“The Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick”
There are many difficult passages of the Bible. The language in some of them is rather obscure, and sound brethren differ as to their meaning. In James 5:14-15, James uses language that is easy to understand, but the difficulty lies in knowing its application.
Our text can mean either one of two things. On one hand, we are all acquainted with praying for those who are sick. With elders being the shepherds of the congregation, we understand why James told his readers to call for them. We also understand that people in the first century used olive oil for medicinal and sanative purposes; so that they scarcely ever took a journey without carrying oil with them, with which they anointed their bodies, healed their wounds, bruises and such like. The most familiar case in the Bible of using it in such circumstances was in the case of the wounded man ministered to by the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). Therefore, this passage could be more-or-less a cultural, natural means in conjunction with the elders’ prayers to God for the sick to recover without any miraculous means introduced whatsoever.
Nevertheless, while I am not dogmatic about my position, I am inclined to believe the other alternative— the elders’ anointing the sick with oil and praying for their recovery was a specific injunction to his readers for the limited time when miracles were in effect utilizing miraculous means. For example, if this is a general admonition, it is worthy of note that there is no record in the New Testament where anyone practiced this, although there are a number of cases of those who were sick and even died (i.e., 1 Tim. 5:23; Phil. 2:27; 2 Tim. 4:20; Acts 9:37). Therefore, if this injunction of James, written to scattered Jews around the known world at an early date, was something for Christians to practice generally, how do we account for the fact that we never read of its practice?
I believe James is talking about miraculous healing for the following reasons. First, they were to call for the elders, who would be those representatives of the church who would likely be miraculously endowed (cf. Eph. 4:8-11). He did not command them to call for physicians. James says that the thing that would save the sick is “the prayer of faith” (5:15), not the anointing of oil, although James did command it. James emphatically states the promise, “…and the Lord shall raise him [the sick person] up.” Now, the difficult question usually arises, “If it is miraculous, then what is the purpose of anointing with oil?” While it is true that they used oil to treat some ailments, the anointing of oil would be of little value medicinally for one who has heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer. James could have used it symbolically, just as the laying on of hands is symbolic (cf. Acts 13:3). However, I do know that in some cases of miraculous healing, they anointed with oil (Mark 6:7-13). Could the command to anoint with oil be an arbitrary command, such as the blind man washing in the pool of Siloam, or Naaman dipping seven times in the Jordan River, or the Israelites marching around the wall of Jericho for seven days? Consider that the anointing of oil was to be “in the name of the Lord,” or in other words, “by the authority of the Lord.”
Now, if this is miraculous, how do we account for the purpose? God did not give miraculous powers simply for healing the sick, but to confirm the word (Heb. 2:3-4; Mark 16:16-20). Thus, whatever James here admonishes, its purpose was to confirm the word. Possibly the Holy Spirit and James felt that his epistle would need confirmation. Consider that this is the only New Testament book that James wrote. He was not an apostle of Jesus Christ. When we consider the rejection that Paul received, who was an apostle, we might understand what James could have received, not being an apostle of the same stripe. Therefore, after James wrote some strong and stinging statements in his epistle, some might tend to reject his epistle as that which does not carry authority, claiming that it was not inspired (as Martin Luther did). Therefore, toward the close of his inspired epistle, James prescribes a means of confirming the word he writes to them. By doing as he directs, an elder could perform a miracle of healing, which would confirm the truthfulness of his epistle. In other words, if the Lord raised the sick, as James said he would, then they would know James wrote by inspiration. If not, then they would know James to be a false teacher.