“If Anyone Is Sick…” — Part One
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“If Anyone Is Sick…” — Part One

James 5:14–18  (ID: 2618)

What are we to do when faced with serious illness? James instructed his readers to make prayer a matter of great importance, asking leaders of the church for their prayers of faith. Alistair Begg stresses that the power in prayer comes directly from God and that He will heal as He desires. Recognizing God’s sovereignty in sickness or in health will bring us comfort.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in James, Volume 4

Patience, Prayer, and the God Who Cares James 5:7–20 Series ID: 15904

Dangers, Toils, and Snares

How to Find Peace amid Life’s Greatest Trials Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22702

Sermon Transcript: Print

James chapter 5. I invite you to turn to it. If you need a Bible, you’ll find one around you.

For over a year now, we’ve been studying James, and everybody’s very keen to get to the end—no one more so than myself. It is quite fascinating, though, that God has chosen to do things among us and in us and through us during this study of James in a way that was almost prophetic when we began it. Because certainly when I said, in studying the opening verses, “You know, God presumably has things for us to learn in trials he will bring us to face,” I, for one, wasn’t thinking of it getting any kind of personal application. And I’m sure that is true for many of us. And yet, as a church, God has chosen to use these verses, in some ways quite uniquely, and for that we thank him.

Verse 13. We’ll read from there to the end of the chapter, and then we pick it up in verse 14:

“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 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; 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 may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

“Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did[n’t] rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

Well, Father, with our Bibles open, we humbly ask for your help. This is not the easiest of passages. Save us from error. Save me from clouding the issue with too many words. Grant to us that we might learn what we need to know, and that we might do what you want us to do, and that you will bring us into those dimensions of Christian faith and living that may be as yet areas of spiritual geography untraversed for some. Accomplish your purposes, we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Well, we have seen that the response to trouble is not to become embittered or rebellious but to go to God in prayer. The response to blessing is to go to God in praise and in prayer. And now, in verse 14, we come face-to-face with this area that is of importance and is challenging, not least of all because it raises many questions, and it challenges many presuppositions, and it reminds us forcibly of the importance of handling the Word of God always with care and with humility.

We’ve said before, and it bears repeating and underscoring, that the subject matter of these verses is actually very plain and that the prevailing emphasis all the way through to the end is on prayer. Every verse between 13 and 18 refers to the issue of prayer. And therefore, we must make sure that we don’t miss the obvious challenge and encouragement that is contained in this passage, when we take it seriously, to face up to the importance of prayer, to become a praying person, to become a praying people, to become a praying congregation.

It would be possible for us to become so distracted by questions that are often unresolved and issues about which we cannot ultimately be finally dogmatic, then to leave aside what James is actually saying, and that is that in all the circumstances of our lives, whether in sickness or in health, in joy and in sorrow, the recourse of the people of God is to go to their heavenly, faithful Father in dependent prayer. And if we’re going to pray properly, then we need to pray, as we’ve noted together, with a God-centered perspective, so that we do not put ourselves at the center of the universe, and also with a God-centered trust, recognizing that always and in every instance our heavenly Father knows best.

The response to trouble is not to become embittered or rebellious but to go to God in prayer.

Samuel Chadwick, on an earlier occasion, said these words: “Satan dreads nothing but prayer. His one concern is to keep God’s people from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.” And whatever else we face in these verses, we face this call to prayer.

A Variety of Readings

Now, what I want to do then, having said that, is stand back for a moment from this passage and try and get some perspective on it in relationship to the way it has been dealt with throughout the centuries. I don’t mean this to be protracted, but it has been pressed and pulled in a variety of directions, and some of us, depending on our backgrounds, will have been part of the pulling and pushing process. We may be very clear, and if you are, then I hope that nothing I’m about to say will rob you of your clarity.

