James’ ending to this epistle is not abrupt though it might appear that way compared to the endings by Paul. It concludes his teaching on faith that results in action. Throughout this letter, James admonished the Jerusalem Christians and later readers to put their faith into action by praying without doubting and doing practical works such as bridling their bodies by not showing favoritism, slandering, and judging, and by loving their neighbors by helping the poor and speaking with love. Added to these, James taught the Holy Spirit resides in every believer to help him or her live life as a child of God – loving God with all his or her heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving his or her neighbors as this or herself. He recognized the Jerusalem Christians experienced trials and persecutions and admonished them to endure knowing they had eternal hope - eternal life Jesus Christ gave them.
This letter’s biggest teaching is that believers must live out their faith in works as evidence and testimony of their faith and salvation. As James said, faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Along with this, he taught faith should be lived out in community with other believers. Christians are not isolated and should support one another in prayer, practical help, and encouragement to walk in the ways of the Lord. The last two of these are the teachings by which James ended this epistle. Through his teaching on prayer in verses thirteen through twenty, James taught the Christian faith is personal and communal. Let us now look into these eight verses to understand what James taught.
Prayers of an Individual
James taught the Jerusalem Christians prayer should occur during hard and easy times – times of suffering and of cheer. He spoke to individuals in specific in verse thirteen as noted when he said, “anyone.” James taught each person to pray when he or she experienced hardships and troubles, and when afflicted. By using these words, he reminded the Jewish believers of Psalm 50:15 when the Lord said, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” [NASB] James taught the believers to pray during their suffering because he knew and wanted to remind the people God will hear and help them.
In this same verse, James reminded the believers they should pray to God even during joyful times when no suffering or hardship wearies them. When times are joyous, cheerful, and peaceful, Christians should praise God. Lifting praises to God is music to His ears. It results in our hearts soaring so that our spirits and minds sing of God, who He is, and what He has done. “Singing praises” to God requires more than our minds. It requires the spirit (the whole person). Paul spoke of this prayer and praising in 1 Corinthians 14:15 when he said, “I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also. I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.” [NASB] In reading verse thirteen, we learn James taught the Jerusalem Christians to pray no matter the situation – suffering or joy.
Prayers of the Ministers and Leaders
With verses 14-15, James taught the Jerusalem believers the ministers and leaders – the elders – were to pray with and over people in the church. The word “elders” comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which means a person of rank or holding an office in the church, those people in ministerial leadership in the church[i]. In these two verses, James spoke about the elders praying over the sick people in the church. He mentioned four things about praying over a sick member of the body of Christ for the prayer to be effective.
James told the elders of the church to anoint the sick person with olive oil. In Israel, people used olive oil for their lamps, for anointing their heads and bodies at feasts (religious and secular), for consecrating someone to the Lord, and for a healing aid for the sick. James taught the elders to use olive oil to consecrate and set aside the sick person for God. They would give the sick person into God’s hands. The readers and hearers of James’ epistle noted this with the next prepositional phrase of verse fourteen – “in the name of the Lord.” Pouring oil on a person does not heal that person, but anointing a person for God’s purpose and attention and in the power of Lord’s name requests God’s intervention for the health of the one anointed. Praying in the name of the Lord acknowledges and requests the Lord’s authority, excellences, and power for the person about whom the elders make the prayer. Mark 6:13 and 16:18 tell of the apostles anointing the sick people with oil in the name of the Lord and of the healing of those sick people. The most important point to understand is that the Lord is the one who heals the sick person, not the elder or the oil the elder poured. James made sure the people knew the praying and anointing required the Lord’s power for healing to occur.
Another aspect required for an elder to be an effective participant in the healing of a sick person is the elder’s faith. In verse 15, James said, “And the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick.” Notice to have an effective prayer, the pray-er needs a strong faith to affect the healing of the sick person. The elder must believe in the power and authority of God over everything including the health of people for God to answer his or her prayer. In James 1:6, James taught the Christians if they doubted when they asked God for anything they would be like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. The people who doubted did not have firm faith in God and because of that He would not answer them. In verse fifteen, James said prayer offered in faith would restore (rescue from danger, destruction, injury, and peril) the sick person – the one who is weary and ill. God will answer the prayers offered in faith of Him and His authority and power. James 1:21 says, God has the power to save souls. In James 4:12, he said, God can save and destroy. James 5:20 says, God can save a person’s soul from death. James taught faith can save a person in James 2:14. God has the power to save and heal. He has authority to act as He wills.
With these three elements – anointing the sick person with oil, doing it in the name of the Lord, and praying with faith in the power of Jesus to heal and restore, the Lord will raise the sick person up – cause the person to arise from the sick bed and be well. Besides healing, the Lord will forgive the sick person his or her sins, those things that led the Christian to wander away from God and His divine Law. With this final part of verse fifteen – forgiving the sins of the sick person, James appears to say the person’s illness was discipline or punishment from God for his or her sins against Him. With God’s healing of the person, He forgave the sins of the sick person. Yet if James meant that, the forgiveness of sins would have to precede the healing of the person. Because of that reasoning, a few theologians believe James meant, by including the forgiveness of sins, the prayers of faith by a Christian in the name of the Lord are effective in healing and forgiveness of sins by the Lord. Whether you believe the illness occurred because of God’s punishment for sin or not, James taught the pray-er who prays in faith without doubting is the one whom God will answer for healing and forgiveness of sin.
