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Pray For One Another (James 5:16)

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

The video below is a sermon I preached in my local context as part of a larger series called "From Me to You", a series of reflections on the "one another" texts in the New Testament. I was asked to present some thoughts on "pray for one another" from James 5:16. This sermon is my attempt to hear James' exhortation within the context of the letter as a whole.

Pray For One Another (James 5:16)

Good morning church. Today we’re eight lessons into our From Me to You series where we are focusing on the One Another exhortations in the New Testament. Today we are reflecting on “Pray for one another.”

The first lesson Mike preached was a reflection on Jesus’ words in John 13 and it serves as a foundation for the whole series.

John 13:34–35 (ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This “new” commandment Jesus gives his disciples in this text flows directly out of Jesus’ own life and ministry. “As I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” In other words, Jesus envisions that the posture of loving one another ought to be a natural response to the love he has demonstrated for us. Similarly, the rest of the “one another” statements we have been spending time with in this series can be said to flow out of this one – we could see them as examples of what loving one another looks like on the ground. What does loving one another look like?

Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Romans 16:16 (ESV) 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Romans 12:16 (ESV) 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.

One Another Implies Life Together:

One of the things that this “one another” series implies is that these are instructions for people who share a common life – who do life together. In our Western world, where the individual is so highly valued it often trumps any sense of community. And in that context Christian faith easily becomes primarily focused on me and my personal relationship with God. That’s makes it possible for people in our world to say, “I’ll take Jesus, but I’ll pass on the church.” Jesus is my personal Savior; he loves me; he gave himself for me; he forgives me. And when that becomes our focus, any concept of life together takes a back seat in our thinking. It’s not like we explicitly deny the value of Christian community, but in practice our faith can often be very individually focused, and our life together consisting in only an hour a week on Sunday mornings.

And that should give us pause in light of this journey we’re on through these “one another” texts. You can’t do “one another” by yourself. It requires an “other”. It requires relationship and not just on a superficial level. Authentic relationship involves intimacy, vulnerability and a bunch of other things that scare most of us half to death. And so, we’re not at all sure we want authentic community. It’s much safer if it’s just me and Jesus. And yet Jesus insists that we step into the world of “one another”.

Our guide this morning as we take another step on this “one another” journey through the New Testament is James, the brother of our Lord. James makes a relatively small contribution to our New Testaments, compared to Paul, or Luke, or John, but his one small letter (known as the book of James) packs quite a punch. You’ll find it close to the end of the New Testament, sandwiched between Hebrews and 1 Peter.

If I asked for a show of hands this morning, my guess is that many of us would number James as one of our favorite books in the Bible. I think there are two main reasons for that.

First, James reminds us of Jesus. He quotes Jesus in one place, but more than that he sounds like Jesus to us. James is, after all, one of the brothers of our Lord. And I wonder, if someone had known Jesus in person, if he would experience in James some of the same mannerisms. Did they have the same gait when they walked? When James preached, did he sound like Jesus? We have no way of knowing these things for sure. All I know is that when I read James I’m reminded of the teachings of Jesus. James is bold and direct. He doesn’t beat around the bush when he writes. In that way he’s a lot like Jesus.

I’ve just spent several months reflecting on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with some of you. And after having done that, when I spent time reading James in preparation for this sermon, I couldn’t help but see some similarities in teaching style… and in theme.

James, like Jesus has no time for those who just want to sit on the mountainside and hear him preach without putting it on the ground. “The wise person,” says Jesus, “is the one who hears what I say and puts it into practice!” James’ version of the same teaching is, “Don’t merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says!”

So, we like James because he reminds of Jesus. I think we also like James because he’s not long on theology. If you want someone to throw you into the deep end of the theological pool, Paul is your man. James – not so much. He reads more like Proverbs than Paul. Short snippets of wisdom that you can plug into without having to twist your head out of shape.

So, with that bit of an introduction let’s have a look at our “one another” text from James.

James 5:13–18 (ESV) 13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

The emphasis on prayer comes right at the end of the book of James, and although we could look at this text in isolation from the rest of the letter, I think it will help us in applying it if we attempt to see this emphasis in its larger context.

Some see James simply as a collection of random snippets of wisdom without any real connection to one another – as if someone, or a community, gathered James’ famous wisdom sayings and threw them together randomly. If that were the case, then any effort to interpret one of these sayings in the larger context of the letter would be a waste of time. I don’t see it that way. I think the letter itself reveals a different story.

So, what I want us to do this morning is to attempt to see James’ instructions about praying for one another in chapter 5 for all they’re worth. That is, I want to demonstrate how James’ sequence of thought throughout the letter potentially weighs in on our text.

