James 5:13-16 (NAS) Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. (14) Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; (15) and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. (16) Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
Translating from one language to another in such a way that you both maintain accuracy and fluency has been a challenge for even the most educated of men over time. And the reality is that sometimes they may not select the best word to convey the original intent or meaning. Many of our Bible translations have done an excellent job of preserving and presenting correct wording, even using a variation in wording for the same original language word whose meaning may be more complex than a single one of our words. But sometimes there is a passage in Scripture where you might stop and wonder why a specific English word was chosen over another.
One of those passages for me is James 5:13-16, where a number of years ago I struggled with this seemingly invariable promise that if someone is sick and he or she calls upon the elders of the church to pray and anoint the person with oil that the person will be restored and made whole. I had known several close and dear friends in the Lord who were near death and who had followed this instruction, yet God, in His wisdom, chose to not to heal them physically, but rather He allowed them to die physically and live with Him in eternity. At the same time, I have been continually amazed with the peace that our God has given these same individuals through the process.
I struggled with how I would teach this passage, so I opened up my Bible, a few study tools, and some additional helps and I dug deeper. Twice in this passage I read of a person being sick. So as I spent some time looking at the words which were translated “sick.” I was not at all surprised to find that they have been translated elsewhere in Scripture differently.
The first “sick” is in verse 14, and it is the Greek word sqene (Strong # 770, asthene) which means to be ‘weak’ or ‘feeble’. In the New American Standard Bible it is translated: am weak (1), becoming weak (1), fell sick (1), sick (18), and weak (12). As I looked at the context of the various verses I found that many were clearly and properly translated ‘sick’ while others appear to have been equally clearly and properly translated ‘weak.’ It appeared to me that this Greek word was broad, and that there was some flexibility based upon context. Reading from one of my study Bibles this morning, which I did not have when I initially did this study, I read of this particular context, “James directs those who are “sick,” meaning weakened by their suffering to call for the elders of the church for strength, support, and prayer.” (MacArthur Study Bible)
The second “sick” is in verse 15. It is the Greek word kmnonta (Strong #2577, kamn + nta) which is from a primary root meaning to be weary. It is used two times in the New Testament. Once it is translated ‘grow weary’ (Hebrews 12:3) and the other it is translated ‘sick’ (James 5:15).
I next turned to the word “healed” in verse 16. This is the Greek word aqte (Strong # 2390, iaomai, iomai). It means ‘to heal,’ and is translated in some form of heal all of the 26 times it is used. So the next question is “Heal from what?” So, I looked at the other verses in which the word was used. In doing this I also found that the uses of healing, while largely physical in nature, were not limited solely to that which was physical as these examples might show:
Matthew 13:15 - dull hearts, deaf ears, blind eyes - healing is restoration (faith requisite) (John 12:40)
Acts 10:38 - speaking of Jesus, anointed with Holy Spirit and power, healing those oppressed by the devil
Acts 28:27 - quoting Isaiah 6:9 - healing through salvation
Hebrews 12:13 - discipline brings healing
1 Peter 2:24 - By Christ’s wounds we were healed - sins forgiven & restored to the Shepherd
Allowing for these variant meanings, here is James 5:13-16 again.
James 5:13-16 (NAS) Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you weak? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (restored and made whole). The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
Our God is the Great Healer (Jehovah Rapha). He has healed man from the greatest illness of all, his spiritual death, and he has given him new life in His Son—Jesus Christ. All we need to do in order to get the cure is to trust that His Son did die for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again also according to the Scriptures. Having been healed from spiritual death and given new life, our God continues to work in and through us as He chooses. Sometimes He does the miraculous and heals people in this life in ways that we know only came from Him according to His purposes. Sometimes He heals people by having them pack away their physical tent and entering His presence (which ultimately happens to all who trust Him and physical death to all period until His Son comes again). Other times, He gives us the strength for the day to endure illness, weakness, and afflictions of all sorts for His glory. We need to be careful that we do not put God in our box because of our expectations. He is the infinitely wise God who is true to Him promises.
Consider the apostle Paul who wrote, “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, NASB95)
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, NASB95)
Our God cares about our welfare, and He established something truly special in James chapter 5, when someone is so sickened for any reason that they know they can call upon the elders of their church to come to them, pray with them, and even anoint their head with oil as a special recognition of our God who sets apart, soothes, restores, and even heals. Our God hears those prayers and He does keep His promises. We should never lose sight of the great obligation that we have to pray for one another that we might all be continually strengthened and healed.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man,” (Ephesians 3:14–16, NASB95)