Formations 10.25.2015: Wholeness

James 5:13-18

Menorah flask, Jerusalem, c. AD 600. Such flasks were used as funerary offerings and to hold holy oil that came from synagogues and holy places on Mount Zion.

Menorah flask, Jerusalem, c. AD 600. Such flasks were used as funerary offerings and to hold holy oil that came from synagogues and holy places on Mount Zion.

Somewhere along the way in my days as a pastor, I began to carry a small vial of anointing oil in my pocket. I never made a big deal out of it. Honestly, I carried that oil at least as much for my benefit as for my parishioners. It was a constant, tangible reminder of my calling and my obligation to help bring God’s resources to bear in meeting human needs.

Admittedly, not many Baptists express an interest in their pastor anointing them with oil in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and praying for God to touch them at their point of need and bring them healing of spirit, soul, and body. But sometimes, if it seemed appropriate, I would offer. And sometimes, they would take me up on it.

Can I report any miraculous healings out of this practice? No, not in the physical sense—although most everyone I prayed for did eventually recover through the skills and intelligence that God gave their physicians. But I can report that, in general, people appreciate being prayed for, cared for, remembered, and reminded of the love of God.

I expect that’s a large part of what James is talking about in chapter 5 as he describes what we might call a “service of healing” for those who are sick. On the basis of this text, liturgical churches have long practiced anointing with oil as an act of compassion not only for those near death but for all in need of God’s healing touch. Note also that James casts the entire passage in the context of a loving, supportive community that sings with each other in good times and prays for one another in bad times.

Being connected to a church like that brings its own kind of healing.


• How are the sick prayed for in your church? What other ways of praying for the sick could your church embrace?
• What lessons does this passage teach us about healing, sin and forgiveness, and the power of prayer?
• How might Christians best apply these teachings in the life of the church?
• What about people who pray fervently and yet do not experience healing in this life?

Reference Shelf

Disease and Healing

Physical disease has plagued human existence from the dawn of history. Along with the phenomena of disease and suffering have been the corresponding attempts to relieve or to ease the maladies. Since the Bible presents an inclusive view of human life, it is not surprising to find frequent mention of physical disorder and the desire on the part of the afflicted for its alleviation. Both the OT and NT exhibit a sensitivity for those who are suffering. A few allusions are made to curative treatments commonly found in ancient societies. However, healing or the restoration of health is often depicted as a manifestation of God’s compassion and power. Health is a gift from God; the Hebrew shalom (peace, wholeness) can also mean “health.” …

In the NT, diseases are most often described in relation to the healing ministry of Jesus and the apostles. Many kinds of maladies were encountered and cured, such as blindness (Mark 8:22-26; 10:46-52), leprosy (Luke 17: 11 – 19), lameness (Acts 3:6-10; 14:8-10) and paralysis (Matt 9:2-7; Mark 2:3-12; Luke 5: 18-25). Compared with other NT writings, the Lukan materials exhibit a greater interest in the precise portrayal of illness. For example, Peter’s mother-in-law suffered from “a great fever” (Luke 4:38), and a leper is said to be “full of leprosy” (Luke 5:12). According to some scholars, this Lukan tendency results from the author’s profession as a physician. The penal understanding of sickness survived into NT times, but was significantly modified by the teaching of Jesus (John 9) whose first recorded sermon indicates that his earthy ministry was closely tied to the needs of the frail and feeble of body and spirit (Luke 4: 18-27).

W. H. Bellinger Jr, “Disease and Healing,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 216–17.

Acts of Integration

In James 5:13-16, we have a series of three acts that promote full integration into James’s beloved community—prayer, singing, and sending for representative of the church to minister to the sick. Such actions bind sisters and brothers into one family, sharing the burdens of the suffering, the joy of the cheerful, the responsibility of care for the sick, and also the responsibility of mutual accountability.

The sufferer admonished to pray is clearly a community member (“Are any among you suffering?” 5:13). By suffering (kakopatheo), the member shares the fate of the community’s exemplars, “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” and endured suffering (kakopathia, 5:10). Through prayer, the sufferers among the community have recourse to the one God of the community and of its heroes. Possibly, James has public prayer in mind.

The call for the cheerful one to sing a psalm of praise (5:13) is another integrating act. Psallo is common in the Psalms (LXX), where the call to sing is often an invitation to corporate worship. Whatever the cause for cheer, the sharing of song in a setting of worship, of Christian service, or of personal distress puts the singer into relationship with God, “the audience of One,” and integrates the cheerful singer into the beloved community. In times of threat, a shared song can be a witness to solidarity and a messenger of hope—consider the songs of the civil rights struggle: “We Shall Overcome”; “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”; and “If I Had a Hammer.” The optimism of these songs of common struggle is rooted not in any gaiety of present circumstances (cf. the call to rejoice in 1:2-4) but rather in the assurance that even here God is at work for good.

James 5:14-15 offers reassurance to any who are sick among the beloved community: in time of grave illness, calling on the elders of the church is not merely allowed but commanded. Sickness can be a threat to the community, just as unconfessed sin can (5:16); both can isolate affected individuals. Here, the bed-bound member is not a burden but one “prayed over” by the church elders, who represent the community; the infirm one is not an untouchable but one anointed with healing oil. Here, the afflicted one is not a voiceless sufferer but one in communication with representatives from the church who stand ready to listen and, if sins are confessed, to speak the good news of God’s pardon. “The prayer of faith” (5:15) is that of confidence that God will act through Jesus to bring about healing. Such faith is consistent with James’s portrayal of God who cares for those who suffer and lifts them up from what enslaves them.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 409–11.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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