James 5:12-20 The Quest for Healing

Students of James puzzle over the place of verse 5:12 in the structure of the epistle. Its connection to the rest of chapter 5 is a challenge. Theologians who question the structural cohesiveness of James cite 5:12 as a prime example of its tendency to drop disjointed aphorisms into the text. As he often does, James meditated on a teaching of Jesus and made it his own (see. Matt. 5:34-37).

Although the wording differs at several points, James and Jesus see oaths the same way. Oaths are a convention designed to limit lying and deceit. We rarely use oaths or vows today. We reserve them for formal situations, such as testifying at court or taking office. Today, we use other conventions to restrain false speech when truth-telling is essential. We promise in personal settings and sign contracts in economic settings. Whether we consider oaths or similar conventions – such as vows or promises – truthful speech is the issue.

In the day of Jesus and James, a perversion of oaths had arisen. Instead of calling on God to assure honesty, people took oaths to avoid God’s punishment for dishonest speech. Rabbis artificially distinguished vows that invoke God’s name, and are binding, from those that do not, and are not binding. Whatever we swear by, Jesus said, it refers to God, for He created heaven and earth. If we swear by heaven or by earth (Matt. 5:34), we invoke God, for He created them both. All oaths call God to witness, for He created and sustains all things.

James flatly prohibits the use of oaths because even the honest use of oaths testifies that something is amiss in the community. If believers reliably told one another the truth, what need would there be of oaths to guarantee truth-telling? The greater the weight of a man’s oaths in the short run, the greater the doubt about his veracity in the long run. Instead, we should tell the truth so consistently that oaths become superfluous, a waste of words. The family of God should be so truthful that we never need oaths or vows to verify our words.

The topic of healing seems to arise abruptly in James, but it fits perfectly with the themes of chapters 4 and 5. You will recall that James promises grace to those who embrace gospel humility (James 4:10-5:6). Next, James proposes three antidotes to arrogance. Each reverse one of the sins of pride. We must not slander and judge our brothers (4:11-12); We do not plan presumptuously (4:13-17); The rich must not exploit the poor (5:1-6); If the rich exploit us, we wait until the Lord, the Judge, comes (5:7-12); We do not make proud plans, but take our joys and sorrows to God (5:13-18); If our brothers sin, we don’t slander; we correct and restore him (5:19-20).

So then, prayers for healing are part of the life of gospel humility. Yet James wants to do more than oppose arrogance one more time. He tells the church to pray in every setting of life, to take every concern to our Sovereign Lord. As James says: “Is any one of in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13).

James 5 also describes various groups of people and when they pray. Individuals pray for joys and sorrows (5:13-14), elders pray over sickness (5:14-15), friends pray over sins they’ve committed (5:16), and prophets pray in time of need (5:17-18). Whatever our condition, whatever the circumstance, we should take it to the Lord in prayer.

Sick men and women call the elders as a group. They do not call those with a gift for healing; rather they call all to pray for healing. James says prayers of a righteous man are effective. Since the first qualification for an elder is holiness – not social standing or theological acumen – the prayers of elders are effective. The elders pray for healing, not for miracles. It doesn’t matter if a healing is quiet or splashy. True healings garner all the attention they need.

Elders anoint the sick with oil. The disciples used oil in their healing ministry at least once (Mark 6:13), but neither James nor Mark explains the purpose of the anointing. More likely, the anointing stimulated the faith of the sick person. Oil is a sign of God’s power to heal. Thus, the anointing has a spiritual meaning.

So, how sick does one have to be? James seems to have a major malady in view. The terms for the illness suggest something serious. The sick person is, literally, “weak” in James 5:14. In 5:15 James uses the stronger term kamno. It means “wear out” and suggests the weariness or exhaustion that often accompanies illness. It reminds us that sickness exhausts the spirit as well as the body. Pastorally speaking, this suggests that elders could lay hands on and pray for Christians who are afflicted spiritually. Depression, stress, and anxiety can wear us out more than some illnesses.

James 5:15-16 has both physical and spiritual healing in mind. We should seek more than a physical cure for more than physical problems. Physical healing is James’s main concern, but we must look past the body. The Lord wants His children to seek Him both when we prosper and when we falter. If sick, we should pray for healing. If seriously ill, we should seek the elders to pray on our behalf. But we are reticent to obey, for several reasons.

