James on Healing augments the previous article Healing in Scripture, with a closer examination of the words of the apostle. James the apostle has some instruction for his readings on the subect of physical healing. What is the meaning of it? And is this a practice we can still use today?

The passage in question says: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 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. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jas. 5:13-16, NKJV).

These verses have been much debated. That being so, it is amazing how some can be so dogmatic and definite about their meaning. Among the many interpretations and applications:

¤ Some see this as a universal mode of receiving bodily healing that has been given to the church for the entire Church Age, and they continue to make use of the practice today.

¤ Others see it as being addressed to the Jews during the time of transition between the old order and the new. (As such, it would be a continuing fulfilment of God’s ancient covenant with Israel, Exod. 15:26). In support of this view, the epistle likely dates very early in the Christian era, from about 15 years after Pentecost. Perhaps the practice faded into disuse with the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles, and the end of the Apostolic Era around 100 A.D. It is never mentioned again in the New Testament.

¤ The Church of Rome uses this passage to defend Extreme Unction, an anointing given to those who are dangerously ill, with the hope that through the anointing and prayers of the priest, renewed health might be given to the soul and to the body.

¤ Still others see it as applicable only to sickness that is a chastening from the Lord when a Christian sins, with healing available when believing prayer is accompanied by repentance and confession. (Note the references to sin and confession in vs. 15-16.) In favour of this view, the church leaders who are summoned could be there to counsel, and deal with the spiritual need of the individual before praying for healing.

¤ Then there are some who see the oil of vs. 14 as representing medicine. They interpret James as saying we are to use medical means, and prayer, when people are sick. This is certainly a common sense approach, whether or not the passage means that.

¤ Some consider the “sickness” spoken of as soul-sickness and despair, not physical illness. Harry Ironside rendered the phrase “save the sick” as “relieve the exhausted.” (See the Bible Knowledge Commentary for an extensive discussion of this position.)

Several of these views have things to recommend them. What then are we to do with the passage? It is perhaps suggestive that Paul and the other New Testament writers make no mention of this procedure later on. Nor does Paul suggest that the sick call for someone with the gift of healing. Help for the physically ill is downplayed, as is the miraculous, in the epistles. This is in keeping with the limited need for the apostolic sign gifts. With time, the New Testament message and the messengers were thoroughly authenticated (II Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4; cf. Acts 2:22).

God can and does act supernaturally to heal from time to time, beyond natural means. But it is surely wrong to demand that He intervene, or to expect that He will always do so. Prayer within the will of God (Jas. 4:15; I Jn. 5:14) is efficacious. But the prayer of faith does not involve twisting the arm of Omnipotence, but abandoning one’s self to sovereign grace. In the area of healing, as in other things, God retains His Lordship. No set formula or pattern will result in a miracle, apart from the will of God. It would save much discouragement if we would accept the fact that there are occasions when God chooses not to heal, for His own wise and loving purpose.

The New Unger’s Bible Handbook states: “The sick believer was to call for the elders [plural] of the assembly, never one elder. The use of oil for anointing the sick was a general Jewish practice, as shown by the Talmud, and a Jewish custom the Lord’s disciples adopted (Mk. 6:13). However, the emphasis is not on the oil, but on the prayer offered in faith which saves the sick. Such a prayer is divinely given and operates when it is God’s will to heal. Chastening, testing, and other factors condition the Lord’s healing of a Christian’s sickness (cf. I Cor. 11:30-32; II Cor. 12:7-9; I Tim. 5:23; I Tim. 4:20).”

This procedure is meant for Christians in a local body of believers, as phrases such as “among you” and “one another” show. And the responsibility is on the sick individual to summon the leaders of the local church to pray for him or her. The implication is that this leads to a private meeting in the home (or hospital), not an event open to the public eye. There is nothing in this passage to justify a "faith healer" coming to town with great fanfare and inviting any and all to come to him for healing.

There are three main means the Lord has provided for the restoration of physical health:

1) When the Lord heals, it is most often through the mechanisms He as our Creator has built into our bodies. With proper rest and nourishment, the body will often heal itself in time.

2) Doctors and medicine are a gift of God to be used when they are needed. It is not lacking in faith to avail ourselves of what God has provided! In 1871, Charles Kingsley wrote a dedication poem for the opening of a new wing in a Birmingham hospital. It has since become a hymn, which says, “From Thee all skill and science flow, / All pity, care, and love...”

3) There are times when God intervenes to heal beyond natural or medical means. This is usually in answer to believing prayer. But it does not necessarily involve the presence and anointing of the leaders of the local church.

James on Healing, bottom line: It would seem the summoning of the elders and the use of oil are optional today. We can pray for the sick without this procedure, but on the other hand it can be used by those who desire it without violating Scripture.

See also Healing in Scripture.