This article is a Bible study on James 5:12-20, focusing on the biblical call to prayer among God’s people.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2008. 3 pages.

The Chastised Church Urged to Pray Read James 5:12-20

Come people think these verses are simply a string of unrelated points touching on various points of church life. There are verses about anointing sick members of the church, confessing faults to each other, praying like Elijah, and turning people back from their errors. Are these simply assorted pieces of instruction? That is not how James has been writing up until this point. Nor is this the way he concludes. When you look carefully, you see how everything relates. As he closes, James brings together many of the themes he has dealt with and he stresses the need for prayer. Like an Old Testament prophet, he had declared to the people their sin; now he is pointing out the remedy. The problem had been their lack of genuine religion; the cure would be the revival of genuine religion.

The Example of Elijah🔗

An important clue to how everything hangs together can be found in how Elijah is introduced in the middle of this section (vv. 17-18). Elijah’s circumstances were not very different from James’s. In Elijah’s day, the rich oppressed the poor. The people lived in luxury without any regard for the Lord. They had compromised with the world and committed spiritual unfaithfulness under the leadership of Ahab and Jezebel. As a result, God sent natural calamities. He also sent His thundering prophet Elijah, who put the nation under spiritual discipline, as it were. He called on God to close the heavens so that it would not rain. As a result, there was a famine, which God had threatened if the people would forsake Him (Deut. 11:17).

However, that was not the end. When three and a half years had passed, Elijah called the people together and confronted them with their sin. They had halted between two opinions, and Elijah called on them to stop. He also prayed for them. “Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:37). And this prayer of faith was effectual. God answered it and the discipline stopped. The heavens again opened and rain came down to water the earth.

God used Elijah to turn the nation back from their errors, at least for the moment. That’s how sickness, dis­cipline, and fervent prayer all hang together. God had chastised Israel for her sin, but through the instrumentality of Elijah’s prayers, He was bringing Israel back from the errors of her ways. Likewise, James was being used by God to accomplish the same sort of purpose. How often throughout history hasn’t God used providences and prophets to turn a nation back to Himself?

The Prescription of Prayer🔗

In the previous chapter, James had rebuked his readers for their spiritual unfaithfulness. He even called them adulter­ers and adulteresses (4:4). He urged them to weep and to mourn and, above all, to humble themselves before God’s face (4:10). James shows us a church under the rod of God, under the discipline of the Almighty. They were enduring reproach for their sin. God was chastising them. People had been struck down by sickness (vv. 15-16); some people had erred from the truth and were liable to die in their sins (vv. 19-20). All in all, these were harrowing times for God’s people. God was speaking loudly through His providences. But He also sent them reproofs through James’s writing.

How should the church respond to chastisement? At the close of his epistle, James prescribes prayer. He says in verse 13: “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray.” How important prayer is! Even if the Lord is not chastising us, prayer is still extremely important. It is one of the chief marks of true religion. Another is praise. Though James will focus on prayer, he also mentions praise. He counsels: “Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.” He reaches back to the book of Psalms, the great book of prayers and praises. We find the low pitch of prayer and the high pitch of song. Every believer knows these two attitudes. In a way, these two can be said to summarize true religion. On the one hand, a believer cries out in the need of his life and soul. On the other hand, when God brings him out of all his distresses, he sings for joy because of the bountiful blessings God has conferred upon him.

James dwells especially on the need for prayer in times of chastisement and trouble. What can we learn about the importance of prayer, whatever our circumstances? First of all, the needs of our lives should drive us to prayer (v. 13). James specifically mentions sickness and affliction, but everyone has needs of one kind or another. Whatever God is using to chastise us, we should see these things as goads to prayer. That is how we can be God-centered no matter what our circumstances. By nature, we are man-centered or self-centered. When we have needs, we may cover them up, dwell on them, blame other people for them, fret about them, look for human helpers, or try to escape them. But aren’t these all man-centered ways of dealing with our needs? Instead of these things, James says: “Pray.” Let the person who is sick find a place where he can bow his knees and pour out his soul to God, bringing his need before the Almighty One.

Secondly, we should seek the prayers of God’s people, especially those in office (v. 14a). Church members can be reluctant to tell others in the church about their needs. Some like their privacy and are afraid people will pry into their lives. Others are afraid that people will just simply spread the news. However, things should be different. When we have a need, we should not be ashamed to tell the church about it. The prayers of God’s servants from the pulpit or in private, at a prayer meeting or at the bedside, are all part of what James is talking about in verse 14.

Thirdly, we should combine prayer with using means to address our needs (v. 14b). When James mentions oil, he does not mean Roman Catholicism’s extreme unction or some superstitious ritual such as those found in the faith-healing movements today. In the Bible, oil is men­tioned as having a medicinal purpose (Isa. 1:6; Mark 6:13; Luke 10:34). Basically, James is directing us to use prayer and available medicines or means of recovery. In His good­ness, God has given us many things in nature and through science that can help alleviate pain or even cure diseases. We should not despise these things, while depending on the Lord rather than on ourselves. On a French hospital were inscribed these words: “I applied the remedies, the Lord was the healer.” If this is the meaning of the verse, this of course also means that the church has a duty to care for the sick, especially the sick among its membership.

Fourthly, we should pray believingly (v. 15). James already warned against wavering in prayer and being double-minded (1:6-8). If we pray simply as a means to an end that we have already determined beforehand, we can­not expect God to honor our request. Believing prayer is submissive yet confident prayer. It trusts in God that His will is always good. Like Job, who is mentioned in verse 11, this faith trusts God, even if He should slay him (Job 13:15). Mind you, this verse is not a promise of the “name it and claim it” type. God has not promised to always heal every sickness on this side of eternity. Paul left behind Trophimus sick at Miletum (2 Tim. 4:20), and sometimes God permits sickness to be a chariot to carry His people into His presence. Nevertheless, if we could count how many Christians have been prayed for at one time or other and been healed, in ordinary or extraordinary ways, we would see the faithfulness of God in honoring this word.

Fifthly, we should pray fervently (vv. 16-18). James prods us to fervent prayer by reminding us of Elijah. Through his prayers, the skies were closed and it did not rain for years. But when he bowed with his face to the ground on Mount Carmel and prayed for rain, the skies again poured down rain on the parched ground. We might be prone to say, “But I can never be like Elijah.” But, James says, Elijah was like us! He was a man “subject to like passions as we are.” He felt discouraged, fearful, alone, rejected, and despondent. Yet, God heard his fer­vent prayers. What encouragement for us to keep praying, regardless of where we find ourselves!

Study Questions:🔗

  1. Why and how does God chastise His people?
  2. Think about the difference between making God the means to an end in prayer, and making God Himself the end of prayer. Which are we prone to?
  3. What are some of the impediments to fervent prayer?
  4. What are some practical ways you can help fulfill the church’s responsibility toward the sick?
  5. So often we think of ourselves as never able to attain the godliness Bible characters attained. How does verse 17 turn that impression on its head? Do you see your own character described in Elijah’s? How?
  6. In what practical ways can we reach out to those who are erring from the truth (see verse 20)? What potential outcome should motivate us to do that?

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