William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

A Singing Church (James 5:13-15)

5:13-15 Is any among you in trouble? Let him pray. Is any in good spirits? Let him sing a hymn. Is any among you sick? Let him call in the elders of the Church; and let them anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and pray over him; and the believing prayer will restore to health the ailing person, and the Lord will enable him to rise from his bed; and even if he has committed sin, he will receive forgiveness.

Here we have set out before us certain dominant characteristics of the early church.

It was a singing church; the early Christians were always ready to burst into song. In Paul's description of the meetings of the Church at Corinth, we find singing an integral part ( 1 Corinthians 14:15 ; 1 Corinthians 14:26 ). When he thinks of the grace of God going out to the Gentiles, it reminds him of the joyous saying of the Psalmist: "I will praise thee among the Gentiles, and sing to thy name" ( Romans 15:9 ; compare Psalms 18:49 ). The Christians they speak to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in their hearts to the Lord ( Ephesians 5:19 ). The word of Christ dwells in them, and they teach and admonish each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in their hearts to the Lord ( Colossians 3:16 ). There was a joy in the heart of the Christians which issued from their lips in songs of praise for the mercy and the grace of God.

The fact is that the heathen world has always been sad and weary and frightened. Matthew Arnold wrote a poem describing its bored weariness.

"On that hard Pagan world disgust

And secret loathing fell;

Deep weariness and sated lust

Made human life a hell.

In his cool hall, with haggard eyes,

The Roman noble lay;

He drove abroad in furious guise

Along the Appian Way;

He made a feast, drank fierce and fast,

And crowned his hair with flowers--

No easier nor no quicker past

The impracticable hours."

In contrast with that weary mood the accent of the Christian is singing joy. That was what impressed John Bunyan when he heard four poor old women talking, as they sat at a door in the sun: "Methought they spake, as if joy did make them speak." When Bilney, the martyr, grasped the wonder of redeeming grace, he said, "It was as if dawn suddenly broke on a dark night." Archibald Lang Fleming, the first Bishop of the Arctic, tells of the saying of an Eskimo hunter: "Before you came the road was dark and we were afraid. Now we are not afraid, for the darkness has gone away and all is light as we walk the Jesus way."

Always the church has been a singing Church. When Pliny, governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan, the Roman Emperor, in A.D. 111 to tell him of this new sect of Christians, he said that his information was that "they are in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it is light, when they sing in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as God." In the orthodox Jewish synagogue, since the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there has been no music, for, when they worship, they remember a tragedy; but in the Christian Church, from the beginning until now, there has been the music of praise, for the Christian remembers an Infinite love and enjoys a present glory.

- William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

A Healing Church (James 5:13-15)

Another great characteristic of the early church was that it was a healing Church. Here it inherited its tradition from Judaism. When a Jew was ill, it was to the Rabbi he went rather than to the doctor; and the Rabbi anointed him with oil--which Galen the Greek doctor called "the best of all medicines"--and prayed over him. Few communities can have been so devotedly attentive to their sick as the early church was. Justin Martyr writes that numberless demoniacs were healed by the Christians when all other exorcists had been helpless to cure them and all drugs had been unavailing. Irenaeus, writing far down the second century, tells us that the sick were still healed by having hands laid on them. Tertullian, writing midway through the third century, says that no less a person than the Roman Emperor, Alexander Severus, was healed by anointing at the hands of a Christian called Torpacion and that in his gratitude he kept Torpacion as a guest in his palace until the day of his death.

One of the earliest books concerning Church administration is the Canons of Hippolytus, which goes back to the end of the second century or the beginning of the third. It is there laid down that men who have the gift of healing are to be ordained as presbyters after investigation has been made to ensure that they really do possess the gift and that it comes from God. That same book gives the noble prayer used at the consecration of the local bishops, part of which runs: "Grant unto him, O Lord...the power to break all the chains of the evil power of the demons, to cure all the sick, and speedily to subdue Satan beneath his feet." In the Clementine Letters the duties of the deacons are laid down; and they include the rule: "Let the deacons of the Church move about intelligently and act as eyes for the bishop.... Let them find out those who are sick in the flesh, and bring such to the notice of the main body who know nothing of them, that they may visit them, and supply their wants." In the First Epistle of Clement the prayer of the Church is: "Heal the sick; raise up the weak; cheer the faint-hearted." A very early Church code lays it down that each congregation must appoint at least one widow to take care of women who are sick. For many centuries the Church consistently used anointing as a means of healing the sick. In fact it is important to note that the sacrament of unction, or anointing, was in the early centuries always designed as a means of cure, and not as a preparation for death as it now is in the Roman Catholic Church. It was not until A.D. 852 that this sacrament did, in fact, become the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, administered to prepare for death.

The Church has always cared for her sick; and in her there has always resided the gift of healing. The social gospel is not an appendix to Christianity; it is the very essence of the Christian faith and life.

- William Barclay's Daily Study Bible