As covered in my article, “For What Should We Pray?,” the sacred text authorizes us to pray for:
1) material things—including
a) physical needs;
b) physical wellness; and
c) lawful earthly desires; as well as for
2) spiritual matters—including
d) and spiritual growth.
In the closing verses of his letter, James lays stress on the importance of prayer in its ability to restore the unwell to health (i.e., physical wellness). Let us examine this passage momentarily:
“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 sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. 18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit.”
The Term “Sick”
The author employs two separate words for “sick” in this context.
In verse fourteen, the term, astheneo, is adopted. Literally, it denotes: “without strength.” It has to do with being weak or feeble, lacking vigor (Thayer, 80). The term may be applied to weakness caused naturally, by disease or illness (cf. Lk. 4.40; Acts 19.12), or unnaturally, by physical persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 12.10; 13.4).
Though the context indicates that James’ readers were in need of “perseverance” due to frequent mistreatment at the hands of the wicked (5.7-11; cf. 5.1-6), the weakness of verse fourteen may simply embrace weakness of any sort, whether caused by persecution or illness.
It is also possible that astheneo is employed in a figurative sense. Mounce observes that the term
“is used both of physical weakness and of moral/spiritual weakness” (780).
Weakness of faith, knowledge, conscience, or spiritual discipline are each examples of the figurative use of the word in the New Testament (cf. Rm. 4.19; 14.1-2; 1 Cor. 8.7, 11-12; Rm. 5.6). Hence, perhaps James refers to the spiritually weak, who need “lifting up” (v.15a). That would certainly jibe with the subsequent material, which involves spiritual matters: i.e., “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven…etc.” (5.15b-16f).
Against that theory, however, Woods remarks that the
“context [of James 5] would suggest that it is literal sickness inasmuch as it is mentioned in connection with literal suffering, praying, cheerfulness, and singing” (300, emp. added).
Although that is not an incontrovertible argument, one of the fundamental dictums of sound interpretation is that
“all words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids” (Dungan, 184, emp. added).
Figures of speech are “the exception,” while “literal language” is
“the rule; hence we are not to regard anything as figurative until we feel compelled to do so by the evident import of the passage” (ibid.).
Thus, there is no irresistible reason for the expositor to assign a figurative meaning to James 5.14.
The second term for “sick,” found in verse 15, is kamno. It may be used in the sense of exhausted. Stemming from the concept of being weary by “constant work,” Vine gives it the meaning: “weariness of mind” (573-574). Ceslas Spicq, in his Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, argues that it simply means “to suffer in the sense of being affected by an illness” (252).
It thus appears that James especially envisions one who is in anguish because worn out, body and mind, by physical weakness (whether caused by persecution, illness, or disease). Often, such afflictions render us immobile, requiring us to “call for” others to assist us, since we cannot go to them.
The phrase, “and the Lord will raise him up,” if literal, is also suggestive of one who has been bed-ridden (cf. Mk. 1.30-31).
The Gist of the Passage
There are many who believe that this section of scripture appertains to miraculous healing (a gift with which, it is supposed, first-century elders were endowed). The phrase, “anointing with oil,” in their view, symbolizes a miraculous act (cf. Mk. 6.13). But since God has “done away” with miraculous activity (1 Cor. 13.8-10), that aspect of this passage is no longer relevant.
That is certainly plausible.
Nevertheless, the thrust of the passage emphasizes, not the power of the supernatural, but the power of prayer — “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jms. 5.16). It is the “prayer of faith” that “will save the sick” (5.15); not the gift of healing, or the miraculous laying on of hands, as indicated in other contexts (cf. Acts 28.8; Mk. 16.18).
What’s more, in the same passage, the inspired author uses the prophet Elijah as an example of prayer’s power, in which he plainly emphasizes, not his extraordinary capabilities, but the fact that he “was a man with a nature like ours” (5.17).
James’ point is this: any disciple of Christ, operating with nothing more than his natural humanity, his genuine faith in the God of heaven, and an earnest desire, is capable of accomplishing, through prayer, the very same types of non-miraculous things which Elijah accomplished (e.g., providential rainfall and/or drought; etc.).
Since that is so, we should have every confidence in the prayers of the righteous to restore the sick to health, and to bring comfort when we are “suffering” (Jms. 5.13).
Call For the Elders
If someone is physically weak, then, he is to “call for the elders of the church” so that they may “pray over him.”
Notice the proactive nature of this instruction. The ailing disciple is to send for the elders, so as to inform them of his condition, not merely assume they’ll find out eventually. Too many are reluctant to inform their brethren of their hardships, preferring instead to keep their problems to themselves; yet, we mustn’t go it alone, for God wants our brethren to care for us, just as he wants us to care for them (cf. 1 Cor. 12.25; Jn. 15.12; Phil. 2.4; Gal. 6.2; 1 These. 5.25; Heb. 6.10).
But why “call for the elders of the church”? Doesn’t it follow that since the elders specifically are to be called for — and no others are mentioned — that there must be something special about the elders in particular? Indeed!
