Elders, Praying, and Anointing

Man being anointedExpository Preaching

I believe I have noted before that I am a topical preacher…meaning I choose a topic and create a biblically-based sermon around it. Many other preachers are expository…meaning they go through books of the Bible verse-by-verse. Which is better?

Depends who you ask. 🙂

I’ve seen expository ministers act like it is the only legitimate way to preach…which is a bit crazy since they (like me) are committed to Scripture…and the Bible does not clearly say one way or another.

James 5:13-18

Even though I am a topical preacher, today’s sermon is going to be an expository one about some verses in James. Let’s hop right in and read Jame’s 5:13-18:

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? 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 of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

We are only really going to touch on verses 14 and 15…partially because I’ve been meaning to keep my summer sermons short and have failed miserably…and partially because two verses are especially germane to an anointing we are going to do right after I am done. This sermon is basically an introduction to that.

So, let’s reread verses 14 and 15:

14 Is anyone among you sick? 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 of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).

Although those verses seem pretty straightforward, there is some disagreement about what “sick” means in them…so we will focus on three things:

  • Is this ceremony for illness?
  • How should the ceremony be performed?
  • What does it mean if the person isn’t healed?

I know you could come up with many more items to touch on, but if we unpacked all that is in verses 14 and 15, we could be here a couple hours. 🙂

Is this Ceremony for Illness?

Generally, I recommend people start interpretation with a “natural reading” of a book, chapter, or verse. What I mean is that, normally, what a passage naturally means when you read it is probably what actually means. For instance, if you read the creation narrative in Genesis, its natural reading is that God created the world in seven literal days…so God probably…

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the “extras” that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

Created the world in seven days.

It’s not that it can’t be something else…but at least start with the natural reading and don’t discount it just because you’ve been told something in science class that contradicts it.

So, asking, “Is this ceremony for illness?” goes against that…but my recommendation is general…not always…and we cannot forget that we aren’t reading the original manuscripts…but an English translation of scholars’ best efforts to recreate the original manuscripts from many, often variant, manuscripts. So the two Koine Greek words behind the word “sick” in verses 14 and 15 may not mean “ill”…and some scholars believe it doesn’t. For instance, in our adult Bible Study lesson week last, John MacArthur said of the word “sick”:

sick (vv. 14–15)—James directs those who are “sick,” meaning weakened by their suffering, to call for the elders of the church for strength, support, and prayer.1

And in another one of his works, he elaborates more:

Here is the most misunderstood and disputed portion of this passage. At first glance it appears to be teaching that sick believers can expect physical healing through the prayers of the elders. But such an interpretation is out of harmony with the context. And as noted in the previous point, the suffering James has in view is evil treatment, not physical illness.2

As you can see, theologian MacArthur comes down on the “not illness” side…and he’s not alone. In his article, “Is Any Among You Afflicted,” Carl Armerding wrote this:

(4) “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick (κάμνοντα) and the Lord shall raise him up.” Here the word used for “sick,”—quite different from the one used in the previous verse—would indicate that we have another distinct case of need. This word from κάμνω means primarily “to be weary, tired, exhausted, or worn out.” It is in this sense that the word is used elsewhere in the N. T. (Cf. Heb. 12:3 and Rev. 2:3 R.T.). So that literally the verse reads, “And the prayer of faith shall save the exhausted one” (Rotherham).3

Not looking so good for “sick” in verses 14 & 15 meaning “ill,” eh?

However, I looked through quite a few commentaries, and most disagreed with MacArthur and Armerding. In his commentary on James, Kurt Richardson states:

5:14 In this and the next two verses, James’s teaching on prayer and praise emphasizes the community of Christian faith. The present verse is a classic text for the power of prayer in healing and forgiveness of sins in the history of Christian interpretation. By mentioning illness (cf. v. 15), James returned to the theme of suffering (vv. 1–10). Like the problem of sin (especially sins of self-deception and envy), sickness greatly challenges faith and unity within the fellowship of believers. Just as happiness is to be shared with other believers in praises to God (v. 13), the practice of prayer for the sick must be shared as well. The temptation to show disdain for the poor (2:3), to ignore their needs for food and clothing (2:16), and to threaten their physical survival (5:4) by withholding their fair wages is the same temptation to neglect fellow believers that would leave the sick alone on their backs. Believers who are sick and infirm are to receive special attention by the whole congregation.4

In what he wrote on James, Ralph Martin also sees illness as being in scope:

14 ἀσθενεῖ τις ἐν ὑμῖν, “Is there one of you weak?” James lists a third circumstance that engages prayer. Not all find themselves the victims of external suffering or share the experience of inner cheerfulness. Yet it is a much more common feature of life when people fall ill (BGD, 115; Matt 25:39; John 4:46; 11:1–3, 6; Phil 2:26–27; 2 Tim 4:20). ἀσθενεῖν can include weakness of any kind (2 Cor 12:10; Rom 4:9; 14:2; 1 Cor 8:11–12; 2 Clem 17.2), but Davids (192) is probably right to conclude that the context has physical illness in mind. He points out that ἀσθενεῖν stands in conjunction with κακοπαθεῖν (5:13), that the elders are called to come to the disabled person and pray, that oil is used for anointing and that the terms σῴζειν (“to make whole”) and κάμνειν (“to be ill”) in 5:15 are all features to show that a physical malady is the topic of discussion (see below).5

Two against, two for. Who is right?

