The Epistle of James
EFFECTUAL FERVENT PRAYER
Scripture Reading: James 5:16 (KJV)
In the first part of this verse, James is still thinking of healing. He brings in two things, the confession of faults to one another and praying for one another. In the latter part of the verse he speaks of prayer and its power, not an ordinary prayer, but a fervent prayer by a righteous man.
"Confess your faults ..." Confession of faults or sins is necessary if there is to be healing. Even if there is no sickness, sin should be confessed. Our verse speaks of confession of sin to one another, but they must also be confessed to the Lord. The prayer of faith cannot operate as long as sin is locked in a man's bosom. Sin confessed will grow less, but not confessed, it will grow worse and worse. Finally the sinner will become shameless in his evil and obstinate when reproved. "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but who so confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13). "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
"Confess your faults one to another ..." Confession must be not only to God, nor only to the elders, but to one another, especially to those against whom we have sinned. Sin has an effect on the honor of the Lord, the assembly as a unit, and on the individual members. There might be some sins that are against the Lord alone, and so should be confessed only to Him, but many sins are against individuals and the assembly.
Some excuse their own faults: It is easy to see the faults of others, and some surely love to point them out. But the ones who love to point out the failures of others cannot bear to have their own pointed out. They will make all kinds of excuses for their own failures, but will leave none for those of others. Such need not expect healing from the Lord, but may be laid low by Him. Let us never defend our faults, but rather confess and forsake them.
Wrong done to an individual: If one sins against an individual, confession should be made to that individual. When there is trouble between individuals, they should get together and ask for pardon, and do all in their power to make things right. "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:23, 24). The early church understood this to mean that all differences should be straightened out before they sat down together at the Lord's Supper. If both parties in a quarrel have sinned, let both make mutual confession.
Confess serious sins publicly: Sometimes Christians do serious things, bringing reproach on the assembly of Christians. Such things demand public confession, showing to everyone that the assembly does not approve such things. This has a humbling effect on the sinner, and there is less likelihood of a repetition. Public discipline is not a pleasant thing, but is sometimes necessary to maintain purity in the assembly. If one is not willing to confess immoral practices publicly, he should be put away from the assembly of Christians until he repents.
Private sins: Sometimes Christians are guilty of things that may not be publicly known, yet defiling to the Christian. These may well be confessed: to God directly, or to a Christian friend, who can possibly help in prayer to overcome. Some of these things perhaps should not be confessed to all, lest busybodies, who should be praying, scatter it around, doing damage. It is wonderful to have true Christian friends, who, in times of need, will help and pray.
Let confession be definite: When confession is made, whether to God or to man, let it be definite. Do not say in a general way, "I have sinned," but let the definite sin be mentioned. The story is told of a Christian lady, formerly a drunkard, who was enticed and fell into her old sin. A sister visited her about it, and she readily confessed and appeared penitent. They got down on their knees, and the sister who had fallen began to say, “Lord, I have sinned.” The visiting sister stopped her and said, “If you expect to be forgiven then you need to tell the Lord you got drunk again.” This she did, and was restored to the Lord and His people.
Other Scriptures: There are many examples and exhortations in the Word regarding confession. The chief butler confessed his sin of not telling Pharaoh of Joseph who was confined in prison unjustly (Gen. 41:9, 10). Shimei confessed his sin of cursing David (2 Sam. 19: 19). Those who came to John the Baptizer were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins (Matt. 3:6). In Ephesus, "And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds" (Acts 19:18). In connection with the sin offering, it was necessary for the sinner to definitely confess his sin (Lev. 5:5). On the great day of atonement the high priest confessed the sins of the children of Israel over the head of the scape goat (Lev. 16:21).
Not the confessional: Some religions have made this verse a ground for confessional. However, there is no thought expressed here regarding confessing to a priest or minister for the forgiveness of sins. It is a confession of the sins of Christians to one another. It is not to be a regular thing as some demand, but an occasional confession, as the need arises. Some religions make the confession of sins to a priest or minister, especially mortal sins, necessary to salvation. It has often led to wickedness instead of purity. While it is good and right for Christians to confess to one another, when the need arises, the real confessional is the throne of God.
"... pray one for another ..." After confession, fault should not be found with the confessor, but prayer should be made for him. This is the main purpose and value of confession, that prayer to God might be made a matter of fellowship with others. "Brethren, pray for me: I have this besetting sin, and I am having great difficulty in overcoming it." Two, or three, or more praying about a matter is always better than one. Some are not able to even confide in their wives regarding serious matters.
