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Elders Praying and Anointing with Oil
By Don Ruhl
I was asked to cover James 5.14 and its applicability to the church today. However, this passage is part of a larger context from verses 13–18. Therefore, we have to see the whole teaching of this paragraph. The message of the context is the power of prayer.
James 5.13 – Responding to Life
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (Jam 5.13).
The Bible recognizes different experiences of life, and it shows us what to do in each one. This verse gives a couple of things, but the rest of Scripture, especially the Book of Psalms, gives more information.
Learn to the see the power in prayer and in singing.
James 5.14–15 – When You Are Sick
“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. 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” (Jam 5.14–15).
Did James eliminate the need for physicians and medicine? Isaiah told Hezekiah to use medicine (2Ki 20.7). Paul told Timothy to use medicine (1Ti 5.23). However, Asa sought the physicians and not the Lord (2Ch 16.12).
The use of physicians and medicine does not eliminate the spiritual. We use farmers and stores for food, but we recognize God in the process and give Him thanks. In addition to proper maintenance of the body and the proper care of it when it is sick, we have to remember the spiritual side also. What is the first thing that James says to do when sick? Interestingly, most church members wait for the preacher, and never do what this passage says: Call for the elders.
What two things should the elders do? Pray for the sick. Anoint the sick with oil.
What is going on in this passage? Was the oil symbolic? Verse 15 says, “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” The oil does not appear to have a medicinal use. Compare this with what Jesus authorized the apostles to do, “And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6.13). How often would this praying and anointing heal the sick? James promised, “the prayer of faith will save the sick.” Does that not mean that every time they applied this text? If every time a member of the church was sick and we carried out this procedure, Christians would never die. Does this imply that the anointing with oil and the promise of a recovery has a limited application to the first century? Yet, often in the first century this procedure was not carried out: Paul did not do what James said, “Erastus stayed in Corinth, but Trophimus I have left in Miletus sick” (2Ti 4.20). Paul did not call for the elders of the church his a thorn in the flesh, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 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” (2Co 12.8–9). Paul did not recommend that Timothy call for the elders of the church, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities” (1Ti 5.23). Does this mean that James referred to a miraculous context? If so, early Christians would follow the teaching of James in harmony with other biblical teachings on miracles. Can we or should we imitate anything from this text? Continue to pray for the sick. Administer whatever medicinal means are necessary. If someone called on the elders to do this text, I think they should do it. What harm could be done? None that I can see.
Also, James added that if the sick person has committed any sins, they would be forgiven. Does the Bible teach anything else on receiving forgiveness, that James did not mention? Yes, for Christians must confess their sin to God and they must repent of their sin. That just illustrates the point that we cannot take this passage alone, but we have to consider the entire context of the Bible.
Observe what James taught next to reinforce his teaching.
James 5.16 – The Power of Prayer
“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” (Jam 5.16).
If prayer can help us in the body, think of what it can do for us in the spirit. A sin-stained soul is in worse condition than a sick body. Moreover, God has more concern for our spirits than He does for our bodies.
What two things does James tell us to do? Confess our trespasses. Pray for one another.
Why does the fervent prayer of a righteous man avail much?
James 5.17–18 – The Example of Elijah
“Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (Jam 5.17–18).
This strengthens the last sentence of verse 16.
What does James mean that Elijah was a man with a nature like ours? Power was not available to him because he was super human, but whatever makes us, us, he had also. Yet, nature was at this man’s control! Therefore, let all of us pray for one another and if you need the elders to come to you and pray, do not just wait for them. They have busy lives also. They have other members to whom they must give attention. Therefore, get their attention by politely asking them to pray.