Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth.
In this episode, Simon explores what the book of James has to teach about prayer, patience, and waiting on God. For more in this series, see Lessons From James.
Well, dear friends, we have come to the last in a little series in the book of James.
This is the 9th of a series of 9 talks. James chapter 5 – we are going to read verses 12 to 20. Those of you who know your Bible well know that this is the passage (we have just had it read for us so well) which deals with the sick person – the prayer of faith and the sick person made well.
And these verses especially 14 and 15 of James 5 have attracted a huge amount of attention. And you can understand that when you think of sickness which is such a dreadful business, a wretched and awful experience. And having had a little taste of it this year and some of you have had a taste of it this year, and some of you know people who are really going through deep waters, to think that the Bible would say something about how there might be a way out is extremely important – of genuine interest to us. So these verses have been of great fascination.
The Importance of Context
Now I think at the start, we might need to avoid two big traps with the verses that deal with sickness and healing. One of them is to pretend that there is some magic button – “the name it and claim it button”. You can imagine people who abuse these verses in James chapter 5. They say to somebody – well you are sick – well it says here in James 5, the prayer of faith will make you well. So if you would just come on, stop your doubting and be believing, and get someone to pray the prayer of faith or pray it for yourself, you will be well.
I don’t need to tell you that that type of thinking has caused a great deal of bewilderment in the church and that people have abused these verses – not seeing them in their context – lifted them out to say what they want to say. There have been people who have been through the wards of the hospitals to quickly pronounce healing on people and walk away leaving those people still sick and having to cope with not only the illness but also this God who has obviously broken his promises that were pronounced over them. So there is a great deal of danger attached with taking these verses too slickly and too simply.
The other danger however, is to dismiss them – it’s to explain them away. You might fear that I am about to do that this morning. You might think that this is the sort of church which is going to take these verses and bury them and in the end they will say nothing. I’ll have to stand up and say to you this morning – ‘well you know they might have meant something to simple people in the past but they don’t mean anything today’.
So I think you will agree that James chapter 5 is either being quoted by people who do want it to be the key to healing and they will say to sick people – just do what James 5 says – and the verses are explained away by people who don’t know what to do with them – and who basically say ‘let’s not go near them’. I humbly want to suggest to you that if we read these verses in context, we will see that they are still extremely significant, and if we get the main verses of the whole passage and we don’t just latch on to the one or two verses that spring out as being very appealing but we see the whole of the section, it will be of great benefit to us.
For example, would it surprise you to notice that the word “prayer” is used in verse 13 and 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 and 18? – all different types of prayer. So I wonder if you would open up your Bibles on page 1199 and we are going to follow it together and my introductory question to you is to say,especially if you have been following the series – I want to ask you the question: What do we know James is deeply interested in according to this letter?
James’ Desire for the Church
I’ve been trying to stress to you that what James is deeply concerned about is deep and long Christianity (including):
- Spiritual health
- Working out who Jesus is.
- Being reborn (chapter 1:18)
- Being profoundly changed
- Looking ahead to the great harvest
And therefore we would expect James (if he has been on this big issue for a long time) to wind up in the same way – and he does. He reinforces the same themes. You get to the end of the letter;
- he wants people to relate to God, (praying)
- he wants people to relate to one another as believers
- he wants people to stay on the path right to the end.
So I want to look at this with you under 3 headings:
- The person who wants spiritual help – verses 13-16
- The person who finds spiritual help – verses 17-18
- The person who needs spiritual help – verses 19-20
I am going to spend about 80% of our time on the first point – and then we are going to quickly finish with the last two. Please don’t think that I am going to explain away the verses that have to do with sickness but I do think they fit into the main context.
The Person who Wants Spiritual Help
So the first point is the person, who wants spiritual help. Let me read again verse 13. “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise”. Are you in trouble? Pray. Are you in good heart? Praise.