Not selfish in our prayers: Some are selfish in their prayers. They always say, "Lord, give me this, or give me that," never thinking to pray beyond themselves and their own needs. They are like the man who prayed: “Lord, bless me and my wife, my son and his wife; we four and no more." Of course, we should pray for our families, but we should not stop there; we should pray for everyone in our congregation everyday. We will not soon quarrel with one for whom we pray constantly, but will love and sympathize with such. Then our prayer circle should broaden out to: friends, neighbors, acquaintances, those in government power, and our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We can do nothing better for anyone than to put him/her on our prayer list.
"... one another ..." We have the expression "one another" so often in the Word. The epistles are full of it. Our verse has it twice, "Confess your faults one to another and pray one for another." If you would like a helpful and enlightening time, make a thorough study of all Scriptures that use this expression. A preacher was growing old. He was expected to speak at a seminar, but as the time drew near, his health failed. He realized he would not be able to speak at the event. They asked him for a written message so they might read it on the occasion. He presented his message, containing only one word – others. O, for a heart for others, others won for Christ, others, beside self, in our prayers and lives.
Paul's prayer life: It is interesting to note Paul's prayer life. In almost every one of his epistles, he mentions how he prays for his readers. He says, "For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers" (Rom. 1:9). "I thank my God always on your behalf" (1 Cor. 1:4). How did he find time to pray so much? He often counseled to prayer, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). He also asked for prayer, "Brethren, pray for us" (1 Thess. 5:25). May the Lord help us become men and women of prayer, like Paul.
"... that ye may be healed." In the first part of this verse, James still has healing in mind. "Confess your faults one to another and pray one for another". Why? "That ye may be healed." To what we have in verses 14, 15, added as conditions for healing, are confession and prayer for one another. Often spiritual and physical health are closely related. The story is told of a lady in Ireland, who had a nervous breakdown. At the height of it all, she turned to the Lord and was born again, and in a surprisingly short time, her nervousness and other problems vanished away. Even though this happened years ago, our God never changes.
"The effectual fervent prayer ..." In the last part of this verse, James leaves the matter of the body, and brings prayer into a wider sphere. The Revised Version translates this, "The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working." A supplication is an earnest or fervent prayer. This tells us that the mere formal saying of prayers is of no avail; we must really pray. Not even saying prayers in a fervent way will do. Some pray in a strong voice with an emphatic tone, but the strength or tone of our voice matters not with God. Some say prayers, but never really pray. Some of us are little better than the man who tired of repeating the Lord's prayer, so he tacked a copy of it over his bed, and said, "Lord, there's my sentiments", with which he would get into bed. Let our prayer be a pouring out of our heart to God—like Jacob; prevailing by wrestling with the Lord (Gen. 32:28).
Effectual prayers: We have many cases of fervent, effectual prayers in the Word. Abraham could really pray. His intercession for Sodom because of Lot is classic (Gen. 18:23-32). But you say, "Sodom was destroyed anyway." Yes, but Lot was spared, and Abraham was probably thinking mostly of him. Moses interceded for the children of Israel constantly. The Lord's wrath waxed hot at the time of the worshipping of the golden calf, but Moses' intercession prevailed (Ex. 32:10-14). At Kadesh Barnea, when the spies brought back their evil report, and the people wept and refused to go forward, we again find Moses interceding (Num. 14:13-20). Joshua, in fervent appeal, called for the sun and the moon to stand still (Josh. 10:12). Samuel prayed and was heard; so also did Hezekiah, Asa, Job, Daniel, and many others.
He promises to answer fervent prayers: The Word is full of promises that the Lord will hear and answer real prayer. The Psalms are full of such promises. "The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them" (Ps. 145:18, 19). The Lord Jesus had much to say along this line: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matt. 7:7, 8). Luke 18 is a wonderful commentary on our verse. There we have the well known story of the Pharisee and the publican as well as others.
"... prayer of a righteous man ..." For prayer to be answered, the man who prays must be a righteous man. But you say, "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10). In the absolute sense there are none righteous in this world. "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). However, many have been made righteous in Christ. "So by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). The Lord will never consider anyone righteous apart from trusting and obeying Christ, and receiving new life through His shed blood.
Righteous in Christ and in deed: When James speaks of a righteous man, he is probably speaking of one who is righteous in Christ – living a righteous life. Not righteous in the absolute sense in that he never sins, but one who is conscientiously trying to live a life a life well-pleasing to the Lord. If prayer is by a righteous man and earnest, it will be heard. "The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry" (Ps. 34:15). "The prayer of the upright is his delight" (Prov. 15:8). The Lord calls Abel righteous by faith (Heb. 11:7). James himself was called "the righteous." Tradition says that James prayed so much he had great calluses on his knees and was sometimes called "camel knees." It is this kind of prayer, a righteous man's, that avails much.
