Faith Proved by Our Care for the Sick (Physically & Spiritually): James 5:14-20

James 5:14‑20  •  16 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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Vss. 14-18—In the old Mosaic economy, if a person walked uprightly with God, he was promised the mercies of God in his everyday life. One such mercy was to have good health. A faithful and obedient person could count on being preserved from sickness (Ex. 15:2626And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee. (Exodus 15:26); Deut. 7:1515And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. (Deuteronomy 7:15)). However, in Christianity, this is not necessarily the case, though there is a special preserving care for "those that believe," over and above the care God has for all men (1 Tim. 4:1010For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)). Being a believer on the Lord Jesus Christ does not mean that we are exempt from getting sick. For example, the Apostle Paul walked with God but had "infirmities" in his body (2 Cor. 12:7-107And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7‑10)). In this present economy, God uses such things as sickness in the path of faith to teach us valuable lessons and to form our Christian characters.
It is, therefore, a mistake to think that the gospel call includes a promise of wealth and freedom from sickness. Those who preach this false, "prosperity gospel" are mixing Judaic principles with Christianity. Such a message plays upon the covetous nature of fallen men and women, and draws them into the Christian profession for ulterior reasons—to gain health and wealth. In many cases there has not been a real work of faith in their souls at all. Scripture indicates that God may allow sickness to come our way as a means to correct us, if need be. Or, He may allow sickness in our lives, even when we are walking uprightly. Whatever the case is, if sickness does touch us, we need to understand that everything that happens in our lives is allowed of the Lord for our good and blessing. We are not to view a sickness coming upon us as an accident, but to see the Lord’s hand in it. This principle was mentioned in the first chapter.
The Prayer of the Elders
Vss. 14-15—Under the old covenant, God was faithful to all that He promised. Even when they had gone far from Him, and He had to chasten them, He remembered them in mercy (Hab. 3:22O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)) and gave them manifestations of His healing power when some were sick. The strange happenings that occurred at "the pool of Siloam" are an example of this (John 5:1-51After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. 3In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. 5And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. (John 5:1‑5)). An angel would come down at certain times and stir the waters of the pool and the person who got into the pool first got healed. Since these acts of mercy were intermittent, a person would have to wait quite some time for such an act of God to happen—and the blessing that was dispensed was always based on a person having to do something to gain it (Gal. 3:1212And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. (Galatians 3:12)).
Now that these Jewish converts were gathered on Christian ground and were in the assembly where "the name of the Lord" was, they had a resource for cases of sickness that was superior to what they had known in Judaism. A sick person could "call for the elders of the assembly" to come and "pray over him." They would anoint him "with oil" in the name of the Lord Jesus, and their "prayer of faith" would "heal the sick." This was not an intermittent thing, as was the case at the pool of Siloam, but something that could be done at any time. By calling for the elders "of the assembly," the person manifested faith in the fact that there was now a new place where the authority of the Lord rested—in the assembly of saints gathered unto His name (Matt. 18:19-2019Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. (Matthew 18:19‑20); 1 Cor. 5:44In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, (1 Corinthians 5:4)).
James says, "The Lord shall raise him up." Note: the power for healing is not in the elders, though some individuals in that day may have had the gift of healing (1 Cor. 12:99To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; (1 Corinthians 12:9)). Nor is the power in "the oil" that the elders use. It is not a question of how much faith the elders have or how much faith the sick person has, but having simple faith in the Lord Jesus in regard to this mighty act of healing. It is “the Lord" who raises him up. All the credit and praise, therefore, must go to Him.
Some have thought that this procedure (of anointing a sick person with oil) was a special Jewish provision for that day when things were in transition from Judaism to Christianity, and thus it is not something for Christians today. This is deducted from the fact that the apostles used anointing oil in their earthly ministry, which was a ministry having to do with the kingdom being set up on earth (Mark 6:1313And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them. (Mark 6:13)). Therefore, since we are heavenly citizens in Christianity (Phil. 3:2020For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: (Philippians 3:20)), they conclude that we should not be employing such rituals in this economy. However, there are outward things that are used in Christian ordinances; bread and wine are used in the breaking of bread, literal water is used in baptism, and head coverings are worn by sisters. These are outward things that are used literally in Christianity today. Therefore, there is no reason to think that the literal use of oil in these cases is something that shouldn't be practiced in Christianity. H. A. Ironside mentions in his book on the epistle of James that Mr. Darby and Mr. Bellett acted on these verses in many places in Dublin, and there were many remarkable healings that resulted. Mr. J. B. Dunlop reports that he personally called for the elders to pray over him on four different occasions, and each time he was raised up.
Sickness on Account of Sin
Mr. Darby wrote, "I do not doubt that a large part of sickness and trials of Christians are chastenings sent by God on account of things that are evil in His sight, which the conscience ought to have paid heed to, but which it neglected. God has been forced to produce in us the effect which self-judgment ought to have produced before Him" ("The World or Christ," p. 10).