Classically, the Roman Catholic Church has used and does use this passage to provide them with what they feel is sufficient justification for the practice of anointing people who are in imminent expectation of death. And this is ministered by the priest, preparing the individual for the world to come. Now, you are sensible people, and you need to look at this passage and see if there is any suggestion that what is being referenced here is a preparation for the world to come or if actually what is being suggested here is that this prayer will mean that the person is not going to the world to come but is actually going to stay in the world that is. The person that is being prayed for in this instance, we see: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; [and] the Lord will raise him up.” Well, you’ll just need to tackle that for yourselves.

Others have taught that this fits within the framework of miraculous healing that was confirmed solely to the church in apostolic days, so that when you come to this passage and you find it perplexing, you’re able to say, “Well, that was then, and this is now, and that does not relate to now.”

Now, before we dismiss this too quickly, our good friend John Calvin held this position. And after he’s dealt with one group with whom he disagrees, he goes on to say, “I indeed allow that [this] was used as a sacrament by the disciples of Christ, (for I cannot agree with those who think that it was medicine;).” We’ll come to that in a moment. “But as the reality of this sign continued only for a time in the Church, the symbol also must have been only for a time.”[1] So Calvin very clearly assigns this to the apostolic era, thereby removing any of the dilemma that is represented in the twenty-first century as we try to make sense of any present applicability. My problem with that is that it doesn’t square with the fact that James associates this ministry with the continuing leadership in the church—that he’s not calling for the apostles, he is calling for the elders in their role as under-shepherds in the fledgling church.

Still others have taught that this was merely an ecclesiastical transaction, if you like: it was entered into as a necessity for a period of time because there was no medical help available. And so they say, similarly to the previous point, that the ministry now has been superseded by the advances of modern medicine: “We no longer need to do these kind of things, because after all, we have doctors, we have CAT scans, we have knowledge, we have everything necessary. And God, of course, is the author of every good and perfect gift,[2] and therefore, he is the provider of this instruction and of this knowledge”—which, of course, is perfectly true. However, neither the teaching of this passage nor the existence of modern medicine provides grounds for the rejection of one on the basis of the other. There is nothing here to suggest that the two are not able to operate together.

So, for example, I’ve used myself as a personal illustration as one amongst many who are the beneficiaries of this process as described here in James 5. A year ago now, prior to my surgery on the twenty-third of April, on the twenty-second of April, which was a Sunday, I met with the elders through here in our prayer room and had them anoint me with oil and pray over me and ask God to grant healing. The following day, I went to the Cleveland Clinic and allowed Dr. Klein to do everything he knows to do for the very same reason. Who healed? Who heals? God. How? As he chooses. The one does not nullify the other.

This is also used—and this most tragically, I think—by some to teach that physical healing is always God’s purpose. This is the kind of thing that is thrust upon us all the time: that all we need to do is simply call this out—to name it, to affirm it, to make it our own—and it will be our own. And this, I think, is one of the saddest ways of tackling this passage, and we’re not unfamiliar with it. I would say of that approach: at best, such approaches are sadly misguided, albeit enthusiastic, and at worst, they are deliberately counterfeit—people knowing that they cannot make such categorical claims.

Two Notes on Interpretation

Now, having said all that by way of perspective, I want to draw your attention just to two important points as we tackle this passage.

First of all, I think we’ll be helped by viewing it in light of what Peter says in 2 Peter 3:16. He says this in relationship to Paul, not in relationship to James. I know that. But it is interesting that Peter, as he addresses this particular question, says of Paul, “He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” Okay? So there is an acknowledgement within the text of Scripture itself that certain passages of Scripture are particularly difficult and that if you’re ignorant and unstable, you may push them and pull them and squeeze them and manipulate them to your own distortion and to your own satisfaction, but even to your own destruction. And I think in some ways, Peter might have said, “And while I’m mentioning that in relationship to Paul, I want to say that that little section at the end of James’s letter fits in that category too.” Of course, he didn’t say that.

