This is far from an easy choice.

James 5:14–15:

Is anyone among you sick (astheneo)? … And the prayer of faith will save (sozo) the one who is sick (kamnonta).

The problem is that these three Greek words – we have two different words translated as sick and one is the normal word for save – all can all refer to either spiritual healing or to physical healing depending on the context.

If we use the most common, literal translation for these words – we get an idea of what we are dealing with.

Is anyone among you weak … And the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary.

As I weigh the evidence of the word usage:

I would say the first word – the one I translated weak is a bit of a wash – it could legitimately be physical or spiritual healing. The Gospels use this word for physical healing and the Epistles mainly use the word for spiritual healing.

The second word – save – is usually used for spiritual salvation in both the Gospels and in the Epistles. But, in the Gospels – it also very frequently is used to mean physical healing.

The third word – the one I translated weary – leans toward spiritual sickness because that is the way it is used the only other time we find it in the Bible.

When words can be translated either way – you need to look at other factors – in particular the context. So, I want to look at these quickly.

Here are the three main reasons why many – in fact probably the majority – see this passage as referring to physical healing:

1. The only other time the phrase “anoint with oil” is used is in Mark 6:13 and there it is almost certainly deals with physical healing.
2. James seems to lean very much on the Gospels and in the Gospels these words are heavily oriented towards physical healing.
3. The use of pray over may indicate a sick bedridden person and Elders praying over him.

A number of these are strong points.

However, in my opinion – and I stress it is just my opinion – I believe that other factors make spiritual healing James’ more likely intent.

1. For me, the context of the book is huge. Context is such a key factor in interpretation.

James is written to Christians who are struggling under trials and as we have seen again and again – these trials have caused some of them to waiver in their faith.

James repeatedly urges them to persevere, to endure, to remain steadfast.

In the verses right before this James has urged them to suffer patiently until the Lord comes.

It seems to me that it would be out of context for James to now say – the way to get through trials is not to suffer patiently but to call the Elders to pray that they would be miraculously removed.

While I do think we should pray for healing – far more commonly God gives us strength to endure rather than giving us miraculous healing.

2. The terms James uses are almost universally used of spiritual healing in the Epistles and James is an Epistle.

And in particular the word saved – James himself uses it four other times – including verse 20 – and in each of these verses in James there is no doubt it refers to spiritual healing.

3. The terms used here are more spiritual terms – faith, save, raise up.

It is harder to grasp the connection between these terms and healing.

4. At face value if you take this passage as physical healing – it seems to provide a promise that if a prayer of faith is made – it will heal the one who is sick.

Most of us here do not believe God always heals physical illness. So, you have to work a lot of weasel words in to a passage that does not have any weasel words – in order to explain why physical healing does not always occur.

5. The fact the Elders are called – not someone with the gift of healing – indicates this is a spiritual matter. It is not a requirement that Elders have the gift of miraculous healing. But it is a requirement that they know how to shepherd the flock and care for souls.