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The Answer to Every Need Starts with Prayer -- a study of James 5:7-20

What do you want Jesus to find you doing when He returns?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for James 5

James closes his letter with a call to prayer—prayer for patience when enduring trials in life, prayer in response to your situation (good or bad), prayer for healing from spiritual (and possibly physical) sickness, and prayer for forgiveness for one another, particularly those who have strayed from the church.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be patient until the Lord’s coming. James 5:7

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Predictions of the Second Coming

I know that some of you remember this book. A number of noteworthy evangelicals took it very seriously. TBN would interrupt its broadcasts that year with “rapture preparation” reports. Well, you might guess what happened—the author ended up writing Rapture Report 1989 and 23 Reasons Why 1993 and more. There have been plenty more famously wrong predictions. Remember these billboards? From a historic perspective, the more impactful wrong prediction would have been by Baptist preacher William Miller who predicted Christ’s return on March 21, 1844 (then April 18, then October 22). His followers had created such a unique lifestyle that they formed their own church, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Ask your class if they’ve been worried by any such predictions of the second coming. Why do you think so many people insist on predicting Christ’s return? Why did Jesus specifically tell us not to try to do so? How do you think James’s warnings fit in?

Who Do You Not Want Knocking on Your Door?

I have done a fun dinner theater in which one of the gags is bringing up a poor, innocent guest for a “This Is Your Life” segment and embarrassing him with his “former football coach”, “senior prom date”, and then a knock on the door with a “that’s right, it’s your parole officer!” It’s a funny a moment that still makes everyone cringe because we all have that nightmare of so-and-so knocking on our door. At the convention last week, a preacher told a story of Eisenhower dropping in on a family in Denver to give 6-yr-old Paul Haley (dying of cancer) a ride in his limo. The father was extremely upset because he was not prepared for the president to knock on his door!

So this question can go several ways—people you’re afraid to knock on your door (like the IRS, the FBI), or people you’re embarrassed to knock on your door unexpectedly (the preacher, the in-laws), or even people you just don’t want to see (a salesman, a campaigner). Why do you think James would talk about Christ’s return with a warning image of someone about to knock on your door? If you think about it, that’s really powerful in our day with the boom of “doorbell camera” technology. See more about this inside.


This Week's Big Idea: Prayer and Miraculous Healing

There are some Christian groups who claim that in our passage this week James is telling Christians not to use doctors but rather to use faith healers. Baptist told tend to believe strongly in miraculous healing, so you might not have anyone in your class even ask about this. But if they do . . .

(1) There are a number of scholars who believe that James is only talking about spiritual sickness here. There’s a lot to be said for this idea, particularly in that the context is all about the soul (mainly forgiveness for sin). In other words, the person calling on the pastors to pray for him and anoint him with oil isn’t physically sick but struggling with sin of some kind. A lot of Baptists like this interpretation precisely because it takes miraculous healing out of the mix.

(2) There are a number of scholars who believe that James is talking about basic medicine here. In Jesus’ day, oil (generally olive oil) was used in a wide range of medical settings. In the parable of the good Samaritan, he obviously poured oil directly on the man’s wounds (this probably helped with swelling and bacterial protection). The physician Galen called oil the “best remedy” for paralysis. Contemporaries Josephus, Philo, and Pliny all referred to oil in medical uses. In other words, when James tells the elders to pray and anoint with oil, it’s the equivalent of saying “Take the church member some Motrin or Imodium or Benadryl and pray with him.” That sounds sketchy today (with all of our laws about medical malpractice and our fears of allergies and reactions), but remember that in James’s day, they didn’t know any of that. I’m not saying that Christian pastors were “witch doctors” in that day; I am saying that they could take a well-known remedy for an ailment, administer it to a church member, and pray that God would make the remedy effective.

(3) The Pentecostal interpretation is that James is specifically talking about prayer for miraculous healing. When James said that the prayer of faith would make a sick person well, he meant that literally. But first, a clarification: There are some fringe Pentecostal groups who believe that any trip to a doctor shows a lack of faith. These are the groups who get the headline for denying their children medical care. Most Pentecostal groups do not teach that. Assemblies of God, for example, do medical missions. They teach that divine healing is not incompatible with medical treatment. God can use such treatment and make it more effective; God can work in spite of treatment. In other words, when James tells the people to call for pastors to pray for their healing, we should still do that today. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also continue to see our medical doctors.

