Have you ever made a statement and wanted a good example to back up your words? You wanted an example that came from a person whom all your readers highly respected; and an example that could not be refuted. James makes this statement in verse 16: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (NASB)
“That’s quite a statement!”, his readers and listeners must have been thinking, “You had better be ready to back that up!” Let’s examine that statement carefully first, and then we’ll see how he backs up his words.
I. THE STATEMENT (verse 16b)
The word translated “prayer” is the Greek word deesis. It usually refers to specific prayer of petition for specific needs, and this is the only time that James uses this word. The “righteous man” is the person who is committed to God and desires to do His will. This kind of petition has power because it is unwavering, trusting that God is more than equal to the task and will be honored and glorified through it. The word “effective” literally means “energized”. The context before this statement of James relates to praying for one another, but the example that follows seems to be referring to prayer for God to show Himself strong in situations where His existence and His power are being challenged by those who don’t believe in Him and make a mockery of Him. So the statement may apply to both situations.
The “Message” (The Bible in Contemporary Language), says it this way: “The prayer of a person living right with God is something powerful to be reckoned with.”
II. THE EXAMPLE (verses 17-18)
His readers and listeners are wondering who James is going to use as an example to back up his statement: “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”. (NIV) He chooses the prophet Elijah, and immediately his statement gains credibility in the minds of his audience. Elijah is the Old Testament prophet of God who is mentioned in the New Testament more times than any other Old Testament prophet. He and Moses were beside Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.
The Hebrew people considered Elijah to be one of their greatest “super-heroes”. He was remembered as one who wore unusual clothing and did powerful deeds. His fearless words and awesome feats brought fear to the hearts of kings and Baal -worshippers. Even the Hebrew Christians addressed in this letter had a tendency to put their focus on the man, Elijah, rather than on the God who inspired him and empowered him. That’s why James begins verse 17 with the following words: “Elijah was a man with a like nature as ours” (NASB). He was a human being also, with all the weaknesses and struggles that we possess, and faced with the same kinds of temptations. So why aren’t we all like him? I think that British evangelist Leonard Ravenhill captured the difference when he said, “Elijah was a man of like passions as we are, but alas, we are not men of like prayer as he was!” Leonard is the author of the book, “Why Revival Tarries”, and is also quoted as saying, “A man who is intimate with God is not intimidated by man”, and “No man is greater than his prayer life.”
It’s interesting that I Kings 17 does not say that Elijah prayed before he made the following statement to King Ahab: “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years (three and a half years), except by my word.” The Spirit of God must have given James that insight. However, after God gave Elijah that prophesy, which could mean instant death for him, there must have been a prayer in his heart as the prophesy was spoken by his lips! Wouldn’t you agree? And he said those words with conviction. There was no doubt in his mind that God would fulfill His promise.
But the Scriptures also give us a record of Elijah’s “humanness”. When Jezebel said that she was going to take his life,” Elijah “was afraid and arose and ran for his life . . . and sat down under a juniper tree” (I Kings 19:3). However, verse 4 tells us that he prays to God and repents of his actions. He asks the Lord that he might die, and says, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” God lovingly responds by giving him rest, food, and strength for the journey and ministry ahead.
If you examine Elijah’s public prayers during his ministry, you will find those prayers to be short and to the point, giving glory to God. He wasn’t trying to impress God or others by his prayers.
James was also a man of prayer, as was Elijah. Tradition tells that he was nicknamed “camel knees” because of the callouses on his knees from spending many hours on his knees in prayer. Did you know that the epistle of James, for its size, has more to say about prayer than any other book? At least 14 verses are devoted to prayer or principles of prayer. That’s about 15% of the book!
Let’s continue to take a good look at our God as He describes Himself in His Word. May our prayers reflect His sufficiency and our total dependence on Him.