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Powerful Truths about Prayer | James 5:13-20

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Today, we are finishing the book of James (which makes me a little bit sad, because this book is so full of meat), but I’m also looking forward to starting a 3-week mini-series on apologetics next week. We’re going to be asking and hopefully answering three questions:

  1. How can we really know God exists?
  2. How did the Bible come to be? (and why these books and not other books).
  3. How can we really know the Bible is true and reliable?

That starts up next week. And we’ll be making sure to leave at least 10 minutes each week for you to be able to text in questions that you may have. So, invite your friends and family, anyone else you think might be interested. For today, turn with me to James chapter 5. James 5, we’ll be reading verses 13-20.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is 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. And 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. Therefore, 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. Elijah 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. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

You probably weren’t counting, but the word “prayer” is used seven times in this passage. That might give you a hint as to what is this paragraph’s main topic. It’s prayer. And it makes perfect sense that James would go into a discourse on prayer here, because if you recall what he talked about just before this was “Patient Endurance.” Being patient and enduring living in obedience to God in a seemingly godless world is hard at times, right!? So what can we do for help? We can pray.

Prayer, though, if we’re honest, is likely a struggle for most of us. Actually, maybe it’s not a struggle to pray because many of us simply even think about it, like at all. It’s not a struggle because maybe we aren’t really trying to commune with God. This is a great concern because, as Martin Luther put it, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer might just be the most natural expression of faith there is.

So, what does our lack of communing with our God reveal? It reveals, in many ways, a lack of faith, and a lack of understanding of just how extraordinary of a thing it is that because of Jesus, his death in our place bearing all our sin and shame, paying a debt we could not pay, and rising again declaring victory over death. What does that mean? It means that those of us who have turned and believed in Jesus alone; we’ve been reconciled to God! We have nothing to separate us from God!

To not desire communication with this Creator of Heaven and Earth to whom we’ve been reconciled, reveals something amiss: either we’ve forgotten how sweet it is to talk with our Heavenly Father, or we’ve become too busy with relying upon ourselves for daily life that we don’t even realize we really need Him. We need a strong reminder of this direct access and loving relationship we have with the God of the universe, and James gives us that reminder here. From this text, we will see four powerful truths about prayer. Four powerful truths.

 

Four Powerful Truths about Prayer

  1. Prayer is for every season and circumstance of life (v. 13-14, 16).

We see it so clearly in those first few verses. When you’re suffering, pray. When you’re cheerful, pray. When you’re sick, pray and get others to pray for you! Down in verse 16: when you’ve sinned, confess and pray for one another. In all circumstances, in all seasons, we are to be a praying people! We see this over and over throughout the New Testament.

Paul, in Ephesians 6:18 commands us to “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Do you here all the “alls” in there? On all occasions with all kinds of prayers and request. Be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 1 Thessalonians 5:17, one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Pray continually,” then verse 18: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Clearly, God designed prayer not to be relegated simply to when we have a need, though certainly, when suffering, we should pray! The word in verse 13 for suffering refers to all different sorts of afflictions and trials. And the word for “cheerful” is not just some short-term outward cheerfulness (hehehe!). Instead, it refers to a heart condition that can be common in a good season of life. When life is good, sing praises to God! This is a form of prayer, isn’t it? Singing? If you’re speaking to the Lord when you sing, you are praying. You’re speaking to God. So sing for joy when life is good. Pray at all times and in all seasons.

If we ask ourselves why we don’t pray all that much, maybe some of us would answer, “I don’t mean to not pray much, but it’s probably because life is good right now!” Can I tell you that likely one of our greatest times of vulnerability, not just in being vulnerable to the enemy, but also just vulnerable to our own sin and selfishness. One of our greatest times of vulnerability is when life is good, when we’re comfortable, when we think we don’t have a care in the world!

We must pray for our hearts. When things are bad, we can become angry and bitter, but when things are good, we can become too comfortable, lazy, self-reliant. Don’t relegate prayer to the bad times, or when you have a need. We commune with our great God, not only to make sure our hearts remain steadfast and obedient to Him, but also because it is such a sweet thing. To sit down, open your Bible, ask God to teach you, and hear directly from Him through His Word. Or just to be going about your day, constantly aware that God is with you, His Spirit inside you, and to just talk with him throughout the day. Have we forgotten just how sweet that is?

Every prayer doesn’t have to be, “Dear God, Amen.” Nor do you have to close your eyes. That’s nowhere in the Bible, though I don’t think it’s a bad tradition especially for corporate prayer, to minimize distractions. But you can pray while driving. You can talk with God at any time about anything.

Suffering, cheerful, sick, no matter the circumstance or season of life, we can communicate with our God, and this praying is not just for us as individuals! Notice, James writes that if someone is sick (and really the implication here is a very sick, like on his death bed), then call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Now, I’m guessing most of us in this room have never been anointed with oil while sick or while in the hospital. For most, it may seem like a rather foreign thing, including myself to be honest. Because of that, I want to spend just a minute or two thinking through this. The question we need to answer is, what’s the purpose of anointing with oil? This is literally the only time in the Bible where we’re told to anoint with oil, so what’s the purpose of it? There are actually a few different answers/opinions that theologians give.

