We’re coming to the end of James’s letter and to the final instructions he has for us before he closes his letter. And I suppose, he’s doing what we used to do whenever we wrote letters. Some of you may still put pen to paper and write letters. Most of us don’t and we instead rely on email and text messages and twitter. Some of us — perhaps the younger people — have never written a letter apart from the thank-you letters your parents make you write after Christmas. But if you have ever written a letter to someone, you perhaps did what James does here. After covering several topics at length in the main body of the letter, he fills the last section of the letter with some final, brief thoughts. You find the same thing in Paul’s letters, though Paul tended to end his letters by mentioning the names of people he knew. Send my greetings to so and so, he would say.
Tell so and so to remember this. Tell so and so not to do that. You’ll all remember to do this, won’t you?
Paul finishes his letters with these final, brief thoughts. And James is doing the same. But his final thoughts can be divided into three. First of all, he refers to swearing or the making of oaths. That’s in verse 12. Secondly, he talks about prayer. That’s in verses 13 to 18. And thirdly, he talks about bringing back a wandering believer. And that’s in verses 19 and 20. And we’ll look at those two of those three points today.
Look with me please at verse 12 where James writes:
Above all, my brothers, do not swear — not by heaven of by earth or by anything else. Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’, no, or you will be condemned.
James is not talking here about what we mean usually by swearing. When we talk about swearing, we’re usually talking about using bad language or using the Lord’s name in vain. And, of course, we’re not to swear in that way. Christians should never, ever use the Lord’s name in vain.
But James isn’t writing about that. He’s talking about the kind of swearing or oath-taking people use to try to reinforce the truth of what they’re saying. So, someone might say:
I swear on my mother’s life that I’m telling the truth.
Or, when I was a child, children used to say:
Cross my heart and hope to die.
That’s the kind of swearing he’s talking about. And it seemed to be a common thing in biblical times, because the Lord Jesus spoke against it in Matthew 5 and in Matthew 23.
Now, there are occasions when it’s appropriate to take a solemn oath or vow. In fact, our church’s Confession has a whole chapter on the subject of lawful oaths and vows. In a vow, we make a solemn promise to God to do something. And in an oath, we call on God to witness what we promise to others. So, for example, when a couple are married, they’re calling on God to witness the promises they make to one another. In courts of law, people who give their testimony are asked to swear to tell the truth. And it’s right and appropriate that on such solemn occasions, we’re asked to make a solemn promise. But in everyday life, there shouldn’t be any need for such oaths and such swearing. Why not? Because we’re meant to be honest and faithful and true and reliable, so that if we say ‘yes’ to something, everyone will know that we mean ‘yes’ and will stick to it. And if we say ‘no’ to something, everyone will know that we mean ‘no’ and will stick to it. That’s the kind of person we want to be — isn’t it? — and that’s the kind of thing we want to be known for. We want people to say about us:
You know those Christians: You can always rely on them to tell the truth and to keep their word.
That’s what we’re to be like. So, there’s no need for us, in everyday life and in everyday conversation, to swear this and to swear that and to call on God as my witness. There’s no need, because our ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ means ‘no’; and when we make a promise, we’ll keep it. In other words, we’re to be like Father in Heaven, who is always faithful to all his promises to us. And we’re to be like Christ our Saviour who always told the truth. And he’s the one who puts his Spirit in his people, and his Spirit works in us to help us to resist the temptation to lie and to deceive and to break our promises. And he enables us to become more and more like our Father in heaven and our Saviour Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is the one who is able to help us to put a guard over our mouth so that what we say is true and good and pleasing to our Father in heaven.
That’s the first of James’s final instructions to us. The second is to do with prayer. And it’s clear that the next verses are about prayer because James mentions prayer in every verse from verse 13 to verse 18. So, verse 13: if you’re in trouble, then pray. Verse 14: if you’re sick, call the elders to pray over you. Verse 15: the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Verse 16: pray for each other. Verse 17: Elijah prayed that it would not rain. Verse 18: Again Elijah prayed and the heavens gave rain. James is clearly talking about prayer.
But he mentions other things in connection with the subject of prayer. And so, in verse 13, he addresses two common problems. Problem 1 is this: When we’re in trouble, we forget to pray. Problem 2 is this: When everything is going well, we forget to thank God. And so, James says to us:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.
If anyone is in trouble. James doesn’t specify what kind of trouble he means, which means he means any kind of trouble we may face. So, there’s illness. Everyone of us will face illness at some point in our life and perhaps, for some of us, serious illness. There’s poverty. And James has mentioned poverty several times in his letter and how his readers were being oppressed by wicked landowners. Well, some of us may face poverty and we’re worried about how to pay our bills and how to make ends meet. We lose our job and life seems so uncertain now. So, there’s illness and there’s poverty. Or there’s trouble at home: in our marriage or with our children or with elderly relatives. And we don’t know what to do to put things right. Then there’s trouble at work, because you can’t cope with the amount of work, or the boss is difficult or your colleagues are hard to get on with. The same goes for school and college and you want to run away, because it’s so hard. Or there’s trouble with difficult neighbours. Or there’s trouble because we’re believers and the world is against us. And so, I could go on. We’re going through some trouble. What can we do about it? Where can we turn for help? Well, says James, we can pray about it. We can seek the Lord’s help. We can cast our cares upon him, knowing that he cares for us.
