James 5:13-18 and Pastors Thinking Together

Posted: November 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

I am grateful to be able to serve alongside of brothers who are serious about the Bible.  When we talk about ministry, life, and whatever else may come up (is there anything other than ministry and life) we also  try to make sure we are thinking biblically.  I have served in some contexts where bringing up the Bible in a discussion about ministry practice was looked down upon (it meant you were trying to argue and be theologically elite).  That is not the case here, and I am thankful to God.  Occasionally, we disagree on what the Bible is saying, but we never disagree about God’s Word being our final rule and guide in faith and practice. 

This morning, at our 6am pastors meeting, we discussed a particular issue involving prayer for a member at our church.  James 5 was referenced and I held my tongue until the meeting was concluded.  Then I brought up my hesitation with the way the passage was being understood.  The conversation was cordial, humble, and thought-provoking.  This led to both myself and the pastor with which I chatted to study further.  I can honestly say that this has encouraged me today.  Not only did we both bring up good points, but we both were pressed to study further.  Theological dialogue should do this.  It should cause us to consider the thoughts of others and make sure that our own thoughts are biblically faithful. 

So, as I sat at my desk after the short exchange, I put some thoughts on paper (or email).  I will share those thoughts here and hope they are helpful.

I enjoyed our brief discussion on James this morning.  I always love to chat about what the Bible is saying.  Here are some thoughts as to why I think the oil is medicinal and “sickness” is not actually what is in view in that debated passage (Catholics use it to support Extreme Unction, while Faith healers use it to guarantee healing through prayer). 
First, the word for “suffering” in verse 13 is kakopatheo.  That is a combination of kakos (evil) and pathos (suffering), which according to Vines combines to carry the connotations of suffering hardship.  It is actually found under “Affliction” in the English, and not under the word “suffering,” so I am unsure what the best translation is.  According to MacArthur, this would best fit with the Greek construction and the context as “enduring evil treatment by people” (thus the prefix kakos…or evil).  That is important to understanding the context of the rest of the paragraph.  Is physical disease/sickness in view, or those who have simply been “abused, and treated wickedly”? (again, via MacArthur).
Secondly, the word for sick in verse 14 is astheneo.  The first definition offered by Vines is “to be weak, feeble” and compared to its negative form, sthenos, which means “strength” (again, via Vines).  MacArthur concedes that it is translated both as sick and as spiritual weakness in the rest of the NT.  18 times it translated as sick while 14 times it refers to spiritual weakness (he lists the passages for each usage in his commentary).  Importantly, when occurring in  the NT epistles it is only used 3 times to refer to sickness.
Thirdly, the use of astheneo in 2 Corinthians 12:10 is important.  Paul uses the word to refer to his weakness, not his sickness.  I think this is important, but admittedly, inconclusive since that does not necessitate James using it the same way.
I think the point you brought up was a good one.  It would seem odd that James would move from referring to the “suffering” (kakopatheo) in verse 13 to then referring to the same group again with a different word (astheneo).  I like MacArthur’s answer to that rejoinder:  “James moves beyond the suffering believers of the previous point to address specifically those who have become weak (taking astheneo as better translated weak) by that suffering.” 
So the flow, and I think it flows well taken this way, is James refers to those who he knows are suffering (he opens the letter to those who are in disporia and enduring hardship).  He opens the letter by addressing them, calls them to count it “pure joy” because their hardships have a purpose.  And he closes the letter by encouraging them to pray in the midst of their suffering, to praise the Lord if He has given them a spirit if joyfulness in their suffering, and to call for more mature Christians (elders) to come alongside of them if they are weak and beaten down because of the suffering they are enduring.
Now, quickly to the point of anointing with oil.  A.T. Robertson notes that aleipho, the root of anointing here, is never used in the NT to refer to a ceremonial anointing.  Instead, according to Robertson, “It is by no means certain that aleipho here…means ‘anoint’ in a ceremonial fashion rather than ‘rub’ as it commonly does in medical treatises” (MacArthur, referencing Robertson’s work, Word Pictures in the NT).
There is more to be said.  But I could see this oil being rubbed on wounds of those treated wickedly as a loving, kind, restorative act that strengthens and soothes those who have endured evil treatment at the hands of others. 
All that to say, I am unsure that anointing with oil in a ceremonial fashion is what James 5 is teaching us.  Although, due to the wide range of other scholarly opinions, I am happy to do it!  🙂
That was a great exercise for me…hopefully educational for us all.
Pastor Jonathon

May God continue to work in our staff this way.  And I pray more pastoral staff’s will be marked by serious theological discussion as they lead the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.


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