1 Corinthians 11 and James 5

In light of 1 Cor. 11:29-30, which I understand to be a reference to God’s judgment in the form of weakness, sickness, and/or physical death as a result of participating in the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner,” how should we understand James, for example, who commands that those who are sick should seek prayer and anointing from the elders of the church (James 5:14)? Also, from James 5:15-16, how does this all relate to confessing our sins?

Upon reflection, I think James 5:13-20 is an excellent passage to bring into the discussion of 1 Cor. 11:29-30. In fact, I wonder if Paul might have some practical guidance in mind that very much resembles James 5:13-20 by saying, “About the other things I will give directions when I come” (1 Cor. 11:34). In other words, I wonder if the “other things” he intends to explain to them is how they need to deal with this situation in their church, besides merely stopping the selfish behavior they are currently practicing. We’ll never know.

But, let’s see if we can’t flesh out what this all might look like together. The situation Paul describes in Corinth shows that 1) believers have sinned; 2) many of these believers (though apparently not all) have received judgment from God in the form of weakness and/or sickness, and some have physically died (as a result of an illness?); and 3) God’s judgment/discipline occurs so that these believers would not be finally condemned (which is not holding out the possibility that a person may lose his or her salvation; rather I think he is acknowledging that there are unbelievers in the midst of the Corinthian congregation, as in all churches, and if a person were not judged/disciplined by the Lord in this way, it might be a sign that the person is not a true believer, so that he or she will be condemned with the world; see Heb. 12:5-6). Now, it does NOT say that everyone who has participated in the Lord’s Supper has been judged in this way. When he says, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” I don’t think he means that everyone who does this actually receives God’s judgment; I think it means that the person deserves judgment, or invites judgment. It is a punishable offense, we might say. Who, when, and how God judges/disciplines believers is his sovereign right, and he does so only with good purposes.

So, what of James? Let me translate this passage to highlight the real force of what he is saying, which is somewhat softened in the English versions. This will be James 5:13-16a, 19-20 (skipping vv. 16b-18 for the sake of space, and because, while clearly important to James in this context, they do not help us directly with our question).

13 Is anyone among you suffering? He must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He must sing. 14 Is anyone among you sick? He must call the elders of the church, and they must pray for him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And faithful prayer will save (or heal) the sick one, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another in order that you may be healed….19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders away from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 he must know that the one who turns back a sinner from wandering off his way will save (or heal) his soul (or life) from death and he covers a multitude of sins.

So, let me make a few observations, and then we’ll try to tie all this together. First, it’s interesting that he doesn’t tell the one who is suffering what to pray for. Particularly, I notice that he does NOT tell him to pray that the suffering would be removed, which makes sense because James wrote in chapter 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Nonetheless, the appropriate response to suffering for the believer is to pray. Also, the appropriate response for a believer who is sick is to ask the elders of the church to pray (which may or may not necessarily include anointing with oil; if you’d like to ask more about that, I’d be happy to talk about the reasons I don’t think anointing is being prescribed here, but for now I’m going to keep moving forward). Then, v. 15 promises or assures that “faithful prayer” (as I have translated the phrase, which is usually translated more literally as “the prayer of faith”) will save the sick one. The word translated “save” here and in the Gospels can also be translated “heal,” and this is probably the sense that James intends here. So, there is a promise of healing for the sick one in response to the elders’ faithful praying. Now, I don’t think this is a guarantee that a person who is sick and comes to the elders for prayer will have their illness taken away immediately. The text, first of all, never says when healing will take place; it just says that the person will be healed. And, it says that the Lord will raise the sick person up, which is probably a metaphor that refers to recovery. (With the metaphor of “raising up,” I suspect we are to envision a person who is sick and incapacitated, lying on their back, unable to “raise themselves”; but, I don’t think that the metaphor limits the types of illnesses in view. However, as I reflect on this passage now, I wonder if James does have incapacitating illness specifically in view because it is interesting that the one who is sick summons the elders, rather than going to him. Perhaps he is unable to go to the elders.) This teaching also does not imply that if the elders do not pray for a sick person that God will not heal that sick person. Again, God is free and sovereign to heal whomever, whenever, and however he decides to heal (which is probably reflected in the various methods Jesus used to heal sick people), but as I have argued in a recent blog post, God delights to work through the prayers of his people.

