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New Testament Study - James 5:13-20

With this study, we conclude the epistle of James.


13Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one 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. 15And 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. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

In verses 7 through 11 of this chapter, James exhorted us to be patient through suffering. Then, in verse 12, James forbade us from swearing, because swearing does not demonstrate patience through suffering. Here, in verses 13 through 18, James speaks on the preferred behavior in the midst of suffering, which is prayer.

He asks rhetorically, "Is any one of you in trouble?" The answer is, of course, a resounding "Yes!" Christians, as we all know, are not immune to trouble. People misrepresent Christianity when they present it as a bed of roses. It is not depicted as such in the Bible. On the contrary, Christ said: "In this world, you will have trouble" (John 16:33). Our reward is not a trouble-free existence on earth, but rather a marvelous eternity in heaven. Those who are in trouble, as James says, "should pray." Our troubles are a call to prayer; one benefit of our afflictions is that they draw us to God.

Not all are in trouble, so James asks: "Is anyone happy?" He exhorts the "happy" to "sing songs of praise." It is natural for us in our troubles to turn to God in prayer; we should just as readily turn to God in praise in times of blessing. Prayer and praise encompass all our moods. No matter what the situation, we are to turn to God.

James then asks: "Is any one of you sick?" Christians are also not immune to sickness. Great men of faith have been often sick. Paul frequently mentions fellow servants of his that are ill: Trophimus was sick (II Tim. 4:20); Epaphroditus was so sick that Paul thought he would die (Phil. 2:26-27); Paul told Timothy to "use a little wine" because of his "frequent illnesses" (I Tim. 5:23); Paul himself had a "thorn in [his] flesh" (II Cor. 12:7-10), which many presume to be some sort of physical malady.

James exhorts the one who is sick to "call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord." So, we are to pray for ourselves, but also, at times, to ask others, to pray for us, especially elders of the church or other faithful Christians. It is good for us to ask elders to pray for us in times of sickness, because we may be short of faith as a result of our misery, and so, their prayers may be more effective than our own. Also, they most likely would be in a better condition to listen to the Lord speak to their hearts, giving them special insight into the situation.

Notice that the one who is sick is to himself call the elders to pray for him. It is the duty of the afflicted to ask for prayer. He himself must acknowledge that he needs God's deliverance. Recall that Christ hardly ever healed without being requested to (most times by the afflicted, sometimes by an intercessor).

In exhorting us to "call the elders of the church" to pray for us, James is levying implicit requirements for elders. Since they are to pray for the sick, they must be men of faith, filled with the Spirit of God. They must also be compassionate, patient, and able to listen. They must have a warm disposition and be trustworthy, not prone to gossip. Not limited to elders, these are all implicit requirements for any servant of God who prays for the needs of others.

The elders are not only to pray for the sick one, but also "anoint him with oil". The oil represents the joy, gladness and grace that comes from the Holy Spirit (see Ps. 23:5; 45:7; 133:2; Eccl. 9:8; I John 2:20). It is used here in prayer as a symbol of remembrance for the sick person, so that by remembering the grace of God and work of the Holy Spirit, their faith may be strengthened. In the Bible, the healing of God was often carried out through the use of physical symbols. Naaman was healed by washing in the Jordan River (see II Kings 5). Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons were used to heal the sick (see Acts 19:11-12). Jesus Himself used His own saliva, some mud and the Pool of Siloam to heal a blind man (see John 9:7).

Note that the prayer and anointing is to be done "in the name of the Lord." It is through Christ, and Christ alone, that we can "approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

James goes on to describe the result of the foregoing: "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well." Faith is a necessary element for effective prayer. It is through our faith that God chooses to respond to prayers. However, let us not forget that it is not our faith alone or our own power that heals, but it is "the Lord" who, as James says, "will raise Him up." The healing power is God's power as He chooses to respond to our faith.

A normal part of correct prayer is to ask for forgiveness of sins, so James says: "If he has sinned, his sins will be forgiven." We must not neglect to ask for forgiveness of sins, even when we are praying for each other. Sometimes, ill health is not directly due to sin (see John 9:2-3); however, there are many examples in the Bible where sickness is in fact directly due to sin: Miriam's jealousy of Moses led to leprosy (see Num. 12); the idolatry and sexual immorality of the Israelites when they were led astray by the Moabites led to a plague that killed thousands of people (see Num 25:8-9; cf. I Cor. 10:8); David's pride in numbering his army led to a plague in the land (see I Chron. 21); Herod's self-exaltation and acceptance of the people's worship led to his death by worms (see Acts 12:22-23), etc. "The body is often the instrument of sins, and therefore the object of diseases."[Footnote #1]

So, in our lives, sin and sickness are often related; thus, so are confession, forgiveness and healing. Successful prayer requires confession of sins. Sin separates us from God, making our prayers ineffective. As David testified: "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Ps. 66:18). And of God's seeming ignorance of Israel's problems, Isaiah said: "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isa. 59:1-2). But God testifies, through John, that "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Therefore, we should confess our sins and pray for forgiveness as readily as we pray for healing. God's pardon is the best way to be healed, much more satisfying and lasting than a doctor's medic.

James also tells us to "confess your sins to each other." Confession of sin to one another is valuable. Knowing each other's shortcomings, knowing that others stumble as we do, leads to intimacy. It also leads to accountability with one another and mutual support in prayer for strength in the midst of temptation. Moreover, by confessing our sins to each other, we are reminded that even elders need the grace and mercy of God. So, we are to "confess [our] sins to each other", and then "pray for each other", that is, pray concerning our sin. We are to do these things "so that [we] may be healed", that is, body and soul: our body from sickness, our soul from sin.