Second thing by way of observation is that since there are no parallel passages to this to shed light on this particular passage, it means that we must proceed always with extreme caution. We will be able, comparing Scripture to Scripture, to state certain things with certainty, but that does not mean that we are unprepared to acknowledge the fact that while James knew what he meant and while the first readers probably had a stronger understanding of what he meant, we ourselves have difficulty in knowing what he meant.

Now, for those of you who like everything cut and dried and dogmatically asserted, that will drive you completely crazy. Because if you’ve been brought up in the notion that the pastor knows everything and all he has to do is find it out and tell us, then, of course, you’ve been sorely disappointed with me. Rather, you’ve discovered that I don’t actually know a great deal. But the good news is, I’m prepared to acknowledge it, so that you then may share with me in a dependence upon the Holy Spirit to illuminate the page of Scripture to us, so that we become students of the Bible and servants of Christ rather than students of a man and waiting only for his dogmatic assertions concerning what this passage means or doesn’t mean. And with that in mind, we need to examine the content.

Who Is Involved?

First of all, who’s involved? Who’s involved? “Is 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.”

Well, first of all—we’ll take the participants in reverse order—first of all, the church is involved. You will notice the church: “You should call the elders of the church.” James takes it for granted that his readers will be involved in the local church, that they will be part and parcel of the community of faith. And in this respect, he is in accord with the whole of the Bible: that God does not redeem individuals to live isolatedly but to live in community and to be placed into a relationship with one another, so that the grace that reconciles me to God reconciles me to my brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we are given to Christ even as we’re given to one another.

It is assumed, then, that Christian believers will be in such a close relationship with one another that the rough and tumble of life, the things they face in trouble and in blessing and in sickness, will be things that they face in community, that they will be things that they are left to deal with within the enabling framework of that which God has provided for them as a means of grace, so that they are not alone. They’re not alone because of the abiding presence of the Spirit, but neither are they to be alone because of the prevailing presence of God’s people. And that surely is one of the great emblems of what it means to be in Christ. And those of us who have faced particular challenges and who have felt ourselves palpably to be upheld by the support and prayers of God’s people will understand just how crucial this is.

In passing, it is a reminder to us as well that the fierce individualism which is part and parcel of American Christianity has no basis in the New Testament. Paul, when he became a Christian on the Damascus road, was immediately joining himself to the fellowship of believers. And Barnabas, in exercising the role of an encourager, comes to him and takes him to those who were afraid of him because he had such a notorious reputation.[3]

Let me just say in passing: if you come regularly here to Parkside, and you’re not a member of our church, and there is no good reason for you not being a member, then I encourage you to take a card, write your name on it, and simply write on it, “I ought to be a member of this church,” and we will get back to you. We don’t make a fuss about it routinely, but we want to know those who want to be shepherded, who want to be cared for, and who want to make their gifts available to the people of God. And the way in which that happens at Parkside is by our identifying ourselves as being part not simply of the universal church but of the church that is here located in this place.

Who’s involved? The church. Secondly, who’s involved? The elders of the church: “He should call the elders of the church.” In the same way as James assumes the presence of the community, so he assumes the presence of leadership within the community: men of Christian maturity, men of discernment, who are the under-shepherds, under Jesus as the chief Shepherd, responsible not to the people but responsible for the people; each of us responsible to one another under Christ, but some set apart as responsible for under Christ—hence the exhortation in Hebrews that “you ought obey those who are your leaders so that their work will be a joy and not a burden, because that would be of no help to you, because they keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”[4] So the grave responsibility that falls to leadership cannot be gainsaid. We won’t take time to turn to the qualifications. We’ve done it before, and it’s not in the province of our study this evening, but you can look in 1 Timothy 3 and elsewhere. So, the responsibilities of tending the flock of God extend to this area of prayerful involvement with the needs of those who are sick.

The fierce individualism which is part and parcel of American Christianity has no basis in the New Testament.

