13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [Or The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power] 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (ESV).
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (NIV).
The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (NASB).
i) Jas 5:15 is a familiar crux. On the face of it, this seems to promise too much. What about sick Christians who die in spite of intercessory prayer?
ii) One solution is the cessationist move. Claim that this only applied to 1C Christians. This command and promise died with the apostles and/or their handpicked disciples.
But in context that won't work. James doesn't say a sick Christian should call for the apostles and prophets to pray for him. Rather, it's simply elders.
Moreover, he extends the principle in the succeeding verses to the church in general, to Christians generally.
iii) Although commentators routinely refer back to v15 when they interpret v16, they don't routinely refer to v16 when interpreting v15. I find that odd. Contextually, these are mutually interpretive. So we should use 16ff. to gloss v15.
We should take 16ff. into account when we interpret v15. The "prayer of faith" in v15 is equivalent to the prayer of a "righteous" man in v16, which is–in turn–illustrated by Elijah.
Although Elijah was a famous prophet and miracle-worker, he was not a plaster saint. Moreover, James accentuates what he has in common with ordinary Christians. Elijah doesn't represent some daunting standard of comparison.
According to James, God didn't answer his prayers because Elijah was a prophet or because Elijah has a special kind of faith, but because Elijah was "righteous." And not because he was especially righteous, for Elijah was "like us."
iv) The grammar of v16b is ambiguous. What's the object of the verb? Is the verb active, passive, or middle?
Given the grammatical ambiguity, it would be imprudent to tie our interpretation too tightly to a specific construction. James doesn't give us sufficient clues to be that definite.
v) Before we consider what James says, we should note what he doesn't say. He doesn't say a righteous man gets whatever he prays for. Indeed, Elijah was sometimes frustrated. Complained to God.
vi) One grammatical possibility is to take the verb as passive. On that rendering, the efficacy of prayer depends on God working in and through our prayers. That's the construction favored by Blomberg. Davids agrees: God is "the active agent" (197).
But Moo thinks that reads too much into the text. McCartney agrees. Moo favors the middle voice: "as it powerfully works."
But given the fact that divine passives are a common convention in Biblical usage, combined with James's Jewish orientation, I think the passive sense is very plausible.
Another possibility is to render the phrase: "effective prayer is powerful." But Blomberg and McCartney object that that's tautologous.
However, I see no reason why James can't be tautologous. Biblical discourse is often redundant. Indeed, the spoken word is typically more redundant that the written word because it's easier to miss words when you hear something than when you read something. And public letters were composed to be read aloud. So I don't think there's any a priori objection to a tautologous construction–which doesn't mean that's the preferred rendering.
For his part, Johnson translates the phrase "is able to have a strong effect." That's probably a safe, neutral rendering.
vii) Given the context of miraculous healing, why does James select this example of answered prayer (i.e. drought) rather than Elijah restoring the child to life, which presents a closer parallel to the case at hand?
Perhaps James is striking a balance between encouragement and presumption. Christian prayer should be hopeful, but not too hopeful! Raising the dead would be an unrealistic example, not because that can't happen in answer to prayer, but because that's not something Christians should expect to happen.
Prayer can accomplish things that nothing else can, but it's not a failsafe formula. We have much to gain by answered prayer, and nothing to lose by unanswered prayer.
viii) McCartney makes a good observation:
Elijah's prayer for returning rains after the prophets of Baal were cut down receives no immediate answer. His servant must go and return from looking out to the sea seven times before he finally sees the little cloud that becomes a great downpour. Likewise, the believer in times of trouble may need to wait and pray patiently for some time… (259).