So, which is it? If you read these verses a bunch, I think you’ll see that all of them are probably in mind. James clearly has a spiritual context, but he also has a physical one (Elijah did not pray for “spiritual rain”). If a church member is in a bad way for any reason, spiritual or physical, he should call on his elders/pastors to pray for him. But there is also no denying that oil was basic medicine in James’s day. James was calling on the elders to provide basic medical care. Because we all have access to professional medical care today, this is no longer appropriate for pastors today. But pastors can (and should) encourage their church members to follow the doctor’s orders. But finally, we should all pray for divine healing. And we should pray believing that God can heal in spite of medicine. James absolutely has that in mind. But in no way is James suggesting that Christians don’t need to use medicine, or that God must answer a prayer for healing offered in faith.


Our Context in James

James wraps up his letter with one final scathing critique of the rich before going into his closing exhortations. Jewish law in that day said that when a landowner hired men to work his fields, he had to pay them their fair wages at the end of the work day. That’s how the workers would buy food for their families’ dinners. For whatever reprehensible reason (probably related to the fact that the wealthy landowners had a lot of influence over the courts and lawmakers), some landowners wouldn’t pay the workers. And it’s not like the workers could do anything about it. So James simply points out the basic fact that God will hold them to account, and all of their wealth will avail nothing.

Then, James ends with three exhortations: patience, promises, and prayer. I’m not really sure why Lifeway didn’t just cover all of them. It’s very important to note that verse 7 begins with “brothers/sisters”, indicating that James has turned his attention to church members. With all of the injustice in the world, it is easy for believers to become discouraged and impatient, but that would be the wrong response. God will hold the unrighteous to account—when the time is right. James specifically uses the prophets as our model for this, primarily Jeremiah. You might get familiar with Jeremiah’s story so you can use him as an example: he was put in stocks, (20:2), thrown into prison (32:2), held in a dungeon (38:6), but he never wavered in his faith or commitment to God’s calling. Additionally, James uses Job as a testimony of faith and perseverance.

I’m not exactly sure why James included the comment about oaths here. It seems that there was enough mistrust among church members (probably due to some being wealthy and some being poor) that they had resorted to the basic “I promise” or “trust me” comments. James notes, as Jesus did, that there is no need for artificial promises in a place where everyone should be trustworthy. And then James ends with a powerful exhortation about prayer, but we will talk about that much more below.


Part 1: Patience (James 5:7-9)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near. Brothers and sisters, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Hopefully no one in your group will have a problem with this point. If you used the “88 Reasons” illustration at the beginning of class, you can use that to remind your class that plenty of Christians have had problems waiting.

There are two ways we can look at this warning.

  1. Believers had given up hope that the Lord was returning at all, and so perhaps these wicked oppressors would never be held to account for their sins. Or

  2. believers were expecting Jesus to return at any second, so why bother fighting against injustice or calling the wicked to account, because it’s all going to be over soon anyway.

Both of those attitudes are wrong—the way I summarize Matthew 25 is “We should be prepared for Jesus to come back tonight, but we should prepare as if He’s not coming back in our lifetime” (see below for more on this). I actually think that James is talking about the first option. Some church members wanted Jesus to show up and hold everyone to account for their sins right now, and they were disappointed that Jesus was allowing wickedness to continue. James told them to be patient. Why? Because we’re supposed to reach those wicked people with the gospel before it’s too late. On the other hand, some Christians were becoming slack in their behavior. “If Jesus isn’t coming back anytime soon, then why am I trying so hard to be a team player?” That’s also a faulty attitude because how do you know that Jesus isn’t coming back today, while you’re in the middle of treating your fellow church members badly?

Let’s look closely at James’s commands. “You must be patient” is literally “make yourselves patient”. In other words, yes, you can force yourself to be patient. No excuses. “Strengthen your hearts” actually refers to being mentally settled. In other words, think carefully about all of the outcomes, even the ones you’re afraid of, and trust God to do rightly. James is absolutely speaking against anxiety here. Anxiety is the opposite of trust. Again, no excuses: we must trust God when we wait for Christ’s return. “Do not complain” is about verbal hostility—being critical and harsh. Remember that James earlier said that it is not right for blessings and curses to come out of the same mouth. Ask your class what they would want Jesus to hear them say about one another when He unexpectedly visits the church. (And then remind them that Jesus is always listening.)