As I mentioned, most commentaries were on the side of “sick” equalling “ill”…but there is no way to be 100% sure. However, what we do know 100% sure is some people we all look up to anointed for illness. Let’s turn together to Mark 6:7-13:

7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

What did Jesus’ disciples do to “many who were sick”?

They anointed them with oil.

Additionally, in the story of the Good Samaritan we find these words:

33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him (Luke 10:33–34).

So, whether or not James was talking about illness, it was a custom in Israel to anoint the ill…and, from what I can tell, there was a perception that the oil helped with healing.

The answer to the first question, “Is this ceremony for illness?” is:

Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. It is biblical regardless. We won’t take the time to look at all the verses…but elders are Bible-based, prayer for anything we need is Bible-based, and anointing for sickness is Bible-based.

How Should this Ceremony Be Performed?

Great, we are going forward with the ceremony being applicable. How should we perform it? The passage calls out three steps:

14 Is anyone among you sick? 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 of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).

  • Step 1: Call for the elders of the church.
  • Step 2: Have the elders pray over the sick person.
  • Step 3: Anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.

Let me ask you this…do you think that is set of steps, that if done together, magically causes healing?

For instance, in our church we don’t have any official elders. Does that mean the ceremony can’t work?

Or, worse, do we have to worry about the oil? Does it have to be the same exact type of oil…like some kind of holy oil…that was used in the first century when James wrote his epistle?

Very simple question:

Is that how God works?

No, that’s how witchcraft works.

James was just promoting remembering the needy in a congregation via a ceremony they were familiar with…and it’s clear at the end of verse four how the healing really comes. Whose name were people to be anointed in?

The name of the Lord.

It is not the elders that heal.

It is not the prayers that heal.

It is not the oil that heals.

It is the Lord that heals.

What does it mean if the person isn’t healed?

Okay, we know that the passage covers illness or, at least, that it is still biblical to anoint the sick for healing.

And we know how to do it:

  • Step 1: Call for the elders of the church.
  • Step 2: Have the elders pray over the sick person.
  • Step 3: Anoint the sick person with oil in the name of the Lord.

The third question is self-generated by me…and has to do with the difficulty I’ve had with this passage. If anything, MacArthur and Armerding’s interpretation makes it easier for me. What concerns me? It’s that the verses imply that if you do what they say, it’s a “done deal”:

14 Is anyone among you sick? 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 of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).

They don’t say that the Lord “may” raise him up…they say the Lord “will” raise him up.

I became a minister when the previous minister at the Antrim Church of Christ died of brain cancer. We did this ceremony for him.

He died anyway.

Does that mean we did it wrong? That somebody’s faith wasn’t strong enough? Something else?

The right answer is “something else.” A chapter earlier in James we learn something very important:

15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that (James 4:15).

Christians always pray explicitly or implicitly for the Lord’s will. We will pray over ______ right after this sermon, and we will righteously ask that anything that may be wrong with him is healed…but…ultimately…God knows best.

And we trust God.

Don’t we?

Does that mean that if _____ doesn’t get better…or…banish the thought…gets worse, God wanted him to be ill?

No!

Our Lord’s will was sin never enter this world and that nobody…including ____…ever be sick. But His will was also for free will, which means…

Sin did enter this world. People…even good people…will get sick.

When God is asked to heal and doesn’t…we may not know on this side of eternity why He didn’t intercede…but He is juggling…perfectly…bigger things…like the fate of all mankind. Sometime those bigger things mean we cannot have what we specifically want. And that’s okay…we have an eternity with the Most High that’ll make up for it! 🙂

And He may intercede without us realizing it. I wonder how many extra days, months, and years we’ve gotten with loved ones because of our prayers. How the ravages of sin would have snuffed their lives out earlier if God didn’t help.

I want to wrap up with 1 Peter 5:6-7:

6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Why should we call for elders and pray and anoint ____? Because we have a God who cares for each and every one of us…and who had his disciples anoint the sick.

He cares for us. He cares for _____. We care for ______.

That’s why we do it.

35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

Footnotes

1MacArthur, J. (2001). James: Guildelines for a Happy Christian Life (p. 115). Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group.

2MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 276). Chicago: Moody Press.

3Armerding, C. (1938). “Is Any among You Afflicted?”: A Study of James 5:13–20. Bibliotheca Sacra, 95, 198.

4Richardson, K. A. (1997). James (Vol. 36, pp. 230–231). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

5Martin, R. P. (1998). James (Vol. 48, p. 206). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.


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