Is any among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise? Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
So there you have it. If you’re sick, you just have to be prayed over (and confess your sins) and you’ll get better. So long, cancer. So long, anxiety. So long, common cold. And yet, that’s not what we find. Our everyday experience—that is, reality—conflicts with this idea. So what do we do when Scripture and reality don’t jive? I would suggest there are times when that calls for faith and there are times when that calls for a reexamination of our perception of reality. But there are also times when we would do well to dig a little deeper into Scripture. I believe in a literal reading of the Bible and I generally trust the translators. If we all had to be Hebrew and Greek scholars to know God, we would be in deep trouble. But this passage in James is one where I think a quick reading may not give us the true meaning—where a little digging would be prudent.
To start with, I think we need to look at other versions than the NIV because it misses the mark here. If we look at a spectrum of versions, we see the phrase “make the sick person well” translated as “save the one who is sick” (ESV), “restore the one who is sick” (NASB), “save the sick” (KJV), “save him that is sick” (ASV), and “save the sick person” (HCSB). If we turn to the original Greek, we see the word used is sōsei, from sṓzō (to save)—which is in turn from sōs, meaning “safe, rescued”—that is, to “deliver out of danger and into safety; used principally of God rescuing believers from the penalty and power of sin – and into His provisions (safety).” That is quite a bit different than being healed of a physical illness, and indeed seems to lead very well into the end of verse 15: “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
So what do we have here? Is James promising believers physical healing? Or is he promising something else? I think we need to ask a few more questions. The first is what is meant by “is any among you sick?” The same array of versions agree on the word “sick,” and the Greek would seem to refer to physical ailments and weaknesses (although Strong’s Concordance has the following definition: “I am weak (physically: then morally), I am sick”). So James seems to be writing to people who are suffering from a physical sickness—cancer, disease, or even the flu. Yet there does seem to be a spiritual connection as well. That’s not to say that all physical sickness has a direct spiritual cause—i.e., sin. But this passage is talking about both the physical and the spiritual.
Our second question is regarding faith. James writes “the prayer offered in faith.” Faith in what? Faith that God can heal? Faith that God will heal? It would be great if the Greek offered us a different explanation of faith here, but it doesn’t. It’s the same word used throughout the New Testament to refer to faith in God or faith in Jesus Christ. This leads us to another question, a rephrasing of the last. Is it faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the man who went about “healing every disease and sickness among the people”? Or is it faith in Jesus Christ who, when asked, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Yes, I realize they’re one and the same Jesus, but the question is, essentially, are we looking for physical healing or spiritual healing? If we’re looking for physical healing, we may get it, as did numerous people in the Bible. But we also may not get it, as is evidenced by sick Christians who stay sick or even die, and as is evidenced by Paul whose thorn in the flesh was not taken away despite his pleading. Conversely, will God deny anyone who comes to Him for spiritual healing, for deliverance “from the penalty and power of sin” through Jesus Christ?
This brings up another question. What is meant by “The Lord will raise him up”? The majority of versions are consistent with that phrasing, and the Greek word, egerei, has a variety of meanings in the New Testament—from physically getting up to Christ being raised from the dead to people rising up from their sickbed. If the phrase in James means the latter, that God will heal them from a physical ailment, we are back to having to figure out an alternate explanation for those who don’t get healed, who don’t get out of their hospital bed. Was their (or their elders’) faith not strong enough? If that were the case, we’d all be hopelessly sick because none of us has strong enough faith.
The final question, and the key question, I think, is what is the time frame for all this taking place? Let me suggest that we are correct to read this passage as a promise of physical (along with spiritual) healing, but we are wrong to assert that the physical healing must take place in the here and now. If you have a sickness, if you are weak or feeble, the prayer offered in faith WILL make you physically well and God WILL physically raise you up. But that may not occur until “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It may happen sooner, but the “guarantee” as it pertains to physical healing is an eternal guarantee. Similarly, our spiritual healing—while accomplished at the cross and assured in the present by faith—will not be attained until eternity. Only then will we be free from sin and death, and only then will we share in our inheritance with Christ.
This is a complex passage. Many of the words have nuances that could drastically change the meaning, as mentioned above regarding “sick,” or regarding “healed” in verse 16. In short, based also on what we find elsewhere in Scripture, I would say we can glean the following:
God does physically heal in the here and now.
God does respond to prayer for physical healing.
It is appropriate to seek and pray for physical healing, but there is no surefire formula for attaining it. Whether or not God heals physically in the here and now, He will ultimately heal physically and spiritually in eternity.
The primary focus, then, should be on being spiritually right with God and on His spiritual healing—that is, deliverance from sin and death. Jesus told His disciples, in regard to Lazarus, “this sickness will not end in death.” He didn’t tell them Lazarus wouldn’t die, but that the sickness would not end in death. He knew that He would raise Lazarus back to life, a beautiful picture of our resurrection. Thus we can say this sickness—this cancer, this disease, this affliction, this thorn in the flesh, these “light and momentary troubles”—will not end in death. The whole focus of Scripture is on eternity, and I think that gives us an appropriate lens through which to view James 5 and our physical illnesses.
 James 5:13-16
 Strong’s Concordance
 HELPS Word-studies copyright © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc.
 Matthew 4:23
 Luke 5:30-32
 See II Corinthians 12:7-9
 Revelation 21:4, emphasis added
 John 11:4
 II Corinthians 4:17