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1. The introduction of the problem 5:1
Again James confronted his readers as a prophet (cf. James 4:13). Rich people are usually happy that they have wealth. However, James challenged his rich readers to weep and howl in anguish, not repentance. The Bible nowhere condemns the rich for being rich. Money is not evil (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10). Nevertheless God’s Word consistently warns the rich of the temptations that financial abundance brings with it. These temptations include a false sense of security, a desire to control others, and personal pride. The rich should not rejoice too much. Material misery may be just around the corner (cf. James 1:10-11).
"The persons here addressed are not the same as those addressed in iv. 13. It is no longer the careless worldliness of the bustling trader which is condemned, but the more deadly worldliness of the unjust capitalist or landlord." [Note: Mayor, p. 153.]
Probably James had in mind the rich as a class, not exclusively wealthy believers or wealthy unbelievers.
A. Warnings for the Rich 5:1-6
It is characteristic of James’ well-balanced style that he opened and closed his exhortations (in James 2:1 to James 5:6) with references to the rich. There is also a return in this chapter to encouragement to persevere in the will of God when tempted to depart from it (cf. ch. 1). Thus the book demonstrates a somewhat chiastic structure.
". . . wealth brings consternation [James 5:1], ends up in corrosion [James 5:2-3], and results in condemnation [James 5:4-6]." [Note: Blue, p. 832.]
VI. MONEY AND PATIENT ENDURANCE 5:1-18
The final practical problem James addressed involves money. He wrote these instructions to warn his readers of a danger, to inform them of the ramifications of the problem, and to exhort them to deal with the situation appropriately. This is his third reference to the rich and the poor (cf. James 1:9-11; James 2:1-12). We might also consider James 4:13-17, as well as James 5:1-6, as dealing with the rich. [Note: For some helpful insights on the way Christians might speak and act when confronted with wealth, status, and power on the one hand, or poverty, ignorance, and helplessness on the other, see Duane Warden, "The Rich and Poor in James: Implications for Institutionalized Partiality," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:2 (June 2000):253-57.]
The riches that rot are presumably perishable commodities such as food and drink. Garments were one of the most popular forms of wealth in the biblical world. People used them to pay for things, and they were also heirlooms and popular presents (cf. Matthew 6:19).
2. The corrosive effect of wealth 5:2-3
Gold and silver do not literally rust. They corrode and tarnish. Nevertheless corrosion does the same thing as rust. It destroys the value of the metal. Christians should use money, not hoard it. Therefore the presence of rust or corroded gold in the rich man’s treasury will bear witness to his unfaithful stewardship of his wealth. James warned that the process that destroys gold and silver is the same process that destroys the people who collect these precious metals. Hoarding wealth is a particularly serious sin for Christians since we are living in the last days, the days immediately preceding the Lord’s return. We should be using our money to get the Lord’s work done, not to enable us to live lives of luxury and laziness (cf. Matthew 6:19-24).
"To lay up treasure in heaven means to use all that we have as stewards of God’s wealth. You and I may possess many things, but we do not own them. God is the Owner of everything, and we are His stewards.
"The Bible does not discourage saving, or even investing; but it does condemn hoarding." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 146.]
Hoarding, as used here, means accumulating wealth just to have lots of it, for security, prestige, or just selfishness.
Some of James’ readers were evidently getting rich by cheating their hired workers out of their fair wages (cf. Deuteronomy 24:15). Cries for justice from these oppressed people had entered God’s ears, even though their employers were deaf to them (cf. Genesis 4:5; Genesis 18:20-21). The title "Lord of Sabaoth" (lit. Lord of Hosts, i.e., Lord Almighty; cf. Isaiah 5:9; Romans 9:29) emphasizes the sovereign omnipotence of God. Although the oppressed may appear to have no defenders on earth, they have as their helper the Lord God omnipotent in heaven.
3. The misuse of wealth 5:4-6
The rich are often soft and self-indulgent (cf. Luke 16:19-31; Amos 6:1-6). This is the connotation of luxury, a condition that our culture condones but Scripture condemns. "Wanton pleasure" implies extravagance and waste. In their greedy acquisitiveness the rich fatten themselves figuratively, and sometimes literally, not realizing that they are just preparing themselves for slaughter (judgment) like so many sacrificial animals.
