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“Let's End with a Word on Prayer”

James 5:13-20
Bob DeGray
March 25, 2001

Key Sentence

We can’t afford to miss the potency of prayer.


I. Prayer
A. Constant (James 5:13)
B. Communal (James 5:14-16)
C. Effective (James 5:16-18)

II. Conclusion(James 5:19-20)


        In her biography of Amy Carmichael, chapter 29, Elizabeth Eliot describes the worsening cancer of Amy’s Indian co-worker Ponnammal. “The epistle of James says that the sick should call for the elders of the church to anoint them. Should they do that now? They were not sure. Amy was used to being given some sign to confirm a Scripture verse. So they prayed that if they should, someone who was earnest about following this primitive church custom should come along.

        He came, an old friend from Madras. It was a solemn meeting around the sick bed. They anointed her and prayed, and accepted what ever answer God might give, certain that whether it was to be physical healing or not, he would give victory and peace. The answer that came was that Ponnammal, from the very date of the anointing, grew rapidly worse. She lay for days without speaking, her dulled eyes half opened, seeing nothing. The pain was violent, kept under only by large doses of morphine, until she reached the limit divinely set, and her “warfare was accomplished”.

        Contrast that to the following account, as told by Rodney Clapp in Christianity Today: “Marie Hermann was 61 years old, and she had a football_sized metastatic tumor in her abdomen. She also had other tumors in her neck, liver, bones, and chest. The chemotherapy had caused her thyroid glands to fail. In 6 months she lost 82 pounds. Her husband, who was a doctor, thought she would soon die. On September 28, 1980 she went to church at Bethel Temple. It was not a charismatic or Pentecostal church. But that Sunday the pastor asked the 1000 members to join hands and pray for the healing of those in the church. He never mentioned Marie, but she prayed with everyone else. She says she would have been pleased to hold down her supper that night. She didn't. She got sick as usual. But the next morning her nausea lifted. She ate breakfast, then lunch, with no problems. Her husband was skeptical of any miraculous recoveries. He checked her abdomen and was surprised he could feel no cancer. Ten days later she saw her cancer doctor. No cancer at all was found. The doctors were baffled. Marie is convinced that it was God who healed her.

        Two cancers, two prayers, two outcomes. In light of these different answers, how do we understand and apply the command of James 5 to pray for the sick, and the assurance James gives of healing? The simple answer is that we don’t understand these things. But we’ll see that prayer is too important and too potent for us to ignore just because we don’t understand the rationale behind God’s answers. We can’t afford to miss the potency of prayer.

I. Prayer A. Constant (James 5:13)

        The last part of James focuses on the subject of prayer, followed by a brief conclusion. Let’s focus on prayer first as I read to you James 5:13-18: Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

        We’ve talked a little about verse 13. Like Paul’s command to “Pray without ceasing” this is a general call for prayer in all circumstances: for prayers of praise and petition. We are to cry out to God when we are in trouble or afflicted or suffering - and the last is probably the best translation of the Greek word. We are to cry out to God in praise when we are happy or cheerful or merry: the literal meaning is ‘good souled’ or ‘good spirited’. It’s an internal condition that comes from seeing God at work in our lives or circumstances. And it should lead us to heartfelt praise. It’s easy to call on God in our troubles - its easy to forget to give him praise.

        These things are part of a fabric of prayer the New Testament writers expect to permeate our lives. Just as in a healthy marriage relationship there is ongoing communication of many types, from the unspoken glance of thanks across the kitchen to the serious conversation across the table at your most special restaurant, so too there is to be ongoing communication of many kinds between believers and Jesus. And just as in marriage, if the communication fails the marriage is in trouble, so too in our relationship with Jesus, if the communication fails, if there are not many kinds of prayer going on in your life, then the relationship is in trouble.

I. Prayer B. Communal (James 5:14-16)

        But prayer is not just individual: it’s also a group activity, part of life together as a body. When we are in any trouble we can share what is troubling us with others - at times in a large group, at times with a more select group. And James says if we are sick or weak we should call on the elders at our church to anoint us with oil and to pray.

        Notice a few things. First, the person who is sick is the one who calls on the elders of the church for prayer. Though it is appropriate for an elder or anyone else at the church to encourage a person toward prayer, yet the initiative ultimately needs to come from the person. Why? Because the sick person needs to buy in that this prayer is what God wants. Otherwise there is no faith, and God isn’t as likely to answer. So if you are sick or even weak in some area, you need to be asking whether prayer by the elders is God’s desire for you. If you sense that it is, you need to call one of the elders and ask. We’ll respond: after church on a Sunday, or maybe a Thursday night, or we’ll just come to you in the hospital or your home if that’s needed.

        Second, the people to be called are the elders. There are many people in the church who would be willing to pray for you, and they should, but the elders have the special privilege, as part of their spiritual nurture of the body, to pray in this way. And the elders, including your elders here, are typically mature, spiritually attuned, and caring people. Along with family and close friends, they are the best people to pray.

        Third, the elders pray ‘over’ the sick person. This is the only place in the New Testament where someone is said to pray ‘over’ or ‘upon’ someone, and it gives the picture of someone sick in bed and the elders standing around and praying over them. It may also imply the laying on of hands, as described elsewhere in Scripture.

        Fourth, and finally, the elders are to anoint you with oil in the name of the Lord when they pray. Why? Some commentators have said that the purpose of the oil is medicinal, that the ancients believed that oil infused with certain other substances had a significant and wide ranging medical benefit. But even if this was so, there is no particular reason why the elders, as opposed to a physician should provide this care. It’s more likely the oil is symbolic. Anointing frequently symbolizes the consecration of persons or things for God’s use and service in the Old Testament. Prophets, priests, and kings were anointed to set them apart for their work.

        Moreover such anointing frequently indicated the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. So for example in 1 Samuel 16:13 “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power.” Isaiah 61:1 says “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Jesus applied those words to himself. Peter says in Acts 10:38 that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”

        So the anointing with oil by the elders sets apart the person for God’s special attention and care. The anointing symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the person’s life. Finally, the oil symbolizes cleansing from sin, as was the case when a priest symbolically cleansed someone who had been healed from a disease.

        All this suggests the step by step procedure that I described in children’s corner. When someone calls the elders of Trinity, we first read and comment on this Scripture. Then we ask the person whether they have a sin problem or issue that has remained unconfessed or unconquered in their own lives. We’ll see the rationale for this in the next several verses. Next we ask the person to briefly describe the illness or weakness: we want enough detail to be able to pray with some insight. Then the sick person is anointed with a drop of oil on the forehead, the elders lay hands on the person, and each prays. It’s not a complicated procedure, but it does have a profound sense of rightness and effectiveness.

        James in fact claims that this obedience will be uniquely effective. Verse 15: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.” James implies what other Biblical writers also teach, that there can be some correlation between sin and sickness. This is obvious in a case like alcoholism or drug abuse or sexual sin: some diseases are a direct consequence of the sin itself. But there are also cases of sickness where it is not a physical consequence of the sin. Paul addresses such cases in 1st Corinthians where he teaches that the sinful divisiveness of the Corinthians, as evidenced during the Lord’s supper, had caused some of them to the weak and sick and even to die.

        Even if it doesn’t lead to the sickness, sin can hinder the effectiveness of healing prayers. Norman Vincent Peale, who doesn’t tell many stories I appreciate, tells one that clearly illustrates this point. When he was a boy, he found a big cigar, slipped into an alley, and lit it up. It didn't taste good, but it made him feel very grown up... until he saw his father coming. Quickly he put the cigar behind his back and tried to be casual. Desperate to divert his father's attention, he pointed to a billboard advertising the circus. "Can I go, Dad? Please, let's go when it comes to town." His father's reply taught a lesson he never forgot. "Son," he answered quietly but firmly, "never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience." That’s good: never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience. That’s why we confess sin before healing, and why along with the healing we also pray for the forgiveness of sins.

        But what are we to make of his apparently unconditional promise of healing in light of the fact that we have so many times seen less than absolute healing or even no healing when we’ve prayed? Part of the answer is that these are prayers offered in faith. This faith isn’t focused on this particular healing, but it’s confidence in God, the recognition that He is sovereign, and we depend completely on His will. There are times when his will does include healing and there are times it doesn’t. James isn’t saying that if we have enough faith, or a certain kind of faith, God must heal. Instead, if it is in God’s will to heal, he will give the faith needed in our prayers.

        Douglas Moo says this well. “The faith with which we pray is always faith in the God whose will is supreme and best; only sometimes does this faith include assurance that a particular request is within that will. This is exactly how we understand Jesus' own promise: "if you ask anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn 14:14). To ask "in Jesus' name" means not simply to utter his name, but to take into account his will. Only those requests offered in that will are granted. Prayer for healing offered in the confidence that God will answer that prayer does bring healing; but only when it is God's will to heal will that faith, itself a gift of God, be present. Such faith cannot be "manufactured," however gifted, insistent, or righteous we are.”

I. Prayer C. Effective (James 5:16-18)

         Do you see what this says? If the faith that heals is not manufactured by us but provided by God then the power of prayer is not limited by some little human measure, but is in fact the unlimited power of an omnipotent God. This is what James goes on to say by his next example. Verse 16b: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”

        Prayer is effective - not because of the strength of our righteousness, but because of the power of the God who answers. If you believe in his omnipotence, his omniscience and his goodness, then you will pray prayers that depend on his power and his love. James points out that Elijah was a man ‘just like us’ - of like nature, like passions. He shared our limitations. Therefore it was not in his power, righteous though he may have been, to control the weather, to shut the heavens. But the God to whom he prayed had this power, and the power of answered prayer is God’s power, not ours. Therefore when Elijah prayed earnestly, God did not measure his earnestness or his righteousness on a scale and parcel out answers in proportion. No, the power God displayed was entirely out of proportion. He shut the heavens. He opened the heavens. He did things only God can do - in answer to this prayer.

        Therefore we should expect that our prayers will get God-sized responses. We may get a God-sized healing, if that is the nature of the faith God supplies. But we may get more and different things. How many times have I said over the years that God is subtle. The complexity and organization of the universe he created witnesses to that subtlety. The colors of a sunset witness to that subtlety. The patterns he weaves in answering prayer also witness to that subtlety. That doesn’t mean he isn’t good or doesn’t love us, but it does mean we need to trust in his wisdom, his goodness and his power when the answers to our prayers are different than the words we spoke.

        Sometimes a simple prayer opens a cascade of God-sized answers. When Luther prayed to understand the book of Romans, he didn’t expect an answer that included the reformation. When believers behind the Iron Curtain prayed for the freedom to worship, they didn’t expect God to answer with the destruction of Communism. When Billy Graham prayed that souls might be saved, he didn’t expect to gain more conversions than any other evangelist in history. God answers as only God can. And when no apparent answer is given, or the prayer is apparently denied, God is also at work there, possibly marshaling forces and aligning pieces for a subtle unexpected consequence to your prayer that will come at an unexpected time.
        So prayer is powerful. In his sovereignty God uses prayer to achieve his sovereign good for his people. I sometimes ask him not to be quite so subtle - that he would allow our prayers to be so in line with his will, and his answers to be so obvious that we can see him at work and give him the praise and glory he deserves. Before we go on to the last couple of verses I want to share with you some stories of the times the elders at Trinity have prayed. We’ve experienced this as incredibly potent.

        Probably the moment that sticks most clearly in my mind is when we prayed for Daniel Oliver. He was, I believe, less than a year old at the time, and he was sick, and not eating right, and often dehydrated. Pat and Robin asked for prayer, and we went into a classroom and prayed, and while one of the elders was praying, Daniel lost his breakfast. Violently. By 2:30 that afternoon, Daniel had been admitted to Texas Children’s with severe dehydration. It was the tests started then which eventually revealed a rare genetic disorder - lissencephely - in which the brain develops with a smooth surface instead of the convolutions and folds which are needed. Learning that was the first answer to this prayer. But God has also answered by allowing Daniel to develop far beyond what any child with this problem is supposed to do. Daniel shouldn’t be able to run, talk, feed himself, laugh or play. But God has intervened - not a complete cure, but substantial defiance of medical expectations.

        Who else have we prayed for? Many of you will remember several years ago we prayed for Abby Kittle when she contracted spiral meningitis. I remember standing by her bed with the elders and the family when the situation was still in doubt, and praying earnestly for her life and for her recovery. Outcome? By the next morning she was responding to antibiotics, and she recovered fully. She’s going to Russia tomorrow. Yet just a few months earlier we had prayed just as earnestly for Jaye Hughes, our beloved missionary in Bolivia. Though we prayed, she died of a massive systemic infection. Why? We don’t know it all, but we know there was heartbreaking stuff going on in the family that she didn’t have to endure - she had already gone home.