Who’s involved? The church. Who’s involved? The elders of the church. Who’s involved? The man who is sick: “Is any one of you sick?” Male or female. Now, the word here for “sick” is a word, asthenei, which won’t mean much to you, but it simply means “to be without strength.” It is a verb that is commonly used in Greek of bodily weakness, but not exclusively so. So it may refer to others kinds of weaknesses—mental, moral, spiritual. And on the strength of this, some have used that fact alone to argue that this call to prayer in relationship to sickness has nothing at all to do with physicality, that it is only the area of weakness in terms of morality or spirituality or mental capacity, or whatever else it is.

It seems to me that that’s just too slick. It seems to me that that’s somebody who says, “I don’t know what to do with the fact that the person’s physically sick, so why don’t we just make it if they’re not physically sick? And then we’ll be able to handle it much more easily.” Yeah, but we can’t do that, because it doesn’t say that it is only this and it isn’t that. Therefore, we’re stuck once again.

However, the observation is quite helpful, insofar as it is a reminder to us that those who are under our care within the church who are buffeted and blasted, who may come to the gathering of God’s people depressed and defeated, have every legitimate right to go to the leaders of the church and say, “Please pray for me. Pray for me! I am weak to the point of failure. I find myself completely overwhelmed. I find myself oppressed. I find myself burdened in a way that I cannot free myself.” And it ought to be the glad and happy privilege of those who are leaders in the church to take seriously the privilege of prayer.

But I think we know well enough by now that it is a principle of interpreting the Bible that we need always to move and work from the straightforward and the immediate sense of the passage. In other words, we don’t look for funny stuff. We look for ordinary and obvious stuff. That’s where we start. So when we say, “Who’s involved?” we understand: the church, the elders, and the sick.

What’s Involved?

Secondly, what’s involved? What’s involved?

Well, the straightforward reading of this text suggests that here is an individual with an acute form of sickness: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church.” It would appear that he is somehow or another incapacitated or confined. It is obvious that it is the sick person who takes the initiative. One commentator says, “It is not the [business] of the elders” of the church “to go scouting for the sick.”[5] That’s not the responsibility of the leadership. But the individual who is sick is the one who takes the initiative. And the framework, you will notice, is actually not public, but it is private. And indeed, we could probably make a pretty strong argument for the idea that this takes place within the person’s home, for they call for the elders to come: “Have them come to me.”

Now, we wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about that or make too much of it. But when the elders arrive, what are they to do? Well, look at what it says: they are “to pray over him and anoint him with oil.” The idea of praying over him almost suggests, doesn’t it, that the person is in a bed? And they come around the bed, and they extend their hands, and they pray over him. Again, we needn’t be dogmatic on that. And in their exercise of believing, trusting prayer, they are to “anoint him with oil.”

Now, here we go again: “What do you mean ‘anoint him with oil’?” Well, let me say first of all that we can dispel the notion that is sort of magical in relationship to these things—that somebody has a magic potion, if you like, and they get that out, and as a result of that, everything is put to rights. It’s often regarded in that way. In ritualistic forms of this, it certainly has a magical kind of dimension to it, and it just gets everybody completely off track. And so we’ll leave that aside.

What we have to acknowledge is that the word that is used here, aleiphō, was most commonly used to describe literal anointings. It is the word that would be used, for example, for bringing your horse at the end of a journey, taking off the saddle, and rubbing oil into it and massaging its legs and saying, “Now, there’s a good horse, thank you for looking after me,” and physically being involved with the horse or with a camel or whatever it might be. It is also true to say that this verb is used in the Septuagint—that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament—for the anointing of the priests. And you can read of that in Numbers 3.[6] You can read of it in Exodus chapter 40.[7]

But this use of it in a physical way has led some to argue—and quite strikingly, and I’m not going to mention them by name—but they argue very strongly for this being a literal anointing, as in, remember, “And he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, and they stripped him of his raiment, and they departed, leaving him half dead. And then the person came, and then the third guy came, and he went to him and poured in oil and whatever, and did the business for him.” (“Just read the Bible, Alistair. Don’t try and make it up.” All right.)