Effective prayer requires not perfection, but confession. The cleansing of sin achieved by confession is valuable, for "the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." A righteous man, a man cleansed through confession and by the blood of Christ, is enabled through his righteous stand before God to be powerful in prayer. Such righteousness is the necessary fuel for powerful prayer. We must not forget the power of prayer, and what it can bring about. The great prophets of God were always men of prayer. James goes on to give us an example of such a man in the next section.

The Power of Prayer Exemplified

17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

To drive home his point, James gives us an example of a man who was mighty in prayer. First, though, James begins by pointing out that "Elijah was a man just like us." He says this to encourage us, that we may know that we too can be powerful men of prayer. Yes, we should respect the great men of faith and do our best to follow their example, but they were, by no means, perfect. In fact, the Bible, it seems, goes out of the way to point out the great failings of the great prophets: Noah's drunkenness, Abraham's stumbling in faith, David's adultery, Elijah's loss of confidence in God, etc. The great prophets had weaknesses, sins, failings just like we do; nevertheless, they were empowered by the Spirit of God, just as we can be.

Yes, "Elijah was a man just like us", yet, despite his humanness, "he prayed earnestly" and, as a result, did mighty things. We must not allow our frailty to keep us from praying (or serving God in any way, for that matter). An oft-used device of Satan is to convince us that we are unworthy to serve God. Satan tells us, "You're no Abraham, you're no David, you're no Elijah, etc."; however, James' point is, yes, we are like Abraham, David and Elijah. If only worthy people served God, Christ would have been God's only servant. It is not the worthiness of the servant that makes him effective, but the power of God's Spirit working through him.

God's Spirit certainly worked through Elijah. Elijah raised the widow's son from the dead (I Kings 17:22), brought down fire at Carmel (I Kings 18:38), brought down fire on Jezebel's soldiers (I Kings 19: 8), was himself brought up to heaven amidst the chariots of fire (II Kings 2:11). James gives us an example of Elijah's power in prayer: "He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops." James is referring to the first recorded incident in Elijah's life, when he said to King Ahab: "As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word" (1 Kings 17:1). And so, it did not rain for three and a half years. Later, Elijah prayed "earnestly" for rain: "...Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. `Go and look towards the sea,' he told his servant. And he went up and looked. `There is nothing there,' he said. Seven times Elijah said, `Go back.' The seventh time the servant reported, `A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea.' So Elijah said, `Go and tell Ahab, "Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you."' Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel" (I Kings 18:42-45). This episode demonstrates the fervency, perseverance, and persistent faith of Elijah in prayer. First, he "bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees" in fervency. Then, with perseverance, seven times he sent his servant out to survey the situation. Finally, when he saw tiny cloud, Elijah in faith knew that the matter was settled and that it would rain.

From this episode, we are shown that prayer, when executed correctly, is hard work. Prayer, in order to be effective, must not be lightly performed. It needs, as demonstrated by Elijah, fervency, perseverance, and a great amount of faith. Being hard work, prayer is a valuable service. Never underestimate the value of prayer as a service for the cause of Christ. Also, prayer is a service that anyone can perform. Many who cannot preach in the pulpit, or lead a congregation in worship, or travel to the far reaches of the earth preaching the gospel, can serve the Lord in just as valuable a way by bending their knee in the prayer closet. Private prayer is the purest of services, having no audience, no worldly glory, but accomplishing much for the kingdom of God. The lonely prayer of one man can have farreaching effects, far beyond the original goal of the petition. For example, Elijah's prayer caused the heavens to give rain, which, consequently, caused the earth to produce its valuable crop.

Being Our Brother's Keeper

19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James concludes his epistle with an exhortation to bring back to God those who "wander from the truth." James himself has carried out this exhortation by writing an epistle full of advice on living a proper Christian life. If you heed the words of wisdom in this epistle, you will never "wander from the truth." In this way, these verses sum up the whole epistle.

Notice that James here is speaking of "brothers" who wander from the truth. Our "brothers" in Christ at times err. In giving this exhortation, James is saying, in effect, that we are indeed our brother's keeper. We should be as concerned with the spiritual well-being of our brothers as we are their physical well-being. And so, we should as readily give advice concerning spiritual matters as we do concerning physical maladies. If our brother was physically sick, wouldn't we run to his aid, suggest the proper medicine, and nurse him back to good health? We should act the same way during his spiritual maladies. We should not tear our brother down in his time of spiritual weakness, but "bring him back". Paul exhorts: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently" (Gal 6:1).

The erring brothers of which James speaks have "wandered from the truth", that is, the truth of the gospel. Somewhere along the way, they have picked up some doctrinal error or some misunderstanding concerning the things of God. It is important that we bring such a brother back into a knowledge of the truth. The result of bringing our brother back is to "save him from death" and "cover over a multitude of sins". Notice that the brother's mere "wandering" now, will result in a "multitude of sins" later, culminating possibly in "death". Sin is a disease that must be checked early on, or it will ravage the whole body and soul. However, we can stop sin's ravaging effects by bringing our brother back to the way of truth, by taking the trouble to turn him back to the Lord.

Closing Prayer

So Lord, give us, by Your Spirit, concern for our brother, that we may have the courage to speak to him when he errs. Show us, by Your Spirit, the words to say that would bring him back to the way of truth. Also, help us to follow the example of Elijah in prayer. Clear the obstacles that prevent us from praying. Help us to give prayer the proper priority, so that we would pray more. We praise You for giving us the gift of prayer. We praise You that we can approach You with confidence through Your Son, in who's name we pray, Amen.

(This concludes our study in James. In the next issue, we will begin a study of Paul's Epistle to the Philippians.)


1. Thomas Manton, A Commentary on James, pg. 455.

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