My favorite scene in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is when Frodo has reached rock bottom. Near the top of Mount Doom, he falls in weakness. He can no longer finish the journey to destroy the ring. His good friend, Sam, turns to him and says these wonderful words, “I can’t carry your burdens, but I can carry you!” Then, he wraps his arm under Frodo, lifts him up off the ground, and carries him up the mountain.
Trials in life can sometimes cause us to hit rock bottom. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you are there now. Maybe the weight of your troubles has knocked you down. Maybe you turned to artificial comforts that have failed you and driven you further in the dirt? Has the pain of an unfaithful spouse, a tragic divorce, or a rebellious child has stung you so deeply that you can’t keep on? Has economic instability, deep debt, news of cancer, or severe sickness yanked your legs out from under you? Have you become weak in faith? Then, you need a Sam too.
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. 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.James 5:14-15
This passage presents a number of real challenges. For instance, what do the elders of the church have that we don’t. What is the significance of anointing with oil? What is the prayer of faith and does it always save the sick? What is the connection between salvation and sickness and committing sins and being forgiven? Even more questions arise in the verses that follow these. What role does confessing sin have in being healed? Who is the righteous person and why does he have power? And finally, what does rain have to do with any of this?
Teachers and students of the passage yield a variety of answers and all of them hinge on the meaning of the word “sick” (Ja. 5:14). One of the most common interpretations, understands “sick” in terms of physical disease. They would argue that “sick” is different from “suffering” in the prior verse, possibly rendering the body inoperable, which would require the elders to come and pray over him. Some of them suggest that the oil has healing factors and that the prayer of faith is a reference to a special gift of God meant to heal those with disease. Since physical healing is understood by “sick,” healing can only come through prayer and the confession of sins.
Unfortunately, this interpretation provides more questions than answers—the biggest of which is that it isn’t consistent with the context. James, a spiritual leader of the Christian church, was writing to the persecuted church dispersed throughout the known world. They were facing harsh persecution which tempted them to grow weary, impatient, and burn with feelings of vengeance. They began to slander, show favoritism, make false promises, and quarrel among themselves. Their faith was under fire. James was writing to encourage them in their walk with God. He never mentions, nor alludes to, physical disease.
Are you spiritually weak?
Every lexicon I own suggests that the word “sick” refers to being weak and feeble, not diseased. In fact, all of its occurrences in the New Testament are translated this way. Furthermore, most of them refer to spiritual weakness and frailty. For instance, Paul says that Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom. 4:19). That is to say, although his body, as well as the body of his wife, was weak and frail, his faith was strong. He believed that God would fulfill His promise of a child.
In Romans 5:6-8, paul uses the same word to describe the ungodly, even sinners. Elsewhere in Romans, he uses the word to distinguish the “weak in faith” from those who are spiritually strong (Rom 14:1-21). In the same way, he instructs the Corinthians on matters of Christian liberties:
“But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”1 Corinthians 8:9-12
These are just some of the reasons why “sick” should be understood as weak and even, because of the context, spiritually weak. “Is anyone among you weak in faith? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him” (Ja. 5:14). With spiritually weak in mind, we can easily unpack the rest of passage. James tells us to turn to the spiritually strong.
You should call to the spiritually strong.
The term “elder” is a term for spiritual leader. It is used in a formal sense to refer to the office of pastor, whose primary function involves prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). They are required to be men of spiritual strength (1 Tim. 3:1-7). And, by the exercise of their office, they are continually strengthened by God (2 Tim. 2:6). However, James might be using the term in a general sense, referring to those in the church who are spiritually strong, not necessarily holding any kind of office. Either way, his point is the same. The spiritually strong are God’s ministers to the spiritually weak. “Let [the weak in faith] call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him” (Ja. 5:16).
The elders are expected to pray over the spiritually weak, “anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (Ja. 5:14). In the ancient mind, anointing someone with oil communicated the idea of massaging the body in order to stimulate recovery and healing (ie: Lk. 10:34). Elders are not physicians. They work in the ministry of soul recovery. And, since it is done in the name of the Lord, it conveys spiritual soothing and the massaging of the soul. As the broken body is healed by the oils of man, so the broken soul is healed by the oils of God.
This is the idea behind Isaiah’s words to the nation of Israel. They were spiritually weak and resorting to sin. Isaiah describes their spiritual state by using a physical illustration—a sick body that has not been massaged with oil.
“Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil.”Isaiah 1:5-6
James continues, “And the prayer of faith,” that is the prayer offered in the strength of the spiritually strong, “will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (Ja. 5:15). Spiritual weakness leads to sin, and sin leads to destruction. The prayer of the spiritual strong will recover their salvation and lift them out of their weakness and sin. The Lord, who desires to restore the joy of their salvation, promises to lift the weak person up. “And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (Ja. 5:15).
The spiritually strong in the church are God’s gifts to the weak. They can put their arm under them and lift them up through prayer. Are you weak in faith? Turn to the spiritually strong and the Lord will raise you up. If you are not weak in faith, then let this motivate you to continue in the exercise of your faith and fleeing from sin. You never know when someone might need you to be their Sam.