Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him…
I. The first thing to be noted in connection with this sending for the elders of the congregation by the sick man is, that in this Epistle, which is one of the very earliest among the Christian writings which have come down to us, we already find a DISTINCTION MADE BETWEEN CLERGY AND LAITY. St. James assumes as a matter of course, that every congregation has elders, that is a constituted ecclesiastical government. What the precise functions of the clergy were is not told us with much detail or precision; but it is quite clear that whatever the functions were they were spiritual rather than secular, and were duties which a select minority had to exercise in reference to the rest; they were not such as any one might exercise towards any one. In the present ease the sick person is not to send for any members of the congregation, but for certain who hold a definite, and apparently an official position. If any Christians could discharge the function in question, St. James would not have given the sick person the trouble of summoning the elders rather than those people who chanced to be near at hand. And it is quite clear that not all Christians are over all other Christians in the Lord; that not all are to rule, and all to obey and submit; therefore not all have the same authority to "admonish" others, or to "watch in behalf of their souls, as they that shall give account." The reason why the elders are to be summoned is stated in different ways by different writers, but with a large amount of substantial agreement. "As being those in whom the power and grace of the Holy Spirit more particularly appeared," says Calvin. "Because when they pray it is not much less than if the whole Church prayed," says Bengel. St. James, says Neander, "regards the presbyters in the light of organs of the Church, acting in its name"; and, "As the presbyters acted in the name of the whole Church, and each one as a member of the body felt that he needed its sympathy and intercession, and might count upon it; individuals should therefore, in cases of sickness, send for the presbyters of the Church. These were to offer prayer on their behalf." The intercession which St. James recommends, says Stier, is "intercession for the sick on the part of the representatives of the Church,... not merely the intercession of friends or brethren as such, but in the name of the whole community, one of whose members is suffering."
II. The second point of interest is THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK PERSON BY THE ELDERS. What purpose was the oil intended to serve? Was it purely symbolical? and if so, of what? Was it merely for the refreshment of the sick person, giving relief to parched skin and stiffened limbs? Was it medicinal, with a view to a permanent cure by natural means? Was it the channel or instrument of a supernatural cure? Was it an aid to the sick person's faith? One or both of the last two suggestions may be accepted as the most probable solution. And the reason why oil was selected as a channel of Divine power and an aid to faith was, that it was believed to have healing properties. It is easier to believe when visible means are used than when nothing is visible, and it is still easier to believe when the visible means appear to be likely to contribute to the desired effect. Christ twice used spittle in curing blindness, probably because spittle was believed to be beneficial to the eyesight. And that oil was supposed to be efficacious as medicine is plain from numerous passages both in and outside of Holy Scripture (Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34). A mixture of oil and wine was used for the malady which attacked the army of AElius Gallus, and was applied both externally and internally. His physicians caused Herod the Great to be bathed in a vessel full of oil when he was supposed to be at death's door. Celsus recommends rubbing with oil in the case of fevers and some other ailments. But it is obvious that St. James does not recommend the oil merely as medicine, for he does not say that the oil shall cure the sick person, nor yet that the oil with prayer shall do so; but that "the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick," without mentioning the oil at all. On the other hand, he says that the anointing is to be done by the elders "in the name of the Lord." If the anointing were merely medicinal, it might have been performed by any one, without waiting for the elders. And it can hardly be supposed that oil was believed to be a remedy for all diseases. On the other hand, it seems to be too much to say that the anointing had nothing to do with bodily healing at all, and was simply a means of grace for the sick. Thus Dollinger says, "This is no gift of healing, for that was not confined to the presbyters; and for that Christ prescribed not unction, but laying on of hands. Had he meant that, St. James would have bidden or advised the sick to send for one who possessed this gift, whether presbyter or layman .... What was to be conveyed by this medium was, therefore, only sometimes recovery or relief, always consolation, revival of confidence and forgiveness of sins, on condition, of course, of faith and repentance." But although the gift of healing was not confined to the elders, yet in certain cases they may have exercised it; and although Christ prescribed the laying on of hands (Mark 16:18), yet the apostles sometimes healed by anointing