Robert McCheyne, a preacher largely recognized for his prayer life, once said, “a man is what he is on his knees before God, and nothing more.” If this is true, what does this say about you? Is your prayer life full? Is it powerful? Does it prove your trust and confidence in the Lord? Does it show your family and friends that God’s will matters most?
In Acts 9, the Lord calls Ananias, a humble Christian man, to go and meet with Paul, a man with a reputation of killing Christians. He had some reasonable concerns: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints” and how he has authority “to bind all who call on your name” (Acts 9:13-14). The Lord comforted Ananias with this: “Paul is praying” (Acts 9:11). Prayer can say a lot about person.
Are you praying? James hopes so. He dedicated the end of his epistle to motivate you to be a person who makes much of prayer. He teaches us to pray for the suffering, the cheerful, and the spiritually weak, and the fellowship of the church. He tells us to pray alone, pray aloud, pray with others, and ask others to pray for you. His reason is simple—because prayer is powerful.
The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.James 5:16-18
The Declaration of Powerful Prayer
In verse 16, James begins with a declaration of the power of prayer. To put it plain: it is powerful. Unfortunately, the force of the power doesn’t come across as well in the translation due to the limitations of the English language. The Young’s Literal Translation renders 5:16 this way, “Very strong is a working supplication of a righteous man.” And, while it is a closer word-for-word translation, the emphasis that exists in the Greek language is still lost.
When I was young, my sister accidentally broke off a plug in the socket. One of the metal stems was stuck. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My father, after warning me not to touch it because of the powerful shock it would cause, left to grab some tools. I had to know. So, I reached out with a finger and touched the the metal shard. A jolt of power shot through my body the likes I had never known causing me to shake for a half hour. I will never forget that experience. James 5:16 is fused with power, but we need to touch it to really get a sense of it.
When you strip away all the modifying words and clauses in the English Standard Version (ESV), it simply reads, “Prayer has power.” This is the main clause and the basic idea that James wants to get across. The word “prayer” is often translated as “supplication” and refers to taking our urgent requests to God. The rest of the clause is only a single verb in the Greek manuscript. It communicates the powerful nature of prayer. It is “strong enough,” and always able to prevail. This is the baseline of power. Prayer is powerful enough. But, James says more.
To really light your fire for prayer, James employs a number of modifying words and clauses to compound an already sufficient power. We call these modifiers adjectives and adverbs. For instance, we might describe a car as fast, shoes as black, or muscles as strong. In the ESV translation, the word “great” is used to communicate the extraordinary amount of power that prayer has. So, take the existing sufficient power and compound that with extraordinary amounts of that same power. The result is powerful power.
He doesn’t stop there. There is a second verb in the Greek that acts as an adverbial clause piling on more power to an already extraordinary amount of power. The ESV translates it as “is working” (Ja. 5:16). It is where we get our English word “energy” and means to energize, to power, and to produce results. Essentially, it is giving more force to the existing powerful power. So, take the sufficient power compound it with excessive amounts of sufficient power and compound it yet again with a steady flow of inner power. The result is powerfully powering power.
Despite the powerfully powering power of prayer, many still fail to draw from this divine energy. James tells us that only the “the prayer of a righteous person” can access it (Ja. 5:16). Scripture speaks about the righteousness of people in two ways. First, it is perfect and position. Those who are born again by God are positionally righteous and in good standing before God forever. Second, it is progressive and practical. Those who are positionally righteous walk with God being continually transformed into Christ-likeness. They are being practically righteous—confessing sin, becoming holy, being discipled. For example, Noah “was a righteous man” and is described as being “blameless in his generation” and “walking with God” (Gen. 6:9). He was right before God and being made right in God’s sight. To people like Noah, the powerfully powering power of prayer is given.
The Demonstration of Powerful Prayer
After a declaration of the power of prayer, James provides us with a living example. He reminds us of the story of Elijah. In the final chapters of 1 Kings, we read about the disastrous leadership of King Ahab. He was influenced by his wife, Jezebel, and indulged her by permitting the worship of pagan gods in the kingdom of Israel. Then, he promoted this pagan worship as equal with the genuine worship of the Lord. He even built pagan temples and statues. This eventually led to Ahab’s opposition to the Lord altogether. He destroyed the Lord’s temples and killed the Lord’s prophets. Basically, he rid the kingdom of Israel of God. And, to put it mildly, “King Ahab provoked the Lord” (1 Kings 16:33).
So, the Lord made a powerful statement to the king and the nation as a whole using His prophet Elijah. James tells us, “Elijah prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth” (Ja. 5:17; cf: 1 Kings 17:1). When the rain ceased, the crops died, the animals starved, and the people suffered. God was proving Himself as the God of all creation. And, after three and a half years, God decides to turn the water back on. “Then, Elijah prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (Ja. 5:18; cf: 1 Kings 18:1). It was a spectacular display of the power of prayer.
Here’s the key, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Ja. 5:17). The Greek literally reads that he was “just a human with similar passions.” This means that he was an average Joe, just like everyone else. He suffered. He had desires. He was hungry (1 Kings 17:11). He was afraid (1 Kings 19:3). He was depressed (1 Kings 19:4). He was every bit as human as we are. The point is this: Extraordinary power is available to ordinary people.
Prayer has powerfully powering power, and it is here for you to access if you are a righteous person. Would you take hold of the abundant, extraordinary power that God has given you? The friends of God have access to the power of God. Don’t waste it on your sin.