"... availeth much." A fervent prayer by a righteous man “availeth much;” is of great power. There is more power in that kind of prayer, by that kind of man, than there is in the wind, the waves, or the storm, because it moves the hand of God. Prayer can be either a force or a farce; a mighty weapon, or an empty form. Can the mighty God, Ruler of the universe, be affected by the prayers of His children? Our verse says He is. A skeptic once said: “If there is a mighty God, He would not be bothered to listen to the prayers of little creatures like you and me.” Because of His eternal love, we can know He definitely answers many of our prayers. Although He rules the universe, somehow He permits the cries of His children to fit into His plans.
As we have noticed, there are many cases in the Hebrew Bible of righteous men of God supplicating His throne for vital reasons. Of all these, James chooses the prophet Elijah as an example.
"... a man subject to like passions ..." Sometime we think of the great men of God of the Bible as superhuman—we can never rise to their level. We cannot be like: Abraham, Moses, or Daniel, of the Hebrew Bible; or Paul, John, Peter, or James, of the New Testament. Many of these were raised up to do a special work for their time, but for all that, they were still men. Cornelius fell down before Peter, but Peter said, "Stand up; I myself also am a man" (Acts 10:26). Paul had been used by the Lord in the healing of the lame man at Lystra. The priest of Jupiter brought garlands and oxen, and would have sacrificed to Paul and Barnabas, but they stopped them saying, "We also are men of like passions with you" (Acts 14:15).
Elijah a man – a great man: Elijah was a man; a righteous man. We can be righteous, too. Elijah was a man; a man of prayer. What hinders us from being the same? He was not a special brand of man, but he had a successful prayer life. He failed at times, too; in fear he fled from Jezebel, so discouraged he asked the Lord to let him die. In this he evidenced the same frail human nature we often find in ourselves. We should not belittle Elijah's great work. He was a great prophet of the Lord, who was able to touch God as few have ever done. He was as highly venerated by the Jews of James' time, as any of the prophets.
"... he prayed earnestly ..." "He prayed earnestly" is literally, "He prayed in prayer." The Revised Version has, "He prayed fervently." He did not merely say prayers, he really prayed. He prayed for the ears of God, not for the ears of man. A newspaper once reported that the prayer of a certain local minister was the best ever prayed to a Boston audience. Let us make sure that our prayers are not for an earthly audience, but a heavenly one.
"... that it might not rain ..." Elijah prayed that it might not rain, and it did not rain for three years and six months. You ask, "What would induce a man to pray a prayer like that?" He realized it would take something drastic to turn the hearts of the children of Israel back to God.
Elijah's times: Elijah lived in the time of wicked king Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Through the influence of this most wicked queen, all the prophets of the Lord had been slain, and the religion of Baal was established in the land. Only 7,000 of all Israel remained true to Jehovah, and they went into hiding. It seemed as if the whole nation was overwhelmed by idolatry. We are not told anywhere why Elijah thought to pray for a drought, but he may have reasoned this way: "What can be done to turn the hearts of the people back to God? It will take something drastic to get rid of Baal worship – to bring the people to repentance." A drought was perhaps the only thing he could think of that might accomplish the purpose, so he prayed that it might not rain. The Lord gives him the assurance that his prayer would be answered, so Elijah goes to Ahab, announcing the drought.
The effect on Elijah: Elijah stood before Ahab. He said, "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word" (1 Kin. 17:1). This was a bold stand, endangering his life. The Lord tells him to hide by the brook Cherith where the ravens brought him food morning and evening. Soon, for lack of rain the brook dries up, but still Elijah does not pray for rain. The Lord directs him to Zarephath, where he abides with a widow, and is miraculously sustained. During this time, Ahab is searching for him to slay him. The effect on others: This prayer not only meant danger to Elijah, but great suffering to countless others. Think what an awful thing it would be if we had no rain for three and one-half years. Many would die of starvation, malnutrition would be rampant.
However, the final result was good. The 450 prophets of Baal were slain, and the people's hearts were turned back to the Lord. They said, "The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God" (1 Kin. 18:39).
The Lord permits calamities to come: The Lord permits calamities so that a few more hearts might turn to Him. Wars are terrible, but through them many come to know Christ. It is sad, but true, many would not seek the Lord if not driven by fear or distress.
Conditions in our land: Spiritual conditions today are not good. Many people make no profession of Christianity, and some who do, have only a form of Christianity without any apparent life. Modernism has crept into some Christians, and false cults are strong in some quarters. Does it ever make us weep and cry out to the Lord? "O, Lord, send an awakening, whatever the cost." Elijah brooded over the sins of the people of Israel; he prayed in the Spirit, and the Lord heard and answered. Our nation, like Israel, has almost shut out the Lord – only true prayer will change things for the better.
Pray for things natural: This verse in James assures us that it is not wrong to pray about things natural. While God regulates the weather to fit the needs of the world; He does listen to the prayers of His own concerning it. It is never wrong to pray for nice weather when certain things make it seem important. The rain, winds, and waves, still obey our God's voice, even today.