Hammer home James’s point by asking why it can be so hard today for people to be patient. Is our lack of patience helping us or hurting us? How? Then ask them how knowing that Jesus is coming back should affect our patience. If they truly believe that Jesus is coming back, what behaviors in their life aren’t really compatible? Ask them to share a story of when they had a hard time being patient (waiting for a doctor’s report, waiting to hear from a loved one, learning that someone has raised a complaint about you); how did they force themselves to be patient?


Part 2: Prayer (James 5:13-18)

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a human being as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

I have talked about oils and healing in several places of this post. Hopefully those things have expanded your perspective on what James could have meant when he wrote these words. Let’s start with the obvious things. “Suffer” means to experience evil or endure hardship; it’s the same word he used to describe the prophets. He might have had in mind those people who were being taken advantage of by the rich; they would have felt helpless and maybe hopeless. On the other end, “cheerful” means full of joy. And then finally “sick” actually means “weak”, but it was often used for what we think of as illness. The point? No matter your circumstance, the appropriate response is prayer.

No one should have a problem with that. I’m guessing that the questions they will raise will be about the nature of this “prayer of faith” and the healing. I explain elsewhere that a likely explanation for this passage is that James is calling on the leaders of the church to take medicine to the sick person and pray that God will use it to make that person well. There’s really nothing controversial about that. Of the two things the elders do (pray and anoint), the emphasis is on pray; “anoint” is actually a participle describing something they are to do while praying. This word for “anoint” means to pour on the head; this would be a very powerful experience for the sick person—the leaders of your church gathered around you, the sensation of oil on the head, of hands clasped, the aroma of the oil. Very powerful. There’s no reason why we don’t do more of that in our churches except that “faith healers” have soured many Baptists on the idea of prayer for healing.

One challenge is James’s next statement that the prayer of faith will save the sick person. The word for save means both “to cure” and “to rescue”. The next phrase about forgiveness implies that James is emphasizing the “rescue” (i.e. from the penalty of sin) meaning. This is why some people believe that James isn’t talking about a physically sick person, but a spiritually sick one. That’s sure possible. But I think this is actually a callback to Jesus healing the paralytic in Mark 2, where Jesus says both “your sins are forgiven” and “get up and walk”. What was most important? Not the healing but the forgiveness. Certainly, the rest of this passage is about confession and forgiveness. My thought? James is talking about all kinds of sickness, but from the church’s perspective, our need for forgiveness is more important than our need for healing.

James goes on to encourage accountability (ask your class if they have anyone in their life they trust enough to confess their sins to—we all need someone like that), and he uses Elijah as an example of the power of prayer. It’s a strange example, but it works. Ask if your group believes that your prayer time actually makes a difference.


Aside: So, You're Saying that Essential Oils Are Biblical?

I know that a lot of people are leery about the essential oil business (the “snake oil salesman” joke still floats around). Basically, essential oils today do what they did in Jesus’ day. They are extracted from plants and then inhaled (aromatherapy) or rubbed on a person’s skin—just like in Jesus’ day.

The challenge is providing conclusive medical proof of the health benefits of these oils. Although there have been positive results of use of the oils, no one has been able to put a study into a peer-reviewed medical journal saying “such-and-such oil cures x”. However, there are a number of things that respected websites tend to agree on:

  • Certain aromas stimulate parts of your brain that control emotion and anxiety.

  • Peppermint and lavender seem to help with headaches when dabbed on skin.

  • Lavender can help improve sleep.

  • Certain oils do reduce inflammation, and peppermint is being studied for antimicrobial effects.

We know enough about medicine today to know that those are very important parts of treatment, and so it would be reasonable to conclude that in Jesus’ day, using such oil really did improve a person’s chance of recovering from an illness. In other words, essential oils today are used as they were in Jesus’ day. And that’s not a bad thing. But they are not substitutes for medical technology 2000 years advanced.

Bonus Aside: First Century Oils

To say that oil was precious in the first century would be a gross understatement. As today, oil was used in cooking, particularly cakes. Oil was also mixed into wine. Oil was fuel for lamps. Jews were commanded to use oil as part of their sacrifices and also to anoint kings and priests. Objects dedicated to God would also be drenched in oil. It was used (as I say elsewhere) as medicine. It was also used to protect the skin from sunburns and desert chapping. Finally, oil would be combined with various spices to act as a perfume. (It would thicken liquids so they would “stick” better.)

