|Dr. Couch, should the elders be called in at all times to pray for the sick, as mentioned in James 5:13-16?|
ANSWER: Prayer for the sick can be offered by anyone and at all times. There is no restriction on praying. But this passage is very Jewish and has specifically a Jewish audience in mind. Nevertheless, it is a valid passage, though it is not required in order for one to get well. There are several things to note in the passage: First, the one who is sick calls for the elders. The anointing with oil is ceremonial. The oil itself does nothing. It is simply signifying that the sick person is to be especially attended to in his illness. The work "sick" is the Greek word "asthenia" which also carries the idea of "weakness." Any weakness can be presented to the Lord, not just sickness.
It is the prayer of faith (v. 15) that restores this one. The "ceremony," if you will, of the elders coming and anointing, is not what raises up this person. It is possible that this entire section is about more than simply one being ill. James adds, "If he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" (v. 15b). So the gathering of the elders could be specifically be about sin that is also in the life of the one calling for such help.
James then presents a larger principle in verse 16, and that is confession of sins that could be the cause of the failing of the believer. And, James makes prayer interactive. We are to be praying for one another, so that we may be healed (v. 16b). Then the apostle sets forth another principle, and that is, "The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" (v. 16c). That the praying here is especially Jewish is found in James' illustration of the intercession of Elijah in verses 17-18. He "prayed earnestly" and God honored his requests.
Verse 19 seems to be capping off James' argument, even about prayer. He writes" "If any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins." This is not about the loss of salvation for the believer but it is about a temporal judgment that may fall upon one who has been flirting with sin. The book of James is strong medicine, coming from the Jewish respect for the Law. There is no monkey business in this book. James hits many issues head-on throughout the chapters.
Thanks for asking.
Dr. Mal Couch (Feb., 10)