The Test of Prayer, Part 1

“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.
(James 5:13-15 NIV)

As James winds down his letter to the churches, he wraps up with a call to prayer in chapter 5, verses 13 through 18.  We will tackle this section over two days.

I believe many people have taken this section of scripture out of its context, out of its original meaning and purpose.  Well-meaning folks have used this passage to promote faith healing, prayer for sickness and disease, etc.  This passage is often used as a spiritual “elixir”… sort of a spiritual and physical “cure-all” for whatever ails you.

I know that bucking the typical understanding of this passage is a big statement on my part.  I take this responsibility to handle God’s Word with care and respect most seriously.  Please bear with me as I explain:

  1. Let’s remember the audience James was writing to.  James wrote to the Jewish believers scattered around the region.  These folks were dispersed largely because of persecution against both Jews and followers of Jesus (Acts 8:1-4).  As both Jews and followers of Jesus, they would endure double the rejection and persecution.
  2. James begins his letter talking about enduring the trials and tribulations of life (chapter 1, verse 2).  James knew how hard life was for these folks, and wanted to encourage them.
  3. Looking at James’ writing style, when he introduces a new topic, he normally uses either a term of endearment (“brothers and sisters”), or a call-out (“come now” in 4:13 and 5:1).  Neither of these phrases are found in verses 13 through 18.  In chapter 5, we see these phrases in verses 7, 9, 12, and 19.  Therefore, we need to see what the connection is between verses 13 – 18 and verses 7 – 12.

There are a lot of other tie-ins from chapters 1 through 5 as well, but the above points will suffice for now.

So to whom is James writing these words?  Put yourself in these Jewish believer’s place for a moment:

  • You are despised and mistreated by both the Romans and the other Jews who don’t follow Jesus.
  • It’s hard to find work, and then only at the most menial tasks that barely pay enough to live on.
  • You are often verbally and physically abused, and your friends have been killed for following Jesus.
  • You are discouraged, defeated, depressed, and otherwise just worn out fighting the battle every day.

With that in mind, what does James recommend?  Prayer.

When should we pray?

  • v. 13 – When we’re suffering mentally – feeling beat down, discouraged, defeated, depressed
  • v. 13 – When we’re cheerful (singing praises is prayer set to music)
  • v. 14 – When we’ve been physically abused, through beatings or physical exhaustion due to demanding work
  • v. 15 – When we’ve blown it, and our “old nature” took over and we did not respond in a godly manner

James says that prayer is the most important action we can take to counteract these abuses.  Not vengeance.  Not legal action.  Not counseling.  Not even more preaching or bible study.

Many have questioned what James was saying about the use of oil as part of the healing.  Again, looking at the context, the oil is mentioned with the physical abuse.  If a person received a beating, and there were open wounds or welts on their skin (most likely on their backs), the oil would cleanse and protect the wounds and promote healing.  If a person were overworked, and had blisters or back problems or muscle problems, then the oil would be a healing agent.

Was this oil some kind of secret formula, or divinely appointed mix or medicine?  No, quite the opposite.  The word James uses for “oil” is the most common of all.  It was simply olive oil – the same stuff used to cook with, used in lamps for light, etc.  No magic or religious mystery about it – just a normal household item.

So what’s the point of all this?  James is encouraging us to stand firm in tough circumstances, and in abusive situations at work and in public.  And to help us get through these trials and tribulations, we’re to pray – to take our circumstances and our critics and abusers to the Lord.