The primary oil was made from olives, abundant in Palestine. Olives would be pressed, and the first batch (like “EVOO”) was considered the best quality. It would be mixed with water to wash out the impurities, and then the oil would separate from the water to easily be skimmed. (Google “benefits of olive oil” if you want to mention how God blessed the Jews by putting them near olive trees.

Oils were also extracted from almonds (vitamin E and A), castor beans (anti-bacterial?), walnuts (anti-infection and digestive problems?), cypress trees, and cedars. Modern practitioners say that cypress is particularly effective at healing cuts and promoting clotting. They also say that cedar is antiseptic, a deodorizer, and a sedative. If those things are remotely true, it could give credence to the theory that James was primarily encouraging pastors to take medicine to sick church members.

Double Bonus Aside: Who Is the Elder?

This is one of the verses that “elders” (as in Presbyterianism) will use to defend their office (the word for “elder” is “presbyter” in Greek) as something separate from a pastor. The problem with that argument is that in Acts 20, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5, the verbs use to describe the function of the elder are “shepherd” and “oversee” which are the words for “pastor” and “bishop”. In other words, “elder” was an early honorific for the leaders of the churches (because they were all older), but over time those officers became known by their function. So, when James calls on the elders, he’s just calling on all of the pastors to come and pray. In synagogues of that day (James’s cultural background), most of the old men were considered elders and leaders.


Part 3: Protecting (James 5:19-20)

My brothers and sisters, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let that person know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

This last section certainly promotes the idea that James is much ore concerned with “save” as forgiveness rather than healing.

  1. Some people believe that James is talking about a Christian who has lost his salvation and is brought back to it through prayer and intervention.

  2. Others believe that James is talking about a Christian who has strayed from the church and has put himself in danger through his sinful lifestyle.

  3. Still others believe that James is talking about someone who was a part of the church but not truly a Christian, a fact revealed through his straying.

We all know that James’s closing statement is true—take a sinner of the path of destruction and you will save his soul from eternal death and the consequence of sin. The only question is which of the three possibilities James meant for the earlier statement. I believe James means (3).

We have a member of our church, Joe McCommons, who cares a great deal about people who used to be church members but whom we haven’t seen in a long time. All of our Sunday School classes deal with this—people on your role that you want to remove because you never see them. Well, this passage is all the reason you need why we don’t just drop them and forget about them. Yes, it would be easier, and I know that many of you have been discouraged by how disinterested these former members are in spiritual matters, but that’s all the more reason to remember and care about them.

We’re approaching the Christmas holidays. As a closing exercise for our time in James, let me encourage you to take your list of inactive class members and divvy them out—have an active class member send a Christmas card (at the least). My experience has been that guilt trips and Bible trumping are not effective methods of bringing someone back. They’re just looking for another excuse to stay away. Be positive, gentle, loving, and above all genuinely caring about them and their families. Pray for that person before and after you send the card. And then pray for all of the other people in our community who have wandered far from Jesus. Happy Thanksgiving!


Closing Thoughts: Matthew 25

One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Matthew 25. This is after Jesus explained what would happen at the end of the world (and then immediately followed that by saying that no one knows when that will be—not even Him!). He then tells three parables that explain exactly what we need to know about His return.

(1) The parable of the ten virgins. In this parable, the point is simple: the virgins were not prepared to wait for the bridegroom any length of time (he came later than they thought he would); in consequence, they did not have enough time to get ready for the bridegroom when he did come (he came sooner than they hoped). In other words, the parable is both that Jesus will come back later than we expect and sooner than we expect. If we aren’t vigilant about staying ready, we will be caught unawares.

(2) The parable of the talents. This parable isn’t about how soon or late the master comes back from his long journey (even though we tend to think so). It’s about what the servant are doing with his money while he’s gone. If he had come back even later, the first two servants would have earned even more, right? And the other nothing, right? So it’s not about “being ready” at all; it’s about being faithful.

(3) The parable of the sheep and the goats. This plays directly along with the parable of the talents—did we do what we were supposed to be doing while we were waiting for the king to return?

Does that explanation make sense? Jesus really doesn’t focus on how long or short His return will be. Why? Because no one knows! (Except the Father.) All we can focus on is doing what we’re supposed to be doing while we wait patiently. And that’s the theme James picks up on in his letter. Be patient. Be faithful. Be righteous.


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