        Recently Doug and Joanna Rask asked us to pray for both on the same day - it was after church on a Pizza Sunday. Joanna had a problem with her foot, Doug a problem with his back. Outcome? Joanna’s foot has healed gradually with no outstanding intervention from God. Doug’s back got quickly and dramatically worse and more painful, and by the time he was able to have surgery he was almost entirely disabled by the pain. Yet the surgery went well, and he walked out of the hospital essentially pain-free a short time later. God used medicine to effect almost a miracle cure.

        Just one more and then I’ve got to stop. At the beginning of 2000 Stephanie Hilton was diagnosed with a tumor on a major nerve in her back. Doctors at M. D. Anderson said that from it’s appearance and behavior the tumor was almost surely malignant. But between the initial diagnosis and the biopsy to determine malignancy, Stephanie came to the elders, and we prayed for her according to James 5. Then she had the biopsy, and by God’s grace the tumor was benign. Later it was removed, and it proved to be benign throughout. I suspect it was malignant until we prayed.
         We can’t afford to miss the potency of prayer. If you’re here today, and you have some sickness or weakness, you need to consider calling on the elders to pray. But it needs to be your decision - your initiative and understanding of what God wants for you. After we close, and during the pizza lunch, if you want the elders to pray for you, we will try to be available for a while. Because of the annual meeting today we can’t devote as much time to it as we’d like, but don’t let that stop you. We can always schedule it for another time.

II. Conclusion (James 5:19-20)

        The last verses in James are a conclusion of these thoughts and an exhortation concerning the whole letter. 5:19-20: 19My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, 20remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

        For the last time James addresses his readers as brothers in Christ, and his last exhortation is that they seek reconciliation with those who have wandered from the truth and fallen into sin. James has just been talking about our responsibility to confess our sins to one another and pray for each other. Now he specifically exhorts us to seek out those who sin and gently restore them. These verses also serve as a conclusion to the whole letter, because the truth these people have wandered away from is the truth James has been presenting throughout. It’s the truth of Jesus that James has echoed over and over. These last two verses encourage us to help people apply the truth James has shared: that they control their tongues, stop showing favoritism to the rich, hear the Word of God and do it, exhibit a living faith that actively depends on God in daily life, humbly submit to God and make his will foremost in their lives, look forward to the coming of the Lord with patience.

        All of these truths are taught by James. Armed with these truths, we can not only find practical help for living out our own Christian lives, but we can gently and kindly help others live theirs as well. This is what James says: “My brothers, if someone wanders from this truth, and one of you seeks that person out and turns them from the error of their ways, then you rescue them, you have saved them from death.” James is probably not talking about everlasting punishment here, because he is explicitly talking to ‘brothers’. But he is talking about the death that God sometimes gives in judgement on a life of sin. The ‘wandering’ is not just mindless deviation from the truth, but a conscious moving away from obedience to it. The Greek word is the same one from which we get ‘planet’, the wandering star, and the mental image that fits is of one who has left his close orbit around the Sun of Righteousness and has begun to wander off into the cold void, far from the light of truth.

        It’s been recently revealed that one of the Mir cosmonauts, a number of years ago, nearly floated away from the station when his tether parted. The picture of a man tumbling and floating further and further away is the one James intends us to see. On the Mir that cosmonaut probably would have been lost - there was no way to go get him.
        But on the shuttle another astronaut could have been sent out with a powered pack, to go get the wanderer. The second astronaut would be the one James says ‘turns a sinner from his wandering ways.’ The result? You will “save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. I don’t think this means sweeping them under the rug, but it means covering them with the blood of Jesus, for the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin. It means these sins are forgiven by Jesus, and forgiven by the people hurt, so that there is no longer a separation between the wanderer and the body of Christ.

        You see, the goal of this reaching out, like all such activities in the body, is reconciliation and righteousness. Jesus wants unity in the body and purity. Unfortunately, we hear the most about the times when this gentle turning doesn’t work. If it does work it remains unspoken and discreet. But I can assure you, I have seen this exact situation played out successfully in our own body, just as I have at times seen it fail.

        So what have we said? James has taught us about the potency of prayer and the power of reconciliation. There is power in God’s truth applied to our lives, and there is effectiveness in prayer that is constant and spans every circumstance. There is tremendous effectiveness in our communities when we pray in faith and see God’s subtle powerful hand at work. We don’t want to mist the potency of prayer.

        Brothers and sisters: Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Let’s be those who pray obediently and praise joyfully.