"Like an OT prophet James denounces the wanton luxury of the rich, warning of their coming doom." [Note: Adamson, p. 87.]
This warning should challenge believers to avoid extravagance and self-indulgence when purchasing goods for ourselves.
The oppression of the rich extends to putting to death those who stand in their way even though these people resist the rich righteously. As in James 4:2, James may have been using "put to death" hyperbolically. Many Christians have experienced persecution from people who are trying to guard their own financial security (e.g., Acts 8:18-24; Acts 19:23-28). However if day laborers do not get their wages daily, they can die.
". . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (James 5:6)." [Note: Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead, p. 20.]
These are strong words of warning. James evidently believed that his readers were erring in this area of their lives and needed a severe shock. The Jews’ gift for making money and their interest in this pursuit needed control. We need this warning too since modern culture values money very highly.
As with James 1:10, there is a question about whether James was referring to rich Christians or rich unbelievers in this pericope. Here as there I tend to think that James was probably referring to rich Christians. He seems to be addressing his readers rather than "speaking rhetorically, formally addressing non-Christians in James 1:10 as well as . . . in James 5:1-6, but saying this really for the benefit of his Christian readers, who were suffering at the hands of rich persecutors." [Note: Stulac, p. 199.]
Because of the dangers James just expounded, believers should adopt a patient attitude. The verb makrothymesate (be patient) describes "self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate a wrong." [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, p. 138.] The Lord’s return is near (cf. Mark 13:32-37; Philippians 4:5; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 John 2:18).
"The word parousias (’coming’) was a common term used to describe the visit of a king to a city or province of his kingdom and thus depicts Christ as a royal personage." [Note: Burdick, p. 201.]
The early rains came shortly after planting in Palestine in late October and early November. The late rains followed as the crop was maturing in late March and early April. This reference may imply a Palestinian origin for the epistle. James knew agriculture in Palestine. The point of James’ illustration of the farmer seems to be that as Christians we are primarily sowing and cultivating in this life, not mainly reaping rewards.
"The picture is that of the small farmer in Palestine . . . The small farmer plants his carefully saved seed and hopes for a harvest, living on short rations and suffering hunger during the last weeks. The whole livelihood, indeed the life itself, of the family depends on a good harvest: the loss of the farm, semistarvation, or death could result from a bad year. So the farmer waits for an expected future event (ekdechetai); no one but he could know now precious the grain really is . . ." [Note: Davids, The Epistle . . ., p. 183.]
1. The exhortation to be patient 5:7-9
B. The Proper Attitude 5:7-12
Essentially the attitude of the rich that James condemned was: Get all you can as fast as you can any way you can. In the following pericope he counseled a different attitude to urge his readers, rich and poor, to practice patience.
When the Lord returns we will receive our reward at the judgment seat of Christ. In the meantime we should be patient and encouraged knowing that our reward lies ahead, as God has promised (cf. Matthew 6:20). The rich, who behave as typical rich people, either do not have or have lost sight of this hope. They live only to accumulate as much reward here and now as they can.
". . . the finish line is just ahead: the important point is not to give up now and lose all that for which one has already suffered." [Note: Ibid., p. 184.]
"Anything that must happen, and could happen today, is in a very legitimate sense at hand." [Note: Hodges, The Epistle . . ., p. 111.]
It is easy for us to blame one another for our present discomforts.
"What is forbidden is not the loud and bitter denunciation of others but the unexpressed feeling of bitterness or the smothered resentment that may express itself in a groan or a sigh." [Note: Burdick, p. 202.]
James forbade this because it involves improper judging (cf. James 4:11-12). Judgment will take place soon. This verse is a clear indication that the early Christians expected the Lord Jesus to return imminently. [Note: See Gerald B. Stanton, Kept from the Hour, ch. 6: "The Imminency of the Coming of Christ for the Church," pp. 108-37.] If Jesus could return at any moment, He will return before the seven-year Tribulation, which Scripture says must precede His Second Coming to establish His kingdom on the earth. Thus the Rapture must be distinct from the Second Coming, separated by at least seven years.
