Healing in James 5

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The following is a guest post by Andy Bowden. Andy does a great job helping us think through James 5:13 – 18, particularly what the passages says to us about healing. You can read Andy’s regular blogging at bowdenblog.wordpress.com.

Recently I finished writing a thesis related to the Epistle of James. After examining the structure and purpose of James, I then examined James 5:13–18—the passage promising healing to the sick. I concluded that this promise relates to spiritual healing for the spiritually sick, i.e., for those who are in sin. In this post I would like to explain what led me to this conclusion.

My analysis of the letter as a whole was critical for my study of chapter 5. In analyzing the Epistle, I noticed these important themes and facts:

  • James belongs to the category of ancient epistle; chapter 1 serves as the Epistle’s intro, 2:1–5:8 as the Epistle’s body, and 5:9–20 as the body’s conclusion. This will be important later in our discussion.
  • James addresses believing brothers in his Epistle (e.g., 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1; 5:7, 12, 19), implying that the Christian community is his sole focus even when James issues strong rebukes.
  • James regularly alludes to the Greek version of the OT prophets. For example, in the very first verse of the Epistle (1:1) James calls himself “a servant of God and of Jesus Christ.” Repeatedly in the Old Testament the prophets were referred to as “servants of God” (e.g., Jer 7:25; 25:4; 44:4; Ezek 38:17; Joel 3:2; Amos 3:7; Jonah 1:9; Zech 1:6; Mal 3:24). James’s reference to prophetic tradition in 1:1 establishes this as a contextual background for his message (Jobes, “Minor Prophets,”135). When addressing the problem of favortism (2:1–9), James alludes to the prophets who used similar terminology when discussing the oppression of the poor (e.g., Jer 7:6; 22:3; Ezek 18:7, 12, 16; 22:7, 29; 45:8; 46:18; Amos 4:1; 8:4; Micah 2:2; Hab 1:4; Zech 7:10). The paragraph located in 3:13–18, which many argue to be the heart of the Epistle, is one of James’s clearest allusions to the prophetic OT. One author notes that the question in 3:13, “Who is wise and understanding among you?” echoes Hosea 14:10, which in summary of the prophet’s entire message asks, “Who is wise and will understand these things?” (Jobes, “Minor Prophets” 138). James’s term “fruit of righteousness” in 3:18 occurs in the OT prophets (e.g., Amos 6:12; Hos 10:12). In 4:4 James calls the readers “adulteresses,” which is an allusion to Hosea and other Minor Prophets, where Israel’s unfaithfulness is likewise compared to adultery, implying that James accuses his audience of the same kind of unfaithfulness to the new covenant in Christ as was condemned by the prophets. James borrows heavily from the language of the OT prophets in his stern rebuke (4:1–10), and in his calls to the merchants (4:13–17) and landownders (5:1–6). Not surprisingly, the prophetic language will appear in 5:13–18.
  • The theme of repentance from sin runs throughout the Epistle. In the very first paragraph, James commands, “count it all joy when you face temptations of many kinds” (1:2, although, in many English Bibles this is translated as trials). James continues the topic of temptation in the next paragraph using the exact same terminology, “No one being tempted should say ‘I am being tempted by God’” (1:13). Then in 1:21 James challenges the readers to put aside all filth and the abundance of wickedness. In 2:9 James argues that believers’ favortism makes them sinners who are guilty of breaking the whole law. James 3 teaches that believers stumble in many ways because of the tongue, which is the world of iniquity. The Epistle’s strongest rebuke is found in ch. 4, where the readers are chastised for desiring and envying, murdering and waging war, and after not getting what they want, finally turning to God in prayer (4:1–3). Rather than being called “brothers” here, James calls them “sinners,” “double minded,” and “adulteresses,” and then blasts them with 10 imperatives in vv. 7–10 to call them to repentance. Sin is defined 4:17 as knowing the good to do but not doing it. The Epistle closes with a call to turn sinners from their wandering (5:20). We will see that the topic of sin is also prominent in 5:13–18.
  • Related to the theme of sin is the recurring theme of Judgment. Judgment appears throughout the Epistle (e.g., 2:12–13, 3:1, 4:11, 5:9, 12).
  • Throughout the Epistle, James compares righteousness to fruitfulness. While the rich are compared to a scorched flower (1:10), believers are said to be God’s firstfruits (1:18). Righteousness is compared to fruit in 3:18, and the farmer is pictured in 5:7 eagerly awaiting fruit. Finally, the prayer of the righteous is effective in bringing forth fruit (5:18). The theme of fruit will appear in our paragraph (5:13–18).

How do these observations relate to James 5:13–18, and what other evidence is there that this passage speaks of healing from spiritual sickness?

