James 5:12-20.
Using Godly Words.

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

James 5:12.  But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

James, in this letter to the early church, laid down some tough arguments for the damage that was being done to the early church by speech that lacked the implementation of the wisdom of God.  Like, Paul, James does not leave us with an unanswered criticism, but rather, provides a detailed solution for those who are willing to change. 

First, James addresses the practice of the swearing of oaths.  He introduces this by saying "But above all...".  Consequently, he considers this of grave importance.  This verse is often misapplied as a command to abstain from coarse or foul words, words that are objectionable to the culture as a whole.  There is much to defend any command of such abstinence, supported by sound biblical doctrine.  Certainly, the Holy Spirit does not lead one to be an offense to another.  Offensive behavior demonstrates a lack of agape love towards the one offended.  However, this is not the application of this particular passage. 

Another example of improper speech is the “taking of the LORD’s name in vain,” literally the refusal to recognize God for who He really is.  If one refuses to accept the LORD for who He truly is, and takes that rejection to the grave, that individual will be eternally lost.  Again, though this is an appropriate teaching, this is not the application of this particular passage. 

Cursing and taking the LORD’s name in vain are both examples of improper speech.  James dealt with some of the context of this argument in chapter three.  Here, James describes yet a third, and very important, example of improper speech, a practice that has significant consequences.

This passage refers to stating oaths by the authority of a second source, for example "I swear on my mother's name", “In God’s name I swear,” “I swear on the Bible,” etc.  This practice was common in both the Greek and Jewish communities where people would swear by the reputation of their ancestors, or upon the names of their pagan gods.  James expressly forbids this practice, and when one stops to consider what it really means to swear on the authority of another, the prohibition makes good sense.    The true nature of this type of oath is to pawn the reputation of some certain, more powerful, more respected, or greater thing for the defense of some lesser thing.  Such action leads to the literal swearing by the creature as if he were God; and so advancing himself into the place and authority of God.  That is, to swear by the authority of another is to claim for one’s self the other’s authority.  The error of this practice is illustrated when one breaks an oath so stated, because the nature of the oath itself implies that the power of the other is what keeps the oath sacred.  James instructs that the borrowing of another’s authority is not necessary.  Your “yes” and “no” should be confirmed by your own integrity, an integrity that is maintained because of your faith in God.

Does this forbid oaths, such as a public oath of office that necessitates a hand on a Bible and the words, “so help me, God”?  Such oaths are simply understood to a workable verbal form of a written signature.  This way, when one is formally “under oath” they may be held legally accountable for their statements in the same way that they would be held accountable to the contents of a written document.  Consequently, this teaching can easily place a Christian into an ethical dilemma when one is forced by the protocol of some agency, such as the military, or the courts, to state such an oath.  One answer to this dilemma might be found within the context of Jesus’ command to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”  Christians are to respect the laws of their respective governments, and the taking of such oaths is a component of that law.  Furthermore, we are reminded that the Bible is not a book of law to the Christian, since God looks upon the individual’s heart-felt understanding of God’s word as led of the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, how one responds to this dilemma is a matter of personal choice.  Some may find the practice offensive and choose to resist the swearing of an oath in open court.  Others may find honor in stating their firm intent, such as the oath to defend the constitution that is required of military and federal officials. 

Engaging in a protracted argument concerning the participation in legal oaths may require taking James’ statement to the extreme.  James is simply stating here that the word of a Christian should be reliable, honest, and stand on his/her own merit, a merit that is found in a reputation of one who is fully submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.   One who demonstrates such godly integrity has no need to borrow from the authority of another.

James 5:13.  Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

James continues with examples of ways of adding godly speech to our vocabulary.  As we experience our pilgrimage from salvation to the gates of Heaven, we are subject to a road full of hilltops and valleys.  The way we respond to these experiences illustrates much about our maturity in the Lord. 

Responding to the mountaintops…

What would be a natural way to respond to the hilltop experiences which result from successes, gains, blessings, etc.?  We are quite capable, without the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate pride, self-congratulations, self-satisfaction, complacency, expectation of continuation, and heightened dependence upon ourselves.

What would be the Godly way to respond to hilltop experiences?  The Holy Spirit leads us to demonstrate praise and thanksgiving, stewardship, and generosity. 

Responding to the valleys…

What would be a natural way to respond to the valley experiences which result from failure, loss, etc.?  We are quite capable, without the power of the Holy Spirit to respond with condemnation of others, rejection of responsibility, depression, anger, bitterness, low self-esteem,  and lashing out. 

What would be a Godly way to respond to the valleys?  The Holy Spirit leads us to humility, prayer, thanksgiving, faith, and confidence in God's provision and your value in his sight, and recognition of the value of the valleys in our lives. 

