James 5:13-14 – Prayer and Anointing of the Sick
James 5:13-14 – Prayer and Anointing of the Sick
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 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 LordJames 5:13-14; NIV
For us as “mature” Christians it should go without saying that in these situations we should seek the face of the Lord in prayer and praise. However, this does not appear to be the case for the readers of James’ letter, which is perhaps the oldest letter of the New Testament. Evidently they had to be called on specifically to do this. Were they new converts? It appears as though they were used to seeking help elsewhere. Seeking help apart from the Lord, from heathen rituals or healers.
James’ example of Elijah indicates his concern regarding the question “To whom do you turn in times of sorrow or joy?” James does not refer to a healing miracle performed by Elijah, but to Elijah’s prayers, first for drought and then for rain. The first book of Kings does not mention these prayers. 1 Kings 17 and 18 do mention rain and drought, but not that they occurred at Elijah’s request. It seems Elijah’s prayers were of no great importance, nor was Elijah himself considered important. He was not somebody with miraculous gifts of prayer or healing, but merely a human being like all of us. Much more important is the One who first held the rain back and then gave it: the LORD to whom Elijah turned in prayer. It was not Baal who gave rain, as many in Israel thought in those days. Ahab and his followers believed Baal was the god of rain, thunder and fertility. But the LORD exposed Baal for what he really was – an idol. It was the LORD who sent drought, and Baal was not able to do anything about it. It was not until the LORD issued his command that the rain finally came. Israel should have turned to the LORD and to nobody else. When Elijah prayed to Him for drought and rain, his prayers were answered. This is what James wants his people to realize. When it comes to healing, they should not turn to heathen rituals or healers but to the LORD. It is He who will raise up the sick (vs. 15). It is He who makes prayer powerful and effective (vs. 16; note that the passive voice ‘so that you may be healed’ refers to God as the agent).
It is important to understand what James is saying here. It is not our prayer that is powerful in itself. It is not our prayer that causes healing. It is the LORD who raises up. He makes our prayers powerful. We sometimes speak about the ‘power of prayer’. But strictly speaking, it is not the power of prayer but of the One to whom we pray. We do not need to send up ‘super prayers’. James points us to Elijah. He was no Superman of prayer, but an ordinary human being. The Lord wants earnest and believing prayers. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, no matter how clumsily it is sent up, because God makes it powerful. This is Elijah’s God, the God who has done and is doing great things!
Anointing in the Name of the Lord⤒🔗
James also speaks about anointing with oil. The elders who are called to pray over the sick person must also anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. What immediately strikes us is the phrase ‘anointing with oil’, because we are not familiar with this ‘strange’ custom. But was it also strange for the readers of James’s letter? Or was there something else that was strange for them?
M.C. Mulder has previously written a detailed article on this subject, which I will briefly summarize here. Mulder concludes that the Bible mentions four kinds of anointing with oil:
As a personal hygiene custom: applying oil protects the skin in a hot and dry climate. Omitting it was a sign of grief and fasting;
As a welcoming gesture: anointing a guest’s head and feet (cf. Psalm 23:5; Luke 7:36-49);
As medicine. Examples are (a) the good Samaritan poured oil on the wounds of the injured man to take away the pain (Luke 10:34); (b) the disciples were sent out to heal the sick in the power of Jesus by simply anointing them in his name (Mark 6:13 – by this method they distinguished themselves from Jesus who healed merely by the power of his word);
As a religious ritual: to sanctify holy objects and persons (cf. the Tabernacle, priests, lepers).
Mulder notes that the Greek word used for ‘anointing’ in the first three kinds is different from the one used in the fourth. When anointing is a religious ritual, the word ‘chri-ein’ is used. It is the same word as in ‘Christos’, which means Anointed One. In the other three cases the Greek word used is ‘aleiphein’.
In this passage James does not use the word associated with religious anointing. This should not surprise us, because the custom of religious anointing with oil had become obsolete in the New Testament. After all, religious anointing with oil was merely a shadow of the anointing with the Holy Spirit. This anointing with the Spirit we do find in the New Testament. It is mentioned in connection with Christ (Luke 4:18; Heidelberg Catechism – Lord’s Day 12) and the believers (cf. 1 John 2:20,27). In other words: anyone who still pleads for a religious kind of anointing returns to the shadows of the old covenant!
