When should we pray? - James 5:13-20

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 22nd March 2015.

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When should we pray? - James 5:13-20

If you want to make a Christian feel guilty then ask them about their prayer life. 


You could ask a Christian about pretty much anything to do with their discipleship and they would be embarrassed. Evangelism. Giving. Hospitality. The most embarrassing subject tends to be prayer. 


We need to remember that our salvation is not based on our works but on the finished work of Christ. We also need to realise we are a work in progress. If there is an area where progress seems to be hard and slow for many Christians - it’s in the area of prayer.


Now this morning there is the great danger that I could add extra burden to your already heavy soul - and I say that because this section of the Bible is all about prayer. 


I know it’s easy to focus in on what is said about sick people being made well but when we read this section carefully we discover that the big theme is prayer. And I say that because prayer is mentioned in almost every verse.

  • Read vs 13
  • Read vs 14
  • Read vs 15
  • Read vs 16
  • Read vs 17
  • Read vs 18

What does James want us to know about prayer? He doesn’t tell us everything that can be known. But James wants to challenge us to pray in three different situations. 


  • When we are in trouble (Vs 13a)
  • When we are happy (Vs 13b)
  • When we are sick (Vs 14-20)


We’re not going to spend much time on the first two. That’s because James doesn’t. And also because the third situation is easily misunderstood. 


First, when we are in trouble (Vs 13a)


Trouble may come in all shapes and sizes. When it does we should pray. Not the only thing we should do. But prayer should not be a last resort. 


People often don’t pray in these situations either because they are relying on their own resourcefulness or because they don’t think it will do any good. But James says pray.


Don’t let pain take you further from God. Let it bring you closer to him. 


What might we pray for? James 1:5. WisdomGod’s perspective. 


Second, when we are happy (Vs 13b)


We may not pray in these circumstances because we are so distracted by our pleasures. We often take the gifts but ignore the giver. 


But James says, “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”


Enjoy the gift but thank the Giver. 


This is a healthy dimension to our prayer lives. It keeps us from simply asking all the time. God loves us to ask but he loves it when we praise him for the happiness he brings our way.


Third, when we are sick (Vs 14-20)


At first sight this section seems to be very clear. As it is written in the NIV, it appears to say that if a Christian is very sick then he should call the church leaders to his house. When they arrive they should anoint the sick person with oil and pray for him to be healed. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. 


Then there seems to be the encouragement for everyone to pray for the sick with the promise that the prayer of a righteous man will be powerful and effective.


What’s the problem? This doesn’t fit with our experience. We have all prayed for sick Christians to be healed but who don’t get better. Some have got worse and some have died.


What should we do with this bit of James? 


Here are some options. 


Some people see this as evidence that the Bible cannot be trusted. A clear promise is made but it isn’t always kept.


Some people attach qualifications. They say that only the prayer of faith will work or the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. This is really dangerous as it cause the person who prayed to doubt their own faith or the person who has been prayed for. 


Some people assume that the person has been healed in some way that we cannot really see. This is very dangerous.


Is there anything else we can do? Our experience should send us back to the Bible to see if what we think it is saying is actually what is being taught.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying our experience should change what the Bible says. I’m saying that our experience should send us back to closely read the Bible to check our understanding.


When we do, we discover something really quite wonderful and practically helpful.


To show you this I want to do a quick word study with you. We don’t normally do this but I think you’ll find it helpful this morning. 


We’ll work through some key words in James 5 and try and discover what they mean.


  • Vs 14. Is anyone of you sick?


Astheneo. To be without strength. Therefore, to be weak.


In the NT it is used for both physical and spiritual weakness. 


Matthew 25:36 - I was sick and you looked after me. 


1 Cor 8:9, “Be careful..that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak.”


  • Vs 14Anoint him with oil.

Aleipho and elaion


In the ancient world people anointed all sorts of things and people. Always used oil. Guest came to your home after washing their feet you would anoint them. Anoint a dead body. In the OT a priest or a prophet or a king. 


The thing or the person was being consecrated for God.


  • Vs 15. Sick person well.

A different word.  Kamno. Weary.


Only used in one other place in the NT. 


Hebrews 12:3, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

  • Vs 15. Will make the sick person well

Sozo. Saved. The standard word for salvation.


Used a lot in the NT. In the Gospels it is used a lot for physical healing. 


Matthew 9:22, “Jesus turned and saw her, ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’"


Ephesians 2:4-5, "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,  5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved."


This word is used 4 other times in James and it always means and is translated as saved. James 1:21,2:14, 4:12, 5:20.


  • Vs 15. The Lord will raise him up.


Egeiro. Can mean get up. Or get up after being sick. It is the standard word for resurrection. Either or the resurrection of Jesus or the future resurrection of believers. 


  • Vs 16. So that you will be healed


Iaomai [yamai]. Simply means to heal. Used throughout the NT for physical healing. But also used as a metaphor for spiritual healing. Used in Isaiah 6:10.


What does all this mean? Given the words alone James could be referring to spiritual sickness.


A possible paraphrase: “Is anyone weak in his faith? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord as a mark of renewed Christian living. And the prayer offered in faith will save the weary Christian. The Lord will raise him up on the last day. If he has sinned he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be restored to the faith.”


How should we decide? I commend the paraphrase because...


First, it fits the the bigger context. The big theme of the letter is double mindedness. The danger of current compromise with the world that can lead to eternal death. It also fits with the way the word sozo is used throughout the letter.


Second, it fits the immediate context


The Elijah example. Why not choose the example of when he prayed for the woman’s son who was raised to life? The example chosen focuses on prayers in connection with the people’s relationship with God.


Then verses 19 and 20. Read verses 19 and 20. Turning back from the truth.


Third, our experience. The promise is too much if it is about physical healing. That is not what see. 


So in light of all this, I would commend the paraphrase to you.


What does all this mean for us?


First, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t pray for healing. We should. God does say yes to those prayers on occasions. Sometimes through medical intervention and sometimes through miraculous ways. But we shouldn’t base those prayers on this passage.  


Now God sometimes heals people physically as a result of people using this passage in the wrong way.Why would he do that? He is gracious and kind.


Second, this doesn’t mean you cannot understand your bible without knowing Greek. This is a rare passage. So have confidence in your bibles.


Third, do you or someone you know need to take advantage of this provision for the good of your eternal soul?


Are you spiritually weary and thinking of giving up? What does that look like? 


It could be the dramatic decision? Or it could be the dangerous drift?


  • Call the elders round. Anoint with oil. When you don’t have the strength to pray then ask others to do it for you.


  • Pray for each other when we are weary. Be honest. Speak up. Your eternal destiny may depend on it.


Hear the promise. Those prayers will work. They will keep us going in the Christian life. They will enable us to fight the deadly disease of inward compromise. They will restore us to a healthy spiritual life and so ensure that we will raised up on the last day.


So dear friends if you or someone you know is at the weary giving up stage then please for the good of your soul, be honest and take advantage of this provision of grace!

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