Praying for the Sick: Part 1

James 5:14-15

August 18, 2009 | Ray Pritchard

“Is 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. 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 5:14-15).

(I am dedicating this message to some friends of ours for whom we have been praying. Lately it seem that lately we have been overwhelmed with friends of ours, some who live near to us and some who live far away, who have faced desperate medical situations .I’m sending this sermon out with love and prayers for Andy, Don, Marvin, Barb, Sammy, Jack, and for especially for little Colson Taylor, born June 26 who arrived early and has had a hard time ever since. May the God from whom all blessings flow pour out his mercy upon these friends and upon many others who need the healing touch of the Lord.)

If we pray at all, sooner or later we will spend time paying for the sick. Every pastor spends a good part of his week talking to, visiting with, and praying for the sick. And every prayer meeting always includes a list of the sick. That fact alone makes the subject important, especially when I consider that in four years of seminary, I learned Greek, Hebrew, Bible exposition, theology, homiletics and church history, but less than an hour was spent on this topic. In four years I can remember one session with Dr. Richard Seume who gave us the only instruction we received on ministering to the sick.

My own interest in this subject stems from the fact that I grew up in a doctor’s home. My father was a surgeon and my mother was an army nurse (they met while doing medical service in the Army during World War II). My uncle was a surgeon and my three brothers are all medical doctors. And two cousins became doctors. Medicine hangs from every branch of my family tree, which is part of the reason I find the topic of praying for the sick so fascinating. At what point do medicine and prayer intersect? How should they work together to provide healing?

Let me state up front what the question is not:

1)   The question is not, Does God answer prayer? The answer is yes.
2)   The question is not, Does God answer prayer for the sick? The answer is also yes.
3)   The question is not, Does God sometimes answer in ways that seem miraculous? Again, the answer is yes. I am happy to stipulate that all those things are true.

Furthermore, the focus is not on what God can do. After all, we know that God can do anything he wants to do. Nothing is impossible with him. Our focus in this message is on what the church can do. I believe James 5:13-16 tells us how a Bible-believing church responds to sickness in its midst. What should we do for the sick? The answer is simple and profound. The church should pray for the sick that God would raise them up.

James 5 plainly calls the church to pray for the sick. However, it also raises a number of valid questions. In order to get the proper perspective, let’s start by considering a few preliminary facts.

A Place to Begin

There is no record of Jesus ever failing to heal anyone who was brought to him.

The gospels record 41 separate healing miracles in the life of Christ. Matthew 4:23-24 tells us that people with various maladies were brought to Jesus from Galilee and Syria and he healed them all. Some were blind, others deaf, some were demonized, some paralyzed, and still others were sick with various diseases. He healed them all. There is no record of Jesus ever failing to heal anyone who was brought to him. This means that the total number of healing miracles must be far larger than the 41 specifically mentioned.

As we move into Acts the situation changes. Some miracles of healing are recorded, but not very many. We read about Peter and John and the lame man in Acts 3, signs and wonders in Acts 2 and 5, Peter and Dorcas in Acts 9, and Paul and Eutychus in Acts 20. In the epistles Paul mentions “gifts of healings” in 1 Corinthians 12:28. He also mentions that he left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20), and he told Timothy to take some wine for his stomach’s sake (1 Timothy 5:23). Healing receives relatively little mention because the New Testament focuses on the spread of the gospel across the Roman Empire.

A brief survey of 2000 years of church history reveals that from the very beginning Christians have believed in ministering to the sick and the dying. No dichotomy existed between medicine and prayer. Christians have led the way in starting hospitals, clinics, medical missions, sanitariums, rest homes, and hospice care. Christians have always believed that part of our message involves offering help for the sick and dying in the name of Jesus Christ.

