Help for the Weak (James 5:13-18)

Restoring the Weak Believer

The test of prayerfulness–James 5:13-18

Soon after the Berlin Wall went down, the Lord opened a door for our church to train pastors in Siberian Russia. We were not only the first Americans in central Siberia, we were some of the first foreigners in this region. I knew that, because I was talking to my missionary friends at the open market, and a milk lady starting pointing at me and speaking in Russian saying—“That man is speaking to me and I cannot understand him. He is speaking jibberish.” She had never heard anyone speak a foreign language. Wow!

As I got to know my brothers and sisters in Siberia, I began to understand what the Russian believers had suffered under communism. There was something that haunted me from my five trips to that foreign wasteland. I met a man who was even more sullen, depressed and negative than the typical Russian. I learned that under communism, he’d been horribly tortured for his faith. And under the stress of that torture, against his will, he had denied Christ. Now he was a mess–guilt mixed in with a massively messed up theology made him think he had lost his salvation. He thought he’d committed the unforgivable sin. He thought he was a second-class believer–always looked down upon for his scarlet-letter sin.

He had become the weakened believer. He was a believer who’d been persecuted, really messed up with bad teaching. He was in need of confession, in need of prayer, in need of some sound biblical theology, and in need of some mature spiritual guidance. The churches James wrote in this earliest epistle had believers who were the same. Many were tortured, but some of those abused believers responded well to the persecution. They continued to walk with Christ, glorified God and reacted almost as if they weren’t tortured at all.

Others who were tortured did not respond well at all. As a result of the torture, a few of those who were messed up were exposed as phony, churchgoing Christians. But others were true believers who had been severely weakened in their faith. They were messed up. They were abused so badly, they had sinned in the process. They didn’t know how to pray, how to think biblically, how to get on with their lives. These believers were hurting in a huge way, so what should they do?

James now writes to these churches on how to restore the weakened believer. There are times when believers are not strong in Christ–but from difficult experiences, personal betrayal, torture under persecution, massive hurt, false doctrine, wicked leadership some believers get messed up, literally damaged in their faith and become weak. So 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

In James 5:13 to 17 the half-brother of Christ gives instructions on how to help the weak. Read it aloud with me, starting in verse 13 through 18. “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. 14Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”

Though not the toughest verse, these verses make up the most difficult paragraph in James. What kind of suffering does James have in view in verse 13? What type of sickness is in view in verse 14? Why are the prayers of the elders different from those of other believers in verses 14 to 15? What is the anointing with oil described in verse 14? Does the prayer of faith in verse 15 always restore the sick? How does sickness relate to sin in verse 15? What type of healing is in view in verse 16? Why does James insert an illustration about rain in verses 17 to 18 into the middle of a discussion of healing?

Again, when the Greek words can be translated more than one way, and the Greek syntax is difficult to interpret, the best hope you have in answering all those difficult questions is to lean hard on the context of the passage. Verses in the Bible are never to be interpreted in isolation. Like John MacArthur says, “To properly understand any passage one must interpret it in light of the paragraphs immediately preceding and following it, the chapter or section it is in, and the book containing it. Context provides the flow of thought in which any given passage of Scripture exists. To ignore context, is to sacrifice a proper interpretation; it has well been said that a text without a context is a pretext. Therefore, before attempting to interpret this challenging paragraph, a review of the context in which it was written is essential.”

Let’s look at context. James wrote this epistle to mainly Jewish believers who had been forced to flee from Palestine by persecution. James referred to them in chapter 1 verse 1 as “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” Being both Jewish and Christians, they faced hostility from both the pagan culture and the Jewish culture surrounding them. Knowing that, James opens his letter with a challenge to patiently endure trials (1:2.). Now in chapter 5, James returns to the theme of trials, but now, intense trials.

In the first six verses, James describes the persecution his financially poor readers were suffering at the hands of the wicked rich–even to the point of death. After condemning the oppressors in verses1 to 6, James instructs those they oppressed in verses 7 to 11. James instructs the tyrannized how to endure their dark and suffering. But some were so weakened by their unjust attacks, they needed special help. Their weakened hearts were unable to sort out what had happened to them.

So in verses 13 to 17, what does James tell those struggling persecuted believers to do? James teaches, your main response when you’re weak is to pray–even if you don’t feel like it! In addition, confess your sins to one another, and ask for mature spiritual help. But mainly pray. Individual believers when weakened are called to pray in verse 13, the elders in verses 14 to 15, and the entire congregation in verse 16 are also called to pray.

As James expresses his compassionate, pastoral care for his suffering flock, his main focus is on the casualties of spiritual battle–the persecuted, weak, defeated believers. The context and the content of this section make it really clear, the main subject of these verses is not physical illness or healing. No, James’ concern is healing spiritual weakness, spiritual weariness, spiritual exhaustion, and spiritual depression through prayer–as well as dealing with the suffering and sin that accompanies it.