"The early Christians’ conviction that the parousia was ’near’, or ’imminent’, meant that they fully believed that it could transpire within a very short period of time-not that it had to." [Note: Moo, p. 169.]
Imminent means something could happen very soon, not that it must. [Note: See Robert G. Bratcher, A Translator’s Guide to the Letters from James, Peter, and Jude, p. 55; M. F. Sadler, The General Epistles of SS. James, Peter, John and Jude, pp. 68-69; Adamson, pp. 191-92; Frank E. Gaebelein, The Practical Epistle of James, p. 112; Vernon D. Doerksen, James, p. 123; E. C. Blackman, The Epistle of James, p. 146; J. Alec Motyer, The Tests of Faith, p. 107; Mitton, p. 186; Spiros Zodhiates, The Patience of Hope, p. 90; David P. Scaer, James the Apostle of Faith, p. 126; Homer A. Kent Jr., Faith that Works, p. 176; Harold T. Bryson, How Faith Works, pp. 116-17, 119; Davids, p. 185; and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John, p. 165.]
"In light of the concept of the imminent coming of Christ and the fact that the New Testament does teach His imminent coming, we can conclude that the Pretribulation Rapture view is the only view of the Rapture of the church that comfortably fits the New Testament teaching of the imminent coming of Christ. It is the only view that can honestly say that Christ could return at any moment, because it alone teaches that Christ will come to rapture the church before the 70th week of Daniel 9 or the Tribulation period begins and that nothing else must happen before His return." [Note: Renald E. Showers, Maranatha: Our Lord, Come! A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church, p. 149.]
James pictured Jesus poised at the door of heaven ready to welcome Christians into His heavenly throne room. The hope of His imminent (any moment) return should strongly motivate us to live patiently and sacrificially now.
One could use just about any one of the Hebrew prophets as an example of patient endurance in suffering (cf. James 1:4).
2. Examples of endurance 5:10-11
Job was not always patient, but he did determine to endure whatever might befall him as he waited for God to clear up the mystery of his suffering (cf. Job 13:10; Job 13:15; Job 16:19-21; Job 19:25). In James 5:7-10 James pleaded for patience (makrothymia) that restrains itself and does not retaliate. Here he advocated perseverance (hypomone) through difficult circumstances (cf. James 1:3; Hebrews 11:25).
Job reaped a great reward at the end of his trial. We see God’s compassion and mercy especially at the end of Job’s experience, though God manifested these characteristics earlier as well. Job determined to continue to live by faith when he experienced temptation to depart from the will of God (cf. James 1:2-4).
"James has been concerned to help believers to overcome the tendency to react like the world to the injustices heaped on them by the world. The world, by its very nature antagonistic to God and His kingdom, will continue to oppose God’s people. But if these truths grip the hearts of His people, it will enable them to overcome the spirit of worldliness by refraining from a worldly reaction to the world’s injustices." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 278.]
3. The evidence of patience 5:12
Swearing is an evidence of impatience.
"What he [James] means is that of all the manifestations of impatience in times of stress and affliction the most frequent is the taking of the Lord’s name in vain by the use of explosive utterances and hasty and irreverent oaths." [Note: Tasker, p. 124. Cf. Mayor, p. 167.]
When we become impatient and lose self-control we tend to say things better left unspoken. These include swearing, abusing the Lord’s name, and appealing to heaven, earth, or whatever as confirmation that we are speaking the truth (cf. Matthew 5:33-37).
"It should be obvious that what is referred to in Matthew and James is the light, casual use of oaths in informal conversation-not formal oaths in such places as courts of law [cf. Psalms 110:4; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20]." [Note: Burdick, p. 203.]
"The Jews were wont to split hairs in their use of profanity, and by avoiding God’s name imagine that they were not really guilty of this sin, just as professing Christians today use ’pious oaths’ which violate the prohibition of Jesus." [Note: Robertson, 6:63.]
What is not in view in this discussion is the use of "dirty" speech.
