Home > Brandenburg, Prayer, Questions > What is the New Testament Basis for Praying for the Sick?

What is the New Testament Basis for Praying for the Sick?

I have noticed for years that many churches in prayer meetings emphasize prayer for the sick.  How many Bible sermons have you heard on praying for the sick?  None that I remember.  I realize that we don’t probably hear too much on prayer anyway in sermons, but does the New Testament tell us to pray for the sick  When it comes to prayer (or anything else), Scripture is sufficient.  We have practices taught in Scripture, but we also have those acts that are emphasized in the Bible, ones that God wants us to do more than others.  Shouldn’t we be praying for what we see the people in the Bible praying for?

When you study the prayers of the Apostle Paul in the epistles, how much do we see him praying for the sick?  He doesn’t pray for Timothy that we know of.  He tells him to use the best medicine of the day.  He doesn’t pray for Epaphroditus.  He does pray for himself three times, but God says “No, my grace is sufficient.”  That means that healing Paul wasn’t in God’s will.  So far, we have praying for sickness isn’t in God’s will.  Paul asks two different churches in two different epistles to pray for his boldness in proclaiming the Gospel.  He prays for others to be filled with the knowledge of his will and for their love to abound more and more.  So, for as many prayers that go up for the sick, where do we get from the New Testament that this is in God’s will?

I could defend praying for the sick with Scriptural implications at the most.  I don’t defend it using James 5:14-15.  If there is anyplace people go to teach this, they go to James 5:14-15.  Those verses read:

Is any sick among you? 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

I contend that this text gets ripped from its context to defend praying for the physically ill (i.e., those with cancer, the flu, etc.).

The Pre-Context of James 5:14-15

The pre-context of James 5:14-15 goes back to the first verse (hmmmmm).  I think we do well to pick it up in v. 4 with laborers.  A harvest is coming in which people will be slaughtered.  On the other hand, Christian workers will suffer in the here and now for their work, but they will be rewarded in the end at the coming of the Lord, so they must be patient (vv. 7-8).  We know that the Lord is coming so we need the patience of Job to endure to the end as we are suffering affliction for our present labor (vv. 9-11).  If we are afflicted for our testimony for the Lord, we should pray (v. 13a) and if we are not, then we should sing (v. 13b).  Then we get our text in v. 14.  The context does not say anything about diseases we call sickness.  The context is about living for the Lord in a hostile culture, where persecution will occur and we will suffer for it.

The Internal Context

“Is any sick among you?”  The term “affliction” in verse 13 parallels with “sick” in verse 14.  “Sick” (asthenei) in v. 14 can mean “sick” as in “disease,” but also “weak.”  Consider these usages of the same Greek term:

Romans 14:1-2, 21, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.  For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. . . . It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.”

1 Corinthians 8:9, 11-12, “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. . . . And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.

2 Corinthians 11:21, 29, “I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit whereinsoever any is bold, (I speak foolishly,) I am bold also. . . . Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?”

OK, here’s one that fits the context of James 5:14-15 perfectly, that is, 2 Corinthians 12:10, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Godly people go through persecution for their labor for God on this earth, suffering affliction, and they should pray.  However, if one of them cannot pray, because he is too weak from that affliction and persecution, he should call someone over to his house who can pray for him.  Persecution could leave a person spiritually weak, discouraged, and ready to give up.

You ask, “What about the anointing with oil?”  “Anointing” is not ceremonial.  A whole separate Greek word is used for ceremonial anointing.  This word is medicinal.  It would be akin in contemporary English to “rub.”  The good Samaritan used “oil” (same Gk. word) to rub into the wounds of the injured man (Luke 10:34).  Today this might be some kind of therapeutic massage.  A rub or massage will bring blood to an injured area to promote healing.  It feels very good and actually can encourage the one feeling sore and down.

Here is someone who has suffered for the faith and in this state of affliction is weak.  The men who are on praying ground come over to pray over him while he struggles with prayer, strengthening him spiritually, and also giving treatment with oil to his beaten muscles and tissue.  “Oil” is symbolic of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, and surely there is some spiritual implication to their rubbing this man spiritually, bringing him back in spiritual strength, so that he is no longer “sick,” that is, “weak.”

In v. 15, the term “sick” is still different (kamno), found only here and two other places in the New Testament.  In Hebrews 12:3, it is completely fitting with this interpretation, reading:  “For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied (kamno) and faint in your minds.”  Also Revelation 2:3, where it says:  “And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted (kamno).”  This is a person who has become weak, weary, and faint from suffering the affliction expected of a Christian in a hostile world system.  A Christian needs to keep his focus on the coming of the Lord, waiting for his reward, but when he loses his vision, the strong spiritually can help him with prayer and encouragement.

I’m not saying “don’t pray for the sick.”  However, do pray Scripturally.  I think you should be able to agree that prayer for the sick is not an emphasis of the Bible.  God will heal all of us permanently, giving us all a resurrected body some day.  We should depend on Him now for our physical needs and at the same time pray the most for those things that matter the greatest to God.