If the person's sickness is the result of God's dealing with him on account of specific sins in his life, and he is repentant, James says that his sins "shall be forgiven him." He states this as a promise. This is an example of where governmental forgiveness and administrative forgiveness coalesce. Governmental forgiveness has to do with God seeing repentance in one of His erring children and lifting the discipline (chastening) He may have placed on him. It follows restorative forgiveness, which has to do with the erring person being restored in his soul to communion with God through the confession of his sins (1 John 1:99If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)). Administrative forgiveness has to do with the elders (acting in conjunction with the assembly) administrating forgiveness to a repentant believer (John 20:2323Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (John 20:23)). It may also be in connection with a person's restoration to the fellowship of the saints, if he had been put way from the Lord's Table (2 Cor. 2:1010To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; (2 Corinthians 2:10)).
It is noteworthy that there are two different words used here in the original language that are translated "sick." The first occurrence (vs. 14) has to do with sickness in the body, but the second occurrence has to do with distress and oppression of the mind (vs. 15). The second use of the word is only used in one other place in Scripture, where it says, "Wearied and faint in your minds" (Heb. 12:33For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. (Hebrews 12:3)). This indicates a mental distress. Our point in mentioning this is that whether the difficulty is physical or mental, the Lord can use the prayer of faith of the elders to lift it.
This passage shows that physical illness or mental distresses can be connected with a person's low spiritual state. As noted, the context of this passage in James has to do with healing sickness due to sin in one's life. However, the fact that it says, "If he have committed sins...." shows that not all sickness is a result of God's governmental judgment on account of a course of sin in a person's life. In this regard, Mr. Darby wrote, "It would, however, be untrue to suppose that all afflictions are such. Though they are so sometimes, they are not always sent because of sin." Hence, the elders may be called to pray over a person when there is no specific sin involved. However, from 1 John 5:1616If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16) we learn that the elders need to have spiritual discernment as to whether they should pray for the individual in this way. It says, "There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it." This means that in some cases, if the elders discern that it is a sickness "unto death," they may not feel free to pray for healing.
Further to this, it should be pointed out that the sick person is to "call" for the elders. The elders should not interfere with what God is doing in a person's life and volunteer to come and pray for them. God will honour the faith of the sick person in calling for the elders, even if the call is feeble.
Vs. 16a—James goes on to show that it's possible that the healing, which the elders have been called to pray for, could be hindered. If the person has outstanding offences toward others that he has not settled, or he holds a grudge against someone, or he will not forgive a person for some reason, he needs to address these things first (Matt. 5:23-2423Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. (Matthew 5:23‑24); Mark 11:24-2624Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. 25And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. 26But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses. (Mark 11:24‑26)). James says, "Confess therefore your offences to one another, and pray for one another, that ye may be healed." The use of the words, "therefore" and "that" show that clearing these things up is connected with the healing process. Hence, the confession that James is referring to here is that which the person desiring to be healed needs to make to whoever he or she has offended, so that there would be nothing on their part that would hinder the healing process.
In Christianity, there should be an openness and a transparency among brethren. If we have offended someone—and we "often" do (chap. 3:2)—we should want to make things right by confessing our offence to the one whom we have offended. And thus, God would be happy to answer our prayers regarding our physical healing. James is not encouraging the saints to randomly disclose their sins to one another which they have committed before they were saved—which have been judged and washed away in the blood of Christ. This would be a pointless exercise, and in many cases, quite defiling. The confession that James is referring to here is regarding an offence that the person seeking healing may be guilty of, and perhaps has caused a breach of fellowship between brethren. His point is that we cannot expect to be healed of a physical malady, by having the elders pray for us, if we have some matter that is unsettled with a brother or a sister.
Elijah's Prayers
Vss. 16b-18—James goes on to give us some encouraging words in connection with the power of prayer. He says, "The fervent supplication of a righteous man has much power." To illustrate the power in prayer, he directs us to two prayers of Elijah (1 Kings 17-18). In order to negate any thought in our minds that this man was some super-believer whose prayer life we could never match, James reminds us that he was a man "subject to like passions as we are." Elijah had his failures, but God still answered his prayers in a remarkable way. They were answered according to the goodness in the heart of God, not according to Elijah's faithfulness. This should encourage us to pray.
