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.