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Categories: Brandenburg, Prayer, Questions
  1. Travis Burke
    January 17, 2007 at 1:18 pm | #1

    While it would be easy to give Old Testament reference for praying for the sick (David, Hezekiah, etc) it is an intriguing thought to find New Testament reference for praying for the sick. I will put much thought into it, but my first thoughts are: How many sick were brought to Jesus for healing; in Acts 28:8 a man with a fever was brought to Paul and “Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.”; Phillipians 4:6 reads “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” You suggested that “we should depend on Him now for our physical needs adn at the same time pray the most for those things that matter the greatest to God.” I agree with that statement, but still believe God has ask me to let my requests be made known unto God.” To me that would include sickness. I believe we should (1 Cor. 14:15) pray with the understanding. Pray in light of the fact that God may be trying me in some way, chastising me in some way, or whatever the need. So my first thought is: Christ, our example, had the sick brought to Him, Paul prayed for healing, and God instructed us to let our requests (sickness included) known to Him, but all the while pray with understanding (It may be God’s will that we continue in that sickness)….but I’m still thinking.

  2. January 17, 2007 at 2:27 pm | #2

    Thanks Pastor Burke. I haven’t made an argument for praying for the sick. I believe it is fine, but I didn’t want to take away the punch of this article. “Daily bread” in the model prayer, I believe, represents all physical needs. Obviously they were praying for the sick or in 1 John 5:14, 15, John would not have told them not to pray for some dying people. Jesus healed the sick. Yes. Why? I believe he did for several reasons. He eradicated disease from Galilee in the short time He was there, but at some point, He stopped healing, because His purpose for healing was fulfilled. Jesus the King manifested this supernatural quality of His kingdom—no more sickness by means of His Divine power. That would be a whole other discussion. :) Philippians 4:6 would at the most be implicit regarding anything that comes into our life that could result in being careful.

  3. January 17, 2007 at 2:30 pm | #3

    When I was in college, I worked at a place called The Spa. Having read this post, I now see a new ministry opportunity… Spiritual Massage with Dave. Rather than hands, we’ll use hammers. I knew there was some use to my experience!

    But now I will need to pack up my prayer hankies. I wonder if they’ll give a refund…

  4. January 17, 2007 at 4:10 pm | #4

    I have laid in bed all day with fever, head cold that feels as if it could explode, sore throat. I just hope I can pray for relief.

  5. January 17, 2007 at 11:20 pm | #5

    Cathy, “maybe” His grace is already sufficient. I can’t guarantee relief, because I have no Scriptural promise of relief for you. You can express your feelings to God. I believe He wants to hear them from you (see Psalms) even though He already knows them. Perhaps if you just thanked Him for His love and that you knew He was taking care of you would make you start feeling better. I could also send you a prayer hanky or a placebo and those too could make you feel better.

    Mallet, I’m guess The Spa sold Spas. I can’t quite see you doing manicures, etc.

  6. January 17, 2007 at 11:35 pm | #6

    The Spa was actually a business in the service sector of commerce.

    It was a restaurant. And a good one at that. It has since closed.

  7. January 18, 2007 at 1:17 am | #7

    That is okay, I am pretty tempted to go to work and getting a couple bolus of fluids. It is amazing what 2 liters of Normal saline will do for you.

  8. Ruth
    January 18, 2007 at 7:24 pm | #8

    Well, Pastor B,
    How amazing you are ….spreading your “prayer” around the net. And I see we are amongst friends….of a sort.
    And Cathy…….you might consider that a “bolus” of NS is hardly worth the trouble; perhaps you should try a couple of liters of D5W…good stuff. In the interum…i’ll just pray for you. Bet it works as well.

  9. January 18, 2007 at 9:18 pm | #9

    A bolus of NS is what is already in the body, you can get all wacked out with electroltes if you gave a bolus of D5. 2L of 5% sugar is not very safe, unless you are willing to back it up some insulin.

    Nevertheless, I started my Amox, it seems that I caught an ugly strep infection, I tried to talk them into giving me a Bicillian shot, but the urgent care looked at me like I was from Mars. Yes I would rather take 1 horrible shot, the 10 days of antibiotics that I will forget to complete anyway.

    Nevertheless, I prayed that it was strep, and God heard my prayers. Strep can be treated, a virus can’t

  10. Bill Hardecker
    January 18, 2007 at 9:48 pm | #10

    James 5:14 seems to point to some kind of ceremony, (or an order of events with designated persons). The sick calls for the elders (or pastors) of the church, and the pastors pray over him, and anoint (or rub) the sick with oil in the name of the Lord. If it was not something ceremonial then why would it be necessary to call the pastors to do the praying and anoiting? And why would it have to be done “in the name of the Lord?”

    I have read some comments on this verse which say that this situation refers to someone who has been sick due to some sin which resulted in church discipline hence, the need for the elders, and the need for confessing sins one to another and prayer for one another in v.16 ‘that ye may be healed…” I am not sure about this interpretation.