"James’s wisdom amounts to this: we should never need to use an oath to prove that ’this time I really mean it!’ Instead we should always ’really mean it.’" [Note: Hodges, The Epistle . . ., p. 115. Cf. Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:3-4; Hosea 4:2; Jeremiah 5:2; Zechariah 5:3-4; Malachi 3:5.]
"Our mere word should be as utterly trustworthy as a signed document, legally correct and complete." [Note: Mitton, p. 193.]
The root problem with the improper behavior that often characterizes the rich, as James saw it, is an attitude of impatience that results from rejecting or forgetting divine revelation concerning the future. Knowledge of the future as God has revealed it in Scripture has very direct application to everyday living. It should affect the way we think about money, among other things.
1. The way of release 5:13
Prayer to God, not profanity, is the proper outlet for feelings of sadness caused by suffering as we patiently endure.
"James’s emphasis on prayer in this section is especially noteworthy since few things undergird perseverance more effectively than prayer. In the final analysis, a persevering life is also a prayerful life." [Note: Hodges, The Epistle . . ., p. 113.]
The right way to express joy is by praising God, not swearing.
C. The Proper Action 5:13-18
James encouraged his readers to pray, as well as to be patient, to enable them to overcome the temptation to live only for the present and to stop living by faith. James not only begins and ends his epistle with references to trials, but he "also begins (James 1:5-8) and ends (James 5:13-18) with prayer as the instrumental means for managing trials." [Note: C. Richard Wells, "The Theology of Prayer in James," Criswell Theological Review 1:1 (Fall 1986):86.]
Times of spiritual weakness or physical sickness are usually occasions in which it is especially difficult to be patient (e.g., Job).
Anointing with oil was the equivalent in James’ day of applying medication (cf. 1 Timothy 5:23).
". . . oil among the ancients was highly valued for its therapeutic qualities (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 10:34)." [Note: Merrill F. Unger, "Divine Healing," Bibliotheca Sacra 128:511 (July-September 1971):236. Cf. Adamson, p. 197. See also Mayor, pp. 170-71, for extrabiblical references.]
The oil provided more refreshment and soothing comfort than it did real relief for serious ailments, but people drank it as well as rubbing it on themselves as a medication. The term translated "anointing him with oil" in Greek refers to medicinal anointing, not religious ceremonial anointing. [Note: Robertson, 6:64-65.] James used aleiphein ("rub") here rather than chriein ("anoint"). The former word is the "mundane and profane" referring to all kinds of rubbing whereas the latter is the "sacred and religious" word used to describe religious ceremonies. [Note: R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, p. 129. See also Burdick, p. 204.]
James instructed that in times of weakness, spiritual or physical, Christians should ask their church elders to visit them, to pray for them, and to minister to them in Jesus’ name (i.e., as His servants). [Note: See John Wilkinson, "Healing in the Epistle of James," Scottish Journal of Theology 24 (1971):338-40.]
"Prayer is the more significant of the two ministries performed by the elders. ’Pray’ is the main verb, while ’anoint’ is a participle. Moreover, the overall emphasis of the paragraph is on prayer. So the anointing is a secondary action." [Note: Burdick, p. 204.]
The fact that the weary person was to summon the elders gives a clue that this person’s sickness connects with some spiritual condition. This proves to be the case in James 5:15. Today a skilled physician normally provides the medical attention. The elders need to deal with the spiritual factors affecting the sick person, if any, since they have a responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the flock (Hebrews 13:17). In this context James had a sickness with spiritual roots in view. Really all sickness is traceable to the Fall.
It is interesting that James did not tell his readers to call for someone with the gift of healing. Evidently such people were rare even in the very early history of the church when James wrote.
Probably this treatment reminded the sick person of the power of the Holy Spirit that anointing with oil symbolized in the Old Testament. [Note: Fanning, p. 433. Cf. Gary S. Shogren, "Will God Heal Us-A Re-examination of James 5:14-16a," Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989):99-108.]
"Aleiphein . . . may have been chosen over chriein because of standard usage yet still with the intention of conveying the thought that the anointing of oil was symbolic." [Note: Martin, p. 209.]
This verse is the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of extreme unction (i.e., anointing someone with oil at death to gain merit with God for so doing). [Note: For refutation of this view, see Adamson, pp. 204-5.] This practice began in the eighth century. [Note: Blue, p. 834.]
