James begins this verse by asking, “Is any one of you in trouble?” Do you think that James is expecting a “no” answer? Is he using the laws of probability here? Let’s say that James expects at least 5000 people to read or hear this letter. Therefore there must be at least one person who has this “trouble”. I don’t think so. James is expecting a positive response. If that’s true, then why is he asking the question? Why doesn’t he just tell them to pray when they are troubled? James is asking a “rhetorical question” here, and he uses three of them in verses 13 and 14.
Sometimes a rhetorical question is used to give the recipient a moment to pause and think about it before receiving the answer. It can be used as a teaching tool. Since the reader or listener knows that the answer is “yes”, he may be more likely to listen and pay attention to what is said next. The Lord Jesus used rhetorical questions. In Mark 8 He used them repeatedly for the purpose of encouragement and application.
I. ARE YOU TROUBLED? (verse 13a)
The Greek word translated “troubled” in the NIV, is the word kakopathei. It can refer to suffering evil or hardship of any kind. These Hebrew Christians and their families have been scattered all over Asia Minor because of the persecution, so they are struggling to find jobs, learn a new language and adjust to a different culture. That can be very frustrating! James knew that they needed some encouragement and some practical steps to take in order to ease their troubled minds.
Let me translate the Greek word into terms and expressions that we can all identify with. “Are you feeling down?” “Are you worried or distressed?” “Are you having a bad day?” “Are things just not going your way today? “Do you feel like you got up on the wrong side of the bed?” James’ response to his question is: PRAY. He doesn’t mean “say a prayer”. He is encouraging them to go into the presence of God, praise and worship Him, get right with Him, give thanks to Him, and then bring their requests to Him. By the time they get to their petition, they might find that they don’t have any urgent requests anymore. They now feel refreshed and have a new perspective on their day. The focus of attention has moved from their problems to their all-sufficient God.
II. ARE YOU CHEERFUL? (verse 13b)
The Greek word translated “cheerful” here means feeling good inside; a joyful spirit that is not dependent upon circumstances. James says, “when you’re cheerful, sing about it, and don’t sing just any song, sing a psalm – a song of praise to God!” Let the joy that’s inside come out – don’t keep it to yourself! The apostle Paul and Silas were singing praises to God at midnight while they were in the Philippian jail (Acts 16:25)!
Many of you have probably enjoyed listening to a large choir as they sang the great hymns of the faith. But if you’ve ever sung in a choir yourself, you know that singing your heart out with the other choir members after all the hours of practice is an even greater experience of joy and praise to God. And don’t forget the enjoyment that God is experiencing as He listens to your voices and the expressions of praise from your hearts. It is a mutually gratifying experience!
Singing played a major role in the history of the people of Israel. There are several times in the Old Testament when the whole nation of Israel sang together to the Lord. These occasions probably came to the mind of James as he was writing these words, and also to the minds of his readers and listeners. The first time was in Exodus 15, when Moses and the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and the entire Egyptian army drowned when the waters returned to their place. The first few words of that song are: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea” (NKJV). Can you imagine what that must have sounded like? Thousands of people singing it as loud as they could, their faces beaming with joy! If you read the entire song, you will see that it was more than just a song. It was a cheer to God, a vocal applause, shouting out to Him in song in response to the great things He has done. When was the last time you gave God a “round of applause” for the things He has done in your life and in the lives of others? Don’t you think He deserves that kind of a response from our mouths?
When we’re happy we can be a source of cheer and encouragement to others also. If you’ve been to a football, basketball, or soccer game, and the cheerleaders have you and the rest of the crowd cheering, your team usually plays harder and better. Your cheers are urging them on and building their confidence. Statistics generally show that more games are won when the team is on its own “home field”, or has the “home court advantage.”
Once, when a great fire broke out at midnight and people thought that all the occupants of the building had been evacuated, way up on the fifth floor a little child was seen crying for help. Up went a ladder, and soon a fireman was seen ascending to the spot. As he neared the second story the flames burst in fury from the windows, and the multitude almost despaired of the rescue of the child. The brave man faltered, and a comrade at the bottom cried out, “Cheer him!” Cheer upon cheer arose from the crowd. Up the ladder he went and saved the child, because they cheered him. When we’re happy, let’s be “cheerleaders” to those around us.
There are several other occasions where the whole nation of Israel sang praises to God. For example, there is I Chronicles 15 (the return of the Ark of God), and II Chronicles 5 (dedication of the temple). In addition to these occasions, James remembers the final Passover meal that he and the other disciples celebrated with the Lord Jesus. Since Jesus presided over the meal, after they had eaten the lamb and unleavened bread, it was Jesus who also led them in the customary singing of a hymn. Jesus sang a hymn of praise and deliverance from the land of Egypt, knowing that the next day He was going to be that Lamb Who would be sacrificed to pay for the sins of the world. Yet He was able to sing for joy! I hope and pray that there is a song in your heart, and on your lips today!
