James: Prayers of Faith
9/18/2018 3:48:46 AM
September 16, 2018
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: James 5:13-20
Bart Simpson was in danger of failing the 4th grade. He had to pass a history test or he would be held back. He procrastinated and didn’t study. Then, the night before the test, he got down on his knees and prayed. Passing by, Lisa’s comment was, “Prayer, the last refuge of scoundrels.”
The next morning, there was a miracle! Snow had fallen and school was cancelled! What was Bart’s reaction? Like all the other kids, he was going to go outside and play in the snow! But Lisa stopped him. She confronted him saying that she had heard his prayer and that he had gotten his miracle. “I’m no theologian,” she said, “I don’t know who or what God is exactly, but I do know he’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together and you owe him big!” Bart realizes his prayer has been answered and he better not squander his opportunity to study.
How often are we the same? We leave prayer for a last resort. Then, if God answers our prayers, we forget about it! A man was in a busy parking lot looking for a spot. He drove around and around. No spots were to be found anywhere. As he is coming to the end of his patience, he prays, “Dear God, please provide a parking spot.” Just then, he sees a car near the entrance backing out of a spot! “Never mind,” the man says, “There’s one.”
Yet Paul instructs us in 1 Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoicing and prayer should be a regular, continual part of the Christian life. Yet, living in the modern era that we live in, there are lots of people, including Christians, who doubt God’s active participation in day to day life. We wonder if God answers prayer, and if he does, why doesn’t he always? We downplay the supernatural. Even as Christians, we can downplay God’s role in prayer. I know I get nervous when I hear Christians talking to non-Christians about miracles. I get worried that they will make Christians look silly or give the wrong idea about God and prayer.
Our text today also teaches the importance of continual prayer. We have come to the end of James! And James ends on a high note, but as far as preaching goes, he ends on a very difficult topic to preach on- prayer for healing! Turn with me to James 5:13-20
What It Says
Let’s first take a look at some of the vocabulary that James uses. This is always important, but this is a passage some people have spent a lot of time examining in order to figure out how it works today. And I think it’s important that we touch on some of what the vocabulary opens up.
First, the term James uses for “in trouble” is the same word he used in v 10 “as an example of patience in the face of suffering, consider the prophets….” The “suffering” the prophets faced with patience is the same “trouble” James refers to now! This not only connects these passages together, but it gives us insight into how to face suffering with patience- through prayer!
If you are happy, you should sing songs of praise to God. We are to rejoice in the Lord in good times and praise him just as we are to come to him in prayer when times are bad.
If any of “you” are “sick” James says they should call on the elders for prayer. The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person “well” and the Lord will “raise him up.” We must address something about the terminology James uses for sick, well and raise up. First, sick can mean spiritually weak. The word for “well” is actually the word for “save.” The prayers of the faithful elders will literally “save” the sick person. Lastly, the Lord will “raise him up” sounds a lot like the promise of the resurrection when Jesus returns.
As a result of these broad spectrum of meanings in the words James uses, some have tried to narrow down the meaning of these verses to people who are spiritually sick, or that even those who are physically sick will be
receive salvation. They point to the image of being “raised up” and refer to the resurrection. While all of these aspects are present in the text, they are not the main meaning of these terms. Yes, the spiritually weak should call on the elders for prayer! Yes we will be raised up when Christ returns. But that is not James primary focus here. James is talking about physical healings and being “raised up” from one’s sick bed. In the Gospels, describing some of Jesus’ healing miracles, “raised up” is used to refer to raising someone up off their sick bed, helping them get up because, while sick, they were lying down resting.
Now, today, we struggle with the idea of miraculous healings. How do these fit with modern medicine? How do they fit with scientific understandings of germs and genes and the like? What if we pray for somebody and they’re not healed? What does that mean? All of these we will get to eventually!
One more thing in the text to point out is the shift between verses 14 and 16. First, James begins with each person praying regardless of their circumstances. Then, in verse 14 the elders are called to pray for a sick person. Finally, in verse 16, everybody is to pray for one another. We see that prayer is not something just “special” people do, or “super Christians.” Prayer and praying for one another is something we can all do.
As an example of effective prayer, James refers to Elijah. It is interesting that James doesn’t refer to Elijah as a great prophet, a righteous man, or anything like that. Rather, he refers to Elijah as a man “just like us.” Why? Because the power of prayer lies not in the one praying, but the one being prayed to. Elijah wasn’t powerful. God is powerful and worked powerfully in and through Elijah. But it wasn’t because Elijah was special in some way.
Finally, James closes his letter addressing the issue of those who wander from the truth. Instead of gossiping about these people, instead of judging them, we are to go after them! James uses the terminology of “turning” a sinner, this is the idea of repentance. Remember, James is writing to Christians and is speaking of one who wanders from the truth. He is talking about Christians sliding away from faith. Even Christians must repent. We are, in fact, called to live lives of repentance – lives of continually turning to seek God, to face God. We are to regularly be checking and adjusting our trajectory to be headed straight for God.