In recent years many churches have put new emphasis on the importance of praying for the sick. In some churches this has become a major ministry involving healing services and teams of laypeople trained to pray for and minister to the sick. It’s also fair to say that in some circles there has been ambivalence on this subject. I think some people are frightened of the perceived excesses of others (I’m thinking of certain flamboyant practices of the “healing evangelists” on late-night Christian television). Perhaps we are embarrassed by the possibility of failure. Certainly we don’t want to raise false hopes. And we definitely don’t want to lose our focus on the gospel as our central message.

Libby Redwine

All these concerns are quite valid. And yet if you ask us, we all believe that God can and sometimes does work miracles in answer to prayer. And we all have a story to tell in this regard. My story goes back almost 25 years to the church I pastored in Garland, Texas. One day a woman named Libby Redwine asked if the elders would anoint her with oil and pray over her in accordance with James 5. No one had ever asked me to do that before, and I didn’t know what to say. The elders didn’t have any experience in this area either but they agreed that we should do it. So I went to the grocery store and bought a jar of olive oil. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The next Sunday after the worship service, Libby and the elders gathered in my office. They all looked at me. Not knowing what else to do, I read James 5:13-16 and asked her to tell us what we should pray for. Libby said that years earlier she had had one of the first open-heart surgeries in Texas. Evidently her arteries were in terrible shape because the doctor said they were like chalk and would snap if he tried to operate again. Tests showed that Libby had developed a life-threatening blockage in her lower abdomen. Surgery was scheduled for the following Tuesday.

After asking Libby if she had any sins she wished to confess, I dipped my finger in the oil and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. The elders laid their hands on her and one by one we prayed earnestly that God might heal her. As we began to pray, “something” happened that I can’t fully explain. All of us were aware of the powerful presence of God in the room. When we finished, Libby had a big smile on her face and we all knew that God had met with us as we prayed. The next day she had pre-surgery tests. On Tuesday she called with an amazing report. The surgery had been canceled because the tests revealed that the blockage had disappeared. She was giddy with excitement when she told me the good news. The surgery was never performed. And from that day on she and I and the elders believed that God had healed her in answer to our prayers.

“Healing in the Bible is not becoming what we were but becoming all that God intends us to be.”

When I told that story in a sermon a few years ago, Dr. Mark Bailey, President of Dallas Seminary, asked me if I had other stories like that. A few, I replied, but not many, and nothing as dramatic as that. Looking back over the years, I can tell of numerous occasions when I have prayed for people and they have gotten better. And other times when no improvement could be detected. Dr. Bailey and I agreed that this is the experience of most pastors. From time to time it seems that God is pleased to grant an amazing deliverance, sometimes a complete healing that appears to come solely through prayer. Why doesn’t that happen all the time? We don’t know the answer to that question. But we do know that God has given us clear instructions about praying for the sick. Let’s take a close look at what James 5:14-15 actually says.

A Four-Step Process

If we look at this passage closely, we discover that it offers four steps in the process of praying for the sick.

Step #1: The sick person calls for the elders.

“Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him” (James 5:14). The process begins when the sick person calls for the elders to come to him. The word “sick” is very broad. It includes any serious physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or relational problem that has become too heavy to bear. There are many kinds of sickness, and when a believer is overwhelmed, he should feel free to call the elders to come to him.

Who are the “elders” of the church? Certainly, the term refers to the spiritual leaders of the congregation. Taken in its broadest sense, the term refers to any group of godly Christians who have a concern for the sick. But why are the elders to come to the sick person? No doubt the sick person in unable to come to the church so the church comes to him. And he may be too sick to pray for himself so the church comes to pray for him. A friend reminded me of the book written by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin during his struggle with cancer that finally took his life. Cardinal Bernardin laid great stress on the importance of praying for the sick because they are too weak to pray for themselves. Often the sick person will be unable to sustain coherent thoughts. Chemotherapy or other drugs may have sapped all mental and physical energy and left him somewhat disoriented. The pain may be so great that prayer becomes a burden. The patient may be in a coma or may drift in and out of consciousness. Those who are healthy can perform a great service for the sick by praying for them.

