Seeking the Lost! (James 5: 13-20)
James closes his letter as abruptly with simply a final appeal. His task has been to bring back the wanderer from the jagged, barren, dangerous landscape of ‘the world’ to what should be the sanctuary of God’s sheepfold
Whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul…
As we have worked through James’ pastoral letter to the churches in the Dispersion we have seen that he is always practical, always direct, often blunt, and sometimes brutal. Yet his pastor’s heart is evident enough, no more so than in these closing verses.
He firstly addresses anyone who is suffering, cheerful or sick – which probably includes most of his readers! In each case, he directs them to connect with God: in prayer, in praise, or by calling the elders of the church to pray in the name of the Lord (probably the Lord Jesus, rather than the Father to whom they pray.)
The word for suffering may refer to mental, physical, emotional or spiritual suffering. It could as well include those undergoing the trials in 1.2 as those oppressed by the rich in 2.6 or 5.4. James offers no assurance of deliverance, indeed he has already said that suffering must be endured with joy and steadfastness (1.2-4) and patience (5.7). The purpose of praying, then, is to ask for God’s strength to remain steadfast.
Those who are cheerful are not simply those who are carefree and happy. They may equally well be those who are joyful in suffering (1.2), or who have ‘taken heart’ in the face of danger (see Acts 27.22, 25). The purpose of their praise is to thank and glorify God for answering their prayer.
More extensive advice is given on the ministry to the sick – how it should be done, by whom and why. James seems to refer to someone who is ill enough to be bedridden, hence the need to call for the elders. The role of the elder may be a designated office, or it may denote a more informal group of established leaders in the church. They are to pray over the sick person and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. Nowhere else is this commanded and healing does not depend upon it (e.g. Acts 3.6f.), so it may be encouraged but not required.
And if sin has caused or contributed to the sickness (it may or may not have – cf. John 9.1-3 & 5.14; 1 Cor 11.30), then that sin needs to be confessed so that it isn’t a barrier to God’s healing. Those who pray for healing must have faith in God, nothing more, nothing less. After all, Elijah “was a man with a nature like ours” and God answered his prayers, so why not ours?
James closes his letter as abruptly as he opened it: no farewell prayer or benediction, simply a final appeal. Like the shepherd in today’s painting, his task has been to bring back the wanderer from the jagged, barren, dangerous landscape of ‘the world’ to what should be the sanctuary of God’s sheepfold - provided the sheep love and care for one another. We are to do likewise.
Is there someone you know who is straying? How might you seek to bring them back?
Loving Father, thank you that you are a God who hears our prayers and delights in our praises. Help me to look to you in all circumstances, trusting that you will answer in whatever way is best. May I play my part in your church, loving others and seeking the lost, for your name’s sake. Amen
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Ran Berkovich on Unsplash