Let’s do a little thought experiment. You are desperately sick. And you can only have one person pray for you. They are guaranteed to pray for you.
One person is a pastor who has given his life to telling people about Jesus, and he has also practiced what he preaches. He is a righteous man. He spends time every day praying for people. The other option is a person who has only been a Christian for a couple of months.
Their theology and lifestyle are about what you could expect from a newborn Christian. At times, they seem to be on the “straight and narrow,” at other times, you are left shaking your head. Truth be told, he’s still battling a few addictions. Which one do you ask to pray for you?
If we are being honest, I think most of us are going to hedge our bets with the pastor. It seems that maybe because of his lifestyle, prayer life, and what seems to be a “closeness to God,” his prayer is going to be answered.
Why is this? Does this come from James 5:16? There we read that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” What does that mean?
What does it mean to be a “righteous person?” Does powerful and effective mean that the prayer will be answered as we asked it?
What Is the Context of James 5:16?
James 5:16 begins with a “therefore,” so we do well to see what goes before. The context of James 5:13-20 has to do with sickness, praying, and its relationship to sin. Honestly, it’s a somewhat difficult passage.
We know that the church to which he writes is dealing with persecution and various trials. So, it isn’t surprising that the letter ends with a call to prayer. The part that is difficult to understand is the relationship between confession, prayer, and healing. Does sin cause sickness?
I think Dan Doriani does well at pointing out the difficulty of this passage when he says:
“In Jesus’ day, people overspiritualized illness. Many assumed that all tragedy and disease were direct consequences of sin. Today, in the West, we despiritualize illness. We believe microbes and defective genes cause all illness. We deny a link between sin and illness except in obvious cases such as cirrhosis of the liver and sexually transmitted diseases” (“James:” Reformed Expository Commentary).
We have to be cautious not to overemphasize the connection as they did in Jesus’ day, but we also want to make sure we aren’t closed off to the possibility that sin might be the cause of illness.
I hesitate to even put that in print because so much abuse has happened at the hands of people who get this wrong, yet the scriptures do speak of the possibility of sin being the cause of sickness, and James 5 is one of those places.
Because of this relationship between sin and sickness, James 5:16 tells us that we ought to confess our sins to one another “that you may be healed.” In this case, confession seems to open the door to healing.
Then the verse ends with “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James then moves on to Elijah as an example of a righteous man who prayed and was answered by God. So, how do we apply this verse?
What Does ‘Righteous,’ ‘Powerful,’ and ‘Effective’ Mean?
At this point, it is helpful to consider the meaning of these specific words. When we are stumped at the meaning and application of a verse, sometimes, it is helpful to dig deeper into what each of the words means. Here we will attempt to understand them in their original language.
1. Righteous person. In the original Greek, there is no word supplied that should be translated “man” or “person.” We supply this in English to make it more readable.
But in the original Greek, it simply says, “The prayer dikaiou is powerful and effective.” Dikaiou means righteous. It could be translated “the prayer of righteousness,” but it is most likely a reference to a righteous person. James Edwards says it well:
“[It is] simply the believer, the person who is “righteous” by virtue of receiving forgiveness through Jesus and is therefore part of the people of God. Prayer, James wants to make clear, is a powerful weapon in the hands even of the humblest believer; it does not require a “super saint” to wield it effectively” (“The Letter of James,” The Pillar New Testament Commentary).
This is important for our application of this verse. James’ words here are not on a scale as if it is saying that if a person is super righteous, then his prayer will be answered. Or that the more righteous someone is, then the more apt their prayer is to be answered.
Our righteousness comes from Christ. And the strongest saint and the weakest believer are alike, fully righteous before God. If you are in Christ, then you are “a righteous person,” which is spoken of in James 5:16.
2. Powerful. You’ve made heard sermons where the preacher talked about the Greek word for power as dunamis and it’s where we get our word dynamite. I’ll refrain from pointing out how silly it is to use a later word (dynamite) to explain the meaning of an earlier word.
I mention this only to point out that the word used here isn’t dunamis. Nor is it exousia (which is often translated as “authority”). The word used here is a combination of polus (great, mighty, plentiful) and ischu (having capability, ability, strength, power).
Though it’d be a bit sloppy and confusing, it's a phrase that would possibly be translated as “the prayer of a righteous person is great could…” or “the prayer of a righteous person is mighty able…”
3. Effective. The word translated effective (energoumenē) is often translated as “works” or “enables to work.” It is usually a reference to God’s mighty working on our behalf. Here it is a participle. And participles can be confusing and difficult to translate.
This one could be passive or middle. This means that it could be saying something like “the prayer of a righteous person is mighty able when it is energized by God” or “the prayer of a righteous person is mighty able as it works.” Prayer “works” because God is “working” through prayer.
To summarize James 5:16 is saying that when believers petition God, mighty things can happen; therefore, we should keep petitioning God with our needs.
Or, to put it even more simply, “prayer works.” Not in the way of making God somehow indebted to us or forced to meet our demands, but as a righteous person prays, a gracious God hears and acts.
What Does This Mean?
We see James 5:16 illustrated in the story of Elijah. He was a human just like we are; he had access to God just like we do (though we might argue through Jesus, we have even greater access).
And he prayed earnestly for rain. But it didn’t rain for three and half years. How does that square with saying, “prayer works?” Because Elijah kept praying and “the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
I cannot summarize this any better than Peter Davids:
“The example is constructed to underline the point of comparison. The earth receives no rain; the readers would certainly picture it as dry and dead, as the Christian might feel when ill. The prayer ascends and heaven…gives rain with the result of new life and fruitfulness, much as the person would feel when prayer was answered by healing.
The example of Elijah encourages one to prayer…Prayer, then, is effective. The righteous members of the community dare release the power of great Elijah, for God will hear them as well” (“The Epistle of James:” A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary).
To circle back around to our beginning question. Should you pick the pastor or the guy struggling with addiction to pray for you?
The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Both have unfettered access to a holy God and should pray with the confidence of Elijah.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/timothyeberly
Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.
This article is part of our prayer resources meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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