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James 5:14 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.
Here James provides us with instructions for ministering to believers. First of all, the elders of the church are called. Ministering to believers can be more complex than ministering to unbelievers. In the gospels, Jesus never required anyone coming to him for healing to first repent of his sins. Most of those who came to him had not yet believed on him as the promised Messiah, but had some degree of faith that he could heal them physically. After their healing, many of them then decided to follow Christ as Lord and Savior. But if a believer asks for healing, there are conditions that may need to be met first. Verse 16 prescribes the confession of one’s sins first.
Sin is either directly or indirectly related to disease. And believers should know that their sins have been forgiven by Christ, and that they should no longer live in sin after confessing Christ. We are expected to know that God does not approve of our sins, and that there is a possibility that our sickness is related to our sin. Thus the believer should examine himself, and any sin of which he may be aware or unaware should be confessed. The blood of Jesus cleanses him of any sin, and then any obstacle to his healing is removed. “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” This is a very positive statement regarding the Lord’s will in the healing of the believer. Before we go on to discuss what is the “prayer of faith,” we need to acknowledge the possibility that in some cases it may not be the will of the Lord to heal, or to heal at that moment. The apostle Paul was eventually forced to acknowledge this when the Lord did not remove the “thorn” in his flesh. If we interpret the thorn as a physical infirmity (which most evangelicals do), then here is a case where the Lord clearly willed not to heal a believer. But let us not be tempted to think that every disease that attacks our bodies is a thorn in our flesh that the Lord wills not to heal. We might want to look at the conditions surrounding Paul’s infirmity.
2 Corinthians 12: 1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows-such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows-4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. 6 For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
The Lord allowed this infirmity to come upon Paul because the glorious visions and revelations he received had put him in danger in being “exalted beyond measure,” referring perhaps to pride. Apparently even repentance from pride would not have brought relief from the infirmity. Such was the lingering power and danger of the temptation to exaltation from the surpassingly glorious revelations given to Paul.
Although even the “lowliest” among us can find something in which to pride ourselves in an unhealthy way, there are things which are particularly able to puff up even the most spiritual in our midst. When God chooses to give someone very special knowledge and revelation, as the apostle Paul was, there is a temptation to think of oneself as being special in God’s sight, instead of simply being a vessel chosen to serve God’s special purpose. No person is “special” in God’s sight, but God’s purposes for His people are special. To keep such a vessel humble and usable, the Lord may allow a “thorn” that cannot be removed.
The question is: how many of us have been given such special knowledge as the apostle Paul was? The answer is some, but not many. And so therefore let us be careful lest we attribute Paul’s thorn to situations involving sickness where it may not apply. It is reasonable to hold that God wills to heal most believers in light of James’ declaration that “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” Situations contrary to this include those involving a “thorn” in the flesh, those where it is time for a believer to go home, or those where a minister of healing does not understand what is “the prayer of faith.”
James teaches that the elders will “pray over” the sick person “the prayer of faith.” The expression “pray over” in verse 14 is especially worthy of note, as it is the unique occurrence throughout the New Testament. In verse 16, James speaks of praying for one another, certainly not a unique concept in the Bible which is so full of exhortations to intercede for others. I believe that the two expressions carry different meanings, and for that purpose James purposely used different expressions regarding prayer. What does “pray over” actually mean?
The word “over” in Greek is epi, a preposition that is almost always found to describe the relative physical position between two objects: “upon, on, at, by, before, of position, over, against, to, over, across.” For example, to “lay hands on the sick.” Therefore, “pray over” could very well be translated “pray on” or “prayer upon.” By themselves, these expressions do not offer much of a clue to their possible meaning. But now let us insert to the other side of the equation the expression “the prayer of faith” that will save the sick person. What is the prayer of faith?
First of all, we know there are two directions of faith, faith in God and the faith of God, more well-known as mountain-moving faith. Which of these directions of faith is most directly involved in ministering healing to the sick? We have seen through our study of relevant Scriptures that it is the faith of God at work in believers that results in miraculous healings. It would appear that “the prayer of faith” through which the Lord raises up the sick is “the prayer of mountain-moving faith,” not merely “the prayer of faith in God.” Thus the “prayer of faith” may not technically be prayer to God as we understand it in the traditional sense, but actually what Jesus and the early disciples practiced as they healed the sick. This was the spoken word, the command for healing uttered with power and authority in the name of Jesus.
This makes sense. There is no reason why the ministry of healing as performed by Jesus and the early disciples should be so different from that taught in James 5 and practiced by church elders in the church of Jesus Christ today. Whether the healing is directed more for evangelistic purposes as in the gospels or more for showing Christ’s compassion to a sick believer, the principles behind the healing ministry should be the same. In fact, inasmuch as these two kinds of healings will obviously overlap—the healing of a believer leads to the salvation of unbelievers—the distinction between the two is not necessarily robust and can break down. When the two kinds of healings are no longer distinct, then logically the principles behind the two will be the same as well.
If the “prayer of faith” is the word spoken with authority over the sick, then we have a strong clue to the meaning of “praying over.” This may simply mean speaking healing over the sick in the name of Jesus, or laying hands upon the sick.
James 5:16 teaches us to “pray for one another”. However, according to Greek usage, the preposition ”huper” which is translated “for” here can also be translated “over” as in verse 14. Thus it is arguable that James in fact was teaching exactly what Jesus taught his disciples in the gospel—the use of power and authority to heal the sick. This argument is even more reasonable if James was in fact the younger brother of Jesus in the flesh as many scholars hold. If this is indeed the case, then what James taught about healing he must have learned from his brother, whether directly or indirectly. There is no reason to think why James would teach something new which Jesus never taught.
If James’ instructions to elders with regard to ministering to the sick were understood in this light, there would be far more miraculous healings witnessed in the church of Jesus Christ. Where there is a lack of practical understanding about the healing ministry, the sick are sometimes not healed not because of God’s will, but rather because church elders have not been trained to minister healing scripturally.