12 James 5:12-20 Physically ill or spiritually weak?

by | Mar 28, 2012 | 01 Podcasts, James

The main theme of James is that faith devoid of works is not real faith and won’t save anyone.  The Reformers used the language: “we are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Faith that is alone is one devoid of works.


Chapter 1  – James told us to consider it joy when we face trials because trials test our faith and the process of testing our faith brings us to maturity and makes us into the kind of people we should be.

Chapter 2 – James argued that if we have saving faith and genuinely believe the gospel, it will change the way we think, the way we live, what we value and who we are.

Chapter 3 – James focuses on strife within the community.  James argues that the strife results from our lack of understanding of the gospel.  Growing in “wisdom from above” leads to peace and unity because we are all striving after and seeking and valuing the same thing: the word of God. Wisdom from above can be summarized in 2 basic ideas: a growing single-minded pursuit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and a humble merciful attitude toward others.  I

Chapter 4 – James begins the conclusion of the book which is a call to repentance.  As he calls for repentance, he returns to his 2 main examples of the kind of change repentance should bring about in our lives.  Our speech and they way we handle wealth.

Chapter 5 – James turns to wealth and gives three pieces of evidence of that they may be trusting in their wealth: 1) hoarding (5:2-3); 2) fraud (5:4) and 3) self-indulgence (5:5). 

Finally in the immediate context to today’s verses, he calls for them to wait patiently through trials and to face trials with the settled conviction that there is a purpose for the trial.


12But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.13Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. – James 5:12-15 ESV

Sick or weak?

The way you understand this passage turns on the way you understand the Greek word “sick” 5:14.  The Greek word (Strong’s G770 ἀσθενέω astheneō) is used 37 times in the New Testament.  Basically it means weakness, but its field of meaning includes one of the most common manifestations of weakness which is being physically ill. 

  • The word’s meaning is NOT confined to physical illness NOR is it confined to spiritual illness, that is weakness with respect to faith.
  • 3 examples where it clearly means physically ill either by added phrases or context: Luke 4:40; John 5:3; John 11:3.
  • 3 examples where it clearly means weak in faith: Romans 4:19; Romans 14:1; 1Cor 13:3
  • The word sick in James 3:15 (Strongs’ G2577 κάμνω kamnō) is a different word than the one in 3:14 (G770).
  • κάμνω kamnō is used only 3 times in the New Testament: Hebrews 12:3; Rev 2:3 and James 3:15. Both the other uses refer to a failure to endure; weakness in the sense of growing weary. 
  • Word studies alone do not decide the issue of which way is James using these words. Context decides the issue.
  • Ultimately which option we choose rests on our understanding of the larger context.

Are we praying for one who is physically ill or one who is weak and weary?  I land on the “spiritually weak” side.

James 5 by itself is — apart from the larger context — is truly ambiguous.  It is perfectly reasonable to think it is referring to sickness, especially if you look at the passage in isolation or if you think James is a loosely organized collection of proverbs. Ultimately which option we choose rests on our understanding of the larger context. I think taken in the larger context, it makes more sense to see it as spiritually weak.

  • Far context: James has been talking about trials since the opening chapter.
  • James has been talking about how the trials we face confront us with the fundamental question what does my faith really mean to me? 
  • In this situation James has spoken both an encouragement and warning.
  • As he nears the end of his letter, he makes his strongest appeal to persevere in the faith, reminding them the prize is worth the wait.
  • Near context: He concludes with a question, are you suffering hardship? Are you facing persecution and temptation? Do not despair turn to God in prayer.  Are you of good courage and keeping your spirits up? then rejoice and thank god.  Is anyone among you (ἀσθενέω astheneō)? If this letter has convicted you, and you see how weak in faith you are, what should you do? 
  • The theme that has dominated the book is suffering under persecution and perseverance in the faith.

16Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17Elijah 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. 18Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:16-19 ESV

  • I can have confidence my prayers will be answered because of who is answering them.
  • The answer does not depend on how nicely you ask or whether you ask in the right way. The answer depends on God, on the One who answers and He is generous. 
  • Elijah was a man just like us who trusted in the promises of God. 
  • Getting through this trial may seem as impossible to you as asking for the rain to stop.  But God has spoken to you, just like He spoke to Elijah.  God has promised to give a mature faith and wisdom and perseverance to those who ask.  
  • God has promised faith to sinners like us, just like God promised Elijah he would stop the rain. 
  • Stronger believers, encourage someone who is going the wrong way to return to the faith.  God may give you the privilege of being the one who helps them turn around. 
  • Your job is not to ridicule, judge, gossip or complain.  Your job is to humbly love each other and call each other back, believing that God is capable of bringing about mature faith.

Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.

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