Two weeks ago we began a study of James 5:13-18. James’ counsel is so good. He said, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” James’ guidance is straightforward and understandable. Troubling times and happy times, that about covers the vast majority of the time we will spend on this earth. James reminds us that all of the experiences of life are to be traced back to the hand of God and we are to respond accordingly by either going to God in prayer or lifting our voices to praise God. It is the next bit of counsel offered to us by James that is less understandable, when we first read it, and which has led to all kinds of misunderstandings and disagreements in the Church throughout history. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning and then we’ll see what we can learn. Turn with me to James 5:14-18 and let’s read together.
14 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 Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:14-18 NIVO)
We’ll focus our time this morning on James 5:14-15 because there are so many questions and consequently so much misunderstanding that surrounds these verses. If we simply read the two verses with no thought then we would be led to believe that it’s really not that difficult: A person is sick, he or she calls the elders of the church, the elders anoint the person with oil, they pray the prayer of faith, and the Lord will raise up the one who is sick. Immediately, many here this morning are thinking, “I did believe when I prayed and asked God to heal my loved one, but He didn’t.” Some would respond, “But that’s not what God said to do. He said, ‘Call the elders, the leaders of the church, anoint the sick with oil, pray the prayer of faith, and then the Lord will raise the sick up from their sick bed.’” And I’ve got news for you, this prescription has been followed to the letter and the sick person has still died.
There have been some faith leaders throughout history that have used these verses to teach their people that they are never to go to the doctor for help, they are to look solely to the Lord for their healing. Is that what James is teaching? Is it the “prayer of faith,” the faith of the elders who have been called, that makes the sick person well? Or, is it the faith of the sick person that is honored by God and moves Him to restore health to those who are sick? It is heartbreaking, but I’ve known many, many people through the years who were told the reason they were not healed was because they didn’t have enough faith or because there was sin in their life that wasn’t confessed. Lastly, we have to ask, “Does God still heal today? Are all of the healing miracles of God confined to biblical times? Has God entrusted our help into the hands of great doctors who have been gifted to help us in our time of need? Does God still heal those who are sick?”
I want to dig deep, really take a look at God’s Word so we can rid ourselves of misunderstandings that we might currently be holding onto. The first thing we must do is understand what James is saying. Let’s read together once again verses 14-15.
14 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 Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15 NIVO)
It seems to me like any time these verses are brought up that the sickness being discussed is always some kind of physical ailment. James opens with a question, “Is any one of you sick?” The Greek word for “sick,” used in this verse, “astheneo,” definitely includes physical sickness, but when you read the other 34 verses where this word appears you will see that it includes more than physical illness. The Evangelical Dictionary of the New Testament says, “The word signifies weakness or powerlessness in various kinds.” Let me give you just three examples to show you the kind of range of meanings we find in the New Testament.
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:36 NIVO)
2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (Romans 14:2 NIVO)
10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIVO)
You can see that the word is used to describe the person who is physically ill, the person who has a “weak” faith, as well as Paul confessing that he has “weaknesses.” The problem that I see most clearly in our day is the sole focus on “sick” as some physical illness like pneumonia, cancer, or a cold. There are many and various sicknesses for which we need prayer.
Before we move on from trying to understand the nature of the sickness James has in mind, you may have noticed the word, “sick,” appears again in James 5:15 where James writes,
15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15 NIVO)
This is not the same Greek word we read in James 5:14, instead, it’s an unusual word, “kamno,” which means, “to be weary, exhausted, or to be sick.” It’s an unusual word that is found only in one other place in the New Testament. In Hebrews 12:2-3 we read,
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3 NIVO)
The writer of Hebrews can’t be encouraging the people to consider Jesus so they won’t become physically ill. He’s telling them to fix their eyes on Jesus, the One who suffered, so they won’t become weary, exhausted, by the troubles of life. I told you there is no other place in the New Testament where the word appears, but it does appear in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. You may have heard of the story of Job and the many heartaches he went through. In Job 10:1, Job spoke up and said,
1 I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul. (Job 10:1 NIVO)
Job was weary, he was exhausted by his life. Many Bible teachers believe the elders are called to go to the sick person, they pray over the sick person because the sick person is in bed, unable to go to the elders. Now, I know physical sickness can result in our being unable to get out of bed, I’ve seen it over and over again. Is the category of illnesses which can make us bedridden only defined by physical ailments? I don’t think so. I’ve known people who were so depressed about any number of things they couldn’t get out of bed. I’ve known people who have suffered such heartache that their grief kept them bound up and laid low. I’ve known friends who suffered from mental illness to the point where they wouldn’t leave their house. The list goes on and on doesn’t it?
Now do you see why I wanted us to really examine these verses? Now do you see why it is important for us to really understand the intent of the author when he wrote instead of just speaking what we think the verse means? Oh, how we butcher and mangle the Word of God when we fail to take time to understand what God is intending to teach us. Oh how we do such harm to our brothers and sisters, as well as those who have questions about the Christian faith, when we just speak without seeking to understand God’s Word.
There is something very important that James has in mind about the person who is sick and it is this: the sick man or woman is in the church, he or she has the community of faith to come alongside of them in their time of need. Let me assure you, every hardship that you and I will ever encounter will be made more bearable, the load will be lightened, if we have the Body of Christ to help us carry our burden. We need help. I can testify to the incredible wisdom of God in placing us within a family of faith. There have been so many times in the past 28 years that Connie and I have gone through various troubles and you have been God’s provision for us. You have prayed for us time and time again. You have come to our house to sit with us, express your love and prayers for us, time and time again. I have watched you do the same for one another.