James is not taking us back to Sunday school. He is not a fool. He knows that we are not fools. He is urging people who claim to be Christians to relate to God. Now that’s such an easy thing to forget. We can claim to be Christians – we can know the stuff that is in the Bible – we can act like practical atheists.
You remember the man in chapter 4 verse 13 – the businessman who makes his plans as if God is irrelevant – and now here in chapter 5 verse 13 James is saying “Have you learnt to relate to God”? Because if you are in trouble and you tell everyone but God, what sort of God do you believe in?
And if you are joyful and you are blessed, and you are happy, and you don’t credit God with that, what sort of God do you believe in?
And I think, incidentally, this may explain verse 12 – which we left off last week (and I was tempted to leave off this week) which says that we are not to swear (that is, make oaths). And this, I think, (work with me on this) what is verse 12 all about? Especially above all, he says, don’t swear, that is don’t make oaths.
“Are you going to pray to him, and are you going to praise him?”
It is possible that the person who is under pressure and who is suffering (verses 7-11), inflates their words with an oath. You know – “I tell you, by (dot-dot-dot) I am going to…”, “I tell you, by (dot-dot-dot), this is what is going to happen.” And it is possible, you see, that the person is also unreliable and so that nobody believes them anymore, they prop up their position with an oath. This is how they are going to get through the tough time – “I am going to do this, by (dot-dot-dot) I am going to do this.” And it is possible, that as Jesus warned against making these kinds of oaths, buttressing your words as if your words need buttressing – in the Sermon on the Mount, he warned against it in Matthew chapter 6. Here James is doing the same thing.
You are in a difficult time, suffering, the question is – who is your Saviour? Are you going to ‘dig deep’, as the world says, and ‘be a big guy’, or are you going to (verse 13) talk to your Father in heaven, your Saviour? Are you going to pray to him, and are you going to praise him? It’s a good question.
Yesterday I was sitting and waiting to read and pray and my head was in a complete spin and I couldn’t think what I was doing and what I was meant to be doing and I couldn’t get thoughts to go straight. And I remembered that this James 5:13 was my first text for today, and I thought to myself – well that’s what I will do I will put it in to practice – I will pray. So I lifted up my simple prayer which is:
“Help me to go one step at a time, help me to put in place the first thing and then the second thing, lead me in the right way.” Very practical, and it’s not silly.
Are You Weak or Sick?
But then comes the question in verse 14 which is different: are you weak? The NIV says are you sick? The word is ‘weak’ – it is generally and regularly used in the Gospels to mean ‘sick’. Are you sick, are you weak, are you frail, are you fragile? Verse 14 – are you sick? Well you should call (…?…)
Now friends, imagine I ask you to just turn to the person beside you and finish the sentence: “Are you sick? You should call………” What are you going to say to the person? You are going to say, “Your GP.” “You should call your doctor if you are not well.” That’s the normal thing, isn’t it? If you are just sick, call your doctor. And James knows the word for ‘doctor’ and he probably knew Luke the doctor. There were doctors in James’ day and he could easily have said “If you are sick, call the doctor”. But he doesn’t – he says, “if you are weak or sick call the elders”.
And it’s obvious that something else is going on. Call the elders (verse 14), get them to pray (verse 14) because sin may be involved (verse 15) and this is a lesson for the whole church (verse 16). Sickness is there, but something bigger is going on. And if this was James simply saying “are you sick? well get some prayer and you will get well”, you can be absolutely sure that this simple slogan / formula would be all over the church and all over the world, and this building would be packed with people every Sunday, because the whole world would know that the way to get immediately well is to become a Christian, and then you can just come and you can take your sickness to prayer, and you will be well. And all the New Testament writers would say exactly the same thing and it would be a major theme in all the letters. But it is not; it is just here. All the people in the New Testament who got sick like Paul and Timothy would have instantly been made well, but they were not.
Initiating the Process of Healing
So what I want to do now is following the verses – I want to follow the argument of verses 14, 15 and 16 by asking some very basic questions – and I hope you will find this helpful. So here are my questions:
Question 1: Who initiates the whole process which begins it, who starts it, who gets it rolling?