There is nothing in the preceding context nor the following context which would lead you to interpret this passage as describing physical healing–no. These verses are about how to help the casualties of persecution, through prayer, confession, mature help, and fellowship—for helping the weak requires mature help, fellowship, and most of all prayer. Where do we start? (Four main points, all starting with R.)

#1  Evaluate the different REACTIONS to hurtful oppression  Verse 13

James begins by reminding you that everyone reacts differently to persecution. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.” James’ pastoral heart is directed first toward suffering believers. The Greek verb “suffering” is not talking about physical illness, but is describing those who are being abused, persecuted and treated wickedly by people. So James says the antidote for their suffering is verse 13, “Then he must pray.” To pray–why? Because God alone is the ultimate source of comfort.

Doesn’t Paul affirm in 2 Corinthians 1:3 to 4 that “God is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction.” Also, in 1 Peter 5:7 Peter motivates you to be, “casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” The present tense of the verb “he must pray” encourages you to be continually pleading with God in prayer–in fact, it could be translated “let him keep on praying.” When life is difficult, when believers are weak in faith, weary with persecution, and crushed by affliction, they must continually plead with God to comfort them.

Then James adds, those who manage to maintain a cheerful attitude in their suffering are to sing praises. Verse 13, “cheerful” means well in spirit, having a joyful attitude. James is not describing those who are physically well, but those who suffer but are still rejoicing, happy and thankful. They’re to sing praises and pray the psalms. But those who are weak, worn out and struggling from their torture are to continually pray. NO matter how you respond, whether praise or prayer, point #2 . . .

#2  Engage the RESOURCES for restoration from damaging attacks  Verses 14 to 15

Spiritual leaders are needed to sort through the damaging struggles. Verses 14 to 15, “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” At first glance, this passage seems to be talking about healing sick believers. But this passage is not about physical healing–again, that view is out of sync with the context.

Now don’t overreact–God is a healing God. God still heals. God sometimes chooses to heal and sometimes chooses not to heal. Jesus often healed. And His unique proxies, the apostles, were gifted to heal. But neither Jesus nor His apostles healed everyone. And even though God does heal, the Church today does not demand healing, nor put its trust in healers. The gift of healing was a sign gift, given uniquely to the apostles during the formation of the New Testament. Then as the apostles transitioned, so did those sign gifts.

When God heals, it is always in accordance with His will and is often in answer to the earnest prayers of His people. God does not guarantee to heal everybody. And even as the apostolic age died out, Paul needed the constant physical ministry of Luke, “the beloved physician.” He left Trophimus sick at Miletus (in 2 Timothy 4:20), and he advised Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake and his frequent sicknesses (in 1 Timothy 5:23).

So what does James ask in verse 14? “Is anyone among you sick?” Sick is used 18 times as illness, and 14 times as spiritual weakness. But in the New Testament epistles, sick is only used three times as physical illness and the vast majority of times it is used as spiritual weakness, as in 2 Corinthians 12:10 which describes the spiritual weakness that was produced by the sufferings of life–just like James refers to here. Second Corinthians 12:10, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The predominant usage of the Greek word translated sick is weakness. These believers had become spiritually weak through their intense suffering. They are weak from being defeated in spiritual battle–they’re fallen spiritual warriors. The exhausted, weary, now depressed, confused Christians. They have tried to draw on God’s power through prayer, but had lost their motivation, even falling into sinful attitudes. They’ve hit bottom and are not able to pray effectively on their own. In that condition, the spiritually weak need the help of the spiritually strong.

James says that help is found in the elders of the church. Verse 14b, “Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him.” The elders are the spiritually strong, the spiritually mature, the spiritually victorious. Weak, defeated believers are to go to them and draw on their strength. Notice–they are to call, meaning to call alongside. The elders are to come to those beaten up externally and internally and lift them up in prayer.

It’s a similar thought Paul expresses in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” The wounded, exhausted, broken sheep are to go to their shepherds, who will intercede for them and ask God to renew their spiritual strength. Then James adds in verse 14b, “Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

What is this anointing? The Greek word for anointing is never used in the New Testament to describe a symbolic ceremony. But as scholar AT Robinson says, “It is more often used to describe rubbing on oil as a medical practice. Perhaps the best way to translate the phrase would be ‘rubbing him with oil in the name of the Lord’; the Greek literally means ‘after having oiled him.’”

There’s a strong possibility the elders literally rubbed oil on believers who had suffered physical injuries to their bodies as a result of their persecution torture. Like the good Samaritan in Luke 10:34a, “and came to him, and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them.” They didn’t have many trustworthy doctors, and medicine was primitive. Therefore, it was a gracious act for elders to rub oil on the wounds of those who’d been beaten.