2. The prescription for help 5:14-16
It is not surprising to find that James dealt with sickness (Gr. asthenai, weakness) in this epistle. He referred to the fact that departure from the will of God sets the Christian on a course that, unless corrected, may result in his or her premature physical death (James 1:15; James 1:21; James 5:20). Spiritual weakness, and sometimes physical sickness, result from sinful living. James gave instructions about how to deal with these maladies in James 5:14-20.
"Difficulties in deciding what exactly in the preceding verse is meant by anointing should not cause us to overlook the main point of James 5:13-18, which is prayer. It is prayer-not the anointing-which leads to the healing of the sick person." [Note: Martin, p. 209.]
The elders’ prayers offered in faith will restore (lit. save, Gr. sosei, "make well"; cf. Matthew 9:21-22; Mark 6:56) the sick and arouse (Gr. egerei, raise up) him or her. Offered in faith means presented with confidence in God’s power to heal if that is His will in this case (cf. Matthew 8:1-13; Mark 5:35-42). Furthermore the Lord will raise him to health if this is His will (John 14:13; 1 John 5:14).
"The medicine does not heal the sick, but it helps nature (God) do it. The doctor cooperates with God in nature." [Note: Robertson, 6:65.]
Benjamin Franklin reportedly said, "God heals, and the doctor collects the fee."
There is no basis in Scripture for the popular idea that praying in faith means praying with confidence that something will happen just because we pray (cf. James 1:5-6; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Faith always must have the person or promise of God as its object to be effective.
"It is a prayer of faith, i.e. the prayer which expresses trust in God and flows out of commitment to him, for only such prayers are effective . . ." [Note: Davids, The Epistle . . ., p. 194. See also Thomas L. Constable, "The Doctrine of Prayer" (Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1969), p. 111; and Mayor. p. 173.]
Some take the faith in view here as a special, God-given assurance that it is His will to heal in this instance (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:9). [Note: E.g., D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith, p. 322; idem, James, p. 297; Guy H. King, A Belief That Behaves: An Expositional Study of the Epistle of James, p. 124; and Motyer, The Message . . ., p. 198.] However simple faith in God seems to be in view since James did not qualify it.
If the sufferer has committed some sin that has resulted in his or her debilitated condition, James added, God will forgive this sin. This happens when the sinner confesses it to God (1 John 1:9; cf. Matthew 6:12). Not all sickness is the direct result of some sin (cf. John 9:1-3).
"James’s point is simply that both must be dealt with when they are linked." [Note: Fanning, p. 434.]
In view of the possibility of spiritual and physical sickness following sin, believers should confess their sins (against one another) to one another (normally privately). Furthermore they should pray for one another so God may heal them (spiritually and physically).
"Much is assumed here that is not expressed." [Note: Robertson, 6:65.]
James assumed these facts, I believe, that are consistent with other revelation concerning prayer that the writers of Scripture give elsewhere. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, Talking to God: What the Bible Teaches about Prayer, pp. 129-30.]
"In the ancient mind sin and sickness went together, and so confession of sin was necessary if prayer for the sick was to be effective. The confession is to be not only to the elders (or other ministers) but to one another, that is, probably to those they have wronged." [Note: Adamson, p. 189.]
Husbands and wives need to create an atmosphere in the home that promotes transparency (cf. Colossians 3:12-13). We need to demonstrate total acceptance of our mate (cf. 1 John 4:18). We also need to show an attitude of constant forgiveness (Ephesians 4:31-32). Spouses should make a commitment to verbalize their emotions without pulling back or quitting. This involves acknowledging our emotions, explaining and describing our feelings, and sharing our feelings regardless of our mate’s response.
Here are some suggestions for improving your ability to express your emotions. Practice sharing your emotions with your mate. Find a model of transparency and study him or her. Read the psalms to see how the psalmists expressed their emotions. Memorize selected proverbs that deal with specific areas in which you have difficulty. Focus on communication as a special subject of study. Share laughter together. [Note: Family Life Conference, pp. 78-79.]