  11. January 19, 2007 at 8:58 am | #11

    Bill,

    I’m glad for your input. I was waiting for that from someone. My messsage isn’t (obviously, since I said it explicitly) “Don’t pray for the sick,” but what does the NT say about prayer. However, is this passage what I am saying, that is a great discussion. When I read this in Bible reading in the past, I never could see how it fit the context, suddenly stuck in here something about disease (sickness). I will comment later tonight on your stuff here. I don’t think it is an “order.” I believe it is a list of things, yes, but not something that says: here’s the order of the ceremony. It is a “practical” response to persecution.

  12. Bill Hardecker
    January 19, 2007 at 4:04 pm | #12

    I am all ears (or in this case ‘eyes’).

  13. January 20, 2007 at 6:25 pm | #13

    Hi Bill. Here is a strong favor toward my position: The word for anoint in James 5:14 is never ceremonial anointing, not once. It is always used in a medicinal or practical application, like when Mary anointed Jesus feet with perfume. On the other hand, there are distinct words for “anoint” that are used this way—chrio and epichrio. That is a tough one to ignore right from the start. The word is not the word for ceremonial anointing. The other strong favor toward my position is the no disease context. This is dealing with someone suffering affliction for belief and practice, not someone contracting a bacteria or virus. You are also mistaken in seeing some kind of “order” here that would be akin to a ceremony. “Anointing” is a participle, so it isn’t coming first or last in order; it is subservient to the verb “pray,” literally, pray while anointing him with oil.” They could be doing the oil rub and the praying simultaneously. In v. 15, the word “save” is not one of physical deliverance, but spiritual deliverance—sodso. When they pray for this man, they will save him from his weakness. Remember that the second word “sick” is never used for a disease. A person who is spiritually saved is someone who is getting right with the Lord, which is why his sins are being forgiven.

  14. January 20, 2007 at 11:02 pm | #14

    Ok so I don’t really care, I just want to get over this sickness because I am throwing PAC, premature atrail contractions left and right. My heartbeat has been skipping all day. Do you know what that weird feeling feels like when your heart starts acting goofy. I still think that praying the Lord will help me through this and quickly will help, if anything it always give me comfort talking with Him.

  15. Bill Hardecker
    January 22, 2007 at 4:43 am | #15

    I see your point, or what the text actually says, about ‘anointing.’ That it is medicinal, and subsequent (ok, it is subservient) to prayer. Why is it that the Greek word for sick in v.14 is different from that in v.15? I am sure ‘sick’ (healthwise) church members may ask prayer for their sickness, but are you saying that this cannot be based on James 5:14? I can see already, that modern day ‘anointing with oil’ is different from what James was referring to. From what I gather, modern day ‘anointing’ has nothing medicinal about it (at all) — one thing they DO have is certainly prayer.

  16. January 22, 2007 at 6:37 pm | #16

    I’m saying that the text is not about disease, but about praying for someone who is weak spiritually due to the effects of affliction from the world. I believe that different words were used in 14 and 15 to provide a nuance of difference within the same general category, that being, someone afflicted, suffering, beaten down, and weak.

  17. Bill Hardecker
    January 22, 2007 at 7:27 pm | #17

    Is modern day ‘anointing with oil’ then unscriptural? And what about the ‘elders.’ Isn’t that the pastor or pastors of the church? Can or should we strictly apply the verse to exclude those who are not ‘elders?’ I trust that you don’t think I’m trying to manipulate anything here, I am just asking questions and interested in your answers. BTW, thank you for shedding some exegetical light about this topic.

  18. January 23, 2007 at 2:55 pm | #18

    Thanks Bill, I don’t mind your questions. I like them. My tone, however, is gruff and alienating. :) “Elders” could be pastors or Godly older men. I can’t tell from the context. I believe they are at least men who are on praying ground, so that they could come and pray for a man who himself is too spiritually weak to pray.

  19. Bill Hardecker
    January 23, 2007 at 9:22 pm | #19

    ok, one more…is todays practice of “anointing with oil” then a result of misinterpreting James 5:14?

  20. January 24, 2007 at 1:37 am | #20

    Yes, Bill.

  21. Bill Hardecker
    January 24, 2007 at 8:31 am | #21

    Thank you. This has been a useful forum, at least for me, I am sure others would agree as well. Hammer on!

  22. March 3, 2007 at 7:01 pm | #22

    Brother Kent, I think the context of the sickness in that passage is indicating a sickness due to chastising, then the sickness being healed when the person repents and confesses their faults to others.

    To a certain extent, I can see what you are saying – however, why do you not believe it is referring to a chastising sickness (once the believer gets right with God again, there is no longer any need for the sickness that was intended to correct their sin)? I am really interested in hearing your response (to finetune my understanding of this passage). Because this thread is almost 2 months old, I might miss your reply. Would you be willing to email it to me (whether or not you reply in these comments)? I would truly appreciate that.

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