“Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14–15, AV)
During my tenure as a pastor, I ministered to many who were dealing with a variety of serious illnesses. Of course, we had them on the prayer list at the church. If you have been in Christianity for any length of time, you have seen many things regarding healing on television or in churches. They range from Christian healers to healing services to prayer and in this section of James, what appears to be a prescription for the local church when there is someone who is ill.
This particular issue of healing is quite controversial in Christendom, and the interpretation of this passage of Scripture is also. Here are my thoughts on this. First, James prescribes this process for the church when someone is weak due to illness. It is the sick who are to call for the elders of the church who are to anoint and pray for them. Since, I feel that a literal interpretation of Scripture is paramount unless the passage is clearly figurative, this is a literal instruction on how to deal with this issue.
Second, I have been in services where the preacher has called for sick people to come forward for anointing. This verse does not prescribe this. It indicates that the sick person is to call for the elders, not the other way around.
Third, I have heard some say that the anointing with oil had to do with the medicinal uses of olive oil as a treatment in those days. In fact, it seems that olive oil does have some positive properties when it comes to skin ailments and others. However, historical research indicates that there were other medical practices in ancient times also. Was this use of oil a medicinal use or symbolic of the power of God working in the situation, or both? Whether it is or not, it is the prescription given.
Fourth, the word translated, “sick,” astheneo, refers to being weak, feeble, without strength, etc. This can result from a variety of problems including spiritual, emotional, and physical issues. We often attempt to separate these three areas of life into nice neat compartments, yet they are inseparable. Spiritual problems can create both emotional and physical problems as well. See David’s words after sinning with Bathsheba (Psalm 32). He indicated that when he did not confess his sin, he experienced spiritual, emotional and physical weakness.
Fifth, I have heard some people say that they healed a person. This is not the case. The Lord is our “Jehovah rapha.” The Lord our God is sovereign over our lives. James stated that, “the Lord shall raise him up.” If the Lord chooses to raise the person to continue to serve Him here on earth or to raise the person to glory in heaven that is His choice, not ours.
Last, while many people are weak due to illness because of a root of unrepentant sin in their lives, not all are. (See what Jesus said regarding a man born blind in John Chapter 9). Regarding the sick one, James wrote, “if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” Note that I underscore the word, “if.” This indicates that sin might be the problem. Then again, it might not. If the problem is one of sin, the Lord will forgive the sin. (More on this tomorrow.)
These are my thoughts on a controversial subject. I will not be offended if you disagree. However, as I stated, I choose to interpret Scripture literally unless the passage is clearly figurative.