b. Prayer and healing (5:13–18)
James, like so many other New Testament letter writers, concludes his homily with an encouragement to pray. Prayer is clearly the topic of this paragraph, being mentioned in every verse. James commends it to the individual believer, in the very different kinds of circumstances that he may face (vv. 13–14) and to the community as well (v. 16a). And he encourages such prayer by underscoring the powerful effects of prayer that flow from a righteous heart (vv. 16b–18). Some relationship to verse 12 may be perceived through the common theme of speaking with reference to God (bad speech, v. 12; and good, vv. 13–18), but James does nothing to suggest this connection. It is more plausible to think that James wants to commend prayer as a great source of strength for the affliction that the readers are experiencing (see the use of kakopatheia in both v. 10 and v. 13). Essentially, however, the paragraph is an independent entity.
13. ‘Pray at all times’, Paul commanded (; ). James, similarly, exhorts the believers to pray in whatever situation they may find themselves. They are to pray when suffering. Kakopatheia, the same word James has used in verse 10 with reference to the prophets, is a general term that denotes the experience of all sorts of afflictions and trials. Paul used the verbal form of this word to describe his imprisonment and exhorted Timothy to be willing to undergo this same kind of suffering (; ). The prayer believers are to offer in such circumstances is not necessarily for deliverance from the trial, but for the strength to endure it faithfully. The believer is also to pray when he is cheerful. Euthymeō refers not to outward circumstances, but to the cheerfulness and happiness of heart that one can have whether in good times or in bad. It was this sense of well-being that Paul encouraged his fellow travellers to have even though their ship was in imminent danger of destruction (, ). When our hearts are comforted, it is all too easy to forget that this contentment comes ultimately only from God. Thus, perhaps even more than when suffering, we must be reminded in times of happiness of our glad obligation to acknowledge God’s supreme role in our lives. We are to do this, James says, singing praise. The word he uses, psallō, is easily recognized as related to our English ‘psalm’. Taken from a Greek word that designated a kind of harp, the word was used in the Septuagint to describe certain types of songs, especially songs of praise. This singing in praise was closely related to prayer (cf. ); indeed, it can be regarded as a form of prayer.
14. A third circumstance in which prayer is to figure prominently is now specifically mentioned: illness. In this case, however, the believer who is ill is not commanded to pray, but to summon the elders of the church so that they might pray over him. Elders are mentioned in the book of Acts in connection with the church in Jerusalem (11:30; 15:2; 21:18) and the churches founded through Paul (14:23; 20:17). Although in his letters Paul refers to elders by name only in 1 Timothy (5:17) and Titus (1:5), ‘overseer’ (or ‘bishop’), mentioned in the plural in and in the (probably generic) singular in , is probably a different title for the same office. Both Peter () and James assume the existence of elders in the church, showing that the office must have been a widespread one in the early church. It is possible, though not certain, that the office was taken over from the synagogue. From the prominent role of the elders in Acts and the description of the office in the Pastoral epistles, it can be inferred that the elders were those spiritually mature men who were given responsibility for the spiritual oversight of individual, local congregations. Since the Ephesian elders were to ‘shepherd’, or ‘pastor’ their flock (), and ‘pastors’ are never mentioned along with elders, it is probable that the function of what we know as the ‘pastor’ or ‘minister’ was carried out by the elders. Hence, it is natural that the believer who is suffering from illness should summon the elders.
When the elders come, they are to pray over (epi) the one who is sick. Only here in biblical Greek is proseuchomai (pray) followed by epi: it may simply indicate physical position, but could possibly imply that hands were also laid on the sick person (see ). This prayer is to be accompanied by anointing with oil—probably at the same time as the praying (viewing the aorist participle, with most commentators, as contemporaneous), but also possibly as a preliminary to the prayer.
This anointing is to be carried out in the name of the Lord, signifying the divine authority with which the anointing is done (see , ; , ). But what is the purpose of this anointing with oil? The practice is mentioned only one other time in the New Testament: Mark tells us that the twelve ‘cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them’ (6:13). Unfortunately no more explanation of the practice is given there than here in James. In general, there are two main possibilities for the purpose of the anointing.
First, it may have a practical purpose. Oil was widely used in the ancient world as a medicine. In Jesus’ parable, he tells us that the Samaritan who stopped to help the man who had been robbed and beaten ‘went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine’ (). Other ancient sources attest to its helpfulness in curing everything from toothache to paralysis (the famous second-century physician Galen recommended oil as ‘the best of all remedies for paralysis’, Mod. Temp., 2). What James may be saying, then, is that the elders should come to the bedside of the sick armed with both spiritual and natural resources—with prayer and with medicine. Both are administered with the Lord’s authority and both together can be used by him in healing the sick. The difficulty with this view is twofold. First, evidence that anointing with oil was used for any medical problem is not found—and why mention only one (albeit widespread) remedy when many different illnesses would be encountered? Secondly, why should the elders of the church do the anointing if its purpose were solely medical? Surely others would have done this already were it an appropriate remedy for the complaint.
As a different kind of practical purpose, others suggest that the anointing may have been intended as an outward, physical expression of concern and as a means to stimulate the faith of the sick person. Jesus sometimes used physical ‘props’ in his healings, apparently with just such a purpose. But when Jesus did so, the physical action was specifically appropriate to the illness, such as rubbing the eyes of a blind man () and placing his finger in the ears of a deaf man (). There is simply no evidence that anointing with oil was generally used with such a purpose.
It is probable, then, that anointing with oil has a religious purpose. This second main explanation of the practice can be further subdivided into two types, according to whether the anointing is seen to have sacramental or merely symbolic significance. A sacramental understanding of this practice arose early in the history of the church. On the basis of this text the early Greek church practised what they called the ‘euchelaion’ (a combination of the words euchē, ‘prayer’, and elaion, ‘oil’, both used in this text), which had the purpose of strengthening the body and soul of the sick. The Western church continued this practice for many centuries, as well as using oil for anointing on other occasions. Later, the Roman church gave to the priest the exclusive right to perform this ceremony and developed the sacrament of ‘extreme unction’. This sacrament has the purpose of removing any remnant of sin and of strengthening the soul of the dying (healing is considered only a possibility). The Council of Trent (XIV, 1) found this sacrament ‘insinuated’ in and ‘promulgated’ in . Clearly this developed sacrament has little basis in James’ text: he recommends anointing for any illness and associates it with healing rather than with preparation for death. Nevertheless, the oil could be considered to have a sacramental function in that it acted as a ‘vehicle of divine power’. Much as partaking of the Lord’s Supper conveys to the believing participant a strengthening in grace, so anointing may be mandated by God as a physical element through which he works the grace of healing in the sick believer. One’s attitude towards this view will depend considerably on one’s view of the ‘sacrament’ in general. But it may also be asked whether a practice mentioned only once in the New Testament (although cf. ) can possess the importance which this view gives to anointing.
It is best, then, to think of the anointing with oil as a symbolic action. Anointing frequently symbolizes the consecration of persons or things for God’s use and service in the Old Testament. And while chriō is usually used in these texts, James has probably chosen aleiphō because of the phsyical action involved (see Additional note on aleiphō and chriō, below). As the elders prayed, they would anoint the sick person in order to symbolize that that person was being ‘set apart’ for God’s special attention and care. While Calvin, Luther and other expositors think that the practice of anointing, along with the power to heal, was meant to be confined to the apostolic age, it is doubtful that such a restriction can be maintained. James’ recommendation that regular church officers carry out the practice would seem to imply its permanent validity in the church. On the other hand, the fact that anointing a sick person is mentioned only here in the New Testament epistles, and that many healings were accomplished without anointing, shows that the practice is not a necessary accompaniment to the prayer for healing. Elders who pray for the sick may do it, and James clearly recommends the practice; but they do not have to do so.
Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, pp. 180–185). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.