  • The view that James speaks of healing from spiritual sickness is supported by the strongest historical evidence. There is not a single piece of evidence from the first three hundred years of church history indicating that this passage was understood to speak of physical sickness and healing. One author explains that during this period “there is no actual rite or form known to us which gathers the presbyters round the bed of the sick and provides a text for their use” (Halliburton, Oil of Gladness, 89). Halliburton points out that during this period the church associated anointing with the baptismal pool instead of the bedside. The first theologians to comment on James 5 were Origen and John Chrysostom of the 3rd and 4th century, who interpreted the passage to speak of the forgiveness of sins and not as a warrant for the practice of anointing the sick.
  • Part of the difficulty with understanding James 5:13–18 is that each of the terms for sickness and healing can refer to physical or spiritual matters. How then can we know which James had in mind?
  • One of the key words to grapple with is in v. 14, which is translated in English Bibles as “Is anyone among you sick?” This word “sick” is very challenging because of its many different meanings. It is often used in the NT for physical sickness, especially in the Gospels and Acts where individuals are miraculously healed (e.g., Matt 10:8; 25:36, 39; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40; John 4:46; 5:3, 7; 6:2; 11:1, 2, 3, 6). Paul, however, uses the term to refer to spiritual weakness, as in 2 Cor 12:10, “my power is perfected in weakness.” Weakness or sickness, which does James have in mind?
  • In seeking to understand the word’s meaning in this paragraph, we must consider the context of the letter. The immediate context surrounding this paragraph deals with judgment (5:9, 12) and with turning wandering sinners (5:19, 20). And, as was previously mentioned, these themes may be traced back not only to the rebuke that begins in ch. 4, but also to the beginning of the book.
  • The context also shows how often James borrows language from the OT prophets. For example, James’s terms in chs. 4 and 5, including “adulteresses,” “cleanse your hands,” “draw near to God,” “be wretched,” “mourn,” “weep,” and “rain,” are meant to direct the readers’ attention to the OT prophetic language. Commenting on these deliberate allusions, one author noted that “James employs the elaborate symbols for repentance in the prophetic tradition” (Johnson, James, 289). Even James’s two “come now” paragraphs mirror typical OT prophetic woe oracles (see, e.g., Isa 5:8–23; Amos 5:16–20; 6:1–7; Hab 2:6–19).
  • This is extremely significant for determining the meaning of sickness/weakness in 5:14 because the term also happens to be a favorite in the OT prophetic books, where it refered to those who had fallen spiritually. One author notes that “the words are used [by the prophets] in the great majority of cases in the specific sense of ‘stumble,’ or ‘fall.’ . . . This meaning is attested chiefly in prophecies announcing the judgment of God upon those who have rebelled against Yahweh and who, therefore, will ‘stumble and fall.’ . . . Indeed, the expression ‘the ungodly shall fall’ in Zeph 1:3 is a convenient designation of the entire OT conception of spiritual judgment” (Black, Astheneia, 14). This implies that 5:14 can be translated as “is anyone among you sick/weak/spiritually fallen?”
  • The possibility that James in this paragraph is promising spiritual healing to the spiritually fallen fits the context of the book and the remaining details of the passage. In James 5:14 this fallen one is anointed by the elders with oil, which symbolizes God’s favor and mercy. The examples are plentiful in the prophets where repentant sinners were anointed with oil as a sign that God had heard and forgiven them (e.g., Joel 2:12, 16–23). Similarly, these in James are told to be anointed as a sign of God’s readiness to forgive them.
  • James then says “the prayer of faith will save/heal” this fallen one. Does James have physical healing or spiritual restoration in mind? The term he uses is σώζω (s­ōzō), and this occurs four other times in the Epistle—each time refering to spiritual salvation or to rescue from trouble:
  1. 1:21—“receive the implanted word that is able to save your souls”
  2. 2:14—“can such faith save him?”
  3. 4:12—“there is one law-giver and judge, the one able to save and to destroy”
  4. 5:20—“the one who turns a sinner from his wandering ways saves his soul”
  • Most notably the fourth occurrence above is closely related to the present passage, occuring a mere few verses later in context. It seems most likely, then, since every other occurrence of this word in James refers to salvation rather than physical healing, that the word continues to carry the same connotation in 5:15. The remaining terms for sickness and healing in this passage can likewise speak of physical or spiritual matters; I am going to skip over these for the sake of space.