But, what about when things are going well. You see, when we’re in trouble, very often our troubles will drive us to the Lord in prayer. But when things are going well, it’s easy to forget him. Wasn’t that what the Lord warned the Israelites about when they were about to enter the Promised Land, that land flowing with milk and honey, which would seem like Paradise to them? This is what the Lord said to them in Deuteronomy 8:
Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God….
When everything is going well for you, be careful lest you forget the Lord. It can happen so easily. And so, we need to remind ourselves again and again that every good thing we enjoy here on earth, every blessing we encounter, has come to us from our Father in heaven. And just as we teach our children to say thank you whenever they receive a gift, so we need to remember to give thanks to God for his kindness to us and to praise him.
Here we have two fundamental characteristics of the life of the believer. Every believer ought to do these two things: pray and praise. Pray to God for the things we need. Praise to God for his good gifts. Pray to God for material blessings and spiritual blessings; for what we need for this life and for what we need in the life to come. And praise to God, because all good gifts around us have come from heaven above. Prayer and praise.
The Elders and Prayer
But then in verse 14, James mentions one particular kind of trouble. He asks:
Is any one of you sick?
And then he goes on to say what the sick person should do. He says:
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
Let’s pay attention to a few things here. Firstly, I don’t think James means that we’re to call the elders every time we’re sick. You know, we’re not to call the elders if we have a cold or something minor like that. You see, the commentators think that James is talking about a serious illness here. And the reason they think he’s talking about a serious illness here is because the sick person needs to call the elders to come to him. He’s not well enough to go to the elders. And when they come, the elders are to pray over him, which implies that he’s lying down, in bed. We’re talking here about serious illness.
Secondly, James is not forbidding the believer from calling the doctor too. He’s not saying we should ask for prayer only, and not for medical help. I’ve said before that one of the ways, the Lord answers our prayer for healing is by providing us with doctors and nurses and consultants who have the knowledge and expertise to help us when we’re ill. How does God feed us? He sends the farmer out into the field to grow his crops and mind his cattle. And how does God heal us? By sending the doctor and nurse to treat us.
Thirdly, the sick person is to call the elders. Now, if you read books on church leadership today, or if you talk to people in the wider church about church leadership, you’d get the impression that being a leader in the church is all strategic thinking and coming up with strategies for ministry and outreach. Being a leader in the church, we’re told, is all about devising the next big idea to build the church. But in the Bible, the role of the elder is mainly a pastoral role. It’s about caring for the Lord’s people and watching over their spiritual wellbeing the way a shepherd watches over the physical wellbeing of his sheep. And it’s a spiritual role, involving spiritual work like prayer. And so, James here tells us how the sick person is to call for the elders to come and to help when he’s ill or she’s ill. It’s about coming to this person’s bedside and spending time with him or her in prayer.
Thirdly, notice as well that James doesn’t say his readers should call for someone with the gift for healing. He says we’re to call for the elders, the ordinary elders. Now, from time to time, we hear about faith healers. Or people are advised to go to a particular person for prayer who might have nothing to do with our local church. But James instructs us here to ask the elders to pray for us. They’re just ordinary men who have been called to serve the Lord in an ordinary way in the local church. They’ve not particularly gifted in any special way. But they’re the ones we’re to call, because though they are ordinary, they’re the ones God has appointed to look after his church.
And fifthly, James mentions that the elders should anoint the sick person with oil. He means anointing the person with olive oil. We’re not too sure what the purpose of this is. Some see it as having a medicinal purpose. In Bible times, olive oil was used in medicine. And so, the Good Samaritan used oil to wash the wounds of the man he helped in the Lord’s parable. Then others suggest that having oil poured on you is a pleasant experience which would help to relieve the sick person’s suffering. So, perhaps there’s a medicinal or practical purpose in pouring oil on a sick person.
However, others see the practice of pouring oil on a sick person as a way to symbolise that we’re setting this person apart and dedicating them for special prayer and attention. In the Old Testament, Samuel poured oil on David to show that David had been set apart to become king of his people. We pour oil on a sick person to show that this person has been set apart for special prayer. And they are other views as well, but the idea of setting the person apart for special prayer and attention is probably the best explanation. So, the elders are called to this sick person’s bedside. They pray over him or her and anoint the person with oil. That’s what we should do, says James. And from time to time, I’ve done this for people who have asked for it.