"... three years and six months." What an awful thing; no rain for three years and six months. The Lord Jesus testifies to the truth of this in Luke 4:25. Elijah did not go back to Ahab until the Lord instructed him. The famine in the land was terrible as we see from 1 Kings 17 and 18. Elijah did not pray for rain until Ahab was brought to utter despair.
Here we have Elijah praying for rain, and the Lord again answers in a remarkable way. Elijah on Carmel: We have the story of Elijah's great victory on Mount Carmel, in 1 Kings 18. At the word of the Lord he presents himself to King Ahab. He calls upon the king to gather the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the groves to Mount Carmel. He tells these prophets to choose a bullock, cut it in pieces, put it on the altar with wood for a fire, but to put no fire under it. He then tells them to pray to Baal to send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. These prophets call to their God for hours, dancing, shouting, and cutting themselves with knives, but Baal does not answer. Elijah then prepares his altar in the same way only drenches it all with water. In calm dignity he pleads with the Lord for only a few brief moments, and the fire falls from heaven consuming the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, licking up the water in the trench. All the people then cried out, "The Lord he is God; the Lord, he is God." Then he tells the people to slay the 450 prophets of Baal at the brook Kishon.
The promise of rain: Elijah then turns to Ahab and says, "Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain" (1 Kin. 18:41). This tells us of the great faith of Elijah – a great man of God. As yet there was no sign of rain. In fact he had not yet made it a matter of prayer, but he knew it would come. He believed in God, who had answered his prayers before.
He prayed humbly: We now see Elijah in prayer (1 Kin. 18:42). He casts himself down upon the ground, putting his head between his knees. The fact that he threw himself down on the ground tells of his humility. He was bold before man – humble before God. How important humility is. The Lord will not hear us without it. We read even of Christ that, "He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8). Elijah's head between his knees speaks of spiritual conflict. He prayed with great earnestness. This, too, is important to successful prayer.
He prayed definitely: Elijah's prayers were always definite. Here he does not pray for a variety of things, but simply for rain. His prayer is pointed, sincere, and he expects God to hear and to answer. If we expect our prayers to be answered, we should make them definite, too. However, let us not ask in a light way because of some notion, but make sure that the matter is important.
He prayed perseveringly: Elijah prayed once, and then sent his servant to see if he could see anything, but nothing is evident. He prayed again, and still nothing was seen. In all, he prayed and sent his servant seven times before he saw a small cloud like a man's hand. This was sufficient for Elijah; he knew the rain was coming. So we too, should pray again and again until the answer comes. Shall we pray until seven times like Elijah? If need be let us pray until seventy times seven. The Lord Jesus taught perseverance in connection with prayer in the story of the widow and the unjust judge. "Men ought always to pray, and not to faint" (Luke 18:1).
He prayed successfully: Elijah's prayer was successful – "And there was a great rain" (1 Kin. 18:45). The Lord always answers in a great way, because He is a great God. Often, when we pray, we do not pray for great things.
"... the earth brought forth her fruit." Elijah's prayer caused the Lord to send the rain, and the earth again brought forth her fruit. True prayer will produce spiritual fruit as well as natural. Is your life a fruitless life? Does your preaching or teaching produce fruit? Pray about it! Sin, lack of confession, and lack of prayer make for barrenness. Some may say, "I do pray, but nothing happens." Always remember to pray – earnestly, and perseveringly. Keep in mind that Elijah prayed seven times. The Lord God of Elijah is still living and He is our God.
Another of Elijah's remarkable prayers: The son of the widow with whom Elijah sojourned suddenly sickened and died (1 Kin. 17:17-23). She had been kind to Elijah in caring for him, and he keenly felt this tragedy. "And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again." Let us pray with equal earnestness for those dead in trespasses and sins all about us. His last prayer not granted: After his great victory on Mount Carmel, Ahab tells Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how all the prophets of Baal had been slain. This angers Jezebel – she threatens to kill Elijah. He flees for his life into the wilderness, and under a juniper tree, thoroughly disheartened, "He requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers" (1 Kin. 19:4). The Lord does not grant his request, but says as it were, "I have more work for you to do." This man, who asked the Lord to let him die, has not died to this day. The Lord took him home to heaven in a fiery chariot. He and Enoch are the only two men in glory who have never tasted death. It may be the Lord will soon come, and we who are His will go to heaven this better way.
Let our prayers be unselfish: While Elijah was praying for others, the Lord was willing to do the miraculous for him, but as soon as he selfishly asked for that which is natural to all, he was refused. Let us not be selfish in our prayers, but ask for the salvation and blessing of others. If we are Christ minded, we will not be too greatly interested in material things, but more interested in spiritual blessing. As we pray, we will live. If we pray for self – we will live for self; but, if we pray for others we will live for others.