Notes for a house group study on James 5v13-20:
This passage has some interesting, perhaps controversial points in it, but we need to make sure we don’t miss the forest for the trees, so what’s James’ main aim in v13-18? To encourage us to pray.
The main point of James’ letter is to get us to be doers of the law, not just hearers. Faith without works is dead, and he’s helping us to see how living faith works itself out. One important feature of our lives if our faith is alive will be prayer.
v13 – “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” – I wish I didn’t need to be reminded, but I often treat prayer as a last resort. We give prayer a try when nothing else has worked to relieve our suffering. Of course there may be other things we should do along with prayer, but it’s always going to be a good idea to take our problems to God.
But not just our problems either: “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” It comes naturally to us to praise what we enjoy – in fact, C.S. Lewis points out that our enjoyment of something isn’t complete until we express praise – so to praise God when we’re cheerful isn’t a just duty that we’re obliged to perform in response to his goodness to us; singing praise will actually increase our joy.
v14-15 – For the significance of anointing, see Luke 4v18 – Anointing is preparing for the Holy Spirit to come upon the person. It’s done in the name of the Lord, and in v15 “the Lord will raise him up” – so of course it’s God who does the healing, but he chooses to use our prayers and our actions in the process.
v15 – “if he has committed sins” – While sickness isn’t always a result of sin in a person’s life, sometimes it might be. In fact it might not just be one person’s – see 1 Cor 11v29-30.
In v15 and 16 there’s this connection between forgiveness and healing: “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick… And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven… confess your sins to one another… that you may be healed.” I think, in case we sometimes focus on our physical health more than our spiritual health, this reminds us that physical health is not worth a whole lot if we remain spiritually sick, and also we can’t expect our prayers for healing to be effective if we have unconfessed sin in our lives.
v16 – “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” – If God only answered the prayers of people who achieved a certain level of righteous behaviour, then I for one would have no hope, but this is where it’s helpful to remember that James’ overall point is to encourage us to pray.
And going back to the start of v16: it doesn’t say “clean yourself up before you dare ask God for anything”; it says “confess your sins” – we’re made righteous when we confess our sins and put our faith in Jesus’ righteousness and his sacrifice for us. In my own right, I’m not worthy to pray, but in Christ I am counted righteous, and therefore prayer is powerful. And Elijah provides an example; he was a man with an unworthy sinful nature like ours too.
“confess your sins to one another” – That’s scary. Confessing our sins to each other makes us vulnerable. But as we all know our own sinfulness, the church should be a safe place to confess sin, and have the gospel applied to us and our shame removed, and then, v16, we may be healed. Religions teach that we need to clean ourselves up to feel good about ourselves, but the gospel removes our shame first, and then our lives become cleaner as a result.
v17 – “Elijah… prayed fervently” – also v15 says it’s “the prayer of faith” that will save the one who is sick. That doesn’t mean we try to work up faith within ourselves or put in enough fervency to get up to a certain level where God will give us the answer we want. God gives us gifts according to his grace, not according to how much fervency we work up, and He is still sovereign; he will still give us bread even if we pray fervently for a stone. But it does mean God wants us to pray with faith and fervency. He’s not interested in us just saying words as a formality. He wants a genuine relationship, as a father does with his children.
v19-20 – God chose who he would save before the foundation of the world, but we don’t know who is chosen and who isn’t. It’s possible to live just like a Christian but then wander away from the truth, and if that person isn’t brought back, they will face death without having had their sins covered by Christ’s blood.