James 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Resources » Commentaries » James » Chapter 5 » exegesis

Instead, Pray

These next verses, then, are a continuation of 5:12 and give the alternative to swearing, which is praying. Most commentators miss this connection between 5:12 and 5:13, which should be noted because it is based on the letter's underlying theme of faith. See, for example, the interpretations attempted by Moo (1985:175), Motyer (1985:187), Laws (1980:224) and Davids (1982:181). Tasker seems to perceive the connection (1983:126). Martin suggests that the praying is perhaps James's proposed alternative to fighting (1988:205). This is certainly true in the verse's larger context, but in the more immediate context praying is the alternative to swearing. In James's view, oaths and prayers are simply the verbal expressions of underlying stances of unbelief and faith, respectively. Because James is a man of faith, he has a passion for prayer. For his concluding instructions to suffering Christians, he dwells on this matter of prayer with three emphases: when to pray, how to pray and why pray.When to Pray (5:13-14)

James's first emphasis is on the diversity of circumstances for prayer. Dibelius regards these sentences as declaratives followed by imperatives: "Someone among you is suffering; let him pray" (1976:241, 252). Davids argues well that James intends interrogatives followed by imperatives, as in the NIV. The result Davids describes as "the lively discourse of oral style" (1982:191). It reflects James's desire to engage his readers personally, because he wants so much for them to put prayer into practice.

With a poetic pattern to his sentence construction, James shows that he intends one point with his three questions: Pray in all circumstances.

A. Question: Kakopathei tis en hymin.
Answer: proseuchestho.

B. Question: euthymei tis.
Answer: psalleto.

A. Question: asthenei tis en hymin.
Answer: proskalesastho . . . kai proseuxasthosan.

James's vocabulary also indicates his intention. With general verbs and indefinite pronouns, he keeps the focus broad and inclusive. Prayer is the encompassing instruction, because it is the right course of action for the full range of life-situations and for any one in these situations.

1. Pray in times of trouble. The kind of trouble is not specified; it is a general verb, kakopatheo. "Is anyone among you suffering?" (NASB). Like James's original readers, we might allow the fact of trouble to suggest that God is uncaring or unknowing or unable to help, and so we would pray less. The biblical instruction is the opposite: pray more. Trouble is the very time to pray.

2. Pray in times of happiness. No single cause for happiness is specified; it is a general verb, euthymeo. "Is anyone cheerful" (NASB) or encouraged? Like James's original readers, we might allow times of happiness to make us complacent, and so we would pray less. The biblical instruction is again the opposite: pray more. Happiness is the very time to sing songs of praise.

3. Pray in times of sickness. No particular disease is identified; it is a general verb, astheneo, meaning to be weak or sick. Like James's original readers, we easily feel defeated in times of sickness. Weakness makes us feel hopeless, as if there were nothing to do. The biblical outlook is the opposite: there is something very significant to do, namely, to pray. Weakness is the very time for prayer. O. Hallesby, the great teacher on prayer, wrote, "Your helplessness is your best prayer."

In other words, pray in all kinds of circumstances. "The habit of prayer should be, and indeed is, one of the most obvious features which differentiates a Christian from other people" (Tasker 1983:126).How to Pray (5:14-16)

James proceeds to instruct his readers in how to pray. His purpose is still to motivate them to pray, but now he encourages prayer by his vision of how he expects prayer to operate in the church. The meaning of the verses can be seen by isolating four practices which are pictured here for an effective prayer life.

1. We should call upon the elders of the church for prayer. The fact that the sick person calls is an expression of faith, which is one condition for effective prayer (1:6-7). The fact that the elders are the ones called is an expression of submission and unity in the church, which are additional conditions for powerful praying. There is no indication of specialized spiritual gifts here (as in Paul's letters). James envisions a spiritual power available to the church and exercised through the elders. This is not at all to diminish the importance of personal prayer by each Christian. It is to affirm the value of agreement by the church, for Jesus promised that agreement among Christians would unleash power for answered prayer (Mt 18:19-20; Jn 15:7-17).

2. We are to pray in the name of the Lord. If the first practice expressed submission to each other in the church, this second practice expresses submission to the Lord himself. In this sense, it is not just a formula with which to pray but a state in which to be praying: pray in union with Christ. Similarly, when James instructs his readers to anoint . . . with oil, it is not the oil that heals. See Mark 6:13 for a use of anointing with oil within the time of Jesus' public ministry; yet most of the stories of healing by Jesus and his disciples have no mention of oil, and James's emphasis here is certainly on the power of the Lord rather than any power in the oil. The promises of Jesus (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24) give basis for expecting great power as we practice the principle of praying in his name. These promises apparently led the early church from its very beginning to practice a deliberate calling upon the name of the Lord in the context of baptizing, healing and casting out demons. Examples may be found in Luke 10:17 and Acts 2:38, 3:6, 9:34 and 10:48. The phrase in the name of the Lord means that the power comes from God and that the one praying acts in union with Christ to call upon the power of God.

