By Glenn A. Jobe
14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (James 5:14-16, NKJV).
The question before us is how do we go about identifying the one who James says is sick and is healed after prayer is offered on his behalf. Two prominent views are offered. James has in mind either a person who is sick physically or is sick spiritually. In order to answer this question we will look at three lines of evidence: (1) the words that James chooses to use, (2) the immediate context, and (3) what other New Testament scriptures may shed light on the subject.
WHAT DID JAMES MEAN BY “SICK”?
Two different Greek words are translated “sick” in James 5:14-15. The first word employed by James is the most common word for “sick” (astheneō) in the New Testament which, as a verb, occurs 36 times and another 24 times as a noun (asthenia). Most often astheneō and asthenia refer to physical illnesses, but not always. Sometimes they refer to spiritual weaknesses.
The Spirit helps saints in prayer with their weakness or infirmity (asthenia) (Rom. 8:26), for they know not how to pray as they ought and the Spirit makes intercessions.
In 1 Corinthians 2:3 Paul said that he was with the Corinthians in weakness (asthenia): “ I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.” Yet he received his strength and power from God (2:5). A popular view of 1 Corinthians 2:3 is that “weakness” refers to physical sickness which resulted in Paul’s being “in fear, and in much trembling.” If so, we might have the same situation here as in James 5:14-15 where the first “sick” (asthenia) refers to physical illness (5:14) and the second “sick” (kamnō) refers to a spiritual condition. However, I rather think that the three words in 1 Corinthians 3:2 form a triad, each expressing a condition of its own: weakness, fear, trembling. Jesus taught that we are to support the weak (asthenia) (Acts 20:35) which is followed by the axiom, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Saints may be weak in their spiritual constitution for they may be weak in faith (Rom. 14:1,2), may be caused to stumble, or “be made weak” (Rom. 14:21). See also 1 Corinthians 8:9-12. On the other hand, Abraham was not weak (astheneō) in faith (Rom. 4:19).
Weakness or infirmity (asthenia) was also associated with the Old Testament High Priest (Heb. 4:15) who nevertheless could “have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness” (asthenia) (Heb. 5:2).
Noteworthy is that James makes no mention of physical sickness elsewhere in the book. Prior to James 5, there is no allusion to the issue of physical sickness. Thus there are many New Testament references to “sickness,” “infirmity”, or “weakness” that refer to a spiritual condition and not to a physical one. The subject and the immediate context must determine what is intended.
The second word employed by James for “sick” is kamnō which appears only in James 5:15, Hebrews 12:3, and Revelation 2:3. In Hebrews 12:3 kamnō is rendered “weary”: “ For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” The NASB, MLB (Berkeley Version) and ASV also read “weary.” The NEB has “faint”, SEB “get tired.” I found no translation that translates this word “sick” in Hebrews 12:3, though sick is considered a secondary meaning according to Arndt and Gingrich (William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature). Revelation 2:3 is rendered “fainted” in the KJV, but “weary” in the NKJV, ASV and NASB: “and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.” This is in perfect harmony with James 5! So, the primary meaning of kamnō is weary or faint. This is the meaning in Hebrews 12:3 and most certainly it has the same meaning in James 5.
James writes to saints who had become weary and discouraged while their faith was being tried. This theme begins in the second verse of the book and continues through to the end of James: 2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing (Jas. 1:2-4). Verse 3 is the key verse in the book: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” James’ message is that saints will be tried but they are not to lose heart.
The testing of faith is the theme of the book as is evident when one considers a simple outline of the book (prepared by Jackie M. Stearsman [June 1977]).
- Faith is Tempered and Tested by Trials and Temptations (1:2-18).
- Faith Is Tested by the Word of God (1:19-27).
- Faith Is Tested by Social Classifications in Society (2:1-13).
- Faith Is Tested by Works (2:14-26).
- Faith Is Tested by the Use of the Tongue (3:1-18).
- Faith Is Tested by the World (4:1—5:12).
- Faith Is Tested by Suffering, Joy, “Sickness” (i.e., weariness; GAJ), Sin, and Compassion for an Erring Brother (5:13-20).
The other word that is at times rendered “sick” in the New Testament (but not in James) is sunechō which describes a situation more in the sense of being held by something (12 times it appears).
WHAT DID JAMES MEAN BY “HEALED”?
The second word for our consideration is “healed” (iaomai) which also can be understood from either a physical or spiritual context. Passages that reflect a physical understanding are obvious and numerous.
Among many scriptures that have a spiritual or emotional meaning to the word include the following: (1) Matthew 13:15 – “‘For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’” This quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 is repeated in Acts 28:27. (2) Jesus was sent to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18). (3) Peter summarized Jesus ministry by noting that Jesus healed those who were oppressed (Acts 10:38). (4) Hebrews 12:12-13 expresses the need to restore spiritual vitality. (5) We are healed (from sin) by Jesus’ stripes (1 Pet. 2:24).
At the conclusion of this study we will see that the context of James 5:14-16 demands a spiritual healing of the sick.
WHAT DOES THE REMOTE CONTEXT TEACH?
As one considers the immediate context of James 5, he notices that some obvious difficulties arise if sickness and healing are physical in nature. The usual explanation among us is that during the early days of the church, when miracles were still operative, that if one called upon the elders of the church, prayer and the anointing of oil healed the physically ill. Yet, note carefully the text: “14 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. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.”
The words that are underlined in the above text should expose the obvious problem if “sick” assumes the physically sick. James does not say that the sick might be healed or even improve; he says the sick will be healed, be saved and be forgiven. At times during the Lord’s public ministry Jesus’ own apostles could not perform miracles due to their own lack of faith (e.g. the epileptic boy of Matt. 17:14-21).
In 2 Timothy 4:20 we learn that Paul found it necessary to leave one of his traveling companions, Trophimus, in Miletus sick (Acts 20:4). Yet Paul had called for the Ephesian elders to meet him there (Acts 20:17). If for some reason Paul could not heal Trophimus, surely these elders could and would have if they had the ability to do so. But they did not. Apparently those who had the gift of healing (as per Paul) could not utilize the gift as they desired. Yet, the sick who are healed in James 5 are done so unequivocally.
So what is James telling us about the sick who are healed in relation to elders and prayer?
First, we saw that James explained why trials and temptations have come to the recipients of his epistle. They are for the testing of their faith in order that they develop patience (Jas. 1:2-4).
Second, we saw that faith is tested in at least seven ways (see the outline).
Third, we saw that some saints may be weak and grow weary but the prayer of faith will save the sick (the spiritually despondent) and raise him up.
Fourth, in addition to this (and is often overlooked), IF he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. We need to recognize that a person may be weak in faith and not sin; but then again, if he does, he will be forgiven (guaranteed!).
Fifth, everything in the immediate context (Jas 5:14-16) suggests to us a spiritual malady, not a physical one: (1) suffering, (2) cheerful, (3) sin, (4) forgiveness.
Sixth, the closing verses reinforce this theme: “19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20). This is not the introduction of a new subject—it is the conclusion of the present one.
ADDENDUM: WHAT ABOUT THE OIL IN JAMES 5:14?
I thought about mentioning the oil in the article but was trying to focus more on the context to get to the proper hermeneutical approach. One thing that I did not develop was the word “suffering” in verse 13. The word for “suffering” is kakopatheō, and besides here, it is only found in 2 Timothy 2:3, 9 and 4:5 in the New Testament. It is enlightening to read the immediate context of these three verses for it is very similar to that of James 5. The word “suffering”, too, must be considered within the theme of the Book of James.
When it comes to reproaches to the name of Christ, not all suffering is to be considered negative. Saints will view suffering differently, according to the strength of their faith. Obviously one sees the need to pray during suffering. But can suffering be taken cheerfully? Yes, it can for those with strong faith. Paul and Silas were both praying and singing in the jail at Philippi (Acts 16:25). Peter and the other apostles left the Jewish council “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for His name” (Acts 5:41).
So, what role does oil play in James 5:14? The “healing” and “saving” of the “sick” is not attributed to oil—it is attributed to the prayer of faith, which suggests once again that this is not physical sickness. When has the anointing of oil been the treatment for the physically sick? Cuts, scrapes and burns may be treated with oil (e.g. Luke 10:34) but not sickness.
Elders administered oil to comfort the sufferer. This is the same thought expressed by David in Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.” God did not anoint David’s head literally with oil. David said the Lord comforted his soul as oil soothes the body. David also suffered wrongfully at the hands of his “enemies.”
So, the practice of elders anointing the sufferer with oil was an expression of well-being and comfort. It is an expression of joy, even as experienced by the apostles in Acts 5:41. Elders in the first century church likely anointed the head of the sufferer with oil literally as they sought to comfort and reassure his troubled soul. Perhaps in our culture the same concern could be expressed in other ways.
Sadly, in our present existence as non-sufferers for the cause of Christ, both the expression and experience of this joy escapes us. I believe James 5:14-15 reveals to us a major function of elders in the church which we have failed to comprehend: elders are to encourage the weak and faint-hearted (cf. 1 Thess. 5:14). When we erroneously ascribe the word “sick” in James 5 to physical ailments, explain that the healing was miraculous, and thus dismiss these verses by declaring that they are non-applicable today, we rob members of the church of a beautiful blessing from their leaders.