Answer 1: Verse 14 – it is the sick person. It is the weak person. He or she should call the elders. You are in trouble? Speak to God. Are you happy? Speak to God. Are you weak or sick with something? Go to the elders.
So the initiative doesn’t come from the church. This is not people in the church driving around in their car with their bottle of oil looking for people to heal. This initiative doesn’t come from the healer in the church. We find the “person who has got the gift of healing” – no, no, no.
We are not calling people up onto a platform – come and be healed. This is the sick person who initiates. I think this is the vital thing. Listen very carefully to this, because I think this is extremely important. I think that probably in the context of sickness, some distress – whether it is physical or mental – this person is conscious of real spiritual trouble, and they are calling spiritual friends or people to come.
Now in our own church, this has been entirely relevant. A member of this congregation has farewelled her father, who died at a good age, as a real believer. But the interesting thing is that in his last days, he asked his family, who were spiritual people, to especially pray for him so that he might experience in a real way the peace of God, conscious as he was of certain things which needed to be forgiven or put right, and so although he could have rung the elders of the church to do the same thing, he was able to ask the spiritual members of his own family to come and pray for him and to help him to receive the real assurance of forgiveness and to be at peace with God – which is what they did.
So the initiative comes from the sick person.
Elders of the Church
Question 2: Who arrives to help?
Answer 2: Verse 14, it’s the elder from the church. People who represent the church.
This is not the man with the healing gifts. You don’t ring up the “healer” of the church. You don’t ring up a priest/ You don’t even ring up a priest because you are at the point of death. Verses 14 and 15 don’t seem to give any indication that the person is necessarily at the point of death, but you know that this verse lies behind the Roman Catholic view of extreme unction where the priest would come and pour oil on you and get you ready to die. But you will see quite clearly in James 5, that this is a verse that has got to do with the whole fellowship. So you may be called! You may be called. And it’s not to see a person leave this world but to see a person who is feeling weak get comforted and, maybe, restored.
Question 3: What do the elders do when they come?
Answer 3: They pray over the person, which presumably is because the person is very weak and lying down. Then they anoint the person with oil – why?
Well, in the Bible oil had two great purposes. It was either medicinal like the Good Samaritan pouring oil on the wounds of the man who was found beside the side of the road, but there are no wounds here in James 5 – this is not a medicinal situation. Oil in the Old and New Testaments was a symbol of the grace of God, the sustaining grace of God. You think of the virgins in Matthew 25 who had to keep their lamps filled with oil. In other words, they would stay faithful and trusting to the end. Or oil was a symbol of dedication. And again, you would think of the way the priests in the Old Testament were dedicated to the service of the Lord, by having oil poured on them. I think this probably fits the context the best, that here is a person who is being anointed with oil because they are wanting to re-dedicate or re-devote their life to the Lord – that’s my guess.
The one thing I can safely say, is that oil in the 21st Century is really a symbol of ‘nothing’ to us. I mean it may be to an unusual person that oil is a very symbolic thing.
So whether you go and visit somebody and you take some olive oil, cooking oil, sump oil, it’s really not going to mean a lot to that person. In the end, you see, oil is not a 21st Century symbol of anything – so it’s probably not part of our ministry.
The Prayer of Faith
Question 4: What is the prayer of faith? This is the real key. What is the prayer of faith? And every word in verse 15 is very carefully chosen by James. Does he mean the prayer of faith is a faithful prayer (an orthodox, doctrinally correct prayer)? Does he mean a prayer of faith is a confident prayer? “Oh God, you can do this… you can… We believe you can.
Answer 4: Well, look at the effects of the prayer of faith. Verse 15: The sick person is made well, literally saved – the Lord will raise them, will resurrect them.
Now stay with me, because if you want to really shake my hand this morning down at morning tea or anywhere and escape my beady eye as I look at you and say “What was it all about this morning?” You will need to know this! (What a terrifying person!) The prayer of faith causes the person to be made well (saved and raised). When you pray the prayer of faith, the person is saved and raised.