When we succeed in pursuing a wandering believer, James says it “covers a multitude of sins.” The Greek isn’t clear whose “multitude” of sins are covered, is it the wandering Christian or the pursuing Christian? Likely he is referring to the wandering one, but we must also remember that God promises to deal with us the way we deal with others. Jesus warns that if we don’t forgive others God will not forgive us! So when we do pursue someone and bring them back to God, God will be similarly merciful to us, patient with us and pursue us when we wander too.
What It Means
So that’s what it says, but what does it mean? This is a difficult passage! What about healing? What’s with the oil? Let’s take a look.
First, we see that we need to regularly be coming to God in prayer, whether in good times or bad. How often do we just come to God when we want something? When we need something? When we need help? This is no good! We need to remember God when things are going well and thank him for it. We need to come to him as soon as things start turning bad and not wait until we’ve exhausted all our own resources before we pray.
Second, we see that we need to involve the community of faith in our prayer requests. The sick are to call the elders. We are to all pray for one another when battling sin. One of the reasons God answers prayer is to demonstrate his love, power and grace to the world. When we keep our prayer requests to ourselves, we rob God of the opportunity to show more people his power and love. However, when we share our requests broadly, it gives God a chance to show more people his glory and it gives other Christians the opportunity to demonstrate agape love towards us!
But what’s up with anointing the sick person with oil? What’s that all about? Anointing with oil was a sign of setting someone apart for special attention from God. This is why priests and kings were anointed! They were being marked or set apart for special attention from God. So in this case, the anointing was at least in part a way to mark the patient out for special work of God in their bodies and in their lives for healing.
In addition, oil in the ancient world was often used as medicine. Remember, the Good Samaritan put oil on the wounds of the man he helped. Secular Greek literature talks about using oil for medical reasons a lot. So there is an aspect here of the elders showing up with prayer and medicine! But that’s not the main reason for the
It is also a physical action or element of invisible prayer. There is a pastoral element to the anointing. Think about it, when Megan has a cut, we kiss it better, not because the kiss heals the wound, but because it heals her heart. It is a physical demonstration of our love for her that comforts her and addresses some of the emotional and spiritual facets of being sick or hurt. Similarly, the physical anointing with oil involved physical touch and demonstration of care and concern for the patient by the elders of the church community.
I need to address something important here. This passage is not a blanket promise for healing. How do I know? Because Paul prayed for healing for his thorn in the flesh and was not healed. Was he a man of faith? Yes! Furthermore, Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:20 that he left Trophimus, a missionary companion, sick in Miletus. Trophimus was certainly prayed for, but not healed. Third, Paul tells Timothy to take some wine for his stomach- a sickness issue, that was not healed through prayer! If Paul prayed for people, and for himself, and God chose not to heal in those instances, then we can be sure God does not always heal and it is most certainly not a reflection on the faith of the person or people praying!
Thinking more broadly, every Christian mentioned in the New Testament eventually died. Many of them died of sickness. I’m sure they were all prayed for during their illness. Does this mean they were not men and women of faith? Of course not!
Why am I talking about this? Because there is a growing movement in more charismatic streams of Christianity today that says, “If you have enough faith you will be healed.” Alternatively, they say that if you’re not healed it must be a sign of a lack of faith or unconfessed sin in your life. This is just flat out wrong. That isn’t what the Bible teaches at all! Remember, the power of prayer lies not in the one praying, but the one being prayed to. It is God’s power that brings answers to prayer, not the power of the person or persons doing the praying or being prayed for. In the scenario James is describing, it is the elders who are doing the praying. If the sick person is not healed, is that a reflection on the elders of the church, who are elders precisely because of their maturity in the faith? And I’m sure it was the elders who prayed for all those Christians mentioned in the Bible who eventually died of sickness.
Where am I going with all this? Healing is a gift, not a reward. God does not owe anyone healing simply because of their faith. It is not a transaction with God. God is not a vending machine. We cannot put in our prayer coins, push a button and expect an answered prayer to fall out! God’s healing specifically, answer to prayer generally, is part of God’s divine will. When we pray in Jesus’ name, in his character, we pray that God’s will be done. (Think of the opening requests in the Lord’s prayer!)
Sometimes it’s not God’s will to heal us! God chose not to heal Paul in order to teach him that God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. That’s his prerogative. Contrary to “health and wealth” message, God may not heal us and it is not a reflection on our faith, nor is it a reflection on God’s power or love. It is a reflection on God’s broader goals and plans than our comfortable life.
Now, sometimes God does heal the sick! There is the Biblical record. There is also an early church record of healings. Around the world today, there are still examples of miraculous healings! One NT commentary I’ve been using on James describes the author’s experience. The author witnessed miraculous healing while praying for another person in his church! He also joked that he had suggested the elders gather to pray for the man and, “In true Presbyterian fashion,” they studied the issue for 6 more weeks hoping the man wouldn’t die in the meantime! When they gathered to pray for him, the author felt heat travel down his arm into the man, but he was too embarrassed and confused to say anything. A week later the man demonstrated his complete recovery and said he felt it during the time of prayer! So miraculous healing is not something restricted to the times of the Apostles (as some try to suggest).
