James 5 (Commentary and Discussion with Craig L. Blomberg
Over a period of five weeks, we've asked Craig Blomberg and Mariam Kamell to blog through the book of James. Their commentary, the first in the ZECNT series, will release at the ETS and SBL annual meetings, beginning Nov. 19. This concluding post, written by Craig, looks at James 5.
The tumor had appeared clearly in the pictures the doctor took of Jane’s abdomen. It looked cancerous, but of course there would have to be a biopsy. The procedure was scheduled for the next Monday morning. Jane was distraught by the news but not shocked. Depending on which way she pushed on her body, she thought in the last couple of weeks that she could feel a lump. Of course, she was hoping it was just a cyst or a benign tumor. She had almost a week to wait, though, before the next appointment, so she called the church office. Could she schedule a time with the elders after the Sunday morning services for them to pray over her and anoint her with oil? Of course, came the reply.
As they often did on Sunday morning, all the available elders gather in the pastor’s office, listened to Jane share her story and her concern. The presiding elder then led the group by reading James 5:13-18. He explained that this was not a magical ritual. The prayer of faith would indeed raise the sick person up, as the text explained in verse 15. But earlier in James 4:15, James had rebuked his audience for not leaving room in their planning for God’s will to overrule theirs. By definition, then, the prayer of faith was not some futile attempt to banish all doubt from one’s mind and be 100% convinced God wanted to heal you and, indeed, would heal you. It was expressing your heartfelt desire to God and leaving it in his hands.
One by one all who wanted to pray out loud did so. The elders closest to Jane laid their hands on her shoulders and other elders laid their hands on the shoulders or backs of those whose hands were on Jane. When the prayer time ended, the presiding elder took some olive oil, poured it on a handkerchief and daubed Jane’s forehead with it, offering a closing prayer. Hugs were exchanged, the elders encouraged Jane to keep them abreast of what was happening with her body, and the group disbanded as people left the church to go home.
Throughout the rest of that Sunday, Jane periodically probed her body to she if she could still feel the lump. It was hard for her to be sure. She hadn’t always been able to feel it in the first place, and at times, she thought she might be sensing a slight mass. But she never had the clear sense that something foreign was still in her body as she had experienced from time to time before. When Jane went to the doctor’s office on Monday, more pictures were taken to prepare for the biopsy. To every one’s amazement, they could find no tumor. Pushing and prodding on the outside produced no sign of any lump anywhere either. There was apparently no procedure to be done. That was fifteen years ago. Jane remains a specimen of good health today in her mid-50s. No sign of cancer, or any other tumor or cyst of any kind, has ever reappeared.
Christians debate over the nature and existence of the so-called charismatic gifts. Television has made the whole enterprise of faith-healing appear suspect in some people’s eyes. But wherever a person comes down on those issues, James 5 describes a procedure every church can implement.
As one who served as an elder for almost six years in a non-charismatic Baptist church in suburban Denver that regularly anointed our sick with oil according to the procedure just delineated, I had the privilege of participating in numerous such ceremonies. The one I have described to you, changing only the woman’s name, was the clearest example of what we could explain only as a direct miracle from the Lord. But in several other cases, people’s health suddenly improved, if not in miraculous ways then certainly in unexpected ways, with the timing of the improvement too closely linked to the time of our prayers and anointing for me to believe it was mere coincidence. In other cases, healing came more gradually but began shortly after our time with the sufferer. In still other cases, no improvement came anywhere close to the time of our prayers and in a few instances, terminally ill patients died.
Skeptics sometimes say that this wide spectrum of responses demonstrates that our prayers and anointing really accomplished nothing or that we have to explain why so rarely did a direct miracle occur. I disagree. Miracles by definition are rare or we wouldn’t single them out as unusual in the first place. God has set up our universe the operate by predictable laws of cause and effect the vast majority of the time. But every now and then, for reasons often known only to him, he chooses to intervene. James 4:2 says we have not because we ask not. There are times when, in his sovereignty, he has determined to give something good to his people if and only if they ask. What the skeptic has to explain, it seems to me, is why a miracle ever occurs, if no Creator God capable of acting supernaturally in our world exists.
We dare never promise anyone or delude ourselves into thinking that we know God wants to intervene miraculously into a certain situation. But neither should we immediately start to pray for funeral arrangements and comfort for the bereaved as soon as someone receives a terminal diagnosis! Let’s all be sure we are frequently implementing James 5:13-18 in our churches for those instances in which God has determined to bring healing if and only if we follow his instructions in those verses.
Craig Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including 1 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary series.