“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” (NKJV: James 5:14).
If James 5:14 tells us to call on our church’s elders when we are sick, then admit it—a lot of us need to ‘fess up! Have you even once called your church’s elders, seeking prayer? If you are like me, the answer is “no.” Then again, we’re not alone. James 5:14 also commands elders to lay their hands on the sick. If this means our elders are to do this every time a member is sick, then our elders are also guilty for not following Scripture. Have we all broken faith with our Lord Jesus?
The meaning of “sick”
We could try to explain the verse by supposing that James only intends elder attentions towards serious sickness, but the text doesn’t say that. Or, we could imagine such prayers and the laying of hands are to be done when a believer’s sickness is brought on by sin. But again, the text doesn’t say that, and some of the more hypochondria-prone among us might also be the most sensitive to personal sin, real or imagined. How could we know if our sickness were caused by sin, or the common cold?
Instead of translating the verb in James 5:14 as “sickness,” perhaps we should translate it as “weakness.” After all, this is how this verb is translated twelve of the fifteen times it appears in the NT letters to the churches.1 That’s reason enough to make it a solid choice in translation. But the idea of sickness in James 5:14 has a long and venerable history, even if it is pretty much universally ignored!2
If we translated James 5:14 using “weakness” instead of “sickness,” what would it mean? Most of this word’s uses in the NT letters refer to spiritual weakness. Paul says we ought “to receive the one who is weak in faith” (Rom. 14:1). A weak believer eats vegetables only and not meat, since he thinks this is how he ought to serve God (Rom. 15:2). Such a Christian can have a weak conscience (1 Cor. 8:12). In 2 Corinthians 11:29 Paul makes weakness analogous to being tempted into sin: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” We all know only too well that we are weak and often fall, but we are grateful that our strong Savior “sympathizes with our weakness” (Heb. 4:15).
The persecution factor
So if the weakness in James 5:14 is a susceptibility to sin, is there some special type of weakness that requires elder intervention? I suggest the context of James 5 shows that the believers James wrote to were tempted to deny Christ under threat of persecution and potential martyrdom. It’s an interpretation that starts all the way back in James 5:5 and runs through the end of the epistle.
James, writing to those who were persecuting the readers of his letter, tells them “you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (NASB: James 5:5). James wasn’t saying the persecutors were at risk of slaughter. They were busy fattening their hearts and persecuting Christians. They were, as we say, “fat and happy.”
It was the Christians who were “in a day of slaughter.” Several years before writing this epistle, James experienced this slaughter first hand when the apostle James was slaughtered by Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1). So when James wrote “You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you” (James 5:6), he was castigating those who persecute and murder Christians. Such murder is violent and ruthless, but the righteous man, like Christ Himself, does not resist (1 Pet. 2:21-23). Such martyrdoms are fearsome things indeed. Who wouldn’t at least be tempted to deny the Lord in the face of such wanton brutality?
Patience for the Lord’s return
I believe the epistle of James reaches its climax in 5:7-8. Twice James tells us to be patient and to wait for the Lord’s imminent return. The word translated “patience” means to suffer long in hard and often unjust circumstances. Our example is God the Father, who is the “farmer who waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains” (James 5:7). He is raising a crop of souls to His glory, and He is patient about it. Whether believers die early for harvest (martyrdom), or later (natural death), He is long suffering and all-wise. We can trust God in day of early harvest—martyrdom. Even the martyrs who cry “how long” under the tribulation altar are told to wait on the Sovereign Lord for justice (Rev. 6:9-11).
In the section that follows James provides a number of practical helps for those being tested by persecution. Verse 9 exhorts, “Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!” To grumble at other brothers who may have instigated persecution is to join the side of the enemy, and thus be condemned by one’s own action.
Persecution often begins when courageous Christians fearlessly preach the whole counsel of Scripture and convict the ungodly. To complain against these brave brothers in Christ is to demean their Judge who alone weighs motives. Such grumbling is a sinful response to persecution, and if not confessed, may require elder intervention as proscribed in verse 14. Instead of complaining against those who fearlessly proclaim Christ, James tells those potentially facing persecution “to take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” as “an example of suffering and patience” (James 5:10). James also tells us to look at those who suffer under the sovereign hand of God with a measure of admiration. Like Job, who is featured in verse 12, believers under threat of persecution receive personal lessons in suffering from the Lord who is both “merciful and compassionate.”
Our own struggle
We all need an attitude adjustment when it comes to suffering for the Lord. None of us handle suffering well by nature. We must be taught in days of difficulty how to love Him Who loved us even to the death. We first learn to trust the Lord in the small matters and annoyances of daily life, and when we are found faithful in such little things, are then entrusted by our Lord and Master with larger and more significant matters (c.f. Luke 16:10). None of us do persecution well without primary tutelage in the school of Christ. To grumble, or to resent our Lord, when persecution comes is to deny Him in some measure. We are instead encouraged by James in this passage to know the Lord through the trial, not in spite of it.
The danger for us who are weak by nature might be to give an oath of denial of Jesus Christ: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath” (James 5:12). Such oaths reflect a sinful fear of man and love of self that are tantamount to apostasy. They were often rendered in obedience to Caesar or a pagan deity. In exchange for such an oath one could escape persecution and save his life. But such an action might reveal a lack of saving faith, for which reason James preemptively warns us never to give such oaths by saying, “but above all.” This, James says, is the one thing you must never do. Church history tells a long blood-stained tale of those who refused to take such oaths suffering terrible deaths, but glorious martyrdoms.
If we aren’t to offer oaths, then, what should we do when faced with persecution? James goes on to tell us how to rightly embrace the pain: “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises” (James 5:13). This particular word for “suffering” is used three other times in the NT and always denotes the suffering of persecution (2 Tim. 2:9, 2 Tim. 4:5, James 5:10). Persecution has at least two standard responses, then. Suffering, which is deep sorrow and grief, or cheerfulness, which results in praises (Acts 16:25).
Help from the body
But if we are tempted to walk away from Christ because of the staggering fear of persecution, James tells us to call for the elders. This brings us to our verse, James 5:14. “If we are weak” in the face of persecution, we are commanded to call on the elders of our church for spiritual support. Perhaps we are tempted to take an oath that might deny Christ, or to do something else that will shame our Lord. The elders must come, anoint us with oil for comfort and physical touch, and pray for us. If we have already sinned due to the pressure of persecution, we are to confess them in their presence (James 5:15). The Holy Spirit, guiding James’s quill, promises that we will be strengthened to meet the persecution, and completely forgiven of our failure and sin.
If we take the “righteous man” of James 5:16 to be the same “righteous man” of James 5:6, then the passage teaches that the weak one is now strong. He was about to fail, but now offers prayer that “avail much.” The trial has accomplished its goal. Now the strengthened brother is capable of turning back any other brother who may likewise stray from the truth (James 5:20).
1 When this word is examined in its noun and adjective forms, the translation of “weakness” becomes even more prevalent than “sickness.”
2 For a vigorous defense of “sickness,” see Peter Davids, James, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, 192.
Ted Bigelow earned the MDiv and ThM at The Master’s Seminary and has a doctorate in expository preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He pastors Grace Church in Hartford, CT and has been married to Deena since 1987. They are blessed with 4 children who, by God’s mercy, love the Lord: Katie (20), Karryn (18), Daniel (15) and David (13). Ted is seeking a publisher for a book he has written on why churches should transition to eldership, based on Titus 1:5.