At this season in the political life of the United States, there is great controversy raging over a most important issue—that of health care coverage for Americans. If the bill as envisioned by the U.S. President becames law, about one sixth of the U.S. economy as represented by the health care industry will become nationalized and run by the government. If this should happen, the ramifications for America will extend far beyond the issue of health care alone. The existence of the United States in the limited-government form as established by her Founding Fathers in the U.S. Constitution will have vanished from history. And it might not end there.
So essential is proper health care for Americans today that this issue can be used, as we are now seeing, even to change the very form of government of the United States of America.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we ought to look at the matter of health care—so vital today—in the light of Scripture. The issue of proper health care does not appear prominently in the New Testament inasmuch as the emphasis is on holy living and obedience to God in anticipation of the coming age. At that time there existed neither health care nor insurance coverage of the kind Americans demand today. Yet believers in the early church survived. Not only that, according to Acts, they served God faithfully and fruitfully in their time. In light of eternity, this is what should be most important to us.
How did the early believers deal with the matter of sickness? According to what James wrote in his epistle, they were primarily to trust in the miraculous healing power of the Lord. Christians in the west today, however, for the most part give only lip service to supernatural healing by God. Some may even believe that the age of miracles is over. At the other end of the spectrum, charismatic believers flock to superstar healing evangelists to be healed of their sicknesses. Because of unscriptural practices and manifestations in many charismatic healing ministries, evangelicals today—understandably—have largely “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.” While they certainly believe that God can heal miraculously, they will usually trust God to heal them through doctors and medical science. This places evangelical believers in the same camp outwardly as the millions upon millions of the lost who look to doctors and insurance coverage for their medical needs.
Therefore it is not surprising that the issue of health care—given its paramount importance to every American—is now being used by progressive ideologues to challenge the very foundations of America, among which are personal liberty and freedom from tyranny.
Given this environment, it is an opportune time for believers to revisit what Scripture teaches about “health care.” What we discover may surprise us and be God’s supernatural intervention for the millions of His people who are now suffering from sickness. We are certainly not saying that believers should not seek medical help. Rather we seek to correct a severe and unhealthy imbalance in the body of Christ.
What James teaches about ministering to sick believers
When believers fall ill, some Bible-believing churches will minister to them according to James 5:14-16.
James 5:14 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. 15 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. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
Verse 15 assures us that the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well and that the Lord will raise him up. The language of this verse gives us strong hope for healing and recovery from the infirmity.
Why are so few miraculously healed?
Unfortunately, this hope has not been fulfilled in the great majority of cases where we minister to infirm believers according to current understanding of James 5. Why is God’s clear promise in these Scriptures more often than not unfulfilled? Christians must in all honesty examine this question. Could it be because we have misunderstood or misinterpreted these Scriptures?
In order to optimize our understanding, let us first ask who the author of this epistle was. According to scholars, James was either the younger brother of Jesus, or another man named James who lived much later. Let’s say that the author was in fact James, the younger brother of Jesus. Where would James have learned about ministering to the sick? We could assume, not unreasonably, that James learned about healing either directly or indirectly from the teaching and ministry of his older brother Jesus.
If the author was in fact someone names James who lived much later, we can assume that his epistle was based on inspired understanding gleaned from earlier teachings, writings, and Scriptures. Whoever was the author of this epistle, he wrote it to encourage believers to continue in the teaching handed down by Jesus. In light of this, let us then address the question of exactly what was handed down by Jesus to his disciples with regarding to ministry to the infirm.
Exactly what did Jesus teach about ministering to the sick?
Upon close examination we see that Jesus in fact did not teach them to pray for the sick. Neither did Jesus ever command them to do so. Rather, he taught them to heal the sick by laying hands over them and exercising the authority he had given them over diseases and demons.
Mark 16:18 “…they will place their hands on (or over) sick people, and they will get well.”
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Jesus himself actually never prayed for the sick since His Father had given him authority over diseases and demons. Upon studying his ministry to the infirm, we see that he exercised this authority by rebuking infirmities and commanding the infirm to be healed. He spoke over them with authority. He did not pray for the infirm as we do today.
John 14:12 — Disciples do what Jesus did
And Jesus taught and trained his disciples to do the works that he did, including preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and making disciples. He sent his disciples out to preach the gospel and to heal the sick as he himself did.
We should now interpret James’ teaching about ministering to the infirm in light of what Jesus taught about the subject.
James 5:14 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.
There is a crucial word in verse 14 which has for the most part escaped the attention of the Church. In that verse we are not told to pray for, but rather to pray over the sick believer. The preposition which follows the verb “pray” in this verse is epi. This word is almost always found to describe the relative physical position between two objects. It can be translated also as “on” or “upon”, as in the phrase to “lay hands on or upon the sick.” This is the phrase which also appears in the Great Commission passage from Mark 16 above.
What is praying over the sick?
Is it possible that praying over the sick as James taught was exactly what Jesus taught, which was laying hands over the sick? It is not only possible, it is probable. Why should James teach something not consistent with what Jesus taught?