A friend who has been going through a hard time lately mentioned to me how much the prayers of others had meant. “Their prayers have helped us to keep believing.” He added that some people say, “I want to do something practical. Nothing helps us more than knowing we’re being prayed for. That has made all the difference.” It’s good to bring over a meal, help with the kids, or run errands. Those things really do matter. But nothing matters more than prayer. It’s the most practical thing we can do for our friends.

The whole church can’t come but the elders can.

Why call the elders? First, because the elders represent the church. The whole church can’t come but the elders can. Second, the elders are preeminently to be men of prayer. They are called because true elders know how to get in touch with God.

Step #2: The elders go to the sick person.

This step follows from the first. The elders go wherever the sick person is. They go together because there is strength in numbers. Praying in person makes their prayers much more fervent, heartfelt, and earnest. And their presence encourages the sick person with the message that “The church has not forgotten you.” And since elders lead by example, they show the whole congregation how to care for the sick in their midst.

I picture a scene where the person is too sick to sit up in bed so the elders gather round the bed, lifting up holy hands, and literally “praying over” the sick person, just as verse 14 says.

Step #3: The elders pray and anoint with oil.

“He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14). Prayer is the key. When the elders come to pray for the sick person, and as part of their visit, they anoint him with oil. The word literally means to “rub” oil on him, almost like a massage. The oil is not specifically identified, but we may be sure it does not refer to motor oil. Most likely the reference is to olive oil since that was widely used in the first century. But the precise kind of oil doesn’t matter. Some missionary friends asked their church in Nigeria to send the elders to pray over their son who was very sick and seemed to be getting worse. The elders and the pastor came over and asked the missionaries for some oil. The only thing they had was peanut oil so that is what the elders used. That very day their son began to get better.

The oil serves as a humbling reminder that all healing must come from God.

Oil in the Bible was often used as a symbol of health and vitality from the Lord. Kings were anointed with oil as a visible symbol of God’s presence and the need for his blessing (1 Samuel 16:1, 13). The same is true in James 5. The oil isn’t magic. There is no supernatural power in a few drops (or a few cups, for that matter) of oil-olive, peanut, or any other kind. The oil serves as a humbling reminder that all healing must come from God. In this sense the oil is like the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. It builds faith and says to the sick person, “God is here and He is able to heal you.” Sometimes I have done this sort of praying in a hospital room where the person is wired up to various high-tech monitors. The simple act of anointing with oil reminds all of us-the sick person and the ones doing the praying-that it is the Lord who heals and that our trust is not in technology (as good as that is) but in God alone.

Note that the anointing is to be done “in the name of the Lord.” This is all-important because it reminds us that God is the ultimate source of all blessing and all healing.

Those who are healthy can perform a great service for the sick by praying for them.

There is no power in the elders.
There is no power in the oil.
There is no power in the prayers.

But there is enormous power, omnipotent power, eternal power, in the name of the Lord. He alone can grant the needed healing.

Step #4: There is healing and forgiveness.

“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 5:15).

The fourth step is simply the expected result of steps 1-3: The sick person is healed and his sins are forgiven. James uses an unusual phrase to describe the prayer. He calls it “the prayer offered in faith.” This particular phrase is used nowhere else in the New Testament. In one sense every sincere prayer must be offered in faith or it can hardly be called prayer at all. When the elders pray, they are to come to God with an attitude of complete trust that he can and will do what is needed in every situation.

The elders are preeminently to be men of prayer. They are called because true elders know how to get in touch with God.

The text says nothing about how the healing will come. Our text doesn’t demand a miraculous or instantaneous healing. Nor does the healing in view rule out the use of medical care. Whether quickly or slowly, by miracle or by medicine, or by some combination of the two, God is able to heal his children. Alec Motyer puts it this way:

There is no such thing as (so to speak) ’non-spiritual’ healing. When the aspirin works, it is the Lord who has made it work; when the surgeon sets the broken limb and the bone knits, it is the Lord who has made it knit. Every good gift is from above!

