Lesson Twelve: Honesty, Healing, and Hope
The book of James ends suddenly. There are no personal greetings. There is no closing benediction. James continues his tough, practical approach right to the end. He deals with issues that everyone faces. Honesty – do you stand by your word? Healing – do you know how to cope with trials, triumphs, and transgressions? Hope – do you wonder if the time you invest in the lives of others is in vain?
Much of what James has written in these verses has been misunderstood and misapplied. These verses have been used to support the Catholic doctrines of last rites and confession. They have been used by the Charismatics to endorse the practice of holding special healing verses. Others have understood them to mean that a Christian shouldn’t ever give an oath, such as being sworn in as a witness during a court trial. Some refuse medical treatment, believing it to be a violation of this passage.
These represent extremes that come from not "rightly dividing the Word of truth." They also have driven many Christians from seriously studying the text. Yet, the truth these verses offer is extremely practical. Every Believer should understand them.
I. Be Honest – Verse 12
A. The prohibition against swearing
The command "Swear not" is not referring to profane or blasphemous speech. It refers to the practice of backing up your word with a vow or an oath. It is a prohibition against saying things like:
- I swear to God …
- Cross my heart and hope to die …
- I really mean it this time … I promise …
- May lightening strike me dead if …
Generally, people will make such statements to lend credibility to their word, to guarantee their honesty. James, quoting from the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:33-37) says don’t do it. Just be a man or woman of your word. Let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no.
- If you tell your kids you’re going to do something, follow through.
- If you agree to accept a responsibility, carry it out.
- At the marriage alter you said, "I do." Don’t go back on your word.
James is saying that our word should be reliable. A believer should never have to guarantee his honesty by the addition of an oath. Even our most informal conversations ought to be characterized by absolute honesty because we will be held accountable for "every idle word." See Matthew 12:36.
B. The problem with swearing
Why does the Bible make this an issue? Recall the story of the boy who cried wolf. His false words proved that there was a flaw in his character. Because his "yes" didn’t mean yes, he fell into condemnation. No one trusted him any more. And once we lose the trust of others, it is hard to win it back again.
II. Be Healed – Verses 13-18
A. Acknowledging God – Verse 13
- When experiencing trials – PRAY.
- The word translated afflicted is a general term that means to experience hardship, to encounter problems.
- It covers all varieties of problems – physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual.
- Whatever the nature of the problem, James encourages us to pray.
- I can respond to affliction with worry, determination to fight back, discouragement, depression, etc., or I can talk to my Heavenly Father about it.
- Through prayer, I address my needs, acknowledging my dependency upon God.
- When enjoying triumph – PRAISE.
James reminds us that life is unpredictable. One moment we may be singing on the mountaintops and the next minute be scrambling out of a valley. Change is inevitable. That is why our marriage vows include sickness and health, riches and poverty, and better and worse. People disappoint us. Circumstances turn against us. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is the one unchanging factor in life. When life is "good," He cares. When life turns sour, He’s still in control. Through prayer and praise, we align ourselves with His purposes and acknowledge his presence.
B. Anointing the sick – Verse 14-18
- The condition addressed.
- In verse 13, James used the word affliction that describes any kind of hardship, including illness.
- The word sick is a more specific term that is related to all manner of illnesses and diseases that leave a person weak, helpless, or even facing death.
- The context indicates that James was referring to sickness that results from persistent sin.
- The normal afflictions of life – the hazard of living in a fallen world – is addressed in verse 13. There, too, prayer is prescribed, but healing is not promised. Most illnesses fall into this category.
- The sickness mentioned in verse 14 is the result of sin. Not sin in general, but specific sin that has brought on the chastening of God.
There are several reasons for reaching this conclusion. One is the use of the word "save." Throughout this letter, James has used it in the since of being delivered from present judgment and condemnation. Another is the statement of verse 15, "If he has committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." It is a conditional clause that indicates a probable condition (as one person gossiping to another might say, "Well, if you really want to know…"). In addition, there is the statement in verse 16 linking confession and prayer with healing.
