One of the labors expected from the ministers of the Word, according to his call letter, is to visit the sick and afflicted. Naturally, this does not free the elders from this obligation even though many in small congregations seem to think so. The duty of this work rests upon the shoulders of the elders (the minister also being an elder).
From history it is evident that this work has been done throughout the centuries. Not only did our Reformed Fathers manifest this in their writings, but Scripture itself speaks of it. Of Job we read that his friends, brethren and acquaintances came to bemoan and comfort him. Job thus had several visitors in his affliction, And when Jesus speaks about the beneficiaries of the kingdom He says: “For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came to me,” Matt. 25:35, 36. From both these passages we get the impression that already in those days it was most common for the sick to be visited and comforted by their friends and acquaintances. However, one very outstanding portion of Scripture in respect to this matter we find in James 5:14, 15: “Is any sick among you? 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; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” In respect to the explanation of this text there is difference of opinion. Does the apostle by sickness mean spiritual or physical sickness? Personally we are of the conviction that the apostle means the former. Our reason for this is in short as follows: 1. The word used here in the original has the meaning of weakness, infirmity. In other parts of Scripture, Heb. 12:4 e.g., it is used in respect to spiritual weakness and infirmity. 2. In vs. 13 the apostle speaks of physical affliction and therefore it is not likely to have a mere repetition of this in vs. 14. 3. In vs. 13 the afflicted one is told to pray himself, while in vs. 14 the sick one must call the elders of the church to pray for him. The idea most likely is that the sick one is so weak spiritually, so downcast and disheartened that prayer is impossible for him. Therefore he must call upon the elders. 4. We read that the prayer of the elders, i.e., of faith, shall save the sick, something which certainly cannot be said with all certainty of physical sickness. In passing we can also remark that the sick must request the elders to visit them. In our day the minister’s knowing about our sickness is usually considered sufficient with the understanding and expectation that a visit will naturally follow. It is therefore proper that the minister or elders are notified when we are sick and not let them hear that in a round-about way.
However, there are some who draw further conclusions from this text. From this passage they conclude Scripture to teach that the sick need not be visited by the minister or elder when physically sick, be its nature ever so serious. There is to them no connection between physical sickness and the minister of the church. The minister is there only for spiritual things, here spiritual weaknesses and infirmities. Should such be true our common practice of visiting the physically sick certainly is out of place, for those are usually the kind of sick people we visit. And perhaps there are not a few of us thinking this way about it, advocating the above view. I for one have heard more than once that the minister really has to visit only those who spiritually are sick, who spiritually are in need of comfort and prayer, and that his common practice of visiting those having pneumonia, heart- trouble, broken bones, etc. is nothing but a custom among us. What does a minister have to do with broken bones, pneumonic lungs and other diseases? In other words according to them there is much unnecessary sick visitation done.
The undersigned, however, certainly disagrees with this view. To be sure there are some people who expect the minister to call upon them for every minor thing, be it even when they’re down in bed with a heavy cold. They’re always ready for a visit. The other extreme, which is just as bad, if not worse, is that they don’t call upon the leaders of the church until the afflicted one is at the point, of death. But it is our opinion that sick visitation should be done also with physical illness. Our grounds for this opinion are as follows: 1. Scripture itself teaches us this. The friends of Job came to visit him in his physical affliction. Besides Job himself certainly was not so weak spiritually that he could not pray. In all his distress he maintained his integrity and sinned not. This is also evident from the quoted passage of Matt. 25. True it is that the nature of the sickness is not specified here with so many words, but whereas all the other conditions of need mentioned by our Lord are physical, such as being hungry, thirsty, naked, etc., it certainly is most natural and proper to consider the sickness mentioned here to be physical. 2. Scripture as well as the form for the ordination of the minister of the Word teaches us that it is the work of the minister to instruct admonish and comfort as well in general as in particular. In the third place this is necessary on account of the very essence of physical sickness. For what is sickness other than a foreboding of death? Are not all diseases and afflictions tangible evidences of the power of death working in us and pursuing us until it has finally completely overtaken us? Do all these infirmities not plainly teach us the reality of life that we are as the flower of the field and as the blade of grass. And death itself naturally speaks loudly of the wrath of God upon sin. Therefore what a blessed occasion for the pastor of the sheep to point them to the reality of their life! What an opportune time to bring home many precious truths and promises of the Word of God! In the fourth place we are officebearers of a suffering church, of a people living in the midst of continual death and the valley of tears. How often does physical sickness not bring downcast hearts and distressed souls? Should these people then not be comforted when in these particular circumstances? In the fifth place these circumstances often accompany trying times. How our human nature is inclined to rebel! How easily we are dissatisfied! How hard we often find it to bear our cross submissively and lay the finger on our tips in silence to our God! How proper then for an office-bearer of Christ to visit Us and bring us the Word of God applying it to our own circumstances!
As to the work itself, I think it can safely be said that it is a beautiful one as well as difficult. It is not easy to visit those in deep grief or great distress. And those who are called upon expect something too from the one visiting them. They expect to be comforted, lifted up, and strengthened. How the minister feels this especially when there is great sorrow or when he must do so in a home filled with sympathizing friends and relatives. But the first requisite for this work to my mind is to really be a pastor, one who loves his sheep. Out of love he must call upon the sheep of his fold, seeking his own distressed ones. Only when he really loves them can he “weep with them that weep”, and only then will he visit them not because such is exacted from him but because as a shepherd he seeks his sheep. How comforting also for the one called upon to know that there is one who remembers him and who weeps and suffers with him. Another very important factor is that the one visiting and comforting must try to place himself in the position of the sick one. Only too often do we remain living in our own world of health and happiness and from a distance try to comfort them. But then we cannot do sick visitation. Those in distress or pain or grief have their own particular viewpoint of life. And that particular Viewpoