If God could have His way every sick person would be healed.F.F. Bosworth
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. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.James 5:14-18 ESV
In a previous lesson, we learned that this passage is the only place in the New Testament that deals specifically with healing for Christians. There are plenty of other places with methods for healing, but this one is specifically directed to the Church. With that in mind, I identified 6 questions about this method of ministering to the sick:
- Why call the elders?
- Won’t the prayer of faith always save the sick?
- Why the oil?
- What does it mean to “pray over” someone?
- Who is qualified to do the praying?
- Who is “the sick” who is healed in verse 15?
We’ve discussed the elders and the importance of responsibility and authority in prayer. We also noted the power of the prayer of every believer and the importance of praying for one another. We all have responsibility and authority! James also made it clear that he expected the prayer of faith to heal the sick. In our last session, we found out that the “sick” person in verse 15 was the believer who, for whatever reason, has become weary in their Christian race. When Satan’s attack of sickness comes, they are too weak to fight it alone. Thank God, He has provided a way to call for help. Now we can examine exactly how the “help” is supposed to work.
My first experiences with Spirit-filled Christians came in early 1980. I had been born again just a few months when I was invited to a home Bible study. After the teaching, the leader offered prayer for any illness or issue. When the first person asked for prayer, she was placed in a chair in the middle of the room. All the others present then gathered around her, placed their hands on her, and began to pray. The leader prayed in English, the rest all prayed in some other language. After just a few moments, less than a minute, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere. The praying continued until the leader gave an indication that we were done.
This method of placing people in the “hot seat” as we called it, was commonplace in Charismatic circles in those days. The “other languages” I later learned were “other tongues.” This was typically the primary kind of prayer in these sessions. The idea was to pray in the spirit with the expectation that the “anointing” would come upon the subject and bring God’s healing touch. It was in just this manner, that I received prayer to be delivered from smoking cigarettes, and it worked! My memories of being “in the hot seat” are very pleasant. There usually came a tangible sense of something happening, a warmth that seemed to overtake me, then a peace. It was good!
Some years later, as I was studying James’s instructions in Chapter 5, I was struck by the curious phrase, “pray over him.” Like most people, I had always read right over this, assuming that the language meant to “pray for” someone. After the Holy Spirit called this to my attention, I did a little research. I discovered that the word used in the original language (epí) is a preposition of position or direction usually translated “on, upon, or toward.” It is nowhere translated “for,” and the phrase “pray over” doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Scripture. I don’t like to base conclusions on one word, but it did make me think of my experiences in the “hot seat” as a new believer. But, one word and an experience don’t generally make a good basis for doctrine, so let’s look at some other indicators that might help us understand this unique usage.
James connects the prayer of the elders over the sick person with the phrase , “anointing Him with oil.” Every good Pentecostal has an experience of an “anointing” service somewhere along the way. I’ll never forget the Wednesday night when they installed me as pastor in our first church. I only owned one sport jacket, and they ruined it that night by pouring what seemed like a quart of olive oil over my head.
I’ve heard several explanations for the purpose of the oil in healing. The one I hear the most is the “point of contact” theory. These folks believe that the oil is God’s way of giving us something tangible to feel as a “point of contact” where we can “release” our faith. To be honest, I’ve never been completely certain what that means. I think the idea is that when I feel the oil, I mark that as the point of time when I “believe I receive” my healing (See Mark 11:24). After that I don’t ask any more, I give thanks to God and resist the enemy. It’s not a bad idea to encourage people to be conscious of the moment when they believe that their prayer is answered, but the idea of having some tangible substance poured or applied to mark that moment is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.
Some have theorized that the oil is some sort of medical prescription. Olive oil was used for medicinal purposes in some instances in treating skin diseases and wounds. The Good Samaritan used it to treat the wounds of a mugging victim in Luke 10:34. That’s pretty thin evidence for taking oil from an occasional skin remedy to God’s prescription for all illnesses. Some people believe that this was God’s way of telling people we should use medicine as well as prayer. I heard one preacher say that if you have a headache, you should, “Pray and take aspirin.” That’s not a bad idea, but it seems like a big stretch to blame it on James.
