Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
The Christians to whom James was writing were suffering (5:13a), due to being oppressed by the rich (5:1-11). His directive to them was to “pray.” Yet it’s also noteworthy that God knew that some of them would also be cheerful, despite their suffering (5:13b; cf. 1:2; Rom. 5:3-4; Phil. 4:4). To them He gave the command to “sing praises.” Christians, are we also able to find joy even in the midst of hardship? When we do, is our first inclination to sing praises to God…or is worshiping God in song something we only think to do in a church auditorium on Sundays and Wednesdays?
God then directed sick Christians to call for their elders to come and pray over them (5:14a). Hospitals didn’t exist back then. When someone got sick, it was customary for friends or loved ones to visit and treat them. This is a possible meaning of the directive for elders to “anoint” the sick brother “with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14b). The medicines of today did not exist then. Instead, it was common for the sick to be treated by anointing (aleipho, pouring, daubing, rubbing, smearing) them with certain types of oil which had medicinal value (cf. Lk. 10:34). Another possible purpose was to miraculously heal him. The apostles performed miraculous healings in that way (Mk. 6:13), and this was written during the time when some Christians had miraculous spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). I believe this possibility more likely since the promise is then made that “the Lord will raise him up” (5:15). Since miraculous gifts ceased with the completion of the New Testament (1 Cor. 13:8-10; cf. Rom. 12:2; James 1:25), any modern application of James 5:14 would be limited to sick Christians calling upon their elders to help them in any way they could, like offering to take them to the doctor or the hospital, picking up medicine for them, bringing them food, and the like.
Concerning verse 15, it should first be noted that “prayer” comes from the Greek term euche, which actually means “vow.” Euche is found only two other times in Scripture and is translated “vow” both times (Acts 18:18; 21:23). “Prayer” comes from proseuche, a derivative of euche, and is actually used in verse 14 to refer to the prayer said by the elders over the sick man. However, in verse 15 James is actually saying that the VOW of faith will save the sick person and his sins, if he has committed any, will be forgiven. Thus, verse 15 does not refer to the elders’ prayer from verse 14. It’s actually talking about a VOW of faith, specifically a vow of faith that promises definite forgiveness of sins. The only type of vow which undoubtedly produces forgiveness of sins is a vow of repentance made by a penitent Christian (1 John 1:9; 2 Cor. 7:9-11). Therefore, the one making this vow is the sick Christian. He’s basically making a vow of faith to God in front of the elders, which biblically means that he is acknowledging his sins and repenting of them, producing definite and complete forgiveness by the mercy of God.
This is why God then directs us all to “confess our sins to one another” (5:16a) as well as to Him (1 John 1:9). Since “one another” is given no further divine elaboration, we could confess sins to the entire church on Sunday or to one or more of our brethren, whichever we deem more expedient. It is certainly important that we also “pray for one other” (5:16b). James points to Elijah as an example of the power possessed by the prayer of the righteous (5:16d-18). Both confession and prayer are needed for healing to occur by God’s will (5:16c; cf. 1 John 5:14-15). Christians, do we confess our sins to each other and pray with each other?