In connection with Elijah's first prayer—"that it might not rain"—we must not look at it for its imprecatory qualities, but for its example of praying intelligently and in the current of the mind of God. He knew from the Scriptures that if the people departed from God, God would chasten them by withholding rain (Lev. 26:1-201Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the Lord your God. 2Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. 3If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 4Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. 6And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. 7And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 9For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. 10And ye shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. 11And I will set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. 12And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people. 13I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright. 14But if ye will not hearken unto me, and will not do all these commandments; 15And if ye shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but that ye break my covenant: 16I also will do this unto you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17And I will set my face against you, and ye shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and ye shall flee when none pursueth you. 18And if ye will not yet for all this hearken unto me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins. 19And I will break the pride of your power; and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass: 20And your strength shall be spent in vain: for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits. (Leviticus 26:1‑20); Deut. 11:1717And then the Lord's wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you. (Deuteronomy 11:17)). Since the northern kingdom of Israel (the ten tribes) had turned away from Jehovah and had adopted Baal-worship as their religion, Elijah knew what was coming and prayed in concert with the ways of God in the matter. It is not for us in this Christian economy to pray against people in an imprecatory way—that is, to invoke curses and judgments on them. Elijah is not an example for us in this.
James does not mention the earnestness with which Elijah prayed on that occasion. But in turning to the account in 1 Kings 18, we see many significant elements of fervent prayer by this righteous man—all of which we need to have in our prayers.
Elements of Elijah's Prayer on Carmel
Communion"Elijah went up the top of Carmel." This implies nearness to God (vs. 42a; John 15:77If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. (John 15:7) – "If ye abide in Me...").
Humility—He "cast himself down upon the earth" (vs. 42b).
Dependence—He "put his face between his knees" (vs. 42c).
Restoring a Wayward Brother
Vss. 19-20—The subject throughout this whole passage has been in connection with restoring individuals who have gotten off the path. We have seen the elders of the assembly praying in regard to the restoration of a believer who has been sick on account of God's chastening hand being laid upon him. We have also looked at Elijah as illustrating the need for praying in communion with the mind of God in connection with backslidden persons. But now in these last two verses of the chapter, we have the exercise of brethren to go after a wayward believer and bring him back.
In the case of the person who has been sick, God has used his sickness to turn him back to the Lord. In turning to the elders, he is calling for help. Hence, repentance has been going on in the individual. But in the situation that we are about to consider, the person is not calling for help. Hence, the work of repentance has not begun in his soul yet. This latter case, therefore, is far more difficult. Even though it is a monumental task, James places the onus on his brethren to go and bring him back. How are they to accomplish this? In order for one to turn back to the Lord, there must be repentance—a change of mind and a passing of judgment on all that has been done wrong. Therefore, those who seek to restore the wayward brother must minister to him in such a way that his heart and conscience are reached.
Also, it should be noted that those who are to do this restorative work are not necessarily the elders in the assembly. James simply says, "And one convert him [bring him back]." This "one" could be any brother or sister who has the wayward person on their heart. We are all our "brother's keeper" (Gen. 4:99And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper? (Genesis 4:9)), and we should all care enough to go after him. Abram went after Lot and brought him back (Gen. 14:14-1614And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan. 15And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus. 16And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people. (Genesis 14:14‑16)). The Apostle Paul touches on this needed ministry in Galatians 6:11Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. (Galatians 6:1): "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." Note: this does not require a special gift. The only thing that is needed is spirituality and a genuine care for the person who has erred. This will lead us, not only to pray for him, but also to go after him and bring him back, if possible.
James seeks to encourage us in this work, saying, "Let him know, that he which converteth [brings back] the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins." This is not written to the erring brother, but to those who care for him. It shows that labouring to restore souls is a rewarding work. God grants joy and a special sense of His approval to the one who goes after a wayward brother or sister. Saving the person "from the error of his way" refers to him being prevented, through repentance, from going deeper into sin, and thus feeling the governmental consequences of it. The chastening of God will follow an erring believer—even to shortening his life on earth through "death." Many wayward children of God have died prematurely under the chastening hand of God because of their unwillingness to judge the course of sin that they were on. Ecclesiastes warns, "Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time?" (Eccl. 7:1717Be not over much wicked, neither be thou foolish: why shouldest thou die before thy time? (Ecclesiastes 7:17)).
The one who seeks to restore the erring brother may learn of sins in the person's life, but "love shall cover the multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:88And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)) and not broadcast those things before the world and further muddy the Christian testimony. Love covers that which has been judged and put away.
This work of seeking the welfare and restoration of others is another evidence of a person having faith. If we truly believe on the Lord Jesus, we will love others who believe on Him, and if one such believer errs in the path, love in us will seek to restore him (1 John 5:11Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. (1 John 5:1)). Divine love in a believer will seek to lead the erring person to repentance so that he judges himself and returns to the Lord. If a person is not a true believer, but a mere professor, he will not be concerned for a wayward person, and thus manifests evidence that he is not truly a believer.
In summary, we have seen James challenging those who have faith to exhibit it in various ways in the everyday situations of life so that it is clear to all that they are true believers on the Lord Jesus Christ.