We’ve been looking at the Scriptural principles for seeking physical healing. If you missed the first three posts, start here: Should we pray for healing?, How to Pray for Healing, Is Faith Required for Healing?.
Consistent personal prayer and continued faith in God are the main criterion established in Scripture for seeking physical healing. We must also consider James 5:13–16, one of the few Scriptural passages which directly mentions the issue of seeking healing:
“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 one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
Many people view this passage as merely a guideline for dealing with prolonged illness — but the emphasis is actually on prayer rather than sickness!
James begins the entire section by exhorting believers to pray when afflicted and sing praise when merry. He then encourages the “prayer of faith” for those who are sick. We will look at this prayer in a moment, but first let us consider the intended audience for this exhortation.
The word that is translated sick comes from the Greek word astheneo, which means to be feeble, diseased, sick, or weak. Although it can be used in a spiritual manner, it is typically used in the physical sense to describe those near death; to command believers to visit and care for the sick; or — in the case of Christ — to heal multitudes who suffered lameness, blindness, or other physical maladies.
In this particular passage, the simplest and most literal interpretation of the word sick also refers to the physical realm. Nothing in the surrounding context contradicts that. [Note: this interpretation follows the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics.]
Additionally, we know the body and spirit are interconnected — what affects one will affect the other. Serious or chronic physical afflictions are thus systemic in every sense of the word. As the body collapses, so does the spirit. As the flesh weakens, so does the mind. Concentration is difficult. Articulation is next to impossible.
We can reasonably interpret this passage as being directed to those who were not only physically sick but emotionally despondent, unable to pray and losing faith in God. After all, can the despondent one pray passionately? Or can the doubting one pray expectantly? Consider how one commentator explains this:
“When the body may be racked with pain and the mind considerably disturbed, it is not easy for the sufferer unaided to turn his thoughts in any articulated or concentrated manner to prayer, and he needs the consolation of other Christians in what may be for him a period of much spiritual distress.”*
Those who are suffering to the point of such spiritual distress are to call for their church elders, mature leaders called to care for spiritual needs within their local body (Hebrews 13:17), who can come alongside and intercede on their behalf. For the one who is seriously ill, even the mere sight and sound of this gathering would be a spiritual balm.
By being together in the same location, the elders are able to pray more specifically and passionately on the afflicted one’s behalf, articulating both physical and spiritual needs. Consider for a moment: How can our church leaders pray specifically for us without any personal interaction? How can they pray passionately without coming face-to-face with our afflictions?
This time of focused prayer together also provides a powerful reminder of prayer’s effectiveness. As supplications are answered and the afflicted is strengthened spiritually, if not also physically, everyone involved will confirm what James states at the end of this passage: “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
The elders are also called to anoint the sick one with oil. Anointing simply refers to rubbing or smearing a substance on someone’s skin; in those days, olive oil was typically used, sometimes with a mixture of medicines and herbs. The action was often symbolic — for instance, when David was anointed as Israel’s future king, he was publicly set apart for God’s purposes. It was also a medicinal practice — in the New Testament, the good Samaritan anointed and cared for an injured traveler (Luke 10:34) and the apostles anointed those who were sick (Mark 6:13).
Contrary to the Roman Catholic sacrament of last rites, this act of anointing with oil is not sacred or mystical in itself. Rather, it is merely a practical application of medicine, an outward sign of an inward reliance upon God. It is a visible work demonstrating the inward belief of the sick one and the elders.
Additionally, the act of anointing was usually coupled with praying. James instructs the elders to anoint the sick one “in the name of the Lord.” The use of Christ’s name must characterize not only the anointing but also the praying, as we saw earlier. This serves as a reminder of God’s unique power and sovereignty. He alone has power to heal; men’s words or medicines can do nothing on their own. tweet this
Peter attested to this truth in Acts 3, when he and John were given power to heal a lame man. They commanded him to rise up and walk “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” When bystanders wondered at the miracle, Peter responded that “the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” Healing was brought about by Christ’s name alone: Peter and John were merely instruments of His power and authority over illness.
Once the elders anoint and pray over the sick one, James promises that “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.” This returns us to the main point of the passage, which is to pray. Since we are primarily spiritual beings, our spiritual needs must take priority over our physical needs. In this case, if the afflicted one is an unbeliever, the elders should pray for salvation. If the person is living with unconfessed sin, the elders should pray for repentance and restoration to God. The result of their prayer is also spiritual: according to the original Greek, the word “save” in this context refers to salvation from sin rather than physical deliverance from illness.
In addition to spiritual deliverance, James also promises “the Lord will raise him up.” This most likely refers to further spiritual healing, whereby the afflicted one’s spirit is bolstered and encouraged enough to regain faith in God’s providence. It could possibly also involve physical healing, either immediately or in the future; however, the major focus of this passage is on spiritual health rather than physical.
So what is the point of James 5:13-16?
It’s not how to procure immediate physical healing, but how to restore the spiritual health of one who is sick. It’s not about finding physical relief from suffering, but how suffering will lead us to find God and be drawn closer to Him.
This priority of spiritual well-being should characterize our response to physical suffering, and be reflected in our prayers and continued faith in God!
Note: this post has been adapted from my book, Touching the Hem: A Biblical Response to Physical Suffering. Want to learn more? Visit the website to learn more about the book, download the free study guide, and find related reading recommendations. Or buy your own copy of the book here!
* R.V.G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 129.