The Greek word that is rendered “psalms” refers literally to the act of singing.  According to historical writings of Pliny, Justin Martyr and Tertullian, it is evident that the early Christians were accustomed to the singing of hymns taken from both scripture and private composition.[1]  Literally, the singing of psalms could be rendered as a gospel ordinance.  In either case, hilltop or valley, we should respond in a manner which is in service to the Lord's kingdom.

James 5:14.  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:

James next addresses the way to respond to times of sickness.  What would be the natural way to respond to sickness?  We might respond by placing blame, experiencing depression, lashing out at God with statements such as “Why did you let this happen?”, search for quick remedy, dependence on others, self pity, or other negative behaviors.  As James writes, he is dealing with a culture that responded to sickness in an even more negative manner.  Virtually nothing was known about the causes of sickness of disease, so with the absence of medical science, people understood sickness as a punishment for their sins.  Consequently, they blamed and despised one another when any form of sickness was evident.  Our penchant for despising one another for sickness has ebbed over the centuries, but has not been entirely eliminated.  There are still some who will place blame on one another for sickness, particularly those illnesses that seem to be the result of life choices. 

James provides some Godly responses to sickness.  The first is to notify the elders of the church.  The Greek form of the word that is rendered elder refers to those older and mature members who will respond to the need in a godly manner, in love, and in prayer.  Note that the necessity of personal prayer is already identified in the previous verse.   By notifying the elders, they can serve God by praying for you and enjoining others to pray also, so that their own ministry can be exercised, and that the afflicted may further understand the real source of healing. 

Why do you suppose James advises the practice of anointing with oil?  Anointing with oil does not in itself provide healing except for a few rare instances.  To better understand the ritual of anointing we might draw from Israel’s history the anointing its kings.  The ritual of anointing is intended to symbolize one as being separated out for God's total purpose, placing the individual completely into the Lord's hands.  Note that modern usage is often variant with the scriptural purpose.  It is not meant for the cleansing or ridding of sin as is used in the extreme unction of last rights.  Anointing with oil serves as a reminder of who the LORD of healing truly is as we submit ourselves entirely to Him and pray to Him for the healing that only He provides.

James 5:15.  And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

Note here that the healing source is prayer and not the anointing with oil.  Furthermore, that prayer should be offered up in faith that ultimately recognizes and desires the fulfillment of God's will, not our own.

Did miraculous healing end with the apostolic age?  All healing is ultimately miraculous, from the tiny scratch to the devastation of the body due to illness and trauma.  Is this verse a medical credit card which can be used to assure healing in all instances of our desire?  We do not know God's complete and ultimate purpose for our lives.  We know only that we do not want to be afflicted.  God has a purpose behind all of our experience, and calls upon us to place our trust in Him alone.[2]

Some notes about modern "Faith Healing":  Many will take these two verses out of the context of God's holy and true attributes, and use them to justify the practice of healing-on-demand.  Some problems encountered with this philosophy include:

·        Healing-on-demand rejects God's ultimate purpose for the afflicted,

·        healing-on-demand treats God as our servant who will obey our commands. 

If faith-healing practices were useful as practiced by these why do any faith healers experience sickness?  How would any faithful man die?  Total faith healing leads to earthly immortality.  We Christians would have to jump in front of trains to die, and that might not even work.  Often the demand of healing amounts to no more than the testing of God, and results in no more than the evaluation of the supposed lack of faith in those who are not "miraculously" healed. 

Often our affliction is a direct consequence of our sin or the sin of others.  For example, we may abuse our bodies through smoking, overindulgence, sloth, or a variety of other means.  A prayer in faith recognizes this sin as sin.  It then seeks and receives forgiveness for that sin, but God requires repentance.  That repentance alone can be used of God to provide healing from a wide variety of life-choice induced illnesses.

James 5:16a.  Confess your faults one to another,

James encourages us to share with each other our needs, our afflictions, and even the confession of our sins.  Why is it so helpful to be able to share our faults with one another?  Certainly, by so doing we are sharing a very important need with one another so that we can help one another to overcome the conflict in our lives through love, support, and prayer.  That is God’s purpose for us as we help one another as we stumble through some of life’s experiences.

Why is it typically so difficult for us to confess our sins one to another?  The truth is simply that we often do not have enough trust in one another because of the limited expression of agape love in our relationships.  If our relationships are characterized by  judging, condemning and criticizing one another, one can only expect judgment, condemnation and criticism, leaving us without the love and support that we need when we need it the most.  Christians often tend to require others to live up to a set of rules, and limit their relationships based upon those rules.  Any time we place conditions on our love of one another we are exercising only a worldly phileo love, and not the unconditional agape love that God requires. 

A second common impediment to sharing is found when people repeat to others statements that are made in confidence.  Trust is destroyed by such behavior.  When we cannot trust an individual to keep in confidence that which we share in confidence we cannot feel confident in “confessing our faults” one to another.  It is not possible to effectively share our faults with one another so that we can pray for and support one another in an environment that lacks trust.

How do we earn the trust in one another that is necessary to be able to minister to one another in the manner that James advises?  Earning trust will only come when we put away our self-centered ways and truly love one another.  Through such love we can put away our critical spirit, and stand firm on the integrity that only God can provide for us when we depend wholly on Him.  Then, our prayers for one another will be truly sincere.

James 5:16b.  …, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Note that the 13th verse directs Christians to pray for themselves; the 14th verse directs Christians to seek for the prayers of ministers or leaders; and the 16th directs Christians to pray one for another.  There is little doubt of the priority that James places on the power of prayer.  The sincere prayer of a righteous man is empowered by the Holy Spirit, a power greater than any other in the universe.  Therefore, it is evident that a form of righteousness is paramount.  No man can be righteous on his own, but rather is made righteous only by the mercy of God through Christ in his true desire for that which is of God, and a true disdain for that which is not.[3] 

Note James’ words imply a sincere and fervent pouring out of the heart to God. 

James 5:17-18.  Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.  18And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

As we read the scriptures we find many examples of God’s response to sincere and fervent prayer.  One such example might be the parting of the Red Sea that followed Moses’ prayer for deliverance.  James draws an example from the experience of Elijah as recorded in 1 Kings, chapter 18.  God had a purpose of using Elijah to demonstrate His sovereignty to the ungodly King Ahab.  Throughout this event Elijah maintained a close relationship to God and was, through the act of prayer, made aware of God’s purpose.    

How can we attain a righteousness that produces such an effective prayer life?  Elijah knew the will of God because of a continued long-term obedience and personal desire for God that was guided by prayer.

What keeps us from having as dynamic a prayer experience as that which James describes?  We see that Elijah made prayer a high priority in his life.  How much of a priority is prayer in our lives?  James is speaking to the need of all Christians to develop a relationship with God that is characterized by continued and fervent prayer.  Without such prayer we simply cannot realize the blessings that God has for us, blessings that come from a close and personal relationship with Him.  When we choose to place this world and our own desires at a priority greater than that of God, we are replacing the abundance that God promises with those things of this world.  James is reminding us of the importance of prayer and encourages us to make it the priority in our lives that it needs to be.   

James 5:19-20.  Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;  20Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

Not only are we to pray for one another, but also we are to put “feet to our prayers” as we minister one to another in ways that promote our understanding the truth of God.  James specifically refers to discipling and training one another.  How can we speak in a way to help others from wandering from the truth?  First, one must know the truth if one is going to help another to understand it.  One must be sensitive to falsehood, to that which would lead away from the truth, and then respond to it in a way to promote truth.  Some will take this passage out of context to defend apostasy.  However, adherence to and communication of the truth has two effects as illustrated here.  One is the salvation of the lost, and the second is the affirmation the saved.  In either case, the result of successful communication is repentance.

In this verse the two examples are illustrated.  If a sinner receives the gospel, the result of the communication is repentance and salvation.  If a saved person receives the truth and repents he is restored to the fellowship. 

Consequently, what is the result when one who has not yet given their heart to the LORD rejects the truth?  Such an individual will remain separated from God.  When one is obedient to God and shares the truth with a lost person there is always the potential that the Holy Spirit will use that testimony to bring the lost person to salvation. 

What is the result when someone who is saved rejects the truth?  When one who claims the name of Christ acts in sin and disobedience, he/she falls out of fellowship with God, and possibly other Christians.  When one is obedient to God and shares the truth with an unrepentant believer there is always the potential that the Holy Spirit will use that testimony to restore that person to fellowship, and by so doing open back up the doors of blessing that had been shut by sin. 

In either case, whether the testimony is given to one who is lost, or one who is saved, that testimony is always a testimony of truth that is immersed in God’s unconditional agape love.  James does not call upon us to beat on each other when we see a need for correction, but rather to communicate in love with the intent of redemption and restoration. 

As James writes to the first-century church, he writes to a fellowship that has been finding persecution from just about every facet of their culture.  James was most familiar with those who came from Jewish backgrounds who found themselves rejected by their families.  They lost their entitlement to land and property as well as their jobs.  They found it difficult to engage in commerce with the Jews.  Gentile members found themselves to be considered ignorant and unenlightened by the Hellenistic society.  It is easy in this type of environment for people to turn upon each other, blaming one another for their state, and destroying the relationships they need most as they try to live a life that is faithful to God.  In this brief letter, James acknowledges the true source of the persecution and speaks to God’s purpose in it for those who endure.  He then points out how the fellowship is adding to their stress by the way they are treating each other.  Finally, he shows us that we can reject satan’s attempt to use us to disrupt the fellowship and live a life of love and obedience as we pray for one another and help one another through the tough times and tough experiences.  This is God’s purpose for all people, that we would love Him and glorify Him as we also love one another.  Sometimes we simply need to be reminded of this truth.

[1] This latter form was rejected by 17th century Baptists. 

[2] Romans 8:28-29.

[3] Psalm 66:18.