As Luke 9 teaches us, Jesus also gave a measure of authority over disease and demons to his disciples. They were to use or exercise this authority in the same way that he did. And so when we examine the ministry of Peter and Paul in Acts, we often see a similar pattern. They also spoke with authority in Jesus’ name when giving commands to the infirm to be healed or set free. They spoke with authority over the infirm. They also laid hands on the infirm on some occasions or made physical contact with them in some way.
When we understand what Jesus taught his disciples, we will understand what James taught about ministering to the sick in his epistle.
James 5:15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
What kind of faith is it that will make the sick person well? Jesus taught the importance of mountain-moving faith. It was because of lack of mountain-moving faith that the disciples once failed to cast out a demon.
Matthew 17:14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”
17 “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move.Nothing will be impossible for you.
Clearly, the disciples failed to drive out the demon because when they commanded the demon to leave, they did not speak to it with mountain-moving faith. When we learn how to speak and pray over the infirm with mountain-moving faith, we will see the promise in James 5 fulfilled much more often.
The ministry of healing in Acts
When we examine the disciples’ ministry to the infirm in Acts, we see a similar pattern. In many of the instances of miraculous healing there, the disciples continued to exercise authority over infirmities by issuing commands. Therefore the authority to heal did not pass away with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The pattern the disciples employed in the gospels was carried over to the period of Acts. (After Pentecost, the gift of healing—different from the authority to heal—was also made available to the Church.)
Not once in the gospels or in Acts do we see a miraculous healing take place solely as a result of prayer to God alone without any action involving the ministering disciple. We are not saying that God cannot answer prayer for healing directly and sovereignly. But we do not see this taking place in the New Testament. Could it be that the primary reason we do not see the infirm healed more often is our ignorance of Scripture in this area?
There is no reason why James should have taught something different and not consistent with the pattern we see in the gospels as well as in Acts. And there is also no good reason why today we should teach something different from what we see in those books. Only if we believe in the doctrine of cessationism (or dispensationalism) should we consider teaching an approach to ministering to the infirm which is not found in the gospels and Acts. But if we do, who or what determines the “new” approach?
Finally, praying for one another
James 5:15 …If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other…
In order to understand better the importance of confessing our sins to one another, it would be helpful to look at what Jesus taught about forgiving one another. Confessing sins to one another opens the way for forgiving one another.
Mark 11:25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
When we confess our trespasses to one another and forgive one another, God will forgive us, and we can be healed.
James 5:16b and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
After we forgive one another, then we pray for one another in love. This releases God’s healing power for infirm believers. Only then can we pray over the infirm believer effectively with authority and mountain-moving faith as James instructed in verses 14 and 15.
James 5:14 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. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
James 5 found in the cursing of the fig tree?
Perhaps James took his teaching about healing from what Jesus taught Peter when queried about the cursing of the fig tree.
Mark 11:20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” 22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.
In verse 23 Jesus teaches us mountain-moving faith. With this kind of faith we speak over infirmities authoritatively with no doubt in our hearts that they will obey us. This is likely what James meant by “praying over.” Then in verse 24 Jesus teaches “asking for in prayer.” The Greek word for “ask for” is aiteo, which can carry the meaning not only of asking, but also of requiring. Perhaps this is how James came up with the term “praying over” which includes speaking over with authority. Moreover, according to Greek usage, “pray for” in James 5:16b can also be translated “pray over.” (Please see footnote 1 below.) Finally, in verse 25 Jesus teaches about forgiving one another, resulting in God’s forgiveness. Similarly, James teaches the confession of sins leading to forgiveness from one another and from God.
It is possible seeing these parallels to conclude that James took his teaching on healing directly from Jesus. We know that Jesus taught healing the sick, not simply praying for the sick.
To summarize, praying over the sick as James taught means laying hands over them and speaking over them with authority and mountain-moving faith. When we have correct understanding of what James taught, we will see many more infirm believers healed than what we see now in the Church. James 5:14-16 does not teach the operation of a special gift of healing which not every believer or elder has. Instead, James is explaining how any scripturally-qualified elder can minister healing to infirm believers through the exercise of authority.
We have witnessed many infirm believers miraculously healed by applying this understanding of James’ teaching in his epistle.
1. “Pray for one another”?
Why is it “pray for” in verse 16b, but earlier in verse 14 it is “pray over”? Let’s examine this anomaly.
Here, “pray for one another” in the Greek is “ευχεσθε υπερ αλληλων”. The Greek preposition υπερ (pronounced “huper”) can indeed be translated “for” as in to “pray for one another”. But according to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, ὑπέρ (“huper”) means “over” when the object of the preposition is in the genitive case. So what is the case of the object of ὑπέρ?
“Pray for one another” in the Greek is “ευχεσθε υπερ αλληλων”.
The object of υπερ above is αλληλων, and it is in fact in the genitive case. Therefore a valid translation of the phrase is “pray over one another.” A reasonable case therefore can be made that in both James 5:14 and 16, James is teaching “praying over the sick,” and not only “praying for the sick” as is traditionally taught and done.