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Prayer and healing (1)

In concluding his letter, James speaks to people in three different situations (5:13-20). He counsels those in trouble to pray, those who are happy to praise God, and those who are sick to call their leaders to come and pray over them (v. 13-14). It is to this last circumstance that he gives the most instruction, and accordingly, it is the one we struggle with most to understand and apply to our lives. This being the case, an in depth look at this passage will be the objective of the next few posts.

Disclaimer:  I’ll do my best to keep things moving and serve only bite-sized portions, but the reality is that certain parts of Scripture are by nature more demanding that others. In such cases, it’s a mistake to look for shortcuts when hard work is what is required. Think of it this way --- if the apostle Peter could speak of some of Paul’s writings as containing some things "that are hard to understand," (2 Peter 3:16), then we can be assured that if we’re pursuing truth, we’ll also run into some passages that are perplexing. So I invite you to get comfortable, get your Bible out, and let’s get to work.

If you need to familiarize yourself with the context of these verses click here. If you need something more general about the letter of James, click here.

Let’s begin with the elders. The sick person isn’t to call just anyone --- they are to send for the elders of the church. "Elders" refers to those who shepherd the church (1 Peter 5:1-2). They are equipped to offer pastoral care that is required here. There’s probably also something to the idea that they are there in a representative capacity for the rest of the church. The elders are instructed by James to pray over the sick person and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.

The oil and its use have been understood in numerous ways. Some view it as medicinal (Luke 10:34). Others see it as representative of the Spirit (Zechariah 2:4-6; Luke 4:18). Then there are those who think it refers to daily grooming, like bathing, combing your hair, or brushing your teeth (2 Samuel 12:16-23; Matthew 6:16-18). This last usage seems to best fit the context for a couple of reasons.

First, v. 15 makes it clear that what brings about healing is the prayer to God rather than the oil, so that would eliminate understanding the anointing in a medicinal capacity. Since there’s nothing in the context to lead us think that oil represents the Spirit, we’re left with the view that the anointing as an expression of faith that God would return the sick person to their daily life (like people carrying umbrellas when they gathered to pray for rain).

This understanding is reinforced by the fact that James speaks of "the prayer offered in faith," (i.e., prayer offered in trust that God would return the sick person to their place in life). In other words, the act of anointing the sick person was like getting them dressed and groomed --- it signified faith that God was going to make them well. James has previously emphasized the importance of praying with faith (1:6-8). I think we have a similar example of this kind of anointing with oil in Mark 6:13, where we’re told that the Twelve "drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them." As in James, the act of healing appears to be independent of the anointing.