To answer the question of the oil, let’s think for a moment about James’s target audience for this letter. He wrote, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. (1:1)” Although there is some debate about details, this is clearly intended for believers, probably Jewish believers, who are dispersed outside Israel. James is a Jewish pastor writing to Jewish believers around 60 AD. He is writing to encourage them in trials of their faith. In this passage, he is giving them directions for dealing with a stubborn illness. So our question is, “What would a 1st century Jew have understood from the words, “anointing with oil?”
Remember, these were Jews. For them, oil was an integral part of their faith tradition. It was used in a variety of ritual practices and was often a metaphor for actions of the Holy Spirit. Kings were anointed into office. The oil of joy was poured out at weddings and at coronations (Psalm 45:7). Oil was understood to be a figure of the Holy Spirit. We see the fulfillment of that idea in the minsitry of Jesus, when He re-purposed Isaiah 61:1 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for He has anointed me,” to refer specifically to His anointing with the Spirit and power at His baptism (Acts 10:38). This same idea is echoed in Psalm 133:2 where the anointing of the High Priest is described as, “like the precious oil upon the head, Running down on the beard Of Aaron.”
The specific kind of anointing referred to by James comes from Psalm 23:5, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalms 23:5 ESV)” The word used here specifically “describes an act of hospitality extended to guests and carries the nuance “refresh.” (NET Notes)” Go back and read the whole Psalm and notice the references to being refreshed or restored or reassured.
- He makes me lie down in green pastures.
- He leads me beside still waters.
- He restores my soul.
- Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
- your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
And finally, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Psalms 23:1-5 ESV) The whole Psalm is about refreshing and renewal for the weary traveler under the care and protection of his shepherd-king. This anointing with oil was done to reinvigorate the person who has been moving through the darkest valley. This weary traveler has just been walking through a circumstance so difficult as to be referred to as “the valley of the shadow of death.” The One who walked through it with him has now prepared a banquet. He is anointed with oil as an act of hospitality and honor in preparation for enjoying the meal. His previously depleted cup is filled to overflowing.
To James’s audience, the idea of anointing a weary person with oil to refresh him would have been a familiar one. Jesus seemed to indicate that failure to provide such an anointing was considered a faux pas (Luke 7:46). Similarly, the idea of oil being symbolic of the Holy Spirit would have been very familiar. James says to “pray over him, anointing him with oil.” We have a weary Christian, worn down from his journey. He can’t seem to access the promise of healing on his own. God sends spiritual elders to pray over him, not for him. When they pray over him, the anointing of the Spirit comes upon him to refresh him, renew his strength, and empower him to take hold of the promise of God. Then the prayer of faith will deliver (refresh) the weary and the Lord will raise him up. Healing flows.
Here’s the point: When a believer is too weary and worn down to receive, he calls for help from His eldership. They have greater authority to pray because of their responsibility for his soul. They can use physical oil if they like, but it’s not the physical oil that brings results. They pray over him until the anointing of the Holy Spirit comes upon him and refreshing flows. You can feel it. There is a tangible presence that is needed in these moments. Human will-power and intellectual assent are insufficient to the task. Don’t quit until the oil flows. Then pray the prayer of faith.
Next Steps: That brings us to the question: How do we pray when we pray over the weary believer? Here are a few things we know:
- We lay hands on him. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name… they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:17-18 ESV
- We speak the Name of Jesus: James 5:14; Song of Solomon 1:3 “Your name is ointment poured forth”
- We do it in faith, expecting the weary to be raised up. James 1;6; 5:15
- We pray in the Spirit, speak the Word, and persevere. Ephesians 6:17-18
“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”Ephesians 6:17-18 NKJV
In our modern day, we have all but lost the capacity for persevering, prevailing prayer on behalf of another. We trust in medicine as our fail safe, and we expect a mechanical “I believe I receive” mantra to do the work. We want it instant and effortless. This is where we have to make some decisions if we want to connect to the promise in James 5:16b: “ The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in
its working]. (Amplified Bible)”
I’m asking you to take part in a determined, unyielding, inconvenient calling to bring weary believers into contact with the power that God provides.
In our next lesson, we’ll look at “the prayer of faith” that saves the sick, and we’ll go a little deeper into why praying in tongues is so important in these situations. You don’t want to miss this.