  • But if James promises spiritual healing to the spiritually fallen, what about the phrase in v. 15 that says, “And even if he has sinned, he will be forgiven”? James has written this phrase in such a way as to highlight an aspect of the verb for the reader. James is not saying that even the person who sinned will be forgiven. Rather, he uses an emphatic form of the perfect tense—a tense that focuses on the state or consequences resulting from an action. Thus, James speaks of sin in the past whose effects continue to be felt in the present, or, as Greenlee states, “The perfect tense refers to a state resulting from having sinned” (Exegetical Summary, 225). What kind of sin, then, is James emphasizing? A specific kind of sin—sin whose consequences continue to linger, perhaps the type that plagues those seeking repentance, the seemingly terrible, unspeakable sins that one would never dare confess. Lange explains that James thinks of “one who is as yet burdened with the guilt of those sins” and whose continuing guilt will be removed (Lange, James, 139). James has rebuked believers for some awful sins—murder, adultery, and hatred towards God—but here he reassures the reader that no matter the sin or the state that has resulted from the sin, God’s offer of forgiveness remains. Attempting to capture James’s thought, one author translates the clause, “Even if the sick be suffering the consequences of his sins” (Plummer, James, 354). The phrase might also be translated “even if he is a notorious sinner, he will be forgiven” or “even if he carries a burden of guilt over his sin, he can trust in God’s forgiveness.”
  • In 5:16 James says, “Confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed.” The word for healing is in the plural, meaning something like, “so that you all may be healed.” James seems interested in the health of the community, which comes about as sin is dealt with.
  • The prayer of Elijah in 5:17 illustrates that the healing is from spiritual sickness. Out of all the episodes in Elijah’s ministry involving prayer—and there were plenty—Johnston astutely draws our attention to which of these James chose not to quote (A Pattern? 172–73). Specifically, James does not refer to Elijah’s prayer for the widow’s son that brought physical life and healing (1 Kings 17:7–24). Such an example would have fit James’s argument perfectly if he were talking about the physical healing of the sick. Instead, however, James selected the passage in 1 Kings 17–18 (where prayer is not even specifically mentioned) because the passage focuses on the withholding of rain due to Israel’s wicked sinfulness during Ahab’s reign. Such drought was in accordance with the words of Deuteronomy 11:13–17, that Israel’s disobediance would bring lack of rain, and that repentance would usher rain back again.
  • The rain in 5:18 also points to James’s spiritual focus. The withholding of rain came to signify judgment (as in 1 Kings 18:18); the giving of rain signified forgiveness and the end of judgment. “One could say that the mention of the shutting of heaven and the theme of drought/rain carried with them an entire series of other themes such as sin, prayer, calling upon the name of God, conversion, pardon for sins, the correct way of life, etc” (Bottini, La preghiera, 172).
  • If James promises unconditional healing to the physically sick, then this is the only place such an unqualified promise is found in the NT.
  • This passage focuses on prayer for spiritually fallen believers. Such a conclusion is in line with other New Testament teaching, such as that of Galatians 6:1–2: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (NASB). Similarly, 1 John 5:16: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life” (NASB). These passages, like James, occur at the Epistles’ conclusions.
  • As we noted, 5:13–18 is located in the conclusion of the Epistle. Those who study ancient epistles note that authors devoted extra attention to conclusions, which were to recapture the whole writing and finalize the author’s motives. Conclusions were, therefore, seen as one of the most important parts of an epistle. One author explains that conclusions serve as the hermeneutical spotlight, highlighting the central concerns of the letter: “Epistolary closings are to be seen as intimately related to the concerns addressed in the bodies of their respective letters. . . . The letter closing functions a lot like the thanksgiving, but in reverse. For as the thanksgiving foreshadows and points ahead to the major concerns to be addressed in the body of the letter, so the closing serves to highlight and encapsulate the main points previously taken up in the body” (Weima, Neglected Endings, 22). Thus, in an epistle’s conclusion one should expect to encounter the primary themes of the discourse, the final opportunity for the audience to change or modify its thinking and attitude, and a recapitulation of the argument.
  • If James were to conclude his letter by mentioning physical healing, he would end with a theme that was random and disconnected from his letter. One author explains that “the sudden emergence of instruction dealing with a ministry of divine healing for the sick at the end of a book stressing solely matters of spiritual concern seems somewhat incongruous” (Hayden, “Calling the Elders,” 259).
  • By ending, however, with a promise of spiritual healing to the spiritually fallen, James 5:13–18 effectively recapitulates the argument and themes of the Epistle. While the body of the Epistle employed prophetic rebuke and warning, James’s conclusion employs prophetic words of hope, reconciliation, and consolation—offering sure forgiveness to the spiritually fallen. While the body chastised the brothers for their various sins, the conclusion assures these fallen brothers of God’s readiness to forgive. While the body emphasized fruit-bearing, the conclusion likens the community’s healing to rain that brings about fruit (5:17). This paragraph, proclaiming a message of healing to the spiritually fallen, fits seamlessly in a letter calling sinners to humble repentance for their sins.

So, these are my reasons for concluding that James promises healing from spiritual and not physical sickness. I have tried to be as brief as possible, so naturally I had to omit many points that are found in my thesis, including a fair, balanced summary of opposing arguments. If you have further questions I would be glad to discuss them with you.

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