God is neither bound to heal the sick nor is he bound to heal them suddenly. There are actually a number of ways that God answers prayers for healing! Yes, sometimes there is immediate healing. Sometimes there is gradual healing with the help of a doctor. (Think about the joke of the guy praying for a parking spot! God answered his prayer in such an ordinary way the man missed it as an answer to his prayer!) Amy’s friend Anna was born with Cystic Fibrosis. On Saturday, Amy got a text that Anna was in Toronto going into surgery for a double lung transplant-Answer to prayer? Yes!!! Will she need continued prayer in her recovery? Yes! But God is certainly answering our prayers, slowly and with the aid of doctors.
Another option God sometimes uses is to provide spiritual healing and renewal to a person who is physically sick. I know of a number of examples of people dying of cancer who felt such peace and joy after prayer that they were able to endure suffering with patience and bear witness to God’s love and grace. If I recall correctly, my sister had a friend in her Bible study for whom this was the case. She wasn’t healed of the cancer, but she was given a spiritual vitality that changed her experience of cancer and was a witness to the people around her, including the medical staff.
Finally, sometimes God chooses not to provide healing. Why? Faith, forgiveness and healing are all essentially ways God dispenses his grace. Therefore, they are not governed by rules of causality, but the will and intention of God. Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayers for healing and the person dies, but even then, if God has already provided faith and forgiveness, the ultimate sting of death is removed. God is even glorified in the death of believers because we will one day be raised again from the dead. God will, one day, raise them up and give them a new body that will not decay or sicken or die!
So what are we to do with all this? How do we apply this? First, pray in all aspects of your life and in all circumstances. Individuals are to pray in joyful times and difficult times. In times of illness or loss we are to pray so we don’t rebel against God. We don’t want to fall into that category of those who have wandered from the truth and need believers to come after them and turn them back!
Similarly, pray in times of success so we do not take credit ourselves! When God provides for us through seemingly mundane means, we are tempting to think we are self-made men and women. We miss God’s providence. We fail to give him praise for his provision. We again run the risk of wandering from the truth!
When we are sick, we need to not only pray but ask others for prayer too! We need to broaden the circle of those concerned and interceding for us, not because we can force God to heal us if enough people pray, but so that God might be glorified more broadly – there’s a value in sharing our burden! (last week application!)
Don’t be afraid to pray for healing. I know sometimes I’m afraid to pray for big things from God like healing. Why? Sometimes I’m afraid of disappointment. Sometimes people are too filled with pride to ask for prayer. Sometimes we are filled with disbelief that God even works in our world physically.
But remember, God’s goals in healing are that people come to glorify Him, to recognize his existence, power and care. This works in different people in different ways. Therefore, we ask for others to pray for us so more people can see God at work. But we also don’t go into it expecting we can twist God’s arm into healing us or that a lack of healing is a reflection on our faith or the faith of those who pray for us.
Sometimes Jesus’ miracles stimulated faith, other times they revealed faith. That is sometimes they caused a non-believer to believe. Other times they demonstrated the hidden belief of someone. It’s the same with answered prayer; sometimes they stimulate faith in those praying or those around them. Other times, they reveal the faith of the people involved. Because God has different purposes, we see different results to prayer or different appearances in answers to prayer, but all glorify God.
I was watching a training video for Alpha on prayer. They talked about unanswered prayer and what to do with prayers for healing. One great quotation was, “If nobody prays for healing, nobody will be healed. If lots of people pray for lots of healing, some people will be healed.”
Lastly, we need to consider the possibility of sickness being related to sin. The vocabulary in James carries both physical and spiritual elements to it and in v. 16 it does link confession of sin with healing. The ancient world over-spiritualized sickness. It was thought every sickness was the result of specific sin. That’s why Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Why was this man born blind, his sin or his parents?” And Jesus healed the man saying that he was born blind so that God could be glorified in his healing!
In contrast, the modern world de-spiritualizes sickness. Because we know about germs and microbes and such, we think all sin is purely due to physical causes and we never consider a spiritual link. We need to find a middle ground that sometimes there is at least the possibility of sin and sickness being linked. Therefore, it is important to go to one another for confession and prayer. In doing so we may find physical healing, but we will certainly find help in sharing burdens, finding support in battling sin! In confession and prayer together God often provides spiritual healing and renewal.
When someone wanders from the truth, pray for them and pursue them. James focuses on controlling the
tongue. Don’t condemn them with your words. Don’t gossip about them. Pray for them and pursue them! Use your words to correct them and bring them back to the truth. Show them agape love and God will show you agape love when you need it too.
Are you in good circumstances now? Are you praying about it?
Are you in bad circumstances now? Are you praying about it?
Don’t let prayer be your last refuge. Don’t miss answers to prayer either.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Amen.
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