Prayers of Members of the Body of Christ
James began verse sixteen with the word “therefore.” By starting this section in this way, he showed this verse is a continuation of his thoughts from verse fifteen. James said in this verse, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” He meant since the prayers of faith can bring God’s power to forgive sin, each member of the body of Christ can confess their sins to another member and each believer can pray for God to heal the confessing person from the stain of sin to make him or her whole again – righteous and clean before the Lord.
Confession is important for healing/restoring/cleansing from sin. Through it, the sinner acknowledges his or her walk away from the Lord, which is sin. By confessing, the person recognizes and professes God’s power to cleanse and heal so the he or she can renew a right relationship with Him. Each Christian confesses his or her sins before his or her baptism, so cleansing from later sin requires confession, too.
The members of the body of Christ can offer prayers of faith to God asking Him to forgive and restore the person who confessed sins to him or her. A communal element exists for Christians. Another person cannot cleanse a person from sin nor make a confession of sin for him or her, but that person can lift the confessor up before the Lord asking for God’s forgiveness and restoration. Another element of communal life as Christians is worshipping the Lord, singing praise to and adoring Him. Offering encouragement and support, as well as teaching and guiding, are other elements of a communal life of faith. Christians make an individual decision to become followers of Jesus; no one can decide for another person. Yet, Christians live out their lives in communion with each other and God. Faith is individual, but a person must live it out – act upon it. Jesus explained this in the two greatest commandments – love the Lord God and love your neighbor. Christianity is not insular. Christianity is relational, and as such is communal and individual. God answers prayers because of concern and love for another person, the relationship of the pray-er with God, and the faith of the pray-er.
James revisited what he taught in verse 15a with verse 16b. He said in the latter verse, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” This sounds straightforward. Let us look at a few of the words of this passage. “Effective” comes from the Greek word energeo from where our English word “energy” comes. Energeo means to be operative and put forth power in aiding another person; intense and fervent, not wavering[ii]. The English word “accomplish” comes from the Greek word ischuo. It means to have power, to be a force, to avail, and to be able[iii]. With this understanding of these words, this passage means the intense, fervent prayer of a Christian who has no doubt about God or his faith in God can bring God’s power and authority to prevail in the situation. God makes a righteous person’s prayer powerful. The rank or position of the pray-er and the anointing of oil do not cause healing; they have no power to heal without God’s power. The three elements of effective prayer are:
1. To be effective prayer, the pray-er must be fervent with unwavering faith in God
2. To be effective prayer, the pray-er must be righteous, upright, guiltless, and innocent observing divine laws so he or she is in a close and right relationship with God.
3. To be effective prayer, the pray-er must acknowledge God is the only One who has the power and authority to bring change in a situation and ask Him to act specifically in each situation for which prayer is needed.
James reminded the Jewish Christians of Elijah in verses seventeen and eighteen. Elijah was human and prone to sin. He had no power within himself to effect changes in the normal course of nature. When Elijah prayed earnestly for God to withhold the rain, no rain fell on the earth for three years and six months (1 Kings 17:1 and 18:1). After those three and a half years, he prayed again, rain poured from the sky, and the earth produced its fruit (1 Kings 18:42-45). Elijah was wholly man with no personal power or authority over nature to command the cessation and restart of rain. He was a man completely devoted to the Lord; he was righteous. Elijah was in a right relationship with the LORD. He prayed in the LORD’s name asking for this thing to occur and acknowledging the LORD is the only One who had the power to control nature. Elijah prayed an effective prayer.
More Than Prayer
Living in community with other believers, since Christianity is to be lived communally and individually, now and then requires more than prayer. Because of Jesus’ noting the two greatest commandments, which sums up all the laws God gave the Israelites, living as Christians means loving and being concerned for other Christians. As stated earlier, living communally with others means acting out your faith for the good of each person. Sometimes this means caring for another person by providing necessities. Other times it means supporting a person during trying situations such as during grief, persecution, or sickness. Still other times it means encouraging, teaching, and admonishing a believer for his or her waywardness from God’s truths and laws and then leading him or her back to God. Verses 19-20 speak to times other than joy, illness, or confession.
James said, “My brethren, 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.” [NASB] This passage causes difficulty for a few people. To these people, they think it says a Christian can lose his or her salvation if he or she sins after becoming a Christian. To understand what James meant, we must look at the original Greek words and Greek thought of that time.
Let us begin our study of these two verses with definitions of words. A list is below to help our understanding.
1. “Brethren” comes from the Greek word adelphos, which means fellow Christians[iv].
2. “Strays” comes from the Greek word planao and means to go astray from the truth into deception, from virtue into sin[v].
3. “Truth” comes from the Greek word aletheia and means truth about God and Christianity[vi].
4. The verb “turns back” comes from the Greek word epistrepho and means to turn back to the worship of the true God; to cause to bring back to the love and obedience of God, love for the children of God, and love of wisdom and righteousness[vii].
