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?