And, of course, when we pray and anoint someone, we’re doing it in the name of the Lord Jesus. Do you see that at the end of verse 14? When we come before our Father in heaven, and ask him for anything, we come in the name of the Lord Jesus, because he’s the one who opens up the way for us into God’s presence. We knock on the door of heaven and say:
In the name of Colin Gamble, open up!
And the door stays closed, because who is Colin Gamble? Only a sinner. And so, we knock on the door of heaven and say:
In the name of Jesus Christ, open up!
And immediately, immediately, the door is flung open and we’re invited in because we’ve come to God the Father in the name of his Son. We’re to use his name when we pray because he’s the one who — by his death on the cross — has unlocked the gates of heaven so that sinners like us can come before God with our requests. And since we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, then we can be confident that he will hear and answer us.
What happens when the elders pray over someone? Look at what James says in verse 15:
And the prayer offering in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.
This is a tricky verse. And it’s tricky because we know of times when we have prayed for healing, and the sick person has not got better. So, what are we to make of what James say here?
Some commentators suggest that the prayer of faith is a particular kind of prayer. God moves in the hearts of the elders when they’re praying to give them a special assurance that what they’re asking for will be given. Or the prayer of faith is based on one of God’s promises in the Bible. You know, God has promised to do this for us. And we’re now trusting in God to keep his promise and to do what we now ask.
So, some commentators suggest that the prayer of faith is a particular kind of prayer. Others suggest that when James says the sick person will be raised up, he’s referring to the resurrection. So, the person is so seriously sick that he or she is about to die. And the elders have been called in to pray over this dying saint. And when they pray for him or for her, they’re praying for the Lord to do as he has promised and to raise this dying saint at the resurrection so that they will live with the Lord for ever in body and soul. In that case, when James says in verse 15 that the sick person will be made well, he means the sick person will be saved. In other words, he’ll experience everlasting salvation. And, in fact, the words ‘will be made well’ can also be translated ‘will be saved’. So, that’s another possible interpretation: James is not talking about healing in this life, but about the resurrection when Christ returns.
Another view — and this is the view I prefer — is that James simply means that the prayer offered in faith is the prayer of a believer; it’s the prayer of someone who is wholeheartedly committed to the Lord. And when a believer prays to the Lord to make the sick person well, he understands that the Lord always knows what’s best in every situation, and that the important thing is not what I want, but what God wants. The important thing is not my will, or your will, but the Lord’s will. And so, we pray:
If it’s your will, Heavenly Father, please make this person well.
Think of the Apostle Paul who prayed three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed. We don’t know what the thorn in his flesh was, but it was painful for him. And he asked the Lord to take it away. But instead of taking the thorn away, the Lord gave him the grace he needed to cope with the thorn. Paul prayed for one thing; but the Lord’s will for him was different. And here, the elders pray for this sick person. And they believe that if it’s the Lord’s will, the Lord will bless the efforts of the doctors and all the medical staff who are treating him, so that the sick person will recover. But sometimes, sometimes, the Lord has something else, something better, in store for his people. Do you remember Paul’s words at the end of Ephesians 3 where he writes that God is able to do more than we ask or even imagine. Sometimes we can’t even imagine what God has in store for his people. So, when we pray, we always pray for God’s will to be done.
And then, to encourage us to pray, James first of all says, at the end of verse 16, that the prayer of a righteous man — in other words, the prayer of a believer — is powerful and effective. Not because we’re powerful and effective; and not because prayer itself is powerful and effective; but because the one we pray to is powerful and effective. And then, in verses 17 and 18, James gives us the example of Elijah. Yes, he was a mighty prophet. But really, he was a only man like us. And when this man prayed, the Lord heard him and answered him and did marvellous things for him.
Not only should our elders be encouraged to pray for the sick and for all of God’s people, but these verses encourage all of us to pray. When we pray, we’re praying to one who is powerful and effective and who is able to help us. And he’s the one who hears and answers the prayers of his people.
What a privilege for us. Here we are weak, and frail, and often foolish. Faced with all kinds of troubles in this life, including sickness and death. But we’re able to come, and our elders are able to come on our behalf, to the great God who made all things and who can do all things, for whom nothing is impossible, and who will always use his power and might with wisdom to carry out his perfect will. Why would we ever be afraid with God to help us?
Our time is up. And I haven’t been able to say anything yet about the forgiveness of sins, which Paul mentions in verses 15 and 16. And I haven’t been able to mention the third of his final instructions. So, we’ll come back to that next time. But look at the promise in verse 15:
If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
God is able to forgive us for our sins because of Jesus Christ. And as we turn now to the Lord’s Table and take the bread which speaks to us of his body broken for us, and as we take the cup which speaks to us of his blood shed for us, let’s remember and give thanks that if we have sinned — and we all sin — nevertheless God will forgive us for the sake of Christ our Lord who loved us and who gave up his life for us.