5. “Error” comes from the Greek word plane and means led astray from the right way, from God’s laws[viii].
6. “Soul” is used thirty-three times in the New Testament and comes from the Greek word psuche. Psuche is translated often as “life” in the New Testament. Psuche is the Greek concept of the entire person - body, spirit, mind, and heart (feelings and emotions) [ix].
7. “Death” comes from the Greek word thanatos and means the death of the body as in separation of body and spirit, or spiritual death[x].
8. “Cover” comes from the Greek word kalupto and means to hide or veil as in knowledge, or to cover as in Jesus’ blood covers the stain and guilt of sin[xi].
When we study this passage and any New Testament passage, we need to understand the Greek culture of thought. The Greek mindset spoke and thought of a whole person made up of body, spirit, mind, and heart. The word Greeks used for the whole person was psuche. When the Greeks meant to talk specifically about part of the whole person, they used specific words that were not psuche. For our purposes in this Bible study, when the Greeks spoke about the spirit of a person - the part of a person that separates from the body after death and lives eternally either in heaven or hell, they used the Greek word pneuma. Bible authors used pneuma just four times in the New Testament (Luke 23:46, James 2:26, Revelation 11:11, and Revelation 13:15).
With these definitions and the Greek way of understanding our English word “soul,” which includes the body, spirit, mind, and heart, we can better understand verses nineteen and twenty. James wrote to the Jerusalem Christians to live out their faith together and help their fellow Christians not stray from the truth about God, His truth and laws, and their obedience to and love of Him. He told them to bring back the brother or sister going astray from God and His truth because of their own love for God and their straying brother or sister. According to the Bible, they can bring them back using prayer, admonition, and confrontation in love for him or her. Matthew 18:15 and Galatian 6:1 speak about how to lead a straying Christian back to God. James continued in verse twenty by saying, “The Christian who brings his fellow believer back to following God and His ways will save his or her soul – the whole being of the Christian – from death.” By leading a wayward Christian from deception, a believer can save a person from injury and bodily death. Understand this. Because James used the Greek word psuche here, he did not mean a loving Christian would save the spirit of the person from spiritual death. Psuche means the whole person, not just the spirit of the person. This then means the loving Christian who brought the wayward Christian back to a close relationship with God will save the Christian from physical death or injury. Besides that, the fervent Christian who loved and went to save the wayward Christian kept more sins from occurring against God by bringing the sinning Christian back to God and His ways. With these two verses, we realize James taught being a Christian in community with other Christians means more than just praying. It means acting out your Christian faith in love so that a Christian is led back into union with God, a sick Christian is prayed for, and/or praise goes to God for His provisions.
Throughout this letter, James taught Christians to put their faith in action. In this Bible study, the actions about which he spoke were prayer and bringing a straying believer back to God. In this lesson, James showed that Christianity is not solely an individual life style, but is communal – people helping each other and worshipping together. He exhorted the believers to pray over the sick, rejoice and praise God, confess sins to one another and pray for each other, and to lead a wayward Christian back to God. Faith is not only an inner testament and profession to God, but is an outward way of life. By doing what James taught in 5:13-20, Christians would put love of God and neighbor into action.
Relevance and Conclusion
Throughout this epistle, James taught four primary things. James taught the Jerusalem Christians and later readers of this writing to live out a life of faith in action. He exhorted them to consider suffering and trials as opportunity for growth in Christian virtues – endurance, patience, wisdom, faith, and joy. James contrasted the poor (Christians) and the rich (unbelievers). He instructed them to look to the future for their eventual and eternal hope in Jesus Christ. True faith shows itself in the life – actions and words – of a believer. James conjectured whether a person truly received salvation from sin and death if a testimony of that salvation was not visible in the person’s life. He did not propose a person had to work to receive salvation, but rather the person’s salvation would show in what he or she said and did. James encouraged the Jerusalem Christians to persevere in the midst of trials asking God for strength to endure without doubting He would give it. From trials, Christians will grow in virtue. James reminded them in the midst of trials to hold on to the hope they have that Jesus Christ gave them when they believed and received salvation– the hope of eternal life with Him in heaven. In the midst of these lessons, he taught particular lessons giving examples of how to live life. James taught them to love others by providing for their needs, praying for them, not discriminating and, by that, judging them based on their income, and helping turn a straying believer back to God. These are a few ways to live out his main lessons.
We can apply the same lessons to ourselves today. Is our faith lived visibly in our community – to other believers and to our neighbors? Do our words and actions testify to God’s saving work in our lives so that His love shines through us? Do we persevere and grow by holding on to the knowledge that God provides strength for us now and hope for the present and future?
Today each of us should stop and take stock of our lives. We should go to God asking Him to show us what keeps us from growing more like Christ and from showing God’s love in genuine love for others. For Christians, it is never too late to return to God. For non-believers, you do not know the day when Christ will return, but when He does, it will be too late for you to receive forgiveness and salvation from God. You, then, cannot live with Him in heaven for eternity.
We all have decisions to make now.
What will you decide?
[i] Thayer and Smith, The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon, 1999. (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/presbuteros.html).