Text: James 5:13-18 — Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 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. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months, it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
Introduction: Welcome back everyone. Last week we started a new preaching series called THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF MINISTRY. In that first message, we looked at Ephesians 4:11-13 and what Paul had to say about ministry as far as the local church is concerned. We were reminded that God gave church leaders to equip the people for ministry. This means that, from God’s perspective, everyone is called to some sort of service to the Lord, not just the ones we call “ministers”. Then we looked at the end-goal of ministry which is Christian unity and maturity. Today, in my second message in this series I want to talk to you about PRAYER AS THE LIFEBLOOD OF MINISTRY. Now, in case you’re confused by the word “lifeblood,” the dictionary defines it as the indispensable factor or influence that gives something its strength and vitality. That’s exactly what prayer means for the church. It is an essential element in (1) building up the body of Christ and (2) making us effective in service to others. I SUSPECT THAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF US GRASP AT LEAST TO SOME DEGREE THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER. I know one lady who did. She was thirty-years-old, single and the only child of two aging parent. She desperately wanted to be married but felt it would be selfish of her to ask the Lord to give her a husband. Instead, she prayed, “Dear Lord, I’m not asking anything for myself. I just want you to bless my parents with a fantastic son-in-law.” (Did you see what I did there? Since I’m talking about prayer on Valentine’s Day weekend, I shared a little humor that combined romantic love and prayer.)
This morning, I invite you to join me as we open our Bibles together, and take the next twenty-five to thirty minutes to consider the priority of prayer as a key element in bringing spiritual health and vitality to the local church.
Background: Our passage was written by James, the half-brother of Jesus, to the twelve tribes of Israel chased out of Jerusalem as the result of persecution for their faith in Christ (Acts 8:1-4). These Jewish believers were facing hostility from the idolatrous people among whom they were living. That’s why James talked about trials in chapter one and suffering persecution in chapter five. Now he calls on these same believers who were laboring under such difficult circumstances to give themselves over to prayer. He does this by highlighting some occasions for prayer, then a couple of consequences of prayer and finishing with two guidelines for prayer.
Some Occasions for Prayer. It was not uncommon to find a request for prayer at the end of many of the New Testament letters (See Ephesians 6:18-20; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Hebrews 13:18-19). Here, however, James’ exhortation to pray stands out because of the amount of attention he gives to it. He mentions three times when believers should come before the Lord.
· Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. The kind of suffering that James is talking about is not specific, but refers to all kinds of hardship. In the previous verses he mentions (1) believers who were robbed of their ability to support themselves and left to starve at the hands of their rich oppressors (5:1-6); (2) the prophets who suffered merely for speaking in the name of the Lord (Jeremiah, Elijah and others were threatened with death; Isaiah, according to ancient Hebrew tradition, was martyred by being sawn in two— (5:10); and also (3) Job, who as we all know persevered despite incredible personal trials brought about by the hand of the enemy (5:11). It doesn’t seem that James is calling on those who are suffering to ask the Lord to remove their trials. Based on an earlier passage (James 1:2-4), he is encouraging them to ask for the spiritual strength to endure them with a godly spirit. He knows that for those who pray their way through these hardships the result will be stronger, more persevering faith. Application: This is a good lesson for all of us. While it is not wrong to ask the Lord to remove a trial from our lives, we should certainly be praying that as long as we’re in the trial, He might use it to help us grow to maturity. That, we know, is God’s will for us.
· Is anyone among you cheerful? Let him praise. James is not thinking of happiness that is based on circumstances. The word is used to refer to the peace of mind that we can enjoy despite whatever might be happening to us. The only other occurrence of the word is found in Acts 27:22 where the Apostle Paul encouraged his fellow passengers to “keep up your courage (lit. ‘be of good cheer’).” This was his exhortation despite the fact that they were on a ship on the seas during a violent storm. Application: God has not called us to live “under the circumstances” but “above them.” Here we’re reminded that we can have inward peace and joy no matter what is going on around us. When we’re blessed with this kind of outlook, what are we to do according to James? We are to sing songs of praise to God knowing that He works everything together for our good.