First, prayer for healing seems unscientific and naïve. If we get infections, we take antibiotics. If we have cancer, we seek chemotherapy. We think, “microbes and damaged genes cause illness, not sin.” Second, pride stops us. We feel embarrassed when we have to ask for help. But we ought to face our needs. If we can ask God for aid, we can surely ask men and women. Third, we fear disappointment. What if we ask – ask fervently – and nothing happens? We can’t bear the thought. We confess, in some abstract way, that God is powerful and effective. We expect Him to change hearts, but we cannot imagine that He intervenes to heal bodies today. So, our prayers wither away.

It is fitting that James starts to conclude his book with this invitation to prayer over every joy and sorrow. Expectant prayers manifest the faith that is so central to James. When we make our needs known and confess our sins. We endure our trials and live in gospel humility.

The last verses of James seem to initiate a new topic. But on closer inspection, they develop previous themes. First, if the family of God prays together when physical illness wounds a member, they should certainly work together if spiritual troubles threaten (5:19-20). Technically, James makes a promise: if someone restores someone who wanders from the truth, he “will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:19). More broadly, James tells us what to do if someone strays from the truth. That “someone” may of may not be a member of the visible Christian community. The phrasing – “My brothers, if one of you should wander” – inclines us to think of fellow believers, but James also had unbelievers in sight. Some had a vain faith; some had no faith at all (5:1-6). James says that when we see anyone stray, we should try to restore him.

The restorer’s goal is not selfish. He seeks to “cover a multitude of sins” not by overlooking sins committed against him. Proverbs does bless those who overlook personal offenses (Prov. 10:12; 19:11), but personal offenses are not in this context. The “covering” must then be God’s covering of sin. Therefore, Christians should gather their courage and speak – plainly and truthfully – to sinners, calling them to turn from sin and to the mercy of Christ.

The final thoughts of James unite several themes of his epistle. To pursue a sinner in order to win him to Christ is a proper response to a trial. It is a form of kindness to a brother, a proper use of speech, and it leads people to humble themselves before the Lord. James summons us to do the Word and reap the blessings. One more time, James reminds us that sin leads to death, and that the gospel, the word of truth, saves the soul.

James 5:12-20 Study Questions:

How might 5:12 – James’s command about oaths – be linked to his instructions about patience in the midst of trials and waiting for the Lord’s return? How might this command connect to James’s call to humility? What wrong attitudes or practices with regard to oath-taking might James be confronting?

What does James seem to be suggesting, in 5:13, about the proper times and occasions for prayer in the Christian life? How do prayers – in every season – demonstrate our humility and submission to God?

What kind of situation seems to be in James’s mind as he gives his instructions about special, elder-led prayer and anointing (5:14-15)? What is the context for this kind of prayer, and what are James’s specific instructions? What does 5:16 seem to suggest about the potential role of sin in issues of physical suffering that require prayer?

How does James demonstrate the power of effective prayer in 5:17-18? What point is he making to his readers? How do the final verses of James – 5:19-20 – connect to the previous discussion of effective prayer in the context of believers? In what way do those verses call the church to pray – and act – for the good of healthy hearts, lives, and souls?

James 5:7-11 Patient Endurance

Patience and forbearance hardly lead our lists of most desirable virtues. Yet Scripture says patience and forbearance are essential to the good life, the blessed life.

We need patience with petty irritations. We need patience when we face significant evils. It’s challenging to be patient with petty irritations, but it can be agony to bear with wickedness and genuine enemies. Yet patience with enemies is James’s first concern. He begins, “Be patient, therefore, brothers” (v. 5:7). James says “therefore” because the need for patience follows what he just said in 5:1-6. In the previous passage, James accosts the rich who hoard wealth (5:2-3), defraud laborers of their wages (5:4), live in self-indulgent luxury (5:5), and rob the poor of life itself (5:6). Our passage says we should be patient and stay strong because the coming of the Lord is near (5:7-8).