III. ARE YOU WITHOUT STRENGTH? (verses 14-16)
Another time for specific prayer is when someone within the congregation is sick. I believe this is the only place in the New Testament where praying and anointing of the sick are mentioned in conjunction with each other. Therefore we must be very careful to understand the context of James’ words, and especially to understand the meaning of the Greek words that are used in these verses. This is not a passage of Scripture that can be clearly understood by just reading it in several translations. Rather, I think that this is a passage of Scripture that can be easily misunderstood and misapplied if it isn’t thoroughly examined. Get ready for some hard work and attention to details!
After examining the context of verses 14 to 16, and in the process of studying the first significant Greek word in verse 14, I am getting an altogether different understanding of what is happening in these three verses. Please join me in laying aside previous ideas and conclusions for a while, and let’s take a fresh look at this text and its applications to us today.
Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself as I look at the context. James has been addressing emotional, social, and spiritual issues in this letter. Why would he suddenly switch to physical healing in an unclear manner and then back away from it as suddenly as he brought it up? What does anointing with oil, confession of sin, and forgiveness have to do with sickness? What kind of “healing” is being spoken about here?
The first Greek word I am now studying is the word asthenei. It is the word I have highlighted in the NASB translation of the first sentence in James 5:14: “Is anyone among you sick? It literally means, “without strength”. In Mark 6:13 it is associated with the casting out of demons. The apostle Paul used this Greek word when referring to one’s conscience being weak (Romans 6:19; I Cor. 8:7), and the weakness of one’s flesh when it comes to giving into temptation and sin (Romans 8:3).
Notice also in verse 14, it says, “is any one among you sick, let him call for the elders . . . “. Whatever this “sickness” or “lack of strength” is, it isn’t incapacitating and it doesn’t appear to be physically contagious. Also, since he is the one calling upon the elders, his specific purpose for doing so is so that they might pray for him, anointing him with oil as they pray. This person has come to the point where he wants to make it known that he is ready and willing to do this, and wants the elders of the church to be in charge of it. If it seems that I am belaboring the point, there is a reason for it.
I like the way the Greek Interlinear New Testament literally translates what the elders are doing: “let them pray over him, having anointed with oil . . . “. The word “anointed” here means “to rub”. It is a different word from the one used to anoint people or vessels for service to God. Here is my interpretation based on the context of what James dealt with before it, and what proceeds afterward. As we all may know from experience, many of the issues that James has been addressing (e.g. anger, jealousy, bitterness, guilt, and anxiety) can have overpowering effects on us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and also physically. They can draw us inward and control our personalities much like the effects of a harmful addictive drug. Therefore I personally wonder if the elders were giving this man something similar to massage therapy and aroma therapy to soothe and comfort him in his anguish. At the same time they were praying over him, so that he might get some things that have been bothering him “off his chest” so to speak. The penetrating oil, the soothing aroma, the faces of these elders above him, and the sound of their prayers are preparing him to release the troubles and sins that have been eating away at his soul. It is done in the name of the Lord, because God deserves the glory and praise for what only He can do.
In verse 15, James says, “and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick” (NASB). The word translated “prayer” is a different Greek word for prayer. It is the Greek word euche, which means “intense prayer“. It is intense because it is offered in faith – grounded in the assurance of God’s will in this matter, and trusting in His enabling. It may also be “intense” because these elders are praying together for a common purpose. The following devotional article in Our Daily Bread is a true example of intense faith and intense prayer.
Louis Banks relates a story of a veteran missionary who returned to China after a long absence. On the day of his return, he was met by a former convert and six other Chinese nationals. These six, as the missionary later learned, had received Christ while living in the dark shadows of opium addiction. Amazed by their good health, the missionary asked his former convert what remedy he had used in their deliverance. The man answered by pointing to his knees. He had prayed for them, and when they came to him for help he encouraged them to pray for themselves. When they came back saying that it did them no good, the man of faith sent them back to their knees. He said he did this again and again until they stood before him clean, sound in body and mind. Through prayer, their cruel chains had been broken, and they had new songs of joy and praise on their lips.
Dr. M.R. DeHaan II, ends his devotional with these words: “This doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t use other means of help. But it says that whatever help we seek, nothing must replace the role of prayer.”
As James says in verse 15, “the prayer of faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.” (NASB) God has given each of us a body, soul, and spirit, and when one of these aspects of our being is weak and hurting, it affects the other two. From this verse and verse 16, it appears that the source of the weakness is spiritual, but it has weakened the body and emotions as well. When God “raises him up”, He is restoring vitality to every part of his being.
So James exhorts them in verse 16 to “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (NIV). He is emphasizing that the sins they have been committing against each other are the source of their problems, and gives the remedy. As Jews, his readers would tend to associate suffering with sin, and in this case they are correct. The remedy is not only to confess their sins to God, but also to confess their sins to those whom they have wronged, praying for each other as well. Only then can our relationships be healed. As Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, “. , , first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:24).
Confession isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do in God’s sight. God will always give us the strength to do what is right if we ask it of Him. Is there someone you should talk to today, confessing your sin and asking for forgiveness? The first stanza of the hymn entitled “The Evening Prayer” contains these words:
If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive
by Maude Battersby
May you experience the joy of our Lord’s presence and closeness today, and may He shine out on your countenances as He did on the face of Moses! BE SHINY! (Matthew 5:16 – a child’s paraphrase).