"We must never confess sin beyond the circle of that sin’s influence. Private sin requires private confession; public sin requires public confession. It is wrong for Christians to ’hang dirty wash in public,’ for such ’confessing’ might do more harm than the original sin." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 170. See also John R. W. Stott, Confess your Sins, p. 12.]
"Perhaps . . . the ’sins’ that need to be confessed and remitted are those lapses from faithful endurance that James has written to warn about throughout the course of this hortatory tract." [Note: Martin, p. 215.]
"Does all this mean that confession to a brother is a divine law? No, confession is not a law, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner. It is possible that a person may by God’s grace break through to certainty, new life, the Cross, and fellowship without benefit of confession to a brother. It is possible that a person may never know what it is to doubt his own forgiveness and despair of his own confession of sin, that he may be given everything in his own private confession to God. We have spoken here for those who cannot make this assertion. Luther himself was one of those for whom the Christian life was unthinkable without mutual, brotherly confession. In the Large Catechism he said: ’Therefore when I admonish you to confession I am admonishing you to be a Christian’. Those who, despite all their seeking and trying, cannot find the great joy of fellowship, the Cross, the new life, and certainty should be shown the blessing that God offers us in mutual confession. Confession is within the liberty of the Christian. Who can refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?" [Note: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 92.]
"The practice of auricular confession was not made generally obligatory even by the Church of Rome till the Lateran Council of 1215 under Innocent III., which ordered that every adult person should confess to the priest at least once in the year. In all other Churches it is still optional." [Note: Mayor, p. 176.]
A righteous man’s prayers can accomplish much in the spiritual and physical deliverance of someone else, as Elijah’s praying illustrates (James 5:17-18). In this verse the "righteous man" is the person who has confessed his sins and has received forgiveness.
"Prayer is powerful for only one reason. It is the means whereby we avail ourselves of the power of God." [Note: C. Samuel Storms, Reaching God’s Ear, p. 214.]
Evidently James practiced what he preached about prayer. Eusebius, the early church historian, quoted Hegesippus, an earlier commentator, who gave, Eusebius claimed, an accurate account of James.
"He was in the habit of entering the temple alone, and was often found upon his bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as camel’s, in consequence of his habitual supplication and kneeling before God." [Note: The Ecclesiastical . . ., p. 76.]
"The truth of James 5:13-16 is applicable for believers today. James was not discussing sickness in general, nor necessarily severe illness that doctors cannot heal. Rather he was speaking of sickness that is the result of unrighteous behavior. James did not write to give a definitive statement on the healing of all sickness for Christians. The passage sheds light on God’s dealing with those in the early church whose actions were not pleasing to him. This text speaks about individuals who sin against the Lord and, in light of the context for the book, especially those who sin with their tongues. If church members today took this passage seriously, it would bring about significant results, just as did Elijah’s prayer. When Christians recognize sinful attitudes and wrongful behavior and turn to the Lord, the result is forgiveness and restoration and, in specific cases in which sickness is the result of a particular sin, there can be physical healing." [Note: Wendell G. Johnston, "Does James Give Believers a Pattern for Dealing with Sickness and Healing?" in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, p. 174.]
"There is no such thing as (so to speak) ’non-spiritual’ healing. When the aspirin works, it is the Lord who has made it work; when the surgeon sets the broken limb and the bone knits, it is the Lord who has made it knit. Every good gift is from above! . . . On no occasion should a Christian approach the doctor without also approaching God . . ." [Note: Motyer, The Message . . ., p. 193.]
3. The power of prayer 5:17-18
To illustrate the power of prayer James referred to Elijah’s experience (1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:1; 1 Kings 18:41-45). In view of the remarkable answers Elijah received, James reminded his audience that the prophet was an ordinary man.
"Here the point is not that Elijah put up a particularly fervent prayer but that praying was precisely what he did." [Note: Adamson, p. 201.]
"Prayed earnestly" is literally "prayed with prayer." This verse is not a call for fervent prayer but a call for prayer (cf. James 4:16). A "righteous man" who prays can accomplish much. Therefore answers to prayer are within the reach of any believer (cf. Luke 11:9-13). However, as mentioned previously, James used "righteousness" as Jesus did to refer to right conduct.
