James 5:13-16 seems to be an unqualified promise of divine healing…
… but there’s more to it than that.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick [astheneo]? 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; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick [kammo], and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much– James 5:13-16 (NIV)
Christian experience has not been one of assured healing in response to prayers of faith, suggesting that something must be wrong with that view of James 5:13-16.
To deal with the difficulty, various groups of Christians have understood the passage in at least six different ways: They include …
- Roman Catholic view:
- Hyper-(or Ultra) dispensational view
- Charismatic/Pentecostal view
- Liberal Protestant (naturalistic) view
- Literal (plain meaning) view
- Figurative or spiritual view
The Roman Catholic View:
- V.16 is a proof text for the sacrament of auricular confession.
- V.14 is a proof text for extreme unction– “extreme” in that it is the last anointing. A priest prays and anoints with holy oil, thereby providing spiritual benefit. Oil is created from a special recipe in a special ceremony. The parts of the body anointed include eyes, ears, nose, mouth, lower back, and navel (women). The anointing allegedly equips the recipient to do battle with forces of darkness at death.
- Note that the Roman Catholic view diverges greatly from the intent of the text. The meaning is not to prepare the soul for death, but to restore a sick person to life.
The Hyper (Ultra)-Dispensational View:
- Ultra-Dispensationalists believe the church as we know it today began with the conversion of Paul (variously in Acts 9; 13; or 28). James is therefore relegated, along with the Gospels, to an earlier dispensation.
The Charismatic/Pentecostal View:
- This is essentially the view of modern-day faith healers. They see James 5:13-16 as reflecting a distinct ordinance of healing that is as sacred and binding as any other ordinance of the Gospel.
- If there is a problem in fulfilling the passage’s promise of healing, it has to do with a lack of faith.
- Note the added burden this places on a sick person who is not healed in response to prayer. Not only is the person still sick, but he or she is also deficient in faith. Thus the sickness is transformed into just punishment for lack of faith.
Liberal Protestant (Naturalistic) Views:
- This view discounts any supernatural or miraculous influence in preference for healing through the power of suggestion.
- Others see the oil as therapeutic in itself, as was commonly believed and practiced in the ancient world; e.g., parable of the Good Samaritan. The oil (based on the Greek word used) appears to be olive oil.
- An objection is that oil can’t be the treatment for every ailment. Also, why couldn’t it be used by someone other than the elders? Even non-Christians? Why prayer? According to James, the promise of healing is not based on oil, but on faith.
The Literal (Plain Meaning) View:
- This view takes the face-value meaning of anointing and praying for the physically sick. It’s similar to the charismatic view but non-supernatural.
The Figurative, Spiritual View:
- This view sees the sickness as spiritual. The underlying Greek word (astheneo) is used literally five times in Matthew, once in Mark, four times in Luke, eight times in John (e.g., Lazarus), seven times in Acts, once in 2 Corinthians, twice in Philippians, and once in 2 Timothy.
- It’s not always literal however. Figurative uses include …
- Matthew 26:41″Keep watching and praying , that you may not enter into temptation ; the spirit is willing , but the flesh is weak.”
- Mark 14:38 “Keep watching and praying , that you may not come into temptation ; the spirit is willing , but the flesh is weak.”
- Rom 4:19 And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb ….
- Rom 14:21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.
- Romans 5:6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
- Romans 8:3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,
- Romans 14:1-2 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. 2 One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.
- 1 Corinthians 1:25-27 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. …. 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
- 1 Corinthians 4:10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor.
- 1 Corinthians 8:7-12 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
- 1 Corinthians 9:22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.
- 1 Corinthians 11:30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.
- 1 Corinthians 12:22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary;
- 2 Corinthians 10:10 For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive, and his speech contemptible.”
- 2 Corinthians 11:21 To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself.
- 2 Corinthians 11:29 Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?
- 2 Corinthians 13:3-9 since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we shall live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you. …. 9 For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.
- Galatians 4:9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?
- 1 Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men.
- Hebrews 7:18 For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness
- 1 Peter 3:7 You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
- The Greek word kammo, v.15, can be understood as sick, but also as weary or fainthearted, perhaps bedfast (an implication of “Lord will raise him up”). The meaning of kammo depends upon how one understands astheneo.
- Note that the initiative appears to be upon the “weak” one to gather the elders. Also, if restoration is not in view, why elders?
- If physical sickness is in view, why wouldn’t the elders come without being called?
- If spiritual sickness is in view though, then the reason is clear. Spiritual sickness is more apt to be known to the one afflicted– not so much with physical illness.
- Also, if physical sickness is the circumstance, why not just one elder? Why not just anyone? Why not itinerant healers?
- Note that the person in v.13 prays for himself or herself while the person in v.14 calls others to pray for him or her. Also, the ones called are leaders of the local congregation– another argument for spiritual “sickness” and restoration.
- The Greek aorist tense argues for the anointing to have occurred prior to the prayer.
- “The prayer of faith” (not a prayer of faith) may refer to a special prayer.
- “If he has committed sins” leaves open the possibility that the “sickness” may not be due to sins. If so, the spiritual problems could be due to a weak conscience; e.g., the weaker brother of 1 Corinthians.
A compelling case can be made that the passage in question is talking about spiritual restoration, with Greek astheneo referring to spiritual weakness, not physical sickness.
Moreover, the anointing would be symbolic– the same as baptism and the Lord Supper have their symbolism. Oil would be to the spiritual restoration of James 5:13-16 as bread is to the Lord’s Supper. Just as the bread of the Lord’s Supper has nothing to do with physical nourishment, so also would the oil of the anointing in James have nothing to do with physical “healing.” Both would be symbolic or sacramental.
V16 does not transition to spiritual sickness. Rather it would appear to clarify the real focus of vv13-15 as spiritual sickness. John would say something like, “if we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive us our sins.” That is the kind of object where divine healing is guaranteed. If so, then James 5:13-15 most likely deals with the restoration of people to Christian fellowship, not the healing of physical diseases, the whole scenario being worked out within the context of the local church; i.e., “among you” (v13).