Now, it’s interesting that, at this very point, having just mentioned healing the sick in response to the prayers of the elders, James mentions forgiveness of sins. This may imply that James understands a potential connection between illness and sin (please notice my emphasis on “may”; I am tentative in how I want to talk about the connection between illness and sin; is sickness always a result of sin? I suspect not, at least not necessarily the direct result of an individual’s sins. But, 1 Cor. 11 certainly indicates that it can be sometimes. Are we able to determine when a sickness in our own lives might be due to the judgment/discipline of God because of sin in our own lives? I’m not sure. Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself!) So, in the context of coming to the elders for prayer about his or her sickness, James says, “If he has committed sins, they (his sins) will be forgiven.” Immediately following this promise of forgiveness, he draws a conclusion: “since the person’s sins will be forgiven, therefore, confess your sins to one another.” So, James links forgiveness and confession of sins tightly here (perhaps as in 1 John 1:9). I think he means that the availability of forgiveness is held out to the one who is sick when he or she comes to the elders for prayer, and the person may take hold of that forgiveness by confessing his or her sins. Then, he commands, “Pray for one another so that you may be healed.” So, again he brings healing into the picture (and this word in Greek is specific for healing; i.e., it’s NOT the same word used above that could mean “to save”).  Thus, it seems that he wants to link confession and prayer, forgiveness and healing in some way. So, perhaps we are justified to think of the sin being connected to the illness. I think this connection is somewhat reinforced in v. 20. “The one who turns back a sinner from wandering off his way will save his soul (or life) from death and he will cover a multitude of sins.” Here, the connection is made between saving from death and covering sins. The word translated “soul” can also be translated “life,” and I think that is better here. I think he is still talking about believers in community, confessing their sins to one another, praying for another, anticipating healing from God in response to these prayers, and receiving forgiveness for sins. Any illness can lead to death; perhaps this is one way that they saw God answering their prayers. These believers who were sick came for prayer to the elders (or to one another; notice how he has shifted from a focus on the elders’ prayer to a focus on prayer “for one another”), the remained sick for a time, but then they eventually recovered, and did not die from their illness.

So, how shall we tie this into what is envisioned in 1 Cor. 11? Paul indicates that some in the church are sick as a result of judgment/discipline meted out by God because of their participating in the Lord’s Supper flippantly and/or selfishly. Some have even died. Paul commands them to stop behaving this way, to repent of their sinful attitudes and behaviors. James would not only have the Corinthians who were sinning this way repent, but he would also have those who have received the judgment of God in the form of sickness to go to the elders and confess their sins (which assumes their repentance). Then, the elders should pray for them. The sick person may then walk away with confidence that 1) his sins have been forgiven and 2) that he will be healed, whenever and in whatever way the Lord chooses to do so.

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Why Pray?

The question is, simply put, “Why pray?” Particularly, the question is raised because of a seeming inconsistency in our theology at this point. Specifically, if God knows everything that is going to happen, what good does it do for us to pray? Even more to the heart of the matter, if God is truly sovereign and in control of the events that take place in the world, and he has already decided how he is going to act in a particular situation, why should we pray? Do we expect that our prayers will change God’s mind? This is a very good question, and it’s a question we all need to wrestle with and come to conclusions about in our own minds.

As I look at the stories told in the Bible, it seems to be a common theme that God works through means to accomplish his purposes. This is not always the case, but it seems to be regular. Rather than God just saying, “Shazzam!” and then his will coming to pass in the world, he instead seems to delight in working in and through his creatures. Take Moses as an example. We could look at all the plagues God sent down upon Egypt, and I think we will find that, in each one, Moses (and/or Aaron) was told to hold out his staff or perform some other action through which God did his mighty works. However, for an even grander example, we can look specifically at the parting of the Red Sea. In Ex. 14:15, God commands Moses to “lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it.” Then, we see that Moses does this and then “the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided” (Ex. 14:21). God used the means of Moses holding up his staff and stretching out his hand and the means of a strong east wind. We know that God is powerful enough that he needed neither of these elements to do what he wanted to do, but he chose to use Moses in this way. So, what does this have to do with prayer? Nothing, really, but it begins to establish the point that God uses means to accomplish his purposes in the world. Not necessarily always, but I would say most of the time.

I think what we’ll find as we look at the prayers of the Bible, the actual prayers of people recorded in the Old Testament and the New Testament, is that one of the primary means God uses to accomplish his will in the world is the prayers of his people. For example, I think this is why Luke wrote the story in Acts 12 the way he did. After Peter was thrown in prison, Acts 12:5 says, “Earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” Immediately, Luke then tells us about Peter’s release from the prison by an angel! Just by the way Luke has shaped the story, readers ought to conclude that God did this in response to the church’s prayers. This seems to be the case over and over again in the Gospels and Acts when we read stories about people praying to God.