First the opening line of the letter (no we’re not going to go through the letter line by line 😊):

James 1:1 (ESV) 1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

So, this is not like one of Paul’s typical letters where he addresses a church in a specific location, such as Corinth or Rome. On the surface this letter is addressed to all the Jews who are scattered everywhere. The twelve tribes are, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel, and the fact that they are “in the Dispersion” is a reference to what happened to the Israelites under the Assyrians and Babylonians when they were driven from their homeland.

But it’s not likely that James’ intended audience is the scattered Jewish population as a whole, but rather those of Jewish heritage who have embraced the Christian faith. I think that’s a reasonable proposal. Nonetheless, that still makes for a pretty broad audience. Even so, as James writes, he assumes they are having some experiences in common. And we find that common thread in what we read next.

Identifying the Trials & the Enemy

James 1:2–8 (ESV) 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

What James’ 12 tribes have in common are trials. And then we get a little hint as to what the source of these trials are:

James 1:9–11 (ESV) 9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Oddly, at this point, James gives us a little aside, before he resumes his words of encouragement to remain steadfast under trials in verse 12. And in this little aside we note that the rich are singled out for condemnation – fading away in the midst of their pursuits.

If we read on through the rest of the letter what seems odd here doesn’t seem so odd later when we witness how James, in chapter 5, in a powerful rhetorical flourish, turns from addressing his audience and blasts the enemy instead.

Blasting the Foe

James 5:1–6 (ESV) 1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

Woah! James is sounding a lot like Jesus here when he takes aim at his enemies. We’re not to hear this rhetorical blast directed against the Christian communities James is writing to. It’s instead like Jesus turning to address the Pharisees in the presence of his disciples. With these words James is highlighting what the church is somehow having difficulty seeing.

In the opening chapter the language James uses with respect to the rich is not nearly as severe as we encounter here. In fact, there he may very well be addressing the contrast between the rich and the poor within the church, exhorting the rich to embrace humility in light of the fleeting nature of wealth. But here in chapter 5 the rich are the enemy and destined for judgment.

So, what James’ general audience seems to have in common is that they are facing great trials. And the trials they are facing are arriving at the hands of the rich who are oppressing them. It could be that James’ community is facing a situation where they are no longer welcome in the synagogue and that there is a well financed movement within the Jewish community which is hostile to the Christian faith which is making life very difficult for the believers.

The danger for the Christian community James is addressing, is found in how they respond to this crisis. The body of Christ is supposed to respond to an attack like a herd of zebras instinctively do before a lion. They herd up and act as one. And as we witness in the wildlife films, if the zebras stay together, they will win. But if the enemy succeeds in dividing them, they will become vulnerable.

The Seduction (Divide and Conqueror):

In James we see the danger of Christian communities fracturing. On one front there is collusion with the enemy:

The Rich are Being Privileged in the Church

James 2:1–7 (ESV) 1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

It appears it was difficult for some of the believers in Jesus to escape the notion that the rich are rich because God has singled them out for his blessing. “And so if God honors them, shouldn’t we too.” But what happened in this situation was that the churches oppressor was symbolically honored by the partiality shown to the more prosperous in the Christian community. This is a picture of the strange paradox that arises when the standards of the world are embraced by the church.

James will go on to say that this propensity to show favoritism to the rich in the church is in direct violation to the Royal Law – that is the Law that our King Jesus insisted on – that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and well as his insistence that mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Poor are Neglected

The next section that we are so familiar with – James’ insistence that faith without works is dead – arises in this context. For in the very community of faith which (according to James) is being exploited by the rich, the situation has arisen where the poorest of the poor are being neglected, offered only empty words of faith where concrete acts of charity are required. The enemy is dividing and conquering!

James 2:14–18 (ESV) 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

And so, the community, instead of holding together is fracturing. James picks up on this in chapter 4.

When the Church Becomes the Enemy of God

James 4:1–4 (ESV) 1 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

This is a posture that dominates in the world; and the irony is that in the church which James is addressing – a community being assaulted by the world – instead of this driving them to embrace with greater zeal the teachings of Christ, it has seduced them into abandoning Christ’s standards for the world’s. In the very context where those with all the stuff are exploiting those without, those without in the church find themselves clamoring to imitate their oppressors. And this is causing quarrels and fights in their midst.

And so, James will find himself compelled, just a few verses later, to insist that brothers and sisters in Christ not speak evil against one another.

James 4:11 (ESV) 11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

And he chides those who are adopting the mindset of the world in the pursuit of wealth.

James 4:13–16 (ESV) 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

And that brings us back to chapter 5, which begins with that section we already rehearsed where James blasts the rich as the oppressors of the church. This I am hearing as James’ severe warning to those within the church who are ironically, in the face of their trials, adopting the posture of their opponents.

James 5:7–11 (ESV) 7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9 Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

We’re back, in one sense, to where we began in the letter. An exhortation to patient endurance in the face of trials. Don’t be like farmers who give up on the crop they’ve sown, too impatient to wait for the early and late rains. The Lord is near! Instead of imitating your oppressors, imitate the prophets; imitate Job! You know how it worked out for him. Despite what your present circumstances may look like the Lord’s undying reputation is that he is compassionate and merciful. So, say Yes to him. Let this be where your allegiance lies!