Three Explanations of Anointing the Sick with Oil

  1. The first is that the oil is medicinal. In the ancient world, oil was very commonly used as medicine, so maybe James is simply telling his readers to go to a sick man’s bed armed with not only the power of prayer but the power of medicine. Certainly God uses medicine. It seems unlikely that this is what James meant, though. First, oil was only used for certain illnesses, so why bring up a remedy used only for certain sicknesses? Also, why would the elders be the ones to give medicine, as opposed to a physician?
  2. The second answer that some give as to the purpose of anointing with oil is for sacramental purposes. In the Catholic Church, this became what was known as the sacrament of Extreme Unction, nowadays it’s called the “Final Anointing,” and happens traditionally on a man or woman’s death bed. According to the Catholic Church, it removes any last sin before someone dies. Obviously, that is something that goes far beyond what James says here. There’s just no evidence in Scripture of the anointing of oil being used in that way. So, what’s the true purpose?
  3. It seems that the best explanation is that it is symbolic. In the Old Testament, anointing often symbolized someone or something’s consecration for God’s use. Anointing with oil was to symbolize that a sick person was being “set apart” for God’s special care. Obviously, oil isn’t required to be able to pray that someone would be healed. We see that everywhere in the New Testament– healings without oil. It’s also very clear that oil has no special healing power, or supernatural ability. Prayer can effect change, and even bring God to heal, not oil. But, oil can be symbolic of setting someone aside for God’s special attention. That seems to be the best explanation of anointing with oil.

There just isn’t much explanation in the Scripture as to what this is, and not much to really support this becoming a really common practice, at least in my opinion. But, certainly, James writes it as an option for those who are seriously ill, and so it is certainly appropriate to do so. James himself gives no explanation, but instead jumps right back into the thrust of what he’s writing about, which is PRAYER. Not only is prayer for every season and circumstance of life, but the second powerful truth about prayer:

 

  1. Prayer is powerful for any righteous man who prays (v. 15-16, 17-18).

Verses 5-6: “And 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. Therefore, 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.” As clearly as can be, the prayer of faith can change things. Prayer can and does make the sick well. Now, does prayer guarantee that healing will come? No. In fact, that’s really the meaning of praying in faith.

It’s not referring to having enough faith that God will do as we want. We’ve talked about that before. That’s not what faith is. When James speaks of faith here, as well as in chapter 1:6-8, it means an unwavering complete commitment to God. That’s what faith is. And so the prayer of faith definitely includes believing that God is able to answer our prayers, even in the very way we wish him to, but it also includes recognizing that God is sovereign in all things, and that it’s not always God’s will to heal the sick. Faith is not believing as strongly as possible that God will answer our prayers as we want him to answer, but instead believing that God is sovereign and will answer our prayers exactly as He wishes to do so. It’s a faith not only in his ability, but in his will!

Our faith in God involves trusting in God’s will, not bending him to ours. Instead, we desire to conform to his will, even in suffering. It’s a difficult truth, but one in which we can find true rest and peace and joy knowing the God who is in control. So, no, there’s no guarantee that God answer prayers in the way that we want him to, BUT, there IS real power in prayer.

John Piper puts it this way: “God has ordained that prayers cause things to happen that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t pray.” There is power in prayer. So, the question is this: on what basis does God answer our prayers? What makes him decide to answer them or not to answer them? Because if we’re honest, this is sometimes one of the most difficult things in the Christian walk is when we pray fervently for something to change, especially suffering or illness in a friend or family member or an adult child who’s turned away from God; it’s one of the most difficult things when those prayers seem to go unanswered.

So, first: is it sin that causes prayers not to be answered, especially for healing? It says the “prayer of faith” will save the one who is sick, and the 2nd part of verse 16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” So, if there’s power when a righteous man prays, which mean first that this person is a right with God in Christ, but it also means they’re in line with God’s will, and desire God’s will above their own (that’s what righteous means), is it then the case that UNanswered prayers mean UNrighteousness in the person praying?

The first way I’ll answer that is by saying that it’s possible. This may be a surprising answer for you, but in the Scriptures, we do see sometimes that sin can cause sickness. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30, writes that the reason some of the Christians in Corinth have gotten sick and even have died is because they’ve misused the Lord’s Supper. He writes, “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.”

I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate when we’re sick, in particular, to check our spiritual lives. That’s why James says in verse 16, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” But, obviously, this is not always the case. In fact, it’s probably pretty rarely the case. Think of Job, who went through so much pain and loss, and yet God rebuked his friends after they tried to tell him that it was all because he had sinned. I’ve found this to be a pretty common thought process, more common than you may think, for people to assume that someone has sinned every time something goes wrong. This can be one of the most tragic ways to treat people. Don’t ever assume something like that about someone else, or even assume it about yourself. Ask the Lord to reveal it, then confess sin, and move on.

Prayer is powerful for any righteous man or woman who prays. That doesn’t mean we get exactly what we want, nor does it mean that unanswered prayer automatically means we didn’t have enough faith, or weren’t righteous enough. But, we can know that the closer we are to God, the closer we will be to wanting his will above all else, which would then cause us to pray in faith, desiring His will, because our will has become more and more parallel to his. Love it! The third powerful truth about prayer:

 

  1. All believers have the privilege and responsibility to pray for and watch over each other (v. 16-18).

Look at verses 16-18 again: “Therefore, 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. Elijah 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”

Knowing what we just read before, that prayer can and does change things, that God responds to prayer, and that God forgives sins, what then should those truths compel us to do?! It should compel us to pray for each other! To confess sins to each other! You know, if you were to sum up what we’re to be aiming for as a church body, Raintree Community Church, I think it’d best be summed up by saying we’re aiming for spiritual vitality and health amongst our people.

And can I just tell you: quite possibly THE most important thing we can do to that end for each other in the body of Christ, outside of being devoted to God’s Word and hearing directly from Him, is to be actively and regularly engaged in prayer for one another. We must be doing this. This is a major reason why we have a church directory, and even an online directory. Yes, it’s so we can easily access each other’s information and see faces of people we meet and then forget their names (it happens to all of us), but hopefully, we can also use it as a tool to pray for each other.

Do you pray for the people in this church? Do you pray for other local churches? When we pray for each other, we begin to truly care for each other. It’s funny how many of us struggle with genuinely caring about people. I know, to some that sounds crazy. But if we had an anonymous quiz go around asking one question: Do you struggle with compassion, or just, in general, caring about other people? I think we’d be surprised at how much of a struggle that is for many of us.

Listen, yes, caring about people in this church will help you pray for them. But the opposite is also true. If you begin praying for the people around you, in and outside the church, God will grow in your heart a genuine compassion and love for those people, even if you’re someone who just doesn’t like people! You will grow in love for them. Likely, even, a love that will help you to be part in bringing brothers or sisters back from straying. The last two verses we read at the beginning, verses 19 and 20, which we’ve talked about in the past weeks and won’t cover in detail today, James writes, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

We are to be part of helping each other follow Christ, even watching over each other. This is one of the biggest signs of health in a church. Are we able to confess sins to each other, and not be judged, but instead be prayed for? In fact, not only should the question be: Are we able to do that? But, really, the question is: Are we doing that actively?

Do not let Raintree Church become a place where you simply come and experience music and a speech and maybe some coffee. This is a gathering of believers building one another up! This is NOT about you observing and getting something out of what happens up here. This is about participating in the body of Christ, a family of believers who desire to grow each other in Christ, by the working and power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God. Pray for each other, confess your sins to each other, because prayer is a powerful thing, and it is powerful for all of us as believers.

All of us! I just love the example that James uses in verses 17 and 18.  Elijah! Elijah! This was a BIG DOG! Especially to the Jews reading this letter from James, Elijah was the Old Testament hero of heroes! The spectacular miracles that he called down from heaven! He prayed that it wouldn’t rain, and for three and half years it didn’t rain, then he prayed that it would rain, and it rained. Anybody else think that, yeah, that’s pretty cool? I’m just like, “Wow! That’s pretty powerful praying!” That should have been the title of this sermon: “Pretty Powerful Praying.”

My favorite part is in verse 17, though: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…” I just love that James put that in there. What a good reminder for all of us! This hero of heroes, this man who prayed and miracles happened, he was a normal human being like you and me! It wasn’t some supernatural ability that gave him power, nor perhaps even his status as a prophet of God, nor anything else! The power of prayer is not limited to those in certain positions, like elders or prophet, or any other position. That’s not what made Elijah such a powerful pray-er; it was, instead, his fervent faith and reliance upon a God far greater than any human being.

It’s this kind of prayer that we, all of us, same nature as Elijah and anyone else, all of us have been called to. Communing with the God of the universe, and growing to know Him through His Word in such a way that we begin to pray for the very things that God wants to bring about. The more we spend time with God, the more we’re going to want what He wants! The more we’ll see things the way He sees things! This is a privilege AND a responsibility of every single believer in Jesus Christ, because the power of prayer is available to all who are truly following Jesus, not just to special elite few. The fourth and final powerful truth about prayer:

 

  1. Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will. 

This is really a summary statement about prayer, and it actually comes directly from the Westminster Catechism, which is a collection of basic Christian teachings put together hundreds of years ago. But I love this wording, and it seems to represent well the biblical teaching on prayer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to his will. It’s really an offering up of everything. Philippians 4:6- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

I want to close us with a verse from Psalm 62, before we spend a few minutes in prayer as a body. Psalm 62:8 says this: “Trust in him at all times. Pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge.” Right now, I’d like us to spend just a bit of time pouring out our hearts to God in praise, in confession, and in thanksgiving. You can get out of your seat and kneel if you wish, and feel free to just get up and sit down if your knees start to hurt. Or you can lie prostrate on the ground. We see that in Scripture. You can lift your hands to God. But, no matter how you pray, please pray with your heart.