James 5:13-16 (NASB) “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins,they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
Introduction: As a pastor I often experience the direct impact illness and suffering has in the lives of church members, my own family and in my own life. The subject of God’s healing power and will to heal has been an issue that I have found to be both encouraging and mysterious. Oftentimes when reading anything on the subject, one will encounter one of two extremes: either God wills all Christians to be healed or He is in a general sense no longer performing miraculous acts of healing in the church. To offset these two extreme positions, this blogger has found James 5:13-16 to be very helpful in shedding light on this very personal, emotionally charged and what can be spiritually liberating subject.
In our last post we began talking about the necessity of prayer and it’s relationship to physical healing in the scriptures. Today we continue our study of James 5:13-16 by noting the nature of the ailments being described by James. Over the years I have talked to pastors and congragants alike who differ on what they think is being addressed here by James. Some tend to think he is only dealing with spiritual sicknesses or sins and thus there is no provision of healing whatsoever in the passage. Others tend to believe that only major illnesses are being addressed by James, and thus only when a person is extremely sick should they then call for the elders of the church. As always, we must let the scriptures guide us, and so a word study of the terms for “sickness” in James 5:14 will be undertaken. As the heading below will communicate, James is addressing those in the church who are dealing with physical ailments in James 5:14. With regards to what other maladies James may be dealing with (spiritual or mental or a combination of spiritual, mental or physical), future posts and exegesis of James 5:15-16 will need to await another day. For those who may want to skip the detailed wordstudies below, a life practical set of conclusions is offered at the end of today’s post. May the Lord use these studies to illuminate His people to the truths of His word.
Ministry to those in the church who are physically sick – James 5:14
Commentary: James 5:14“ἀσθενεῖ τις ἐν ὑμῖν…..”. “Is anyone sick among you…..”.The word that must be immediately understood in this text is the noun ἀσθενεῖ (translated “sick”). The question before the interpreter is: “what manner of weakness or infirmity is being referred to here by James”? The standard Greek Lexicon (dictionary) by Liddle, Scott and Jones, “Greek English Lexicon” (called “LSJ” for short) lists five meanings found throughout all classical Greek and the Koine Greek literature (of which the New Testament is part). I will list all the meanings and references given by LSJ and then we will zero in on what is most likely the definition of ἀσθενεῖ in James 5:14 by utilizing a second Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Ardnt and Gingrich (also called BAG).
a. in body, feeble, sickly, τοὺς ἀσθενέας τῆς στρατιῆς 4.135, cf. VM12; ἀσθενεῖ χρωτὶ βαίνων P.1.55, etc.; ὁ παντάπασιν ἀ. τῷ σώματι 21.165; ἀ. περὶ τὸν ὀφθαλμόν Nigr.4 ; τοὺς ἀσθενεστάτους ἐς τὰς ταλαιπωρίας least able to bear hardship, 4.134; ἀσθενέστερος πόνον ἐνεγκεῖν too weak to . . ,23.54. Adv. ἀσθενῶς, ἴσχειν Lg.659e, cf. OGI751.8 (Amblada, ii B.C.).
b. in mind, and the like , τὸ ἀ. τῆς γνώμης the weakness, 2.61 .
c. in power, weak, feeble, ἀ. δύναμις 7.9.αʹ, cf. 1.58; τέχνη δ’ ἀνάγκησ-εστέρα μακρῷ Pr.514; πόλιν ἑνὸς -εστέραν OC 1033; εἰς ὠφέλειαν ἀ.Ep.2.15.
d. in property, weak, poor, οἱ χρήμασιν ἀσθενέστεροι 2.88: abs., ὅ τ’ ἀ. ὁ πλούσιός τε Supp. 433; οἱ ἀσθενέστεροι the weaker sort, i.e. the poor,Cyr.8.1.30, cf. 1.2.
e. feeling or status of insignificance, οὐκ ἀσθενέστατος σοφιστὴς Ἑλλήνων 4.95; paltry, ἀ. σόφισμα Pr.1011; of streams, petty, small, 2.25; of fluids, of small specific gravity, 3.23; ἐς ἀσθενὲς ἔρχεται comes to nothing, 1.120. Adv.-νῶς feebly, without energy, R.528b ; on slight evidence, ἀπαγγέλλεσθαι Praef.:Comp. ἀσθενεστέρως, ἐπιθυμεῖν Phdr.255e; -έστερον Chrm.172b; -έστερα 1.141.
So according to LSJ, the five most common meanings for ἀσθενεῖ refers to feebleness of body, mental ailments, physical weakness, weakness in financial holdings and insignificance. In another standard Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Ardnt and Gingrich, pg 115 (abbraviated as BAG), we see the following range of meanings in the verb ασθενεω:
1. lit-a. a body of weakness be sick. Mt 25:39; Lk 7:10; Jn 4:46; 11:1,2,3,6; Phil 2:26; 2 Ti 4:20; James 5:14
b. weakness of any kind. 2 Cor 12:10; 13:3
2. fig.-religious or moral weakness. Romans 14:2; 1 Cor 8:11
3. be weak economical, be weak in need. Acts 20:35
Let the reader note that whenever performing any word study, it is important to list all of the possible meanings first, followed by eliminating the options that do not fit the context or that are not listed as cross references in the lexicon. BAG has the strength of listing every single cross reference in the New Testament where the given word is found. As the reader will note, the italicized bold printed “James 5:14” is shown in the meaning given by BAG: “a body of weakness, be sick”. This corresponds with the LSJ primary rendering “in body, feebly, sickly”. Hence James is addressing those Christians in the church that have physical ailments that could range from the mild to the most severe.
Life practical conclusions:
Why labor this point? Some people tend to limit James’ instructions to those who are experience non-physical ailments. However the context and lexical studies clearly indicate that physical illness is the primary target of James’ instructions. As the Holy Spirit supervised the writing of this Epistle by James, He clearly expressed God’s concern and intention for His church to minister to those who are physically ill. Whenever we see institutions such as hospitals, mankind by common grace and general revelation is intuitively recognizing indirectly God’s ability and desire to address physical sickness. Even if they don’t knowlingly acknowledge such truths, mankind as God’s image bearers are not satisfied in letting diseases run their courses unabated.
When considering how Christians and the church typically approach the topic of physically healing, we who have God’s special revelation of His Word and fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ ought to recognize that God desires to see those in the church ministered to – whether well or ill. This author believes that passages such as James 5:13-16 were given not only for our instruction but application. The responsibility we have to explain the whole counsel of God, including healing, is both a very pastoral, personal and precise need in the church today. In our next post, we will consider the commands given to both the sick congregant and the church leadership.