What is that? Permit me to mention a couple possibilities.
(1) It is possible, as many suppose, that the special quality had to do with the supernatural “gift of healing” (1 Cor. 12.28-30).
Yet, if that is so, why did James not say, instead, “call for those who have the gift of healing,” if miraculous healing is here intended? Some had the gift of healing who were not elders (cf. Acts 19.11-12; 1 Tim. 3.2; 1 Cor. 7.8-9; 9.5, 15). Why were they not singled out too, if the supernatural gift were the main healing apparatus here?
Furthermore, would all elderships necessarily be endowed with this miraculous ability? There is no evidence to suggest as much. Yet, if miraculous healing is intended by the passage, then we must conclude that all elderships in the first century were endowed with the gift of healing. Else, why call for elders, if not all elderships had this gift?
Hence, instead of working merely from one assumption (viz., that the healing occurred miraculously), we are compelled to embrace two (that all elderships could miraculously heal).
(2) More likely, the singling out of elders stemmed from the following two reasons:
First, the elders of the church were to be men of the most profound faith, the most spiritually mature, and models of hospitality (1 Tim. 3.1ff; Tit. 1.5-9). Hence, if fervent, righteous prayers for the unwell are needed, the elders of the church — of all God’s children — should be the best qualified for that task. What better source of loving, fervent, righteous prayers can be found than in the case of elders, whose love for the lord should only be rivaled by their love for their own flock (1 Pt. 5.1-4)?
Second, the elders in particular were responsible for the care of the church (1 Tim. 3.5). Their oversight certainly centered around the spiritual (Heb. 13.17), but they were also to be involved in hospitable efforts for those in need (Tit. 1.8). Hence, elders especially, more than any other disciple, are to be on call, ready to render assistance to all the members of their local congregation, as the need arises (Acts 20.28).
Anointing Them With Oil
Wayne Jackson, who favors the miraculous interpretation, lists four possible meanings for the phrase: anointing with oil. We reproduce them here.
First, oil may have been a common cosmetic, useful for daily hygiene, giving the ailing individual a feeling of normalcy and refreshment (cf. Mt. 6.16-18; 2 Sam. 14.2).
Second, oil was often used for medicinal purposes, particularly in cases involving open sores and wounds (cf. Isa. 1.6; Lk. 10.34). Of course, oil offers no appreciable medicinal efficacy for purely internal ailments.
Third, the application of oil was also used culturally to represent friendship, affection, and encouragement (cf. John 12.3; Lk. 7.46).
Fourth, the phrase may symbolize supernatural healing (cf Mk. 6.13).
In addition, anointing oil was used to convey divine favor in general — that God was with the anointed one (cf. 1 Sam. 10.1; Ps. 89.20). Hence, perhaps the application of oil on this occasion bolstered the sick disciple’s awareness of the Lord’s providential care in his life — that God has not left the disciple’s side. The phrase, in the name of the Lord, which evokes the Lord’s superintendency, is certainly suggestive of this sense.
Finally, it is also possible that James employs the phrase in a metaphorical sense. James’ use of the word anoint as a participle (i.e., anointing) may in fact favor a figurative interpretation. The aorist verb (e.g., pray) followed by the aorist participle (e.g., anointing) may express contemporaneous action (Wallace, 624ff).
This could mean either that the praying and the anointing occur simultaneously, or that the praying is the anointing. As previously intimated, both prayer and oil-anointing were performed as expressions of love and favor. Hence, rather than pouring literal oil over the sick, James may be suggesting that the elders’ praying “over him” is, like oil poured “over” the sick individual, an evident act of kindness, friendship, and affection, both from God and man. The sense would thus be, “pray over him, thereby anointing him with oil (i.e., kindness, love, affection) in the name of the Lord.” The affectionate, fervent, righteous prayers of a loving, caring (1 Tim. 3.5) eldership are like refreshing oil poured “over” the sick individual’s head.
Regardless, the literal interpretations must take precedence, unless and until they can each be debunked. And, for that matter, the grammar can certainly suggest antecedent action too, implying a distinction between the praying and the anointing — i.e., “pray over him, having anointed him with oil” already. In light of these possibilities, surely unflinching dogmatism in this case is unwarranted.
In any case, God cares for the faithful. His generous ears remain ever “open to their prayers” (1 Pt. 3.12). And though the age of miracles has ceased (1 Cor. 13.8-10), the power of prayer yet remains.
So let us “boldly” (Heb. 4.16) ask God for assistance “in faith, with no doubting” (Jms. 1.6). After all, “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jms. 5.16)!
Dungan, D. R. Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures. Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n.d. Jackson, Wayne. "Anointing with Oil - James 5:14." ChristianCourier.com. Access date: October 17, 2017. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/118-anointing-with-oil-james-5-14 Mounce, William D. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 2. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985. Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Woods, Guy N. New Testament Commentary: Vol. 12: A Commentary on the Epistle of James. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Company, 1991.