And those two words, friends, are so wide ranging that they could mean anything.
“Heavenly Father, you can do anything – we are trusting you with everything.”
You could pray for somebody to be saved from their disease and raised from their sick bed. Surely we want that, and we should ask for that. We could pray that someone would be saved from their confusion and their fear and raised for new usefulness. Or we could pray that someone would be saved from their sins because at the point of death they are not a believer and raised to glory with Christ in heaven and all of that would be wonderful.
But you see the range of “save and raise” is so wide it means that what we are saying to our heavenly father is, “Heavenly Father, you can do anything”. And our desire is that this sick person would be saved from their disease and raised from their sick bed, but we also want them to saved from their doubts and we want them to be raised to usefulness, and we want them to one day be saved from their sins and one day raised from this world.
“Heavenly Father, you can do anything – we are trusting you with everything” – that’s the prayer of faith – that’s the prayer that says “I trust you”.
When the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia was heading into his, I think, Good Friday or Easter Service, somebody dropped the news that he had terminal cancer – just as he was walking in to take the service. And he prayed with his elders and said “let’s get on with what we’re doing”.
Later as the cancer began to take its toll, he said these final words to his congregation weeks and weeks and months later: “We can pray for a miracle but they are rare. We pray for wise doctors and effective treatments, but especially we pray that God is glorified, because things that come to us are not accidental – He is sovereign and good. So if He does something in your life, would you want to change it and could you improve it? We cannot improve what he does. So let us move forward with this conviction – great is the Lord and most worthy of praise”.
I think that is a tremendous statement of faith. He is not saying God cannot heal. He is not failing to ask for healing. But he is trusting God to do the very best, assured that when God does things, He knows what he is doing.
Start by Praying for God’s Glory
This week I have been reading a little book called “Praying Backwards” by somebody called Brian Chappell. And he suggests that a lot of our prayers would be improved if we started by praying for God’s glory. Well of course that’s the way the Lord’s Prayer starts. And then we go on to our specific requests and we finish that God would help us to trust him.
And he gives the example of a lady called May whose husband was dying. He asked her what she’d prayed as he was dying.
She said, “I prayed for God’s will to be done (that’s the first), then I prayed that God would heal him (that’s the second), then I prayed that God would give me grace to trust him whatever happened (that’s the third).”
“Because,” she said, “faith doesn’t dictate to God, faith asks for all the things that we want and especially the essential things.” I think again that’s an excellent way to pray.
Sickness Can Stir us to Seek Peace With God
So if in chapter 5 verse 14 & 15, sickness has provoked a new spiritual concern for peace with God, or just the peace of God, and God gives the greater blessing which is peace with God or the peace of God, no wonder James goes on in chapter 5 verse 15 to say “do this around the church, do this in the fellowship, find somebody you can talk to about what is blocking your fellowship with God”. In other words, confess your sins so they can help you.
And when it comes to confessing your sins, you confess to the circle that is affected. So if you have done some private sin, don’t confess it to the congregation (that won’t help us at all). Don’t confess it to your Home Group (that may not help them at all). Confess to the person who is affected. But if the sin affects the whole congregation, then it needs to be confessed to the whole congregation.
But James is saying, have the sort of fellowship where you can talk to somebody or some people and ask their help for this particular battle. You don’t need a priest to hear your confession; find the right person who will listen, who will love you, who will pray for you, and who will keep your spiritual condition strong – that’s the context.
Now the last two little sections, very briefly this morning, stay with it – we are going to just quickly look at:
- The person who finds spiritual help, and
- The person who needs spiritual help
The Person who Finds Spiritual Help
The person who finds spiritual help (verses 17-18). Here are two little couplets at the end. They deserve their own complete sermons, but I want to simply point out to you that they are just illustrations of what is important to James: relating to God and relating to his people; taking God at his word and helping Christians keep going.