Through his praying Elijah influenced God in the outworking of His decree. [Note: See Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 105-11.] God allows us to influence Him through prayer today as well in certain areas of His will. One of these areas is how He deals with Christians who have departed from His will.
". . . Elijah confidently made his audacious petitions to Jehovah because he was conscious that they were in harmony with the will of God. He could confidently persist in His request for rain (1 Kings 18:42-44) because he knew that God had promised to send the rain he was asking for (1 Kings 18:2 [sic 1]). He could persevere in prayer because he knew his petition was in harmony with the expressed will of God.
"Knowing the will of God is the sure foundation for effective prayer [1 John 5:14].
"When the Scriptural teaching that prayer is a definite means of working with God is apprehended, we feel that this is fully in keeping with His gracious character. God yearns to take His sons into His confidence and let them share with Him in the accomplishment of His purposes. He has so arranged this world that there is a definite place for answered prayer in the divine government. He deliberately so constituted things that His believing children may have, and are invited to have, a definite share in the fulfillment of His saving purpose with mankind through intercessory prayer. The Scriptures are replete with illustrations of how the cause of the Lord was furthered as God answered the prayers of His people." [Note: D. Edmond Hiebert, Working With God: Scriptural Studies in Intercession, pp. 12-13.]
"So the example of Elijah is used as a counterpoint to stress once again the need for a peaceful solution gained by prayer and submission to the divine will." [Note: Martin, p. 213.]
In an interesting article one writer argued that James 5:13-18 does not refer to physical healing generally but specifically to discouragement and depression. [Note: Daniel R. Hayden, "Calling the Elders to Pray," Bibliotheca Sacra 138:551 (July-September 1981):258-66. See Wells, pp. 105-6, for a modified version of this view.] Whereas the Greek words for sick (James 5:14-15) and healed (James 5:16) allow this interpretation, I believe we should prefer their normal meaning here primarily because of the context. There is nothing in the context that would limit the healing to psychological conditions. I believe James used the case of a sick person to show the powerful effect praying can have to encourage his readers to pray for those who are sick because of sin. He also did so to encourage them to exercise patience rather than living for the present.
This verse also ties in with what James just said about the privilege and duty of prayer. Any believer, not just the elders, can help a brother back into the right way (James 5:14; cf. Ezekiel 33:1-9).
"It was easy then, and is now, to be led astray from Christ, who is the Truth." [Note: Robertson, 6:67.]
VII. THE WAY BACK TO LIVING BY FAITH 5:19-20
James concluded this major section and his entire epistle by explaining how a brother who had erred could return to fellowship with God and could resume living by faith. These instructions apply directly to what James just explained in chapter 5. However they also show the way back to any who may have stumbled in the other errors James dealt with in this book.
The soul saved from death is that of the backslider to whom also belongs the multitude of sins. We should probably understand the "soul" to represent the whole person here as well as elsewhere in James’ epistle (cf. James 1:21). [Note: See Bob Wilkin, "Soul Talk, Soul Food, and ’Soul Salvation,’" Grace Evangelical Society News 6:12 (December 1991)2; and idem, "’Soul Salvation,’ Part 2; Saving the Soul of a Fellow Christian; James 5:19-20," Grace Evangelical Society News 7:1 (January 1992):2.] Death represents the temporal destruction of the person, not his or her eternal damnation (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:15; 1 John 5:16). The repentance of the reclaimed sinning believer results in the forgiveness (covering) of his or her sins. This description of forgiveness harks back to Old Testament usage where the biblical writers described sin as covered when forgiven. Such usage was understandable for James who was a Jewish believer writing to other Jews primarily (James 1:1; cf. Matthew 7:1-5; Galatians 6:1-5). His description does not contradict other New Testament revelation concerning forgiveness.
This epistle deals with five practical problems that every believer, immature or mature, encounters as he or she seeks to live by faith and the issues underlying these problems. As a skillful physician, James not only identified the problems but uncovered their sources, pointed out complicating factors, and prescribed treatment to overcome them with a view to his readers’ becoming more mature spiritually. The problems and James’ method of dealing with them account for the popularity of this epistle throughout church history and for its perennial value in ministry.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on James 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/