Note the close relationship between the physical and the spiritual. The Greek construction of the “if” clause suggests that sin may indeed be involved in the sickness. Not all sickness is caused by a particular sin, but some illnesses stem directly from our sinful actions and attitudes. Until those things are confronted and confessed, it is pointless to pray for healing. Whenever I am asked to anoint the sick with oil, I always inquire as to their spiritual condition and I ask if they are conscious of any sin that is standing between them and God, blocking his healing power. Sometimes they make a confession, sometimes they don’t. But it is important to ask the question.

Our prayers matter to God. Our prayers matter to the sick.

Our greatest problem with the entire passage comes in verse 15. It seems too confident and too dogmatic for us. James states without any qualification that the sick person will be healed. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We would prefer to read it as “the prayer of faith may save the sick.” After all, most of us have prayed for people who got worse instead of better. I recall that a dear friend of mine (a godly man and an elder of our church) fervently believed that God was going to heal him of cancer as a testimony to the world of God’s power. Up until the very day of surgery he proclaimed his belief to everyone he met. And multitudes of people poured their hearts out to God on his behalf. Two weeks after the surgery I officiated at his funeral service.

Eight Ways to Pray

It is an undeniable fact that not everyone we pray for is healed in the literal, physical sense. But millions of people could testify that someone prayed for them in their sickness and those prayers made all the difference. Marlene and I testify to that in our own family, with our son Nick, and during Marlene’s breast cancer treatment four years ago. We know prayer makes a difference! That’s the whole point of James 5:14-15.

Prayer is a great gift that comes from the heart of God.

Our prayers matter to him.
Our prayers matter to the sick.

When we pray for the sick, we are bringing God’s mercy into the hospital room and inviting the Great Physician to take up the case.

It helps to compare this passage with other statements about prayer in the New Testament where similar sweeping promises are made. Those statements are meant to encourage us about the boundless possibilities of prayer. They encourage us to believe that no situation is hopeless for God. Just because the doctors have given up doesn’t mean the Great Physician has given up. And it helps to remember that God’s definition of healing is much broader than ours.

Just because the doctors have given up doesn’t mean the Great Physician has given up.

How, then, should we pray for the sick? Eight words come to mind. We should pray …

  • Aggressively because nothing is impossible with God.
  • Fervently because the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective (James 5:16).
  • Unitedly because our faith grows stronger as we pray together.
  • Trustingly knowing that we have a High Priest who invites us to come to the throne of grace where we can find grace and mercy in the time of need.
  • Repeatedly because God invites us to ask, ask, and keep on asking.
  • Confidently knowing that the Lord will not turn us away when we call out to him.
  • Gratefully because we have already received “grace upon grace,” far more than we deserve.
  • Submissively because God’s understanding of the total situation is much greater than ours.

During my research for this message I came across a statement regarding healing that has been bouncing around in my mind ever since I read it. Most of us think of healing as “getting rid of the disease.” It’s like running the clock of life backwards and restoring the person to their previous state. But healing in the Bible is a very broad concept that involves coming into a right relationship with God first and foremost. Then it touches every part of life-body, soul, and spirit. It involves the healing of all broken relationships and brings us to a place where we can receive God’s blessings in a new and powerful way. That alone is a huge concept that goes far beyond “Pray for my son who broke his arm in football practice.” Here’s the quote that started me thinking in a new direction: “Healing in the Bible is not becoming what we were but becoming all that God intends us to be.” Think about that for a while. When we pray for healing, we dare not focus on the physical to the exclusion of the spiritual, emotional, and relational sides of life. We are not healed until we are made whole on every level of our existence.

There is more that needs to be said about praying for the sick, including the all-important point that all healing in this life is temporary and partial. We’ll deal with that in our next message.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?