Ministering to the needs of sick people occupied a sizeable part of our Lord’s earthly ministry. There were many in every city He visited. It is possible for us today to become so taken up with the descriptions of His work (e.g. He healed “all”… “every”… “all manner of sickness…”) that we forget the main point: the Lord had compassion for the sick, and included them in His daily activities.
In Matthew 25, where Jesus links Himself with the needs of His people, there is an interesting reference by the Lord to sickness; “I was sick and ye visited me” (vs. 36 KJV). When questioned about this, the Lord was emphatic that caring for His people was the same as serving Him personally. As His appointed shepherds of the flock, elders must be constantly concerned for, and be reaching out to those in the fellowship who are sick, remembering it is a ministry to the Lord Himself. There are several ways in which this can be done.
In addition to private visits made to sick people by loving friends, there are two important opportunities to pray for the sick collectively. One is when the elders of the church are called as described in James 5:13-18; the other is during the fellowship time in the gathered assembly. Let’s consider each of these briefly.
“Let him call for the elders….”
The passage in James is important for elders to study as it provides a wealth of insight about church leadership and ministry to the sick. In the first place, James was one of the earliest New Testament writings; perhaps the very first. One might have expected James, writing at such an early date (49AD), to have advised sick people to contact those in the church with healing gifts. Instead, he instructs them to call for the elders [plural] of the church [singular]. From earliest days we see that leadership in the local church was a plurality of elders, and that they were to be concerned for the physical well being of the flock.
Secondly, it’s interesting to note that the elders were a known and identifiable group. James doesn’t say, “Let him call for those he considers to be elders…” The elders of the church were men who had been recognized by the people and publicly identified so that when a need arose, there was no question as to who should be called. This truth is seen again later in Acts 20:17 as Paul summons “the elders of the church.”
Thirdly, we note from verse 14 that the initiation of action lies with the sick person (or his family), not the elders. At times over the years, we have heard people grumble that the elders did not visit them when they were sick. When asked, “Did you call for them?” the question was treated as irrelevant. One lady replied, “That has nothing to do with it.” But it does! God blesses His church with the best men available to lead, but they are still finite human beings! They cannot know intuitively when a certain person has fallen ill or is in the hospital unless they are told. God puts this responsibility upon the sick person.
Requesting help from those in spiritual authority becomes an act of faith and obedience, and the timing of that process, even the desire for it, is carefully left to the one with whom God is working.
Finally, these verses contain some very practical instructions for the elders as to how to proceed when called. They are to go as a group to where the sick person is, and pray over him/her, anointing him/her with oil specifically in the name of the Lord Jesus. Acting as instruments through whom God can work, they make request in Jesus’ name, and if God grants them faith, “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up…” (verse 15). This should not be taken as a guarantee that any prayer offered by elders is in this sense, “the prayer of faith,” and therefore a guarantee of recovery. Healing is God’s sovereign domain and elders should seek the mind of the Lord concerning each case.
As verse 15 implies, sins may have been committed, so the elders should be ready to listen should the sick person express the need to confess what is on his or her heart. God alone can forgive sins and confession is always made first to God, but His servants are authorized to speak words of assurance of forgiveness in His Name when public confession is made.
Here are a few suggestions:
1) Elders should respond with a visit when called, scheduled as soon as convenient for all concerned parties.
2) Make it clear that the visit will be brief—not for food or lengthy conversations, but for prayer.
3) When gathered around the chair or bedside, brief conversation to greet, encourage and listen to the person are helpful. A short scripture may be read such as a Psalm.
4) Before prayer, anoint the sick person with oil. A small bottle of oil such as olive oil inverted over the index finger provides a small amount which can be applied to the forehead. As symbolic, there is no need to pour out the whole bottle.
5) Elders may want to lay hands on the person. There is much Biblical sup- port for this act of identification, and it can be a real encouragement to the person in need. Be gentle, tactful and brief.
6) Each elder should pray as he is led, bringing before the Lord specifics of family, medical, supportive concerns.
7) Prayer is the central activity. No demands should be placed before the Lord, no incidents involving the person’s past rehearsed; it is a time to make request to God “with thanksgiving.”
8) Avoid discussing the needs or problems of the local assembly with the person. Elders should refrain from telling of their own medical problems. Maintaining simplicity allows the Lord to speak to quiet and thoughtful hearts concerning the situation.
Many, including this writer can testify to the blessing of following the instructions of James 5. Often it marks a turning point in a serious medical situation. Of course we believe in instant divine healing, but we follow the directions given by the Great Physician as to how to proceed, and trust the Lord to accomplish His will in each individual life.
In the next issue, we’ll consider another opportunity to pray for the sick in the assembly fellowship time.