In concluding his letter, James speaks on prayer in the only passage in his letter that doesn’t have a direct parallel in the Sermon on the Mount. Actually, this is one of the strongest statements concerning the power of prayer in the entire New Testament, and if you are like me, it’s also one of the most challenging. Oh yes, it’s all well and good to read about the power of prayer, but we live in a “sophisticated” time of knowledge and science, and we are likely to find some of James’ comments quaint and folksy, but hardly 21st century! Yet, there it is, what are we going to do with it?
Verses 13-15 deal with trouble, happiness and sickness, and with trouble and sickness we are urged to pray, while in happiness we are told to praise. Verse 15 is challenging for us: “And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” How are we to understand this? If you have been with me for a long time, surely you have an idea of what is going here… don’t you? Each of the books we have studied in the past tells us clearly to change our focus away from our earthly understanding and put it onto a heavenly understanding of things. Sickness is a physical affliction, and while that can be a very rough thing to deal with (persevere is a word that comes to mind) it is not the end game.
So often we have looked at things like this, and when the outcome, at least in physical terms, wasn’t the one we expected or hoped for, we let someone convince us that we didn’t have enough faith. Did it ever occur to anyone that our prayer wasn’t within God’s will for the person? I know this can be hard, yes I’ve been there too, but maybe God had a better plan for the sick person than leaving them here in this vale of tears.
Do we really believe that what we believe is really real?
If so, prayer isn’t about getting what we want from God, it’s about getting what God wants for others. Yes, that is a thought worth reflecting upon…
Notice that verse 16 begins with “therefore”
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
In verse 15, we saw that prayer would make the sick person “well”. The word translated “well” is also the word that is used for salvation. Even more interesting, the verse ends by saying their sins will be forgiven: “Therefore…” verse 16. This should be a familiar pattern for setting context by now, what is James actually teaching? It would appear that the higher priority is on being healed from our sin, and oh yes, if the Lord wills it, from sickness too.
Verses 17 and 18 give us the example of Elijah as a great man of prayer, and then we come to 19-20:
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
Have you ever wandered off the path, maybe not even realizing it, and then you found yourself rather far afield of where you should have been in your faith? Well, I have! Whoever helps someone back from one of these wandering periods saves them from death and covers a multitude of sins. I hope you will take special note of two things:
1. This is the last verse in this passage, summing up its contents. With this in mind, when James is talking about healing sick persons through prayer, what is he really getting at?
2. This is also the ending of the letter, summing up its contents: What is the letter, and all of this moral instruction here for?
To complete our tour of James, we’ll wrap this up in the next two posts tomorrow with some thoughts on the book’s message and application for us today, see you there!