Now, this of course brings up the issue of “unanswered prayer,” and I think the key to understanding “unanswered prayers” and the key to understanding how God works through our prayers or by answering our prayers is found in understanding what Jesus means when he teaches that we must pray in his name (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-26). I take this to mean what we often talk about as praying “according to God’s will,” a phrase taken from Romans 8:27 and 1 John 5:14. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John consistently indicate if we pray “in his name” we will receive whatever we have requested. It has become traditional that we end our prayers with the phrase “in Jesus’ name,” and the intentions in this are surely excellent, but I’m not sure that this tradition hasn’t done more harm than good for our thinking about prayer. By saying these words, do we think we have guaranteed that God will answer our prayers in a certain way? Perhaps we are making a declaration (to God? to others hearing our prayer? both?) that we are striving to pray for things that God is pleased to give us. I don’t know sometimes. If praying in Jesus’ name=praying according to God’s will, then we have further teaching on what prayer is in Romans 8. Paul acknowledges that we often don’t know what we ought to pray for (Rom. 8:26), and I take this to mean that we often don’t know what the Lord’s will is for a given circumstance. Isn’t that our common experience? I know as I’m going about my day, I am often uncertain as to what specific actions God might want me to take. Even Paul the apostle shares this uncertainty with us! How comforting and sobering! But he doesn’t leave us to despair in our ignorance. Rather, Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit prays for us, and he always prays according to God’s will. This is the meaning of Rom. 8:26-27, as I understand it. We are constantly striving to know what God’s will is, and we  are constantly praying that God would work his will in our lives (at least that’s how the Model Prayer in Matt. 6 instructs us), and we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is praying for the things that we don’t know to pray for and don’t know how to pray for. This is also the meaning of the phrase “praying in the Spirit” in Eph. 6:18; this is not a special kind of prayer. Rather it’s an acknowledgment by Paul that we always pray “in the Spirit” or as we are empowered by the Spirit; we can do no other because the Holy Spirit is always interceding for us, just as he is always living in us empowering us to live godly lives. Ah, I’ve gone a bit far afield from my topic!

So, why must we pray? God has ordained that he will work in the world (and in our lives) by responding to the prayers of his people. Can he or does he work directly in the world, without some means? Probably, but I think not usually. Even our salvation comes about through means. God has chosen to use the preaching of the gospel message to bring people from being dead in sins to being alive in Christ. God unites people to Jesus by their believing/accepting response to the gospel message, either preached or written (but usually preached; see Rom. 1:16; 10:9-17; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:2ish). And we see time and time again that God acted in response to the prayers of believers in Acts.

So, does prayer change God’s mind? I don’t think so. There’s one place in the Bible where it looks like prayer may in fact change God’s mind: Exodus 32. Israel has just begun to worship the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and God declares that he will destroy them for their insolent idolatry. He even says that he will make a great nation of Moses instead. Moses talks with God, seems to calm him down a bit, and “The LORD relented of the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Ex. 32:14). So, did God change his mind? He said he was going to destroy them, and then he doesn’t, seemingly in response to Moses’ prayer. It seems to me that there is a better way to understand this passage. It’s interesting that, as God begins to declare what he is about to do to the people, he tells Moses, “Let me alone” (Ex. 32:10). Even more significant, he says, “Let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them. “So, it seems to me, that he is (in a roundabout way) inviting Moses to step in and intercede for the people. It seems that God is saying, “If you don’t intercede, I will wipe them out.” So, perhaps God’s will is to preserve rebellious Israel through Moses’ prayer. Perhaps God also desired for Moses to relate more closely to the people, to care for them. So, I don’t think we have any evidence that prayer changes God’s mind. Rather, God has planned to act in certain ways throughout history and in our lives. He has also planned that he would act in these ways in response to the prayers of his people. God is pleased to work through his people to accomplish his purposes.

Published in: on November 2, 2009 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Boldness

In our church plant meetings, we are often praying for boldness, and our pastor consistently exhorts us to continue to pray for boldness, motivated by the description in Acts 4 of the believers praying for boldness and then immediately after being recognized by others because of their boldness. But I wonder how well we really understand just what boldness is. What exactly were the apostles praying for? And what are we praying for?