· 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. James is addressing those who physically ill, not spiritually sick. There are at least two reasons to view the passage this way: (1) The word used for “sick” is most often used in the gospels in relation to those who were suffering from physical ailments (See Matthew 10:8; Mark 6:56; John 4:46 etc). (2) It is the elders who are asked to do the praying. If he addressing those who were sick and separated from God, James would have instructed them to pray. No where in the New Testament do we find that through the prayers of spiritual leaders, Christ’s saving work was applied to others. It always required personal faith (Romans 10:9 — if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved). We do, however, see many occasions where God used one person to bring physical healing to another. James tells those who are sick to call on the elders to pray over them and anoint them with oil. Though not a prerequisite for healing (the faith of the elders and the person requesting prayer is far more important — verse 15 – And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick), anointing the sick person with oil is a sign that he or she has been set apart for the Lord’s special attention and care. Application: So, what conclusions can we draw from James appeal to pray? First, when suffering hardship we are not to pray for vengeance, and perhaps not relief, but perseverance. Second, praise is the highest form of prayer and should be offered no matter our circumstances. And last, when believers are so ill that they cannot go to the elders, they can call them to come and pray and anoint with oil in the name of the Lord (which means in accordance with all that He stands for).
Some Consequences of Prayer. Faith is a key ingredient in answered prayer. Jesus said as much in John 14:12 –14 — “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. However, in this passage it is not merely the faith of the one who is sick, but the faith of elders that is necessary for healing. Here’s what the faith of both working together can do for the believer.
· It can bring physical healing (And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up). The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. The phrase translated as “the Lord will raise him up” means “to rouse from death. This same word is used in Mark 1:30-31 to describe the healing of Peter’s mother by Jesus — Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Evidently, the woman must have been close to death when Jesus healed her. This is the same picture James gives us when he instructs the elders to pray over the sick person. He’s not really thinking about someone who is battling a cold, but the coronavirus or worse! And what will the Lord do? He will restore the sick person to health. Application: Be careful! This is not a formula on how to receive healing from the Lord. The prayer offered in faith always takes into account the sovereign purposes of God. On occasion, some believers are given insight into God’s will so that they can pray with absolute confidence knowing that He will grant their request (1 Corinthians 12:9 – this is probably what “the gifts of healing” refers to). Most of us, however, offer our prayers with a spirit of submission to the will of God in the matter. Illustration: In my time as a pastor/elder, I have prayed for several people who came to the elders because they were physically sick. I remember one lady who came requesting prayer for healing from cancer. We anointed her with oil, laid our hands on her and prayed. Shortly thereafter, she received good news from the doctor. The cancer was in complete remission! To my knowledge it has not since returned. We also prayed for others who were very ill and who were not healed, but were strengthened to face their suffering with faith and hope.
· It can bring spiritual healing (And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven). Sin and sickness were often closely associated in the ancient world. Recognizing the possible connection, James encourages those who are sick to deal with any potential spiritual causes for their illnesses. The word “if” here is really important. No assumption is made that all who are sick are guilty of sin and therefore the recipients of God’s chastening and discipline through physical illness. James point is that for some this might be the case. They may need to experience forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with God before they can experience healing. In Mark 2:1-12 this was the case with a paralytic who was lowered through the opening in the roof of a house by his friends so that Jesus could attend to him. Before our Lord, healed his legs, he recognized the man’s faith and forgave his sin. In his case, spiritual healing preceded physical healing. Application: Could it be that some of us are needlessly dealing with illness because we are sinning against the Lord? If that is the case, healing is only a prayer of confession and repentance away.
Some Guidelines for Prayer. James concludes with some general principles regarding effective prayer, which, of course, is the kind that brings physical and spiritual healing. These are meant not just for the elders and those who are sick, but for the whole body.
· Confess your sins to one another other (Therefore, confess your sins to one another. The word “confess” means to agree with. When we confess our sins to one another we are simply agreeing with God’s appraisal of our actions. They have ‘missed the mark’ of moral perfection. This is the only place in the New Testament where believers are told to confess their sins to each other. Certainly the point of this is not to provide food for gossip, but to ask for prayer support and accountability.
· Pray for one another (…and pray for one another, that you may be healed). Once the sin has been properly confessed, we are then called upon to pray for one another. I really see no other way to interpret this than that God intends for the prayers of the saints to be instrumental in restoring a sinful and suffering believer to physical and spiritual health. Application: When a fellow believer shows enough courage to confess sin to you, your response according to this passage should be to pray for him or her. James assures us that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Of course, this sounds a warning to all of us. DO NOT OFFER TO PRAY FOR OTHERS IF YOU ARE NOT RIGHT WITH GOD. YOUR PRAYERS WILL HAVE NO EFFECT. James brings to a close this passage with a reference to Elijah, one of the best-known prophets in the Old Testament as an example of this kind of prayer (See 1 Kings 18:36-37). Sure, he was a powerful servant of the Living God, but he was also very human (See I Kings 19:3). If God was willing to answer his prayer, then surely he will do so for us as well.
Application: Let me wrap this up by sharing about the importance of prayer and how it can potential touch every ministry of the church.
§ Recognize that anytime is a good time to pray. James encourages believers to pray when we’re suffering, cheerful or sick. It seems like his point is that there really is no inappropriate time for us to come before God’s throne. No matter what our emotional state is, we’re encouraged to pray. Maybe that’s why Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing.’
§ Make sure you’re trusting God as you pray. As best as I can tell the only thing that Jesus ever rebuked His disciples for was a lack of faith. He rebuked Peter for his unwillingness to trust God’s plan for His Son. Peter wanted to deliver Jesus from the cross (Mark 8:33). Another time, Jesus rebuked His disciples for failing to believe the testimony of some women that He had been raised from the dead (Mark 16:14). And He rebuked the disciples for failing to believe that God loved the Samaritans too (Luke 9:55). Why is faith so important our Lord? When we put our trust in Him, we are declaring our belief that He is both good and great. He only gives that which is good for us. And no one can keep Him from answering our prayers. We would do well to remember this when we pray.
§ Get right with God before you pray. Sin is the one thing that can short-circuit our prayers. It can render them ineffective. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Deal honestly with your sin before God and you will find your prayers to be much more effective.
Conclusion: Here’s what can happen when God’s people get right with him and then take the time to pray in faith. In New York City during the 1850s, there was a man named Jeremiah Lanphier who accepted a call to become a full-time city evangelist to the city. Now, those were years of tension, when the shadow of war loomed over America. There were strikes, depressions, with long jobless lines, and an air of simmering violence. Lanphier walked the streets, knocked on doors, put up posters, and prayed constantly—all to no visible result. As his discouragement increased, the struggling evangelist looked for some kind of new idea, some possibility for breakthrough. New York was a business town; maybe the men would come to a luncheon. So, he nailed up his signs, calling for a noon lunch in the Old Dutch Church on Fulton Street. When the hour came, he sat and waited until finally a single visitor arrived. Later two more joined them for a nice meal. Lanphier gave his idea another go on the following week. Twenty men attended; at least it was a start. But then forty came on the third week. The men were getting to know each other by this time, and one of them suggested he’d be willing to come for food and prayer every day. Lanphier thought that was a good sign, and he ramped up his efforts for a daily meal and prayer time. Before long, the building was overflowing. The luncheon had to move again and again, so high was the demand. The most intriguing element of the “Fulton Street Revival,” as they called the phenomenon, was the ripple effect. Offices began closing for prayer at noon …. Fulton Street was the talk of the town, with men telegraphing prayer news back and forth between New York City and other cities—yes, other cities had started their own franchises; other godly meetings were launching in New York. The center of the meeting was prayer, and it was okay to come late or leave early, as needed …. Men stood and shared testimonies. [This was not] a place for the well-known preachers of the day—this was about the working class, businessmen who wanted to share the things of God. Some historians went so far as to refer to the Fulton Street Revival as the Third Great Awakening, because it lasted for two years and saw as many as one million decisions for Christ. Given the influence of New York City, no one could estimate the national and international impact that spread out from Jeremiah Lanphier’s simple lunch breaks. It is well known, however, that great funds were raised for fulfilling the Great Commission (Ronnie Floyd, Our Last Great Hope (Thomas Nelson, 2011), pp. 167-169), and all because God’s people got together to pray.