with oil (Mark 6:13). And that "shall save him that is sick," means "shall cure him, is clear both from the context, and also from the use of the same word elsewhere (Matthew 9:22; Mark 5:23; John 11:12). And "the Lord shall raise him up" makes this interpretation still more certain. The same expression is used of Simon's wife's mother (Mark 1:31). That St. James makes the promise of recovery without any restriction may at first sight appear to be surprising; but in this he is only following the example of our Lord, who makes similar promises, and leaves it to the thought and experience of Christians to find out the limitations to them. St. James is only applying to a particular case what Christ promised in general terms (Mark 11:24; Matthew 17:20; John 14:14; John 16:23). The words "in My Name" point to the limitation; they do not, of course, refer to the use of the formula "through Jesus Christ our Lord," but to the exercise of the spirit of Christ: "Not My will, but Thine be done." The union of our will with the will of God is the very first condition of successful prayer. The apostles themselves had no indiscriminate power of healing (Philippians 2:27; 2 Timothy 4:20; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9). How, then, can we suppose that St. James credited the elders of every congregation with an unrestricted power of healing? He leaves it to the common sense and Christian submission of his readers to understand that the elders have no power to cancel the sentence of death pronounced on the whole human race. To pray that any one should be exempt from this sentence would be not faith, but presumption. Of the employment of the rite here prescribed by St. James we have very little evidence in the early ages of the Church. mentions a cure by anointing, but it is not quite a case in point. The Emperor Septimius Severus believed that he had been cured from an illness through oil administered by a Christian named Proculus Torpacion, steward of Evodias, and in gratitude for it he maintained him in the palace for the rest of his life. quotes the passage from St. James, and seems to understand the sickness to be that of sin. He interpolates thus: "Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them lay their hands on him, anointing him with oil," &c. This perhaps tells us how the rite was administered in in his time; or it may mean that Origen understood the "pray over him" of St. James to signify imposition of hands. With him, then, the forgiveness of sins is the healing. A century and a half later takes a further step, and employs the passage to show that priests have the power of absolution. "For not only at the time when they regenerate us, but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins." And then he quotes James 5:14, 15. It is evident that this is quite alien to the passage. The sickness and the sins are plainly distinguished by St. James, and nothing is said about absolution by the elders, who pray for his recovery, and (no doubt) for his forgiveness. When we reach the sixth century the evidence for the custom of anointing the sick with holy oil becomes abundant. At first any one with a reputation for sanctity might bless the oil — not only laymen, but women. But in the West the rule gradually spread from Rome that the sacred oil for the sick must be "made" by the bishop. In the East this has never been observed. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury, says that according to the Greeks it is lawful for presbyters to make the chrism for the sick. And this rule continues to this day. One priest suffices; but it is desirable to get seven, if possible. But the chief step in the development is taken when not only the blessing of the oil, but the administering of it to the Kick, is reserved to the clergy. In s time this restriction was not yet made, as is clear from his comments on the passage, although even then it was customary for priests to administer the unction. But by the tenth century this restriction had probably become general. It became connected with the communion of the sick, which of course required a priest, and then with the Viaticum, or communion of the dying; but even then the unction seems to have preceded the last communion. The name "" (unctio extrema), as a technical ecclesiastical term, is not older than the twelfth century. Other terms are "Last Oil" (ultimum oleum) and "Sacrament of the Departing" (sacramentum exeuntium). But when we have reached these phrases we are very far indeed from the ordinance prescribed by St. James, and from that which was practised by the apostles. "And if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him." We ought perhaps rather to translate, "Even if he have committed sins. it shall be forgiven him." The meaning would seem to be, "even if his sickness has been produced by his sins, his sin shall be forgiven, and his sickness cured." It is possible, but unnatural, to join the first clause of this sentence with the preceding one: "the Lord shall raise him up, even if he have committed sins." In that case "It shall be forgiven him" forms a very awkward independent sentence, without conjunction. The ordinary arrangement of the clauses is much better: even if the malady is the effect of the man's own wrong-doing, the prayer offered by faith — his faith, and that of the elders — shall still prevail.
(A. Plummer, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: 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: