Let's Close With Prayer
Scripture: James 5:13–18
Let's Close With PrayerJames 5:13-18
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Pastor Randy Smith
When I was in Bible College one of our assignments was to read the entire work of Eusebius. I can remember the professor remarking, "You'll despise me now, but throughout your ministry you'll be thanking me." I'm not sure if I can affirm that, but I must admit that reading one of the oldest church historians did have its benefits.
Though not inspired by God and written with a definite agenda in mind, Eusebius provides for us the most reliable information as to what happened in the early church from the time of the apostles up until his own generation in the fourth century. We have been studying the book of James. Eusebius gives us some information about this man. Sometimes quoting other sources, he affirms that James is the half brother of Jesus, that his nickname was "James the Just," that he was the leader of the Jerusalem church, and that he met his death by way of martyrdom; first being thrown off the temple and then stoned and then finished off by a club blow to the head. But Eusebius also said this of James, "[He] was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people" (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vii.xxiv.html). As Pastor Kent Hughes said, "[James] walked his talk on his knees" (James, p. 254)
The point is that James was devoted to prayer, and his attitude is proven through his comments in his letter that we have been studying over the past eight months. He opened with prayer in 1:5 reminding us that when we need wisdom, we should ask of God who gives it to all His people generously. In chapter 4, verses 2 and 3 we are told that "[we] do not have because [we] do not ask." And when we do ask God in prayer, we need to make sure we ask with the right "motives." And now in chapter 5, as James prepares to close the letter, he gives us his most detailed comments on the subject of prayer.
As I was preparing the sermon this week, I read Thursday's "Grace Quote" from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: "When a man is speaking to God, he is at his very [summit]. It is the highest activity of the human soul, and therefore it is at the same time the ultimate test of a man's true spiritual condition. There is nothing that tells the truth about us as Christian people so much as our prayer life. Everything we do in the Christian life is easier than prayer" (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 46).
Because of our relationship with Jesus Christ we have a tremendous privilege and power to approach the throne of God with our prayers. Unfortunately, we do so too infrequently. Perhaps it is because we undervalue the opportunity. It is my prayer that your attitude toward prayer will change after this morning's sermon on the subject of prayer.
1. PRAYER FROM YOU (VERSE 13)
Let's begin with the first point, "Prayer from You."
We need to be people of prayer. As Christians, prayer should permeate our lives. It should be as natural to us as breathing.
Even though Jesus Christ was (and is) the second Person of the Holy Trinity, we see Him in the Scriptures continually before the Father in prayer. You get the feeling that whether formally or informally he was always in communion with and dependence on the Father. The lines of communication were always open. The same attitude is expected of us as well. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we are called to "pray without ceasing." Ephesians 6:18 says, "With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit." Colossians 4:2 tells us to, "Devote [ourselves] to prayer."
This I believe is James' point in verse 13. "Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises." If you are suffering, go to God in prayer! "Lord, provide relief." "Sustain me with Your grace to remain under the weight with peace." "Help me learn from this trial." "Thank you for your wisdom and sovereignty." "Use this and my response to it for Your glory." If you are cheerful, go to God in praise! "Thank you for blessing my heart." "Keep me from getting proud or losing my focus." "Thank you for the undeserved grace and mercy." "May others see my joy and embrace Jesus." You see, during times of pain or cheer (which pretty much describes our entire existence) there is an ongoing God consciousness. There is an ongoing God dependence. The verb tense in both cases suggests a continual action. There is both formally and informally throughout the day a consistent open line of communication with the Father.
Perhaps the biggest reason why this might not be applied in our lives is because we fail to appreciate the privilege of prayer. Do you realize we are sinners deserving hell, but now we are allowed to communicate with God in heaven! We were under God's wrath, but now we are objects of His unfathomable love! We know even the godliest Israelite could only approach God once a year, but now we have bold access around the clock! Thanks to the atoning work of Jesus Christ and through our faith in Him, we have been adopted as sons and daughters by the living God and are told that the King of all kings wishes to have fellowship with us. He not only welcomes our talk with Him, He even desires it! Why do we refuse to pray?
2. PRAYER FROM THE ELDERS (VERSE 14-15)
Let's move from your prayers to the prayers from the elders, our second point found in verses 14-15.
This is a tough one to interpret so let me read the section and then I'll make some comments. Beginning in verse 14, "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; 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" (Jas. 5:13-15).
Here are where the challenges in these verses lie: Verse 14- What kind of sickness are we talking about? Verse 14- Why call for the elders and is their prayer more effective than others in the church? Verse 14- Why anoint with oil and should we still do that today? Verse 15- Does prayer always restore the sick? Verse 15- What is the relationship between sickness and sin?
There are two basic ways to interpret these verses and it all hinges on determining what kind of sickness James is talking about. Is it a physical sickness or spiritual sickness? In other words, for example, is it either someone dying of cancer or someone overcome with pornography? Good scholars line up on both sides of the issue. And while I and the elders of this church would have no problem praying over physically sick people, I am led to believe based upon the context and grammar that James is talking about a spiritual sickness. Time does not permit a detailed explanation, but if you would like one, I have written a lengthy study on these verses available on our website. This morning I simply wish to highlight the main point of this section and provide some basic thoughts on prayer.
The beauty of our ability to come before the throne of God in prayer is that it relies completely on the grace of God and not on our own merit. In other words, since we are all saved equally by the blood of Christ Jesus, all of our prayers if we are in Christ Jesus have the same potency. Frequently people ask me to pray for them and I am honored to do so, but did you know that if you trusted Christ last week your prayers are just as powerful as mine as the senior pastor of this church. We are all equal at the foot of the cross, and we are all equally given the same spiritual privileges. From the day you were saved your access to the Father is as good as it will ever be and not better or worse than any other believer, even when compared to an apostle.
So if our prayers all have the same effectiveness, why does James single out the elders to pray for the "sick?" Again, here is why I am led to believe we are talking about those who are spiritually sick. In this case, the spiritually strong are called to help the spiritually weak. The shepherds are called to assist the hurting sheep.
There could (and often does) come that time in all of our lives that we are overcome with sin. Maybe we lose all motivation to be in the Scripture. Prayer becomes as hard as climbing Mt. Everest. Our faith is fading fast and we begin to doubt the very things we once cherished. Maybe we are overcome by a life dominating sin that we can't seem to shake. Maybe we hit rock bottom. The same word ("kamno") in verse 14 for "sick" is only used in Hebrews 12:3 when it says we "not grow weary and lose heart." That is what we are talking about. It is here where the elders of the church enter. It is here that you are called to ask for their assistance. And it is here that they come with the primary tool for success, prayer!
This is why in Acts 6 Peter and the other apostles created the role of deacons in the early church. They wanted the church to be managed well, but they could not cover the day-to-day responsibilities and still stay focused on their primary calling. "So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, 'It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word'" (Ac. 6:2-4). The elders of the church must be men of prayer and that is why we always consider attendance at Prayer Meeting before we ever feel led to move forward with any elder or deacon. I hope all of us have a desire to pray with the church and for the church, but our elders and deacons had better be setting the example!
As James says in verses 14, the prayer these elders offered was "in the name of the Lord." And as verse 15 says, "[This] prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up." So what is the process? The elders pray over the spiritually sick individual according to the name of (will of) Jesus Christ. Both elders and the individual place their faith in the goodness of God's healing power. And the promise? The Lord will raise up the individual.
Again, here is why I lean toward spiritual healing. We all know it is not always God's will to heal us physically (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Phil. 2:27; 2 Ti. 4:20, Tit. 3:20), but it is always His will to heal us spiritually if we commit ourselves to Him and trust in His strength. What I am saying is this, thanks to our prayer which connects us to the power of God, there is never a reason why a Christian is unable to repent from any sin and have spiritual victory and wholeness. Why would God command you to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Phil. 4:4) if He didn't always give you the ability to do so?
