There is a scripture in the Bible which due to very possible misinterpretation by the Church has resulted in her being crippled in her ministry to the sick.

James 5:14  Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them 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 them up.

The Church has interpreted this to mean that elders are to pray for the sick by asking God to heal them in the name of the Lord as is done traditionally by the Church and by Christians over past centuries if not millennia. According to verse 15, such prayers are unequivocally to result in the Lord raising up the sick and healing them.

Is this verse actually fulfilled in practice? Are many sick believers actually miraculously healed as they were in the gospels and Acts when the Church follows James’ instructions? Honest and frankly, the answer is no. Although a few are indeed healed when we pray to the Lord for them, they are the exception rather than the rule.

Why are these Scriptures not fulfilled when we pray for the sick? Rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and sweeping this under the rug, or rationalizing it away by declaring that God is sovereign and will heal only when He wills to do so, let us face this issue head-on. We should note that in His word the sovereign God actually promised that when elders pray over the sick and anoint them with oil, He would in fact heal them in response to the prayer of faith. But far, far more often than not, He does not. Why doesn’t He fulfill his word more often? (Even 50% of the time would be comforting.)

If we are honest with ourselves, we will consider the real possibility that the “problem” is not with God or God’s will, but with us—with our understanding, interpretation, and application of His word.

First of all, who wrote this epistle?

According to scholars, the author was either James the younger brother of Jesus or another James who lived much later. Before we consider either of these possibilities, let us propose the following: whoever James was, he wrote to encourage believers to continue in the teaching handed down by Jesus Christ. If we can agree to this, then let us go on, returning to this point later.

If James was in fact the younger brother of Jesus, from whom did he learn about healing the sick? We could reasonably conclude that he learned it either directly or indirectly from his older brother Jesus. Some of course will argue that since even his own family—presumably including James—did not believe in him before his resurrection, that James could not have learned about healing directly from Jesus. Therefore James would have learned about healing from one of the apostles—for example, from Peter—after the resurrection of Jesus. If that was indeed the case, then we should ask: What did Peter teach James about healing? In order to answer this question, we first need to know who taught Peter himself about healing.

If we study the healing ministry of Peter, we see striking similarities in the way Peter ministered to the infirm and the way Jesus ministered to them. It is reasonable and even obvious to conclude that it was Jesus who taught his disciple Peter how to minister to the sick. If that is in fact the case—and I believe few would argue to the contrary—then the next question would be: how did Jesus teach his disciples to minister to the sick? The gospel makes this quite clear.

Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray for the sick

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 proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. …6  So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.

Luke 10:1  After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. …9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

Matthew 10:1  Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. …7  As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  8  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Clearly, Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray for the sick as the Church does today. In the four gospels, not once did he tell them to pray for the sick. Rather he taught and commanded them to heal the sick and cast out demons after giving them the power and authority to do so. And they would do this in the context of proclaiming the kingdom of God.

Jesus taught and commanded the disciples to heal the sick and cast out demons

Therefore, Jesus taught Peter not to pray for the sick, but to heal the sick using the power and authority he had given the disciples. And if we study how Peter ministered to the sick in Acts, we see that usually he did exactly that. Therefore if it was Peter who taught James about ministering to the sick, he taught him not to pray for the sick but to heal the sick in Jesus’ name.

If on the other hand James learned about healing directly from his older brother Jesus—and not through Peter or some other disciple—then he must have learned not to pray for the sick, but to heal the sick with the Lord’s power and authority.

What if James was not the brother of Jesus, but a disciple who lived much later?

Even if this is the case, we must still answer the question: from whom did he learn about healing? The answer to such a question would be speculative at best. But whoever James the eponymous author was, he wrote the epistle to encourage us to continue faithfully in the teaching handed down by Jesus Christ. And the fact is that Jesus Christ never taught traditional healing prayer to his disciples.

Now, let us consider still another possibility for the source of the teaching in James 5:14-15.

Is it possible that James (whoever he was) received a special revelation from the Lord?

Paul received special revelation from the Lord—depth of understanding which did not exist before—with regard to grace. Paul teaches this grace in several of his epistles. Could James have received similar revelation from the Lord after his resurrection about ministering healing to the infirm? And were his instructions in James 5:15-14 therefore based on that special revelation? Did James, like Paul did in receiving special revelation about grace, ever write that he received such revelation from the Lord? The answer is no. I personally would discount this possibility entirely.

It is most plausible to conclude that whatever James 5:14-15 is teaching, it originated ultimately from Jesus himself when he was on earth. Therefore it is very reasonable to interpret those instructions in light of what Jesus taught about healing the sick in the gospels.

Let’s now take another look at James 5.

Praying “over” the sick is not the same as praying “for” the sick

James 5:14  Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them 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 them up.

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 “over” which follows the verb “pray” in this verse is ἐπί which is pronounced “epi.”

“Pray over him” in the Greek is “Προσευξασθωσαν  ἐπί  αυτον”.

According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the preposition ἐπί involves superimposition (of time, place, order, etc.); of direction when the object of the preposition is in the accusative case. Then the meaning will be “over, upon, towards,” etc. In James 5:14  the object of the preposition ἐπί is “αυτον” which is indeed in the accusative case. Thus we have the translation “pray over.”

The word ἐπί 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 passage from Mark 16:18: “…they will place their hands on (or over) sick people, and they will get well.”


What is praying over the sick?

Is it possible therefore that praying over the sick as James meant 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 entirely new and 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 over the infirm in Jesus’ name when giving commands for them to be healed or set free. They also laid hands over 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.

And what is “faith”?

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

Are the sick actually healed when we pray “over” the sick as verse 15 asserts?

Yes, we have seen countless infirm believers healed in Jesus’ name when disciples pray over them as Jesus taught and commanded his disciples in the gospels. When disciples simply pray for them according to tradition, few people are miraculously healed.

We emphasize that we are categorically not teaching that the Church should stop praying for the sick as is done traditionally today. But we hope to encourage believers to learn also to pray “over” the sick as Jesus and the early disciples did.

To continue with this teaching, please click on Hope for Healing according to Scripture for Infirm Believers.