Wednesday, September 06, 2023

The Commentariat Speaks (28)

Over at Blog & Mablog, Justin has a question about a difficult passage at the end of James:

“What is the purpose of anointing with oil [James 5:14]? Does it make our prayers extra powerful? Is that for us in this day and age?

I am genuinely curious due to the fact that in our church there is a sister that has just been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. We do pray and have been praying for her, her husband, and their children.

This past Sunday during our announcements after the service our pastor stated that he and another elder were going to fulfill the James 5 principle and personally go and anoint her head with oil for healing.”

Oddly enough, we just discussed this passage in our weekly Bible study.

Some Deep Background

That’s not to say we have all the answers, but one of the things pointed out in our discussion is that most scholars think James was one of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written, as early as AD40-45, prior to the first council of Jerusalem. It may well precede all of Paul’s writings. Even those who late-date the book have to concede it “reflects early Jewish Christianity”, being addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”. It also contains the only reference to “religion” [thr─ôskeia] in what is arguably a Christian context, the remainder being unmistakably references to the religion of Judaism. In fact, the only mention of the church in the entire book of James occurs in the context of the passage to which Justin is referring. In short, James is seriously early in the church’s history.

This is important because when James refers to “scriptures”, it is abundantly clear he has only the Old Testament in view. Nothing else existed yet. The church in those days, Jewish or Gentile, got by on the Hebrew scriptures, Christian prophecy and the other miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (all but three of those listed in 1 Corinthians 12, written to a church full of Jews witnessing to a city full of Jews, see Acts 18).

A Bit of Judicious Anointing

As we noted in a post from earlier this year, some of these gifts (tongues, miracles) were not exclusively intended for use in church gatherings, but functioned primarily as signs of impending judgment to the Jewish nation. Compare the Corinthians gift list, full of signs and wonders, with the list of gifts in Romans, written to a Gentile church with no Jews. Prophecy apart, which was a sign gift intended for believers, the Romans gift list is entirely non-miraculous, as we might expect. All the Romans gifts except prophecy may still be found in churches today, whereas the Corinthians list is substantially obsolete. That same post documented the gradual disappearance of the sign gifts from the text of the later New Testament books (except for historical references), as the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 loomed ever closer. There is no substantive evidence of these sign gifts existing today in their New Testament form, notwithstanding the shenanigans in some evangelical denominations that purport to approximate them.

So then, a bit of judicious anointing resulting in a miracle of healing would be entirely appropriate to the period in which James wrote, especially in a Jewish context, which is very much the case with this book. It is hardly unreasonable to suggest that James may well have intended his directions to apply only to the times in which he wrote, and not necessarily throughout the centuries to follow. It would be comparable to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on the use of tongues in church, helpful for the next generation and not much use beyond that except as church history, since the gift of tongues would shortly become obsolete.

If it is objected that I am offering a “cultural” interpretation, I would contend that I’m not. Rather, it is a dispensational interpretation. Make of that what you will.

The Alternative

The alternative to a scenario in which James intended his instructions to be followed only by the generation to which he wrote his epistle is not completely untenable, but it is certainly a bitter pill to swallow. If we hold that miraculous healings should be normative throughout the entire church age, and not just its first twenty or thirty years, what explains the obvious fact that the modern church entirely fails to perform them in any form that can be rigorously documented? Are we too carnal? Do we lack faith? Do we just not use the right oil?

That’s the essence of Justin’s question, and it’s a good one. I have yet to see a compelling supersessionist answer to it.

Here’s the relevant passage in James:

“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.”

Praying for the Sick in Faith

It seems evident that what James has in view is the miraculous restoration of the body to go along with the restoration of the sinner’s soul. Otherwise, why does he write “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” as though it is an additional benefit to “the Lord will raise him up”? This “raising up” and physical healing is something we simply are not seeing consistently in the church today, oil or no oil. One possibility is that we are not practicing what James teaches. Another is that we are not doing it right. A third is that the Lord refuses to listen to our elders because they are inadequately righteous. Ask yourself: Are any of these things likely to be true of all modern churches at all times? I think not.

Furthermore, it is evident death gets us all eventually. Even if a prayer of faith could restore a sick man once, twice, or three times, death inevitably gets its way. We expect that, and so we should. But death’s inevitability creates this problem for elders praying in faith: how can they know when it is the Lord’s will to physically restore the sick, and when it is the Lord’s will to let nature take its course? And if they do not have confidence concerning the Lord’s will when they pray, how can they pray in faith?

The sort of faith James talks about was not rare in the early days of the New Testament. In fact, faith was a documented spiritual gift. Perhaps not coincidentally, faith sits on the 1 Corinthians gift list right next to gifts of healing, just as tongues and interpretation also sit side by side. Is it too outrageous if I suggest perhaps this was faith to confidently discern the situational will of God in the absence of an Old Testament command? Why should it be?

Again, if absolute confidence in the will of God in a particular situation apart from the moral teaching of the Holy Spirit in his word remains available to us today, why are we not seeing more miraculous healings in response to James-style interventions from church elders?

The Example of Elijah

It is interesting in this regard that James uses the example of Elijah. I don’t think it’s an accident. Consider, Elijah had a nature like ours and he prayed for and received two miracles: (1) that it might not rain, and (2) that it might. But let’s have a closer look at the text of 1 Kings 17 and 18. When Elijah swore that it would not rain “except by my word”, he swore it by the life of “the Lord, the God of Israel”. Do you think he prayed anything so thoroughly, completely and almost instantly falsifiable without an unambiguous direction from the Lord? I sure don’t. No, Elijah prayed in faith and absolute confidence. The faithfulness of God was at stake, along with the reliability of God’s spokesman. Moreover, when he prayed for rain to return in the third year, he prayed in response to a personal promise from almighty God: “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.”

For Elijah, there was no concern about the will of God in the matter of rain. It stopped when God wanted it to stop, and it began again when God wanted it to begin. The fact that God worked his will for Israel in response to Elijah’s prayer is not a trivial matter, but there were no “not-my-will-but-thines” involved. The Lord’s will was never in question.

The Will of God and Faith

Can anyone praying over a sick person today say that? I can’t, and I don’t believe anyone else can either. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with praying for the sick, calling the elders to pray over the sick, or even throwing in a little oil if it makes you feel better. But always, always, such prayers must be offered in the same spirit as the Lord Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane about the cup he was shortly thereafter to drink: relief may happen, relief may not, but the Lord is faithful regardless.

That much we can confirm, even if we don’t see the scenario in James 5 acted out regularly in the body of Christ today.

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