If we are to follow James closely, we must define and distinguish his terms. First, “be patient” is used by James three times in verses 7-8. Patience is a passive virtue; it waits. We are patient, for example, when we wait for a wound to heal. Sometimes we can do nothing but wait. Patience, in this sense of the word, is the equivalent of forbearance or longsuffering. Second, James tells his brothers to “stand firm” (5:8) or more literally “strengthen your hearts.” This term is a bit more active. It is the sense of steely resolve. Third, James blesses those who persevere in 5:11. “Persevere” the verb; the noun “perseverance” describes the more active side of patience. Perseverance is resolve or determination to continue on the right course, despite difficulty.

James urges patience until the Lord comes, then commends the farmer who waits for rain and waits for the land to yield its valuable crops (v. 5:7). Disciples, similarly, must be patient and firm, because the Lord’s coming is near; the Judge is at the door (vv. 8-9).

James has condemned rich oppressors (5:1-6), but now he wants to tell his brothers how to endure their oppression and receive God’s blessing. As he says, “We consider blessed those who have persevered” (5:11). Here he mentions the first step toward perseverance: “Be patient” (5:7). To be patient is to forbear, to suffer through the oppression. Patience is a passive virtue.

The patient waits for “the Lord’s coming.” The Lord’s coming is His arrival. In the New Testament, “the Lord’s coming” or “the coming of the Lord” almost becomes a technical term for the return of Jesus Christ to end history and to judge mankind. James says that the Lord is coming, that His coming is “near,” and that “the Judge is standing at the door” (5:8-9). We will understand this best if we recognize that James is steeped in the teaching of Jesus, which he restates for his churches.

When James says Jesus is “at the door,” it puzzles us, since we assume “at the door” means “ready to enter.” We wonder how He can be ready to enter for two thousand years without actually entering. Peter answers this question in his second letter.

First, God’s scale of time is not the same as ours. For Him, “a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Second, if the Lord delays, from our perspective, He delays to grant sinners more time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). Third, the Lord will come suddenly, without final signs of waning. He comes like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43-44; 2 Peter 3:10). There is no trigger, no line of preliminary events that must occur before Christ returns. So, when we hear that the Lord’s coming is near, it means that as far as we know, it could happen any day. Therefore, all people should prepare themselves for Jesus’ return.

By now, James has repeatedly commanded his churches to show patience and resolve. He has given a reason to follow his command; the Lord, the Judge, is near. Now again, he bids us suffer evil and oppression with patience, but now, instead of adding reasons for patience, he adds examples of patience (5:10-11).

“As an example of patience in the face of suffering,” the prophets “spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10). When they had to rebuke Israel for sin, the prophets’ God-given message was often repugnant to their audience. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos all saw the people ignore their prophecies while Israel’s leaders were often hostile. Yet they bore that hostility with patience. More than that, they endured, that is they continued to prophesy. They continued to denounce covenant infidelity and evil deeds, even if they never saw the judgment they predicted. Still, we count them blessed because they heard and proclaimed God’s very words. They show us how to endure.

The reason for optimism in adversity is this: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11). Compassion and mercy are more than synonyms for love. The terms convey the visceral feelings, the deep-seated emotional feeling of love. God’s love is more than a dispassionate, detached interest in our well-being. Scripture chooses the language of emotional feelings to describe that love.

This passage offers us many reasons to persevere in the faith. It comforts us in several ways. First, it shows us the Lord. He is near. He is the Judge and comes to set all things right. Second, it reminds us of Job and the prophets, who persevered to the end in great adversity. Yet above all, James takes us to the fatherly heart of God. He abounds in love and He is sovereign still. Knowing this, whatever our troubles, we can endure. We can persevere to the end and know the full blessing of God.

James 5:7-11 Study Questions:

James uses several different, yet related, words as he calls upon his Christian audience to patiently wait for the coming judgment of God. He tells them to be “patient” (5:7-8), to “establish” their hearts, or stand firm (5:8), and to remain “steadfast,” or persevere (5:11). How are these words helpful, when used together, in forming a picture of the kind of Christians that James wants us to be? What subtly different meanings might these words carry?

What does James suggest about the coming of the Lord (5:8-9)? How are we to interpret his statements about the Lord’s coming, and how is James speaking in similar ways as other parts of the New Testament? What commands does James give (and what examples does he use) to guide our behavior in light of the imminence of the Lord’s return?