3. We are to offer prayer in faith. This phrase is James's explicit return to his underlying theme as he concludes his letter, and all he has said about faith is the background for his meaning here. In 1:6 he told the person needing wisdom to ask "in faith" (en pistei), not doubting. He has spent this letter exhorting his readers about the goodness and purity of God, showing their selfish fighting to be a lack of faith, both unnecessary and evil. Now he refers to the prayer "of faith" (tes pisteos) and would again expect his readers to repudiate unbelief as they pray. (See, in the section on 1:5-8, an earlier discussion concerning modern distortions of praying without doubting.)

4. The fourth principle for effective praying is to pray united as repentant sinners; we should confess . . . sins to each other and pray for each other. James introduces the mention of sin at the end of 5:15 in the context of praying for a sick person: If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. It is a conditional clause (kan, "and if"); the connection between sin and illness is a possibility, not a necessity in every case. The implication is that the physical illness and the guilt may be interwoven, and the cure promised in 5:16 seems to encompass both physical and spiritual healing. We are to pray as repentant sinners asking for a comprehensive healing of our lives.

We are reading James's concluding remarks here; he would expect us to recall what he has been saying in the course of the letter. He is writing to people struggling in hardship. Martin is right to comment that in urging them to pray, James is "allowing for a positive response to hardship" instead of "advocating a stoic or impassive response to adversity" (1988:205). But it is more than that. These verses, coming as the conclusion to all James has addressed in his readers' lives, describe a healing of their relationships with God and with each other.

Their relationships need healing. As a first result of their hardships, their relationship with God has been suffering. They are falling into temptation to doubt God (1:6), to blame God (1:13) and to bargain with God (5:12). James is directing them back to God in faith with a reliance on him in prayer.

A second result of their adversities is that their relationships with each other have been suffering. James has had to warn them against the evils of playing favorites with each other (2:1), verbally attacking each other (3:9), fighting with each other (4:1), slandering each other (4:11) and judging each other (4:12). Now this present passage helps us realize what a dramatic transformation of relationships James envisions. He points out the oneness we have with each other because of our common need for forgiveness. If we consciously stand together before God as sinners needing grace and wanting righteousness, that stance has compelling application to our relationships. Instead of judging each other, we will be driven to confess to each other. Instead of desiring to place guilt on each other, we will become eager to forgive each other. Instead of moving to criticize, we will move to intercede for each other. A spirit of reconciliation will pervade the church. This, too, James learned from Jesus (Mt 5:23-24; 6:12-15; 7:1-5).

To catch the importance of this for the church, we need to notice that James is writing about spiritual freedom given to the church, not spiritual gifts given to certain ones in the church. The freedom happens because "the Lord is full of compassion and mercy," and in that mercy James exults. Picture this exultation happening in modern churches, and you have something of James's vision: elders leading worship with a spiritual authority in the name of Jesus; Christians praising God joyfully, confessing their sins openly and praying for each other lovingly; the church together experiencing spiritual cleansing and physical healing. This is the exciting power of prayer.Why Pray (5:15-18)

I remember a sign that read, "A funny thing happens when you don't pray," followed by a large, nearly empty space carrying just one word in small print: "(nothing)." James is certainly convinced that prayer brings results. Therefore his final way to encourage his readers to pray is to describe the effectiveness of prayer.

1. The results. The conviction that prayer will bring results was implicit in 5:13-14. It becomes explicit in 5:15-16 with James's assurance of four results. The prayer will make the sick person well . . . the Lord will raise him up . . . he will be forgiven . . . so that you may be healed. The first result, make well, is the NIV's translation of the verb sosei "will save." It is a proper translation for this context, where "will save" is in the sense of healing rather than spiritual salvation. See Mark 5:23. Similarly, the verb egerei, will raise up, would refer to physical restoration rather than spiritual resurrection in this context. When James declares that the penitent sinner will be forgiven, what he has described as the context is prayer of intercession, not absolution, with emphasis on God as the one answering prayer. It is a final reminder that God is the giver of every good gift. The concept of being healed can have a spiritual sense with the verb iaomai, as in 1 Peter 2:24, which refers to Isaiah 53. Here in 5:16 it seems to refer to physical healing, although James recognizes in 5:15 a possible combination of illness and sin. The vision he is sharing with his readers is for both physical and spiritual healing of their lives.

2. The principle: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. In Greek this is a compact, five-word sentence waiting to be unpacked by the student or expositor to reveal the vigorous expectation that God dynamically answers prayer. James begins with the substantive poly ("much") as the matter he wants his readers to see first and foremost: how very much can be accomplished through prayer.

