call upon 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; and the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you might be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
Whenever we wrestle with the Scriptures, in earnest study we quickly discover that they contain riches of teaching that has the potential to completely change our lives. Such is the case with the final verses of the letter of James. Kim Riddlebarger, in a sermon on James 5:12-20 points us to the continuation of one of the main themes in the book of James. This is the promise of our Lord to be with us and use all of the trials and distresses of our lives to mature us in Christ. Riddlebarger complains that too often we confine these verses to merely giving us teaching about physical healing in response to prayer when in reality there is so much more here. God does call us to bring all of our needs before Him in prayer. We must be committed to praying for one another. However we miss much of what James is writing here when we confine his thoughts to that limited approach.
As we carefully engage in a study of the words that James uses in these verses we find that rich teaching is opened up to us. When he refers to those who are sick, in verse 14, the word he uses can also be translated as to be deficient in strength, weak, to be unsettled, afflicted, distressed, or needy. The same word is translated as “powerless” in Romans 5:6, as “weak” in Romans 6:19 and as “unimpressive” in 2 Corinthians 10:10. Riddlebarger correctly suggests that what James is referring to here is the trials and distress that persecuted believers were facing as they sought to faithfully lived the Christian life. To these, many of whom were becoming so weakened by all that they were facing that they were tempted to give up all together, James gives a word of great encouragement. This distress often does include all many of physical distress and ailment. It is not limited to that however. When we face distress like this what are we to do? We are to call upon the Spiritual leaders of our Church to come, anoint us with oil, which can be understood as a symbol of our consecration to the will of God, and to pray for us. The outcome of this prayer is that the Lord lifts us up; He encourages us, strengthening us to continue to live for His glory. The reason for this is that we come to see clearly that in His providence He is working in us to recreate us into the image of His dear Son. Sin is forgiven here. Weakness is overcome. In these few verses James calls us to see that we are delivered from sin, saved from its power over us, restored in fellowship with our Lord, and healed of all of the consequences of our sin. Some of the consequences of this great gift will only be fully revealed in eternity but they are becoming an increasing reality for us today.
Perhaps the author of Hebrews is reflecting upon the same reality when he writes,
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as Sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciple (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we might share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” (Hebrews 12:7-13)
This is the reason we are called into fellowship with other believers so that we can pray for one another.