Anointing with oil was nothing special in James’ time. It was used in caring for the sick. It was a means to relieve pain and an article for personal body care. It was a normal product, not only used by doctors but also by Samaritans passing by! Nowadays when we visit somebody who is ill we take a jug of juice with us, or body lotion or a bunch of flowers. But in the Near Middle East visitors would rub a sick person’s skin with oil, especially when the illness was as serious as in verse 14, because that was more or less the only thing a visitor could do. The noteworthy aspect of James 5 is that this anointing should be carried out in the name of the Lord! This is the new element which James wants to teach his readers. They must expect healing to come from the Lord. Not from their own prayer, nor by their act of anointing, but from the Lord. It is to Him that they should turn in prayer and praise.
What is the risk involved in all sorts of pleas for anointing the sick? It is the same risk already pointed out by the reformers in connection with the Roman Catholic rite of extreme unction: that the attention shifts from God to the ritual. Attention focuses on the instrument instead of the great Agent who heals. Conclusion: the emphasis in James 5 is not on anointing with oil; that was not the issue. The readers of James’ letter were very familiar with this kind of anointing. The emphasis should lie on the phrase ‘in the name of the Lord’ (vs, 13 ff). It is the Lord who raises up the sick; He is the one that heals.
What is to be learned from all this? Negatively: the importance of rejecting the anointing of the sick as a religious ritual. Here are some reasons:
Whoever expects results from a specific kind of prayer or from a ritual such as anointing the sick, expects results from mere instruments. But in the case of illness James teaches us to expect everything from the Lord. This also applies when using modern applications of ‘oil’, such as medicine, therapy, sympathy and practical help for patients. The power is not in the means, but in the name of the Lord. He raises up the sick.
It is not altogether clear what the intended reader’s view on the ritual of anointing really is. I get the impression that they long for this as a kind of sign and seal of God’s grace. But clearly, God has not instituted this as a sacrament or ritual conveying his promises. Had He done so, we would be obliged to use this practice. However, the anointing in James 5 is a ritual which accompanies prayers for healing. It is not a gift from God, but an activity initiated by man.
Where does the desire for anointing the sick come from? Is it the need for an (extra) ritual? Is it a desire for grace apart from its communication through God’s word and its confirmation in baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Is God’s promise not reliable enough, conveyed through the means of grace he has already given? Do we need any additions? Do we need a third ‘sacrament’? How many more will follow?
There is another question to be asked. If anointing of the sick were to be allowed, how often would it have to be practised, for example in the case of a chronic illness? Only once? Or regularly? And on what arguments should that choice be based?
However, there are also positive conclusions to be drawn. We cannot simply point out what James does not intend. The appeal he makes to his readers in chapter 5 is a very positive one, which we cannot afford to ignore. I’m thinking of the following conclusions:
In the situation of illness and the desire for healing, we are to seek the Lord, personally and earnestly. If one thing stands out in my exegesis of this passage, it is our personal responsibility to pray. We cannot delegate this to other people without ourselves getting involved. “Is somebody suffering? Let him pray.”, James says. So the sick person should himself also pray! Even if he is too ill and too weak to do so himself, he should at least call others to pray on his behalf. And if there is sin that causes spiritual obstruction, it should be confessed. James does not want patients to become consumers.
The second positive conclusion is that the sick person is not alone. He is part of a church, which is the body of Christ. Sick people can easily isolate themselves and feel isolated from the church, but they should not allow that to happen. Notwithstanding the fact that responsible church members intercede for the sick, the sick themselves should also call on the congregation and the elders to intercede for them if they can no longer pray. Call them! Speak to them. Ask for their help.
If you as a sick person talk to others about your illness and ask for their prayer, be open and honest. Do not get stuck in small talk and pious truths. Be honest about your own weakness and about possible sin which stands between you and God. Realise that there is only access to the Father through Christ, and that therefore honesty (and perhaps confession of sin) is necessary. In this way a period of illness can become a time of spiritual growth!
How often do we as pastors allow ourselves to get caught in generalities and friendliness, without taking a clear stand before the Lord? We may be busy ‘anointing’, but not ‘in the name of the Lord’. Do we realise how much loneliness and how much unfulfilled yearning for a good conversation this may cause the sick? Would we not be able to give much better and much more personal help if we talked about more than medicine and practical aid? By seeking the Lord and expecting everything in his name?
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