“The healthy Christian, you see is not a giant; the healthy Christian knows that God is a giant.”
The person who he uses to illustrate is Elijah (verses 17-18). Elijah is a spiritual giant as far as the Jews were concerned. However James is keen for us to know (verse 17) that Elijah is not so great. He is just like us. When you read the story of Elijah in the Old Testament you discover that he was just like us. He had huge ups, and he had huge downs. He sat by a river waiting to be fed like a baby. He had a massive victory on Mount Carmel, which was wonderful, and then he ran for his life terrified of the King’s wife that she would kill him. He was a very ordinary person. But the thing that was great about Elijah was that he took God at his word and he prayed for God to do his work.
So God said he would hold back rain; Elijah prayed (verse 17) for God to hold back rain and God held back rain. God promised the rain would come; Elijah prayed (verse 18) that rain would come, and rain came.
The healthy Christian, you see is not a giant; the healthy Christian knows that God is a giant. The power of prayer is not us; you don’t need to come and find somebody who has got some special hotline to God. The power of prayer is not the clever words that are spoken. The power of prayer is the God who we speak to. He is very great and very gracious and you can send up a sob to God and it would be heard and heeded more than 50 polished “King James” language prayers. So we are weak; He is not.
Weak People, Powerful God
Os Guinness, who is one of the great Christian writers and Apologists today tells of a woman in 1815 in Scotland who was tragically widowed when her husband fought in a duel and lost, and left her with a whole string of children. And she was so devastated she decided to take her life. She went to a high bridge to throw herself off. But as she stood on the high bridge ready to throw herself off, she saw in the corner of her eye a farmer ploughing. She said that what he was doing was so purposeful and so deliberate and so devoted that she changed her mind and she went home and asked in prayer that if God was real he would make himself known to her and that he would bring her into a purposeful life, which he did when she came to Christ.
She then began to pray that God would give to the next 12 generations of her family purposeful, devoted and Christian people. I think Os Guinness is probably Generation 7 or 8. A weak person praying for a powerful God; that’s what James wants for our Christian reality.
The Person Who Needs Spiritual Help
The last little two verses, 19 to 20: “Brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins”. Could you ever have a greater gospel-finish to the letter? If ever you have got the idea that James is crazy and on the edge of the faith – here he is with his very last verse saying, “What I really want for you is that you escape the grave, that your sins be forgiven, and that you will go right through to be with Christ.”
And he wants the church to watch one another and help one another so that we don’t fall away. If you need, therefore, any final proof that James is really concerned for spiritual health, look at these illustrations. I wonder whether he is conscious of his own foolishness when he walked the path away from Christ. I wonder whether he is full of gratitude because he has been brought onto the path of Christ.
So many here this morning are concerned for people who are not believers in your family and many of us feel and grieve and long with the same concern, and there are many of you who long for friends and neighbours, all sorts of people even in the church building, to be saved. And God hears your prayer; He is great and gracious. He watches and blesses your actions and your activities. And he works with you for an absolutely majestic plan. The most difficult thing of course in the present is to be patient and not fear that things are getting worse and worse. Your prayers and actions are going to a God who is able to protect and provide for the whole of the process.
That’s why we need to remember in the words of Apostle Paul as we come to the end of James, “Beloved brethren, be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labour is not in vain”. James would echo that – he wants people to be spiritually well and to keep going all the way to Christ.
Let’s bow our heads and pray.
Father, we give you great thanks for bringing James to the Lord Jesus in repentance and faith. For causing this letter to be written through him which has done us good in these last weeks. We thank you for searching us. We thank you that you are deeply concerned for our souls and for our preservation and for our eternity.
We thank you for giving provision, through the Lord Jesus, of forgiveness of sins and escape from the grave. We pray, our gracious God, that you hear our thanks for our Saviour, that you would help us to trust and obey him all our days. We commend one another to your care and protection; that you would cause each one present in this building and each one listening to this talk to trust and follow and stay and rejoice and be fruitful and to arrive.
We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.