Verse 15 ends, "And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him." Simply put, all spiritual weakness is a result of sin. Psalm 32:5, "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." Proverbs 28:13, "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion." 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." Obviously if we are in Christ Jesus all our sins are forgiven the moment we trust Him to be our Savior, so the forgiveness James is speaking about here is the spiritual healing, the restoration of a once broken relationship with God.
3. PRAYER FROM THE CHURCH (VERSE 16)
As we move to the third point, James draws a conclusion in verse 16. "Therefore, 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." So we are to pray for ourselves, the elders are to pray for the weak, and now we learn that we are to pray for each other.… But confess our sins to one another (as the verse says), what's up with that?
Since the source of all spiritual pain is sin, we must do all that we can to fight the sin in our lives. One of those ways is to confess our sins not only to God but each other. When we confess our sins to one another, we open ourselves up, we identify our sin, we deal with specifics, we place our sin on the table and take an oftentimes necessary step to kill it. You see, confessing sin deals with specifics, it pull us out of isolation, it brings about accountability, it gets others to help bear the burden, it pulls down the temptations toward hypocrisy, it promotes humility which is needed to fight the flesh and most of all it gets other people praying for us! Isn't that what we have been learning in this section? Isn't that what James says in verse 16, "[To] pray for one another so that [we] may be healed?"
Along these lines I have been working with the elders and deacons to try to devise a system to produce more intimacy in the church. We will never confess our sins to others if we have church relationships an inch deep even if they are ten miles wide. What we need as Christians is a core group of fellow believers in our lives that we trust and with whom we are comfortable making ourselves vulnerable.
These are all tools, but again, the focus here is prayer and the ability to tap into God's power. And when we pray we truly do have the power of God at our disposal. The Scripture promises it! Look at the end of verse 16: "The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much."
Andrew Murray said, "Time spent in prayer will yield more than that given to work. Prayer alone gives work its worth and its success. Prayer opens the way for God Himself to do His work in us and through us. Let our chief work as God's messengers be intercession; in it we secure the presence and power of God to go with us."
When I first came to New Jersey over ten years ago others warned me of the difficulties of growing a church in the Northeast. Ten years later it is amazing to see, not just for me, but for many others outside of us who have taken notice. I am often asked why God has blessed our church to be one of the largest Bible churches the Jersey Shore has ever seen. My response is always the same: The people pray and that is seen every Wednesday night. I believe there is no other explanation. "The effective prayer of a righteous man [or woman] can accomplish much!"
4. PRAYER FROM ELIJAH (VERSES 17-18)
And to show us how much prayer can accomplish, how effective it can be as we move to the fourth point, James provides an illustration from one of the most beloved Old Testament characters, Elijah.
Elijah was a mighty man of God. You'll remember he did powerful miracles and made strong condemnations of sin and took bold stances for the Lord. He was a mighty man indeed, but as James says in verse 17, he had a "nature [just] like ours." He may have looked superhuman, but deep down he was just an ordinary man. And in his life we saw him hungry (1 Ki. 17:11) and afraid (1 Ki. 19:3) and depressed (1 Ki. 19:3, 9-14). And what did Elijah commit himself to? What made him so powerful? Prayer! He knew how much he needed prayer to win spiritual battles.
Verses 17 and 18 say, "He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and 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." (cf. Lk. 4:25). This is from that amazing account when Elijah confronted Ahab and the prophets of Baal (1 Ki. 17:1; 18:1). James said he "prayed earnestly" (cf. Col. 4:12; Heb. 5:7). Literally that could read, "He prayed with prayer" and incredible power was displayed in his case. And what an illustration of how God works in His church. Through prayer, he pours out like rain His spiritual blessings on the dry and parched souls of struggling believers.
So what has God done and what will He do in your life as a response to His teaching this morning? Is it a greater respect for prayer's power? Is it a greater need to fight sin with prayer? Is it a greater desire to be involved in more private and group prayer meetings? Is it a greater appreciation for the Lord Jesus that died for our sins that we might be reconciled to the Father and brought into an intimate relationship where He is always listening and always caring for our needs?