“[And] he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine”[8]—that there was an actual physical transaction that took place. And so some people have gone to this and said, “Well, this is exactly what it is. There’s no metaphorical dimension to it. There’s no symbolic dimension to it. This is a literal dimension”—which, of course, you know, opens up the possibility for the Parkside massage, whereby, you know, the elders are just, you know, just rubbing everybody’s back for them. I personally… I’m not ready to go there, even if you are. And I don’t think that’s right.

Basically, there are three interpretations: one is that what is described here is a ritual, which is taken to its classic levels in Roman Catholicism; or two, that this is actually medicinal and physical, as represented in this prior point; or thirdly, that this is symbolic, that the oil itself is a symbol—that it represents, if you like, the healing presence of God, or more specifically and in accord with the pictures of the New Testament, that it is representative of the healing power of God the Holy Spirit himself, who watches over believers.

Now, you have to just wrestle with this on your own and come to your own conclusions. We have come to sufficient clarity as a leadership here at Parkside to be prepared to do as best we can to wrestle with the implications of this and to respond to those who approach us asking for prayer in this way. What we can say with certainty is that it is the prayer and not the oil which is the vitally significant factor. You will notice it says, “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”—not the oil as symbolic or the oil rubbed or medicinally will make the person well, but “the prayer … will make the sick person well.”

Well, we should stop, but let me just go one step further. Because it brings us to the fifteenth verse, doesn’t it? And this apparently categorical statement, which makes the passage so hard: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” Well, what then is the prayer of faith? Is it a special enduement of faith that takes the elders beyond the realm of just normal trust—a peculiar gift of faith in the moment, whereby someone is enabled to pray under the direction of the Spirit for the actual healing of this person? Is that what it is? Does it actually refer to a special gift of healing, as Calvin suggests, that was present in the apostolic times? Is verse 15 a blanket guarantee of healing in any and all cases? Can we explain it simply in spiritual terms and simply avoid the physical dimension?

Well, it’s with these questions that we will begin next time. What we may notice in conclusion and say with clarity and authority is that this passage establishes for us the priority of meaningful relationships in the body of Christ; it establishes the priority of biblical eldership, of mature and godly men who are under the direction of God, under the tutelage of the Bible, and under obligation to God’s people to serve them; and it establishes for us without question the priority of humble and believing prayer. Because eventually, in all prayer we find ourselves, do we not, with the Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if there is any possible way that this cup can be removed from me, remove it. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.”[9]

I encourage you to study, I encourage you to think, and I encourage you to pray for me, so that when we come back to verse 15, we might be able to do a better job than we’ve done on verse 14.

Let us pray together:

Our God, we thank you for the Bible, and we thank you that you are the one who encourages us to bring our burdens and lay them down. Some of us are perplexed and buffeted, blasted, despairing, discouraged. Some of us are in the realm of healing. We’re doctors. We’re physicians. We’re nurses. We deal with this every day. We’re trying to make sense of how the gifts that you’ve given us in terms of science and in terms of the facility with our hands and in bioengineering coalesce with the call to depend upon you. And ultimately, we have reached the place where we simply offer up ourselves again to you and offer our lives into your hands and our gifts into your hands, recognizing that when we’ve done our best, it is only you, God, who gives life, sustains life. And therefore, to you, beyond all things, we come as children to our Father in prayer. Hear our prayers, the cries of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1855), 355–56.

[2] See James 1:17.

[3] See Acts 9:26–27.

[4] Hebrews 13:17 (paraphrased).

[5] John Rea, Layman’s Commentary on the Holy Spirit: A Complete Analysis of the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit from Matthew to Revelation (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1972), 97.

[6] See Numbers 3:3.

[7] See Exodus 40:12–15.

[8] Luke 10:34 (NIV 1984).

[9] Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.