The elders’ ministry of prayer and kindness was to be done (at the end of verse 14) “in the name of the Lord”. To do something in the name of Christ is to do what He’d do in the situation. To pray in the name of Christ is to ask what He would want. To minister in the name of Christ is to serve others on His behalf. Just like Jesus prayed, just like Jesus served. John 14:13 to 14, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14‘If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.’”

The result of the elders’ comfort and ministry of prayer is verse 15, “and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” Again, sick is misleading. It is not physical illness, but spiritual restoration of weak, defeated believers. Nor does “restore” refer to physical healing–it is most commonly translated save in the New Testament. The idea here is that the elders’ prayers will deliver weak, defeated believers from their spiritual weakness and restore them to spiritual wholeness. Their prayers are but a channel for God’s power. It’s the Lord who’ll raise up the weak. Raise up can also mean to awaken or to arouse. So through the righteous prayers of godly shepherds, God will restore His battered sheep’s enthusiasm, spiritual vigor, and desire to serve their Lord in all things.

Then James adds verse 15b, “If one of the spiritually weak believers has committed sins, they will be forgiven him;” again proving this paragraph isn’t about physical healing but spiritual restoration. The Bible nowhere teaches that all sickness is the direct result of an individual’s sins. However, spiritual defeat is often both the cause and result of sin. When that is the case, James says the antidote is to confess those sins to God and obtain His forgiveness.

In Psalm 32:5 David confessed, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’; and You forgave the guilt of my sin.” And you all know what John said in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If sin has contributed to or resulted from the spiritual weakness or defeat of a beaten believer, that sin will be forgiven him when he cries out to God for forgiveness.

The elders will encourage him to confess, help him discern his sins, and join their prayers to his for his forgiveness. Then the Lord will uplift, restore, return him to his previous vigor and peace. That is an essential element of their ministry of restoration. Helping the weak requires mature help, fellowship, and most of all prayer. So . . .

#3  Enfold the REQUIREMENT of the CHURCH for restoration from hurt  Verse 16a

Immersion into the body of Christ is necessary for complete spiritual healing. While under torture, you deny Christ, or you tell the authorities about where the church meets, or as they make you watch as they torture your wife, you give up names of other Christians. Then they release you–what’s your natural response? To run away, to isolate, to hide in shame. But James says—no. Verse 16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.”

James makes a transition of thought with the first word, “Therefore”. Always ask, “Wherefore is that therefore there for?” James is turning his attention from the sins committed by the persecuted, defeated believers to the entire congregation. Here is God’s exhortation to all of us here–confess your sins to one another. When you wait, when you conceal, when you think they’re just too awful to admit, when you let them eat you alive with guilt–then that concealing will certainly result in your spiritual defeat.

Solomon is pointed in Proverbs 28:13, “He who conceals his transgressions [say it] will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” Sin is the most dangerous when it is concealed. And sin does its greatest damage when you are isolated, distant, unconnected, or not friends with other Christians. Sin loves to remain private and secret, but God wants it exposed and dealt with in the loving fellowship of other believers. So James calls for mutual honesty and mutual confession as believers in verse 16—”pray for one another.”

Cultivating open, sharing, and praying relationships with other Christians helps keep believers from weakness and defeat in their spiritual lives. And honest confession of those sins destroying you internally, James says, will verse 16, “Heal you.” Not one of you here, and no Christian alive, was ever meant to be a solo saint/isolated. You and I are to live interconnected to each other in the church. So when you’re fleeing sin and pursuing righteousness, you are doing that with others around you as well. Others help you deal with your sins.

Not every church can do that, but by God’s grace, we can! Let’s try it out. Raise your hands–How many of you have lied–how about this week? How many of you’ve been angry–this week? How many have lusted (perverts)–this week? Galatians 6 says we are to help each other overcome our sins. You isolated folks hinder your growth. And James says in verse 16, the Lord designed Christian relationships to give the spiritual strength necessary to provide victory over sin.

And true Christian community also provides godly encouragement to confess and forsake sins before they become overwhelmingly destructive to the point of spiritual weakness or spiritual defeat. The purpose for this mutual confession and prayer is so believers will be, verse 16, “healed”. The Greek word again, is not necessarily physical healing. Matthew uses healed to designate God’s forgiveness of Israel. Hebrews uses healed to describe spiritual restoration, and Peter uses it to portray the healing from sin Christ purchased for you on the cross. So there is cause to see James using healed to refer to God’s forgiveness which alone makes a repentant believer spiritually whole again. James concludes with helping the weak requires mature help, fellowship, and most of all prayer. So . . .

#4  Embrace the REVIVING power of prayer to restore weakened Christians  Verses 16b to 17

Prayer from the obedient is powerful and necessary for full restoration. James was known as old camel knees, because he prayed so much. He now concludes with a powerful challenge to you and I over not only the power of prayer, but also the absolute necessity of prayer to restore the weakened Christian. Verse 16b to 18, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.”

James encourages the elders and all Christians of the importance of intercession for those who have lost their way as believers. Prayer is effective. What does the New Testament teach about prayer? God answers prayers which are in keeping with the will of God (1 John 5:14 to 15), made in faith (Hebrews 11:6; Matthew 17:20), made by a person who has confessed and given up sin (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 59:1-2), made under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit (Jude 20), made by a person who has forgiven others (Matthew 18:21 to 35), made by a person who is in harmony with others (Matthew 5:23 to 24, I Peter 3:7), made in the name of Jesus, which means it is in harmony with His purpose and concerns (John 14:13; 15:16), persistently offered (Luke 11:5 to 8), and asked unselfishly (James 4:2 to 3).

For every Christian here, prayer is like breathing–and not praying is like trying to live life holding your breath. James says in verse 16b, prayer is effective, which is the same word where we get our English word for energy. The prayer of the one who is made righteous, but also lives righteously, can accomplish much, meaning it is very strong. Prayer is powerful. MacArthur states, “Weak prayers come from weak people; strong prayers come from strong people. The energetic prayers of a righteous man are a potent force in calling down the power of God for restoring weak, struggling believers to spiritual health.”

To drive his point home, James gives a prayer illustration from the Old Testament—Elijah. Even though Elijah was a prophet and a man of God, he was just like you and me. James says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.” First Kings tells us Elijah was hungry, afraid, even depressed. Yet when he prayed earnestly (verse 17), literally praying with prayer–astounding things happened. “It did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.” Elijah’s prayers both created and ended a devastating 3½ year drought.

First Kings 17 records the drought, but only James gives its duration and links it to the prayers of Elijah. Now the story of Elijah and the drought would certainly be strange if James was talking about physical illness or healing throughout this passage. You know there are many illustrations of biblical healing James could have used. But the picture of rain pouring down on parched ground perfectly illustrates God’s outpouring of spiritual blessings on the dry and parched souls of struggling believers. God answers prayer–especially the prayers of the godly, those who live 24/7 dependent upon the Spirit and obediently to God’s Word. Helping the weak requires mature help, fellowship, and most of all prayer.

Re-read this passage with full meaning. Verses 13 to 18, Is anyone among you BEING ABUSED OR TREATED WICKEDLY? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing PSALMS. 14Is anyone among you SPIRITUALLY WEAK FROM PERSECUTION? Then he must ASK FOR THE ELDERS OF THE CHURCH TO COME ALONGSIDE HIM and they are to pray over him, RUBBING HIS WOUNDS WITH OIL JUST LIKE CHRIST WOULD; 15and the prayer offered in faith will DELIVER THE DEFEATED ABUSED BELIEVER, and the Lord will AGAIN AWAKEN HIS DESIRE TO SERVE CHRIST WITH JOY, and if he has committed sins IN THE PROCESS OF BEING ABUSED from PERSECUTION, they will be forgiven him. 16Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be SPIRITUALLY RESTORED AGAIN. The POWERFUL prayer of THOSE WHO ARE MADE RIGHTEOUS AND LIVE RIGHTEOUSLY IS VERY STRONG. 17Elijah was just like us, hungry, afraid, even depressed, YET when HE gave himself to PRAYER, it stopped raining for 3½ years and then 18HE PRAYED AGAIN and it rained once more and bringing blessing to a parched land, just like GODLY PRAYERS will be blessing to the PARCHED HEARTS OF ABUSED BELIEVERS.


A  Force yourself to pray before you start your DAY

Use A.C.T.S.–Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication

Put a note on the mirror, a reminder on your phone, work at developing a habit. The greatest need of most of you is to develop regular times and continual prayer–a habit!

B  You need immersion in the Church Body to SURVIVE spiritually as a believer

No organ is going to physically survive outside the interconnectedness to your body. And no Christian will spiritually survive living outside interconnectedness to the church. Get involved, start serving, join a CG. Spectator Christianity is not a New Testament option.

C  Sin for the Christian is to be confessed–always to God, often to genuine believers

One of the main means of grace for overcoming your sin struggles is Christians! Stop going it alone–get relational. Build trust so you can battle sin together! You may have had an abortion, stolen something valuable or destroyed a person verbally–no one at FBC is shocked by your sin. Get help, confess, and get whole again.

D  If you are a church attender who is weakened, INTERCONNECT–don’t isolate

Some get weakened because of their sin, others are regularly abused because of their race, others grow weak cause they were attacked by a so-called church. Someday soon, we may be weakened by being put in jail (hate speech). You need a relationship with Christ, not a religion–and you need real, internal church family friends, not phony, external, superficial interactions. Turn to Christ and immerse yourself in His body.

Get strong, get deep, and get ready. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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