A couple of years ago when I was preaching through the letter of James, a church member asked if we were going to be looking at “the dodgy bit at the end,” by which they meant these final verses of chapter 5:
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 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. 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. (James 5.13–16″>James 5:13–16)
3 Things This Passage Can’t Mean
As with any “difficult” text, it helps to rule out what it can’t mean.
1. James isn’t describing the Roman Catholic practice of extreme unction, or last rites.
A careful look shows this can’t be what James has in mind. First, the confession James calls for is “to each other,” not to a particular leader or priestly figure (v. 16). Second, and more importantly, the passage gives the expectation that the sick individual will not die but rather recover (v. 15).
2. James isn’t talking about healing rallies or particular people having healing ministries.
For starters, the ministry James describes seems to take place in the sick person’s home—not at a rally or church meeting. Further, the initiative to receive ministry comes from the person suffering. They call for people to pray for them. And it’s run-of-the-mill elders who are called for, not some specially gifted “healer.” Whatever James is describing, he’s certainly not talking about a healing service. Further, James isn’t teaching that believing prayer will always lead to healing, since that doesn’t fit with the wider teaching of the Bible (for example, see 1 Tim. 5:23).
3. James isn’t describing only spiritual restoration.
Some have argued for an understanding of James 5 that does away with any suggestion of miraculous healing. The word James uses for “illness,” they argue, could mean “weakness,” and being “made well” could mean one is “strengthened.” Hence they will eventually be raised up (James 5:15)—that is, resurrected at the end of time. This reading is certainly possible, but I think it’s unlikely James has this in mind. While we want to avoid an unbiblical overemphasis on miraculous healing, it’s stretching the text to suggest there’s no mention of it here.
We can and should rule out these interpretations. This is helpful; for, as Sherlock Holmes often said to Watson, eliminate the impossible and what remains, however unlikely, must be the truth!