February 8, 2016
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 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. 16 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.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
We so often hear the phrase bandied about, “I believe in the power of prayer.” It’s as though a practice or an activity holds power in and of itself. Prayer, in and of itself, holds no power. God holds the power. We might be wiser to say, “I believe in the power of God.” So where does that leave prayer? Is it our prayers that somehow access and appropriate the power of God? I don’t think that’s it either.
Another mistaken approach often made with prayer is the way prayer is said to be contingent on the faith of the person being prayed for. In other words, people will assert that a person is not healed because they did not have enough faith. I think today’s text reverses that understanding. What if it’s not so much the faith of the one being prayed for that determines the outcome but the faith of the one doing the praying? And what if by “faith” we don’t necessarily mean the level of sincere belief held by the person praying at the time of the prayer? What if the effectiveness of prayer were somehow related to the nature of the character of the person praying? I think this is what James is saying to us here.
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.
Why would James have us call on the “elders” of the church? We should note that our best understanding of James in its original context shows us that James is not referring to “elders” in the sense of persons holding a particular office, role or responsibility in the church. By “elders” James is referring to people in the community who bore a distinctive kind of godly character—people who possessed a quality of holiness that was powerful to witness yet hidden from themselves. These were the ones you wanted to invoke the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit over you when you were sick. Understand, though, they were not sought out because they had a special gifting or secret knowledge. These “elders” were sought out because they were full of God. These “elders” were the kind of people in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell; people in whom the Holy Spirit had unfettered access, and people through whom the love of Jesus Christ could flow in creative power to heal and restore and bring life. In all probability, James is not talking about elders who were ordained by the bishop. In today’s parlance, they would likely more often than not fit into the unhelpful designation of “lay people.”
While such ordained “Elders” could certainly qualify for this responsibility, they cannot hold exclusive rights to it. In my understanding, while the “elders” of a community may include the ordained, they can never be limited to the ordained. Elders are men and women whose lives exude the holiness of Jesus because all of their confidence is in Him and not in themselves. The can’t be spotted by their credentials but by the deep consecration of their lives to God and others. I think it’s why James says, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Permit me a short tangential rabbit trail. In the ways of God, it’s never the office, role or position that legitimates the person or their authority or power. It’s the other way around. It’s the authentic, godly character of the person who legitimates the authority of the position. For instance, ordination does not somehow magically confer authority on the one ordained. It can create positional power, privilege and responsibility, but true authority is the gift of the Holy Spirit and is mostly conferred on the humble. When a person is ordained the Bishop instructs the ordinand to “take authority.” And as best as I can understand it, they are being instructed not to somehow grasp or possess power as much as they are being exhorted to become a particular kind of person—the kind of person the Holy Spirit can trust with the authority of Jesus.
To put the exclamation on his point about the kind of people whose prayers God answers, James calls a final witness: the prophet Elijah.
Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
1. How do you react to the nuance between the power of prayer and the power of God and the powerful and effective prayers of a righteous person? Flesh that out in your own words.
2. Do you know any “elders” in the sense in which James speaks of “elders?” Describe them? What do they have in common?
3. Do you aspire, in humility of course, to become the kind of person who James would refer to as an “elder?” Why? Why not?
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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. firstname.lastname@example.org.