The end of James 5 is a passage which has brought hope to many struggling, suffering people. Remember that James’ 1st Century audience lived at a time when there was growing animosity toward Christians. Times were tough for these new believers in Jesus who were spread across the Roman Empire. They had little connection to and support from the broader body of Christ which was established in cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. It was to these struggling first generation Christians that James addressed his letter. As he drew it to a close he left them with words of encouragement.
James 5:12-20 “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes,” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment. Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 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. 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. 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. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
The closing section of James’ letter begins with the words “but above all.” This expression suggests that while, what has gone before is important, what is about to follow is of even greater significance. Then, he appealed for integrity. It should never be necessary for a Christian to be put under oath. His or her word ought always to be truthful and thus absolutely reliable. We might think this goes without saying, but let me remind you that in the 1st Century, as persecution heated up, Christians in the Roman empire were pressured to confess the deity of Caesar. The formula was simply to say the words “Caesar is Lord” and throw a pinch of incense on the emperor’s altar.
Some Christians did this, rationalizing it with the logic that Caesar was not the Lord and their saying the words changed nothing. They knew that if they made the required declaration, they would be allowed to go free and practice their Christian faith in private as they pleased. James did not approve of such things. He stated that playing word games — saying one thing when you meant another — was unacceptable. If you mean “yes,” say “yes.” If you mean “no,” say “no.” Anything else is worthy of judgment.
We live in a world where half-truths and “spin” are normal. People learn to bury deceptive words in the midst of a verbal torrent that leaves the listener generally confused, but with the distinct impression that the deceptive words are the only true ones. “Spin doctors” are available for hire by anyone who has an uncomfortable truth to present to the public and wants to make things look better than they really are. It would be easy to target big corporations and governments, and they are often guilty of this kind of thing, but it is a tendency we find in every human heart. We all try to put ourselves in the best possible light by being something other than direct when confronted with an uncomfortable question.
Next, James began his comments on prayer, focussing first on one of the all time great motivations people have for praying.
James 5:13-15 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 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.”
Even people who don’t really believe God exists have been known to pray in times of extreme suffering. James clearly believed that praying in such situations was a wise thing to do and so advised his Christian readers to do so. In the same vein, even musically ungifted people have been known to whistle, hum or sing when they are happy. They’ll be glad to know that they are doing exactly what James felt would be appropriate under their happy circumstances and encouraged believers to do so. Now we come to the issue of sickness. Those who are sick and feeling in need of divine intervention, have already prayed for themselves, presumably, but James tells them to call for the elders of the church, who should pray over him or her and follow that up with an anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.
Some people have attempted to discern a specific formula for praying for the sick out of these verses, but, to be honest, there are not many details to go on here. More likely, what James was doing was setting out the idea that prayer and anointing with oil were appropriate responses to sickness and that the details didn’t matter that much. We easily get into trouble when we try to get too specific with general teachings. Sometimes, in our effort to be biblical, we end up imposing our view on the text, instead of allowing it to speak to us and our circumstances in an open-ended way.
Personally, I have prayed for people informally, when present with them, and when far away from them. I have laid hands on people, and I have been involved in prayer accompanied with anointing. One thing I can say for sure is that God does not seem to be limited by our approach to prayer for the sick. He works according to His own will, not according to our technique. I’ve also learned that sometimes, God works in or through a health crisis, rather than simply removing it. I suspect that sometimes we miss what God wants to do in our lives by judging the “success” of our prayers by our preferred outcome being realized.
Notice that James’ last sentence added a second layer to the prayer of faith for the sick with the words “and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” James was never afraid to be controversial, so he continued his discussion of prayer, particularly in times of illness, with something that makes a lot of us rather uncomfortable.
James 5:16-18 “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. 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.”
Confession makes us vulnerable, particularly when it involves confession to another person. Privately confessing our sin to God is challenging enough for some of us, but to follow James’ instruction here to “confess your trespasses [another word for “sin”] to one another” seems out of the question. After all, if you know my weaknesses, failings, and sins, you’re likely to think less highly of me than if I’m able to maintain the illusion that I’m strong, competent, and mostly holy. And that is a problem. We Christians have fallen into the world’s pattern of deception in order to “present well” in public.
We may hint at the truth in answer to a question, but bury it in the middle of a long confusing explanation about our emotions and intentions, and other people’s motivations and attitudes. By the time we’re done, the person who asked the question really has no clue about our spiritual state and how to help us. This won’t do, particularly where sin has manifested itself in some kind of physical symptoms — and it can and does. If we truly expect to be blessed with relief from our sickness, then we had better be prepared to be honest with those who are praying for us. Just as a doctor needs to know everything we do about our symptoms before he can make a diagnosis and suggest treatment, so our praying friends need to know that we are not holding back and pretending there is no spiritual issue that needs to be addressed as they pray for us.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book called “Refresh” which explored 19 ways to boost our spiritual life, among them was confession. In the chapter dealing with that, I wrote: “Solomon recorded: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (Proverbs 28:13 ESV). Note in particular that confession and repentance go together. When we confess and abandon our sin we will find mercy. However, when we hide our sin, we are seldom motivated to repent of it. It seems to take some level of public knowledge to motivate us to repent. That “public knowledge” may be as minimal as one other person knowing, but I know from experience that even one other person’s knowing of my weakness motivates me to forsake it.” That’s the end of the quotation from “Refresh.”
As James continued his reflections on prayer and its place in the life of the believer, he drew attention to Elijah. He was a man, like any other, but when he prayed earnestly, rain stopped falling on the land for three years and six months. At the end of that time, he prayed again and God gave abundant rain to the land which returned to fruitfulness. Let’s not be discouraged in prayer. It is something God invites us to do as we participate with Him in accomplishing His will. Now here are James’ closing words.
James 5:19-20 “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
I’m so glad that James ended his letter with a grace-filled instruction. Sometimes, he came across as rather harsh, yet here we see his gentle, humble side. He recognized that some would wander from the truth. Rather than writing these folk off, he reached out to them. To anyone who could be a positive influence in the life of such people and return them once again to the way of the Master, James offered two bits of encouragement. First of all, he would save the backslider’s soul from death — sometimes, when a believer’s life become too disordered and rebellious, God simply takes him or her home. Secondly, a multitude of sins are covered.
Christians hate sin, just as their Lord does. When one is walking with the Lord, he or she maintains a pure life — not sinless, for only Jesus was capable of that, but one in which the intent is acted upon, temptation is denied, the devil is made to flee. When one has been walking in the ways of the world, even though he or she is a believer, then returns to the Lord, all of the sins committed in the wilderness period are covered by the blood and forgiveness of Jesus. Such a one knows the joy of stepping forward cleansed and ready to follow the Lord wholeheartedly with no guilt to distract.
This is where we get to finish our consideration of the text of James’ letter. Don’t give up on the prodigals. God hasn’t. And if you are a prodigal, drifting aimlessly down the world’s paths, looking to it for meaning, return to the Lord, who will forgive you out of the riches of His mercy.