I have been troubled for some time now about the transition of the church from a hospital to an entertainment center. If you go to any hospital in town you will find they are focused on their calling, which is to take care of those who are sick. Those who are sick rush to hospitals in their time of need. Can you imagine what would happen to healthcare, and to us, if they suddenly decided they could attract more people if they diversified their efforts and got into the entertainment business? They might do a really good job of entertaining the masses, but I’ll assure you of one thing, the level of care would become greatly watered down. In our day, the church is becoming much more of an entertainment center than a hospital. The church is not a place where those who are sick and suffering rush in for help and this should not be the case. Jesus is the Master Physician and He has called you and me, His church, to be His PA, His Physician’s Assistant. PA’s know they aren’t doctors, but they also know they have work to do and it is under the direct supervision of the doctor. And so it is with each and every one of us who are followers of Jesus.
The sick person James has in mind is in the church, they call upon the leaders of the church, the elders, to come to them. It’s interesting that in James 5:13, James told those who were “in trouble” to pray, pray for themselves, but here, in James 5:14, he tells those who were sick to call the elders. In James 5:16 he tells all people to pray for “one another so that you may be healed.” So, you can see, we are to pray for ourselves and we are to pray for one another. Paul tells us in Romans that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in prayer and that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father interceding for us in prayer. Then there are those times when we need to call for the elders. When is that time? How will you know it’s time? How bad do things have to be? Do we really need the elders to pray for us when we have the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and our brothers and sisters praying for us? Let’s take those questions in reverse order.
First of all, do we really need the elders to pray for us when we have Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and brothers and sisters in Christ praying for us? The answer is, “Sometimes.” There may be times when you drop so low, feel so weighed down by your circumstance, an ongoing illness, terminal diagnosis, or a prolonged season of despondency that you desperately need the physical presence of other believers to come alongside of you and pray for you. You may wonder, “Why not just call my friends? Why does the Bible say to call the elders?” That’s a great question. There’s no doubt you and I have friends who love us, but would they give us good biblical counsel at such a critical time in our life? Would they pray biblical prayers, instead of self-centered prayers, during a critical time in your life? Maybe.
I do premarital counseling with young couples planning on getting married. I tell them one of the reasons I require premarital counseling is because they will hit a rough spot, if not many rough spots in the future. When those times come I encourage them not to turn to their friends, but to come and see me. Why? Because the vast majority of her friends are going to side with her and his friends will do the same. They need someone during those critical times of marriage, the rocky times when the marriage hangs in the balance, who will counsel them as a couple and not as a friend of one or the other. I’ve known some well-meaning friends in the rocky times of life to give advice that was expedient, but not biblical. I’ve heard some prayers prayed that were well-meaning, but focused on what they wanted and not on what God desired. James says, “Go call the elders.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with how the church functions it is important to understand the “who” and “what” of elders. At the end of each service you’ve probably noticed some men and women who come forward and are available to pray for those of you who are in need of prayer and to counsel those who come forward to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior of their life. These are our elders.
In the Bible the elders are those in each of the congregations who are spiritually mature and who are appointed by the church to help shepherd the people of God in the church. Paul and Barnabas went to meet with the elders at the church in Jerusalem in Acts 15:2. When Peter sat down to write his first letter, which we call 1 Peter, some time around 62-64 A.D., he closed his letter by appealing to the elders to do their job. What were they to do? Read along with me from 1 Peter 5:1-3.
1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers– not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1-3 NIVO)
One of the most powerful scenes from the life of the Apostle Paul took place when he met with the elders from the church in Ephesus. Paul was on his third missionary journey when he stopped for a couple of days in Miletus and sent for the elders from Ephesus. It would have been about a 25 mile journey for them to make their way to Paul in Miletus. Paul tells them he will never see them again and then he charges the elders with these words,
28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31 So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. (Acts 20:28-31 NIVO)
I share all of this with you so you can understand that our spiritual leaders, our elders, are people who have been called to shepherd us as a church. They haven’t campaigned for the position, they haven’t sought any votes, they’ve simply made themselves available to the Lord to be used by Him in caring for and leading us. Our church has recognized them as mature in faith, passionate about the Lord and His people, and asked them to shepherd us. James says, “If you are sick and you need prayer, call the elders.” You let me know, or one of the elders know, and we will come and pray for you.
There’s something else that is important for us to notice. The person who is sick calls the elders. I point that out because in all of my years of being here I’ve never known a person to call for the elders and the elders be unwilling to go. I have known people who were sick, even in the hospital, they didn’t let anyone know, and then they were upset because nobody cared for them. There’s no way for us to know that you are in need of prayer unless you let us know.
Secondly, when do we need to call for the elders to come and pray for us? When is that time? How will you know it’s time? How bad do things have to be? I can’t answer that question for you, but here’s what you need to know. When the heaviness will not lift, when the darkness grows increasingly dark, and the hope you have in Christ begins to fade, I would encourage you to call. It can be something that comes upon you at once or something that weighs you down over time. Once again, it can be a physical illness or any other kind of malady that exhausts you, wearies you, and holds you captive. You need to know that you are not alone. Jesus has promised to never leave us or forsake us and He sends His people to remind us of that truth by their presence.
We have only begun our study of these verses, but I hope you will leave here this morning knowing that sickness comes in many forms and God has called others alongside of us, our spiritual leaders as well as our brothers and sisters in Christ, to intercede for us, walk with us, and be a visible reminder of God’s precious promise to be with us and to heal us. How about you? Are you wearied by some trial, some sickness that has taken you captive and consumed your strength? Our elders are here this morning and they would like nothing more than to pray for you. Won’t you come?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
July 8, 2018