And now we’re in a position to better appreciate what James says about prayer in 5:13-18.

The church James has been addressing has had eyes for the rich, the prosperous, and the influential, even though it is these very people who are oppressing them. In this section on prayer James urges them instead to focus on the least of these – the suffering, the sick and the weak among them. And in so doing he calls them to come together in the spirit of Jesus Christ. “When you do that,” says James, “you will see the Lord powerfully at work among you. The sick will be made well, sins will be forgiven, and the community will be healed.”

And right at the heart of these words James says something that I think we are in dire need of hearing in our context. I don’t think the exploitation of the poor by the rich plays as dominate a role in our culture as it did in James’. And I’m not seeing us in the habit of showing partiality to the rich while we seat the poor on the periphery.

But we decidedly do not live in a world of “one another”. The world that seeks to undermine our every move proclaims the gospel of the individual. The heroes in our world are the self-made men and women. Individuals who, against the odds, have risen to places of success and influence. These people sell their books (so to speak), and we buy them. And so, the thinking of the world permeates the church. Instead of embracing the “one another” posture that Jesus insists on, we end up trading that in for Me, Myself, and I.

Let’s look at our text again.

Confession and Prayer Linked

James 5:13–18 (ESV) 13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 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. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

Note how closely James binds together the idea of confessing our sins to one another, with the idea of praying for one another. And note in your own soul how you have a visceral reaction against the idea of confessing our sins to one another, and yet no such reaction against the idea of praying for one another.

Why is this? It’s because we can imagine praying for one another without experiencing the full, vibrant, and authentic community that Jesus insists on – a community that confesses its sins to one another. We can imagine obeying the second part of this verse without embracing the first. And that should give us great pause.

Isolation and Death

For as we operate unwittingly under the world’s individualistic mindset – in our “Me, Myself, and I, faith,” instead of our “one another faith” when the enemy attacks us what typically happens is that we withdraw from others. And that doesn’t bode well for us. Think of the herd of zebras and the lion. That’s decidedly the wrong move; it’s just what the enemy wants. But it’s what the individualistic mindset demands.

When we don’t have brothers and sisters to confess our struggles to – never mind our sins – we are driven to isolation. And we’re told by the culture at large and by the churches embrace of that culture that we need to sort our problems out on our own. It’s as if we had written at the front of the church building:

To All Who Are Struggling

Come Back When You Get Your Act Together

And so, the struggling typically struggle alone. Alone with their sins, alone with their fears, alone with their uncertainties and anxieties. Until the enemy gets his claws into them and brings them down for the kill.

Authentic Community

Coming together on a Sunday morning for an hour a week does not constitute authentic Christian community. Sunday morning is meant to be a wonderful expression of that community but it’s a terrible substitute for it.

“But can’t we pray for one another without confessing our sins to one another?” Sure we can! But not in the spirit James intends. Think about it. When was the last time you really poured your heart out for your brother or sister in Christ? I would bet that those prayers flowed out of a confession of some kind; that those prayers arose, in part at least, because someone dared to share with you a deep struggle they had – a fear, a doubt, a sin – something they were agonizing over. And this is the place where prayer for one another hits the ground most powerfully.

“Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

James certainly envisions in this context a set of circumstances where the sick are prayed over, and the Lord responds by raising them up. He also envisions sins being forgiven. But I don’t think we should limit the phrase “that you may be healed” at the end of this statement to an individual’s bodily sickness. I think it quite naturally applies to the sickness of the body of Christ – “that you, as the body of Christ, may be healed.” This kind of life together is what will equip the body of Christ to be all it has been called to be.

Authentic Community According to Bonhoeffer:

I used the phrase Life Together just now, as I did early in this message. I borrowed that from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together. You should read it – he spends some time reflecting on James 5:16 as he contemplates the value of Christian community. I’ll leave you with three of his observations.

Commenting on James 5:15 he says: (pg 110)

"He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners… So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy."

And a little later:

"The misery of the sinner and the mercy of God – this was the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was in this truth that his church was to live. Therefore, he gave his followers the authority to hear the confession of sin and to forgive sin in his name. John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” When he did that Christ made the church, and in it our brother, a blessing to us. Now our brother stands in Christ’s place. Before him I need no longer to pretend. Before him alone in the world I dare to be the sinner that I am; here the truth of Jesus Christ and his mercy rules. Christ became our brother in order to help us. Through him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the Commission Christ has given to him. Our brothers stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ’s place and he forgives our sins in Christ’s name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God."

And then a couple of lines later:

"In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen even in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart."

Brothers and sisters, it is in this context of Life Together that we are urged to pray for one another.

Let us be doers of the word, and not hearers only.

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