In thinking about this, I decided to check out what the book of Acts has to say about boldness, and I was actually surprised to find how frequently the word is actually used throughout the book. The Greek noun parresia is used 5 times and the verb parresiazomai 7 times. What struck me, at first, was that the word is already used of the apostles before Acts 4:29, where the believers pray together for boldness. It’s used again of Peter and John in Acts 4:13, as the Jewish council recognizes their boldness because “they had been with Jesus.” In Acts 4:29, the believers are all together praying to continue speaking with boldness, and we see in Acts 4:31 that God grants their request. Through the rest of the book, Paul’s boldness is focused on. He was not among the believers in Acts 4, but his conversion is narrated in Acts 9. And, soon after his conversion, Barnabas testifies about him that he has been preaching boldly in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27). And Paul continued to preach boldly as Acts 9:28 records. Paul and Barnabas together are characterized as speaking boldly in Acts 13:46 and 14:3. In Acts 18:26, we meet Apollos who spoke boldly in the synagogue in Ephesus, but, apparently, even in his boldness, he did not have the message quite right, for Priscilla and Aquila had to take him aside and explain to him “the way of God more accurately.” Apollos was then sent on his way over to Achaia, which is the region where Corinth is. Paul follows shortly behind and enters Ephesus apparently soon after Apollos has departed, and he spoke boldly in the synagogue of Ephesus for three months (Acts 19:8). In Paul’s defense before Festus, he is characterized as speaking boldly to try to persuade Festus of the significance of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection which Festus already knew about (Acts 26:26). Finally, it is very interesting to note that the final verse of the book highlights Paul’s boldness in preaching, as he is settled into house arrest in Rome, having freedom to receive guests and preach the gospel unhindered (Acts 28:31). So, clearly, boldness could be identified as a unifying thread that runs throughout the book of Acts.

Now, typically, I think, when we think of “boldness,” we think simply of confidence to stand up for the truth in the face of opposition. But, while this is truly one aspect of parresia, boldness, as it is used in the Bible, I think we are actually missing the primary meaning of the word, the meaning which supports or grounds or undergirds our ability to stand up to opposition and to proclaim the truth unashamedly. This aspect is revealed more clearly in the first occurrence of the word parresia in the book of Acts, found in Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:29. Peter says, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence (parresia) about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Our English translations, even the most consistently literal translations such as ESV or NASB, translate parresia here as “confidence” or “confidently” rather than with “boldness,” as in every other occurrence of the word in the book of Acts. It would be more helpful, perhaps, if the translators would be a little more consistent, but I can see why they feel that “confidence” is more appropriate in this context, and, in fact, it helps us see more clearly the fullness of the meaning of parresia. Peter claims to have confidence/boldness about the historical fact that David has died and is in his grave. Of course, as he develops this, he is making a contrast with the Son of David, Jesus, who has not remained in his grave! But, Peter is claiming confidence/boldness here because he is absolutely certain of the truthfulness of what he is preaching. This, I think, is the aspect of boldness that we are not thinking enough about. In order for us to have the kind of boldness that enables us to speak clearly and unashamedly in the face of skeptics or unbelievers, we must have a settled certainty about the events that comprise the gospel message.

Therefore, not only ought we be praying for boldness, but we must also be working to increase our confidence, our certainty about the events narrated for us in the Bible and about the significance of those events as fleshed out by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament, including and especially how those events fulfilled every hope and promise which are set forth in the Old Testament. Simply put, we must learn how to understand and proclaim “the whole counsel of God” as Paul indicates he did to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:27). In other words, we must be working diligently to increase our knowledge of the Scriptures. Peter’s certainty concerning the truth about Jesus’ resurrection in contrast with the great David’s death and how those two facts relate in the scope of redemptive history is why he was able to preach with boldness. So, we should not necessarily expect that God will grant our request for increased boldness if we are not actively pursuing an increased knowledge of God through studying his revelation to us. This is not to say that God’s granting our requests is dependent on our behavior or our preparedness; rather, it is to acknowledge that God often (if not always) uses means to answer our prayers. In fact, the fact that God uses means in this world to accomplish his purposes is one of the primary reasons we pray in the first place. Scripture bears out time and time again (even and especially in the book of Acts) that God uses the prayers of his people as the means by which he brings things to pass in our world. Thus, we ought to expect that God would give us boldness through or in response to our prayers for boldness. However, by virtue of the very nature of boldness, which, I think, includes and is founded on a growing confidence in the truth of the gospel in accordance with our increased understanding of the gospel, we must realize that God will probably grant our prayer through the means of increased study and discussion and thinking about the Scriptures.

This is probably one of the reasons that Paul prayed so frequently, as recorded in his letters even, that believers would grow in their knowledge of God (read: in their theology!).

God-ordained happiness…

God has seen fit to use various means to bring happiness to people.

Today, several things have led me to rejoice.

My violin brings me joy. Specifically, that my fingers remember what to do with a violin brings me joy.

Eating meat with men brings me joy.

Studying the Scriptures with men (the same ones with whom I ate the meat…plus one) brings me joy.

Praying with and for brothers and sisters in Christ brings me great joy. I find praying for the absentee junior high pastor tonight to be most joyful.

My wife brings me joy…on many levels. Tonight, similar to above, I find praying for my wife to be most joyful.

Published in: on November 20, 2008 at 11:57 pm  Comments (1)  
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