James is not prescribing a Christian alternative to medical attention. Neither is he promising a miraculous cure for incurable diseases. He is speaking of sickness that is brought on by known sinful conduct that has been ignored. For an example, see 1 Corinthians 11:29-32.
- The cure prescribed.
- The application of oil.
- This word anoint is a general term that means to apply or administer. A different word was used when the anointing was sacred or symbolical.
- Oil was applied for many common purposes, including its use as a medicine or perfume. (See Luke 6:46, Mark 6:13, Luke 10:34)
The Holy Spirit selected the more common term for anoint so that we would not attach any sacred or spiritual significance to the term. There is no reason to assume that the anointing with oil James prescribes refers to anything other than its ordinary use as a medicine or scent applied as an act of friendship.
- The admission of sin.
- Again, James is not instituting the confessional. Nor is he commanding us to habitually disclose our sins to one another.
- In the context, the sick person has called for the church leaders. He is ready to "own up" to the disobedience that has caused God to chastise him with illness.
- The leaders don’t need the details of his sin, merely the acknowledgement of sin. The man is ready to judge himself so that he can be relieved of the judgment of God. (See again 1 Corinthians 11:31-32. Also 1 John 5:16)
- The prayer of faith.
- Notice first that the emphasis is on prayer.
It is the prayer of faith, not the application of oil, that results in the sick person being raised up. It is prayer one for another that results in healing. It is the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man that accomplishes much.
- Notice that the sick person initiates the prayer.
He calls for the elders of the church. He is tired of playing games with God. He knows that his sickness is a result of the chastening hand of God and only the healing hand of God can remove it. He is ready to agree with God about the nature of his sin and its effects on his life.
James is not talking about holding healing services. He is telling us how to respond to the discipline of the Lord.
- Notice that the prayer of faith is the prayer of a righteous man.
To illustrate what he means by a righteous man, James appeals to the example of Elijah. James tells us right away that Elijah wasn’t a perfect man. He was a man of like passions. Like us, sin indwelled his body. It had to be confronted and conquered. Having done that, Elijah’s prayers were effective. And here’s the point: since Elijah was like us in his passions, we can be like him in our prayers. When the sinning brother has acknowledged the sin that led to his sickness, others can pray knowing that God will raise him up. Why? Because we have God’s Word on it.
III. Be Hopeful – Verses 19-20
The final two verses balance the teaching of this section. First, it addresses the issue of involvement. In the previous verses, the elders are called to the sickbed of a sinning brother. These verses are addressed to anyone. If any brother errs from the truth, one may be used to convert him – to restore him to a right relationship to the Lord. It doesn’t have to be a pastor, deacon, or other leader. It can be anyone who will care for his soul and go after him. We are not to wait until the Lord puts the person flat on their back, but we are to try to restore them before it gets to that point.
Secondly, the previous verses spoke about the confession of faults. Now James speaks of hiding sin. They are forgiven and covered – not exposed and judged. Having helped the erring brother to judge his own sin, he has avoided the judgment of God.
Note that this section is not about the eternal salvation of an unbeliever, but the salvation of a believing brother who has fallen into the snare of the devil. His soul is saved from death, which certainly can be taken literally. (See again 1 John 5:16-17) Obviously, James is not talking about "minor" sin (although no sin should be treated lightly). He is speaking of a major defection from the truth.
To put this in perspective, I think James is giving us hope. We invest time and energy to restore a straying brother or sister in the Lord. We spend ourselves emotionally and physically to awaken them to their indifference or to win them back from their rebellion. Sometimes, we wonder if it is really worth it to keep trying. James assures us that it is. He encourages us to keep it up, knowing that we not only restore a relationship, but we often recover a life.
With these words, James closes his letter. He makes us examine ourselves in one more area: involvement. Are we busy in the things that really matter – restoring sinners and recovering lives? Do we care about fallen brethren, or do we criticize and condemn them?