James 5:13-20. Healing (Lent 3)

James concludes with encouragements to prayer that have been often misunderstood. There are two ways this passage has been misapplied as a justification for last rites and as a guarantee of complete healing, so, what is actually being promised here? [Audio | Notes]

Michael Flynn


James 5.13-20

For further thought

James concludes with encouragements to prayer that have been often misunderstood. Here are two ways this passage has been misapplied:

Traditional ideas – over the centuries as the rites of extreme unction (last rites or anointing of those who are dying) and confession (private confession to a Priest) developed in the Roman Catholic church, these verses became the Biblical justification for maintaining these practises as sacraments.

Contemporary ideas – in some Pentecostal theology the prayer of faith was claimed to always be effective to heal the sick person otherwise there is something wrong with someone’s faith (the ill or the elders) or there is hidden sin in the ill person that needs first to be confessed. Likewise, confession became a form of spiritualised therapy whereby divulging our quietest secrets to another (or even a whole congregation!) would bring psychic and spiritual health.

Some things to observe: 

In Verse 15 the sick person is very unwell – the elders of the church need to travel to him/her to pray but they pray for healing not for a peaceful death.

James uses phrases like: ‘raise them up’ or ‘be forgiven’ which implies he is not only thinking of immediate healing but also of the permanent long term healing of the resurrection.

As is the style of wisdom literature, this passage on healing is set in contrast to a passage on enduring suffering (7-12) – it would be odd to claim that Job and the prophets suffered because they did not have faith, when James is using their endurance through suffering as an example of faith.

In the passage it is a group of elders who pray, not individual Priests. James has been very concerned about relationships within the church. Favouritism, care of the poor, reconciliation and forgiveness matter. In this passage he encourages us to confess to the people we have sinned against about the particular wrongs we have done to them in order to restore relationships so that right lives can grow in the church. (3:13-18)

Q: Do you know of examples where the misuse of these passages caused harm? (3:1)

Q: What would it take to confess a wrong to a person we’d harmed?

Q: How can our church develop its ministry of prayer for each other?

Q: Why are verses 19 & 20 the final act of caring love that James wants us to do?

Spend time in prayer for each other, ask for the wisdom from above for each other to endure the trials we are undergoing, confess the wrongs you have done to those you did them to, pray for healing for those in need, pray for those who are wandered from trust in Christ and discuss ways to approach them that may help them turn back to truth. Finally, sing together in praise of a God who has given us so much of himself in this world and even more for the world to come.