After the main verb ischyei ("has power" or "is able"), James introduces two terms with apparent deliberateness. For prayer as the subject of the sentence, he shifts from the general term euche to the more specific term deesis ("supplication" or "entreaty"), denoting the sort of prayer his readers would be doing because of their trials and persecutions. Then the person praying is designated as dikaiou ("righteous"), even though righteousness has not been mentioned thus far in the passage. To pray as repentant sinners is what James commanded at the beginning of 5:16. This is the stance Jesus taught his followers to take. But it is not a position of despair; Jesus also awakened in his followers the hope of becoming righteous. Within Matthew 5:3-10 he capsulized that progression from being spiritually poor to hungering for righteousness and finally becoming so righteous that one would be persecuted for it. James now affirms that hope to be righteous and applies it as encouragement for praying.

The term righteous in 5:16 is more than an automatic statement that "holds good for every believing petitioner," as Dibelius characterizes it (1976:256). It is a call for every believer to reach toward righteousness. All along, James has been urging his readers to resist the temptation to compromise righteousness in their trials. Now, with the designation of the one praying as righteous and with the shift in terms from general "prayer" to specific "entreaty," the implication is as follows: In your trials, you don't need the power gained by money or favoritism or selfishness or fighting or swearing; use the power of prayer, for which you need righteousness. Commit yourself to doing what is right without compromise; then you may rely on God in prayer for all your needs.

As has become clear within the letter, James is not denying salvation by grace through faith; he is merely convinced that genuine faith will express itself in righteousness, and the prayer of genuine faith is the prayer that is effective. After all, what causes me to try to protect myself by unrighteous means in trials? It is my unbelief. On the other hand, confident belief in God's grace will make me strong for acting righteously in the midst of trials. It is a message similar to that of 1 Peter 4:19 and 5:6-7.

The last word in the sentence is energoumene ("effective"). This is actually a middle-voice participle of the verb energeo, which means "to work" or "to be effective" with such an energized sense indeed that the NIV renders it as a predicate adjective (in contrast to the direct adjective in the more literal NASB). This participle describes the subject, prayer, and enhances the idea of the verb ischyei, "has power." The result is a highly charged affirmation of prayer as both "powerful and effective."

3. The example: Elijah. This power of prayer is further emphasized by an Old Testament figure known for his miracle-producing prayers. The bulk of 5:17-18 is devoted to the basic facts surrounding one of Elijah's prayers: the long drought and the renewed rain recorded in 1 Kings 17--18. Those chapters do not record what James supplies, that Elijah prayed earnestly that it would not rain. The story in 1 Kings begins directly with Elijah's declaration to King Ahab that it would not rain again except at Elijah's word. The chapters include the miracles done by Elijah when continuous food was provided for the widow at Zarephath during the drought, and when Elijah prayed earnestly for the widow's dead son and he was restored to life. The climax was the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in which Elijah prayed earnestly again and God answered dramatically with fire upon the water-drenched altar and then with rain upon the drought-stricken land.

James has chosen as his illustration an episode that is not only prominent and familiar from Old Testament history but also clearly supportive of the point he wishes to make. The miracles in 1 Kings 17--18 were undeniably beyond Elijah's human power. They were divine answers to prayer. With his concern for his readers to have faith instead of doubt, James may also be remembering that when Jesus' power to do miracles was hindered by people's unbelief in Nazareth (Mk 6:4-6), Jesus himself drew attention to Elijah's powerful praying over the rain (Lk 4:25).

But the primary intended effect of this illustration is revealed in the brief introductory sentence in 5:17. Having emphasized righteousness as a condition for effective praying, James is not wanting Christians to postpone praying while they try to attain some level of perfection or superspirituality. His foremost emphasis about Elijah is that he was a man just like us. James is saying: Strive earnestly for the goal of righteousness, but get down immediately to the business of praying.

The NIV conveys the sense that Elijah prayed earnestly, from proseuche proseuxato which is an aorist indicative verb coupled with a dative noun--literally, "he prayed in prayer" or "he prayed with prayer." Such a construction suggests intensity or frequency. Laws renders it "he prayed and prayed" (1980:235). It is important to define the intensifying effect intended by James. His desire in the passage is not to erect a standard of fervency for his readers to attain; he seems more intent on pushing them into the active prayer life that is so readily available. Adamson describes it as emphasis that praying is precisely what Elijah did (1976:201). Motyer comments that "the meaning is not his fervency, nor even his frequency of prayer, but that `he just prayed'--that, and nothing more!" (1985:206-7). James's message in these two verses includes both the great expectations and the common availability of prayer. The mighty power of prayer is for us!

Previous commentary:
Do Not Swear

Next commentary:
Keep Bringing Each Other Back to the Truth

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

New Testament Commentary Survey, Sixth Edition
Retail: $14.99
Our Price: $9.99
Save: $5.00 (33%)
James: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [BECNT]
Retail: $39.99
Our Price: $25.99
Save: $14.00 (35%)
Parallel Commentary on the NT
Retail: $34.97
Our Price: $24.99
Save: $9.98 (29%)
5.0 of 5.0 stars
View more titles