Summary: This sermon teaches us how someone who is sick is to seek prayer for healing.
Shortly before I left South Africa to come and study in the United States I attended a “healing service.” It was held in a very large tent in winter. There were perhaps 1,000 people in attendance. My friend and I sat behind a little 10-year old girl who had the worst case of eczema I have ever seen. Before the service she kept saying to her mother, in Afrikaans, “Miskien vanaand, Mammie! Miskien vanaand!” which means, “Maybe tonight, Mommy! Maybe tonight!” Apparently, she had been to several of these healing services and still had not been healed. The service went on for several hours but as far as I know that little girl did not get healed. Nor did any of the other people who were there that night.
I found out that a few years later a medical doctor challenged that “healer” to show proof of his being able to heal people. The “healer” agreed, with the only condition being that he was only able to heal if the Holy Spirit showed up. Apparently, it was nationally televised event, with tremendous public interest. However, after 5 hours the Holy Spirit had not yet showed up, and so no healings took place!
So, what are we to think about this? Or, better, does the Scripture give us a procedure about praying for someone who is sick? Yes, it most certainly does. The following passage in James gives us biblical guidelines about how to pray for someone who is sick. Let us read James 5:14-15:
14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15)
In James 5:13-16, James, the brother of our Lord, teaches us how Christians ought to respond in times of trouble, happiness, sickness, and sin. Our focus will be on verses 14-15, which teaches us how to respond when facing sickness.
Let me remind you again of what is written. James asks, “Is anyone among you sick?” He answers: “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:14-15).
Now, what are we to make of these verses? This instruction has been variously interpreted throughout the history of the Church.
Let’s use the following outline:
1. The False Interpretations of James 5:14-15
2. The Right Interpretation of James 5:14-15
I. The False Interpretations of James 5:14-15
Let me begin by clearing the ground of false interpretations.
A. Interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church uses this passage to establish their sacrament of “The Anointing of the Sick,” also known as “Extreme Unction.”
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “This sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the apostle and brother of our Lord.”
This anointing, in practice today, is usually given to people in imminent danger of death in order to prepare them for eternity. But this is not what James is describing.
James does not tell us what kind of illness is involved here, whether life-threatening or not. His words are completely general. In any sickness, the individual is at liberty to call for the elders.
Furthermore, James does not tell us that the person’s death is imminent; in fact, quite the reverse. The sick person, rather than die, is, if anything, expected to recover.
B. Interpretation of John Calvin and Other Reformers
Another false interpretation is given by none other than the great John Calvin and some other Reformed commentators (such as Thomas Manton ).
They contend that the ministry of healing was exercised either by the apostles or confined to apostolic times, but which has now ceased to be available to the Church.
However, James clearly says that the sick person is to call the elders of the church and not the apostles (who exercised the miraculous gift of healing). James associates this ministry to the sick, not with the unique and irreplaceable apostles, nor with the long-passed apostolic age, but with the continuing leadership in the local church, namely, the elders.
C. Interpretation of Charismatics and Pentecostals
A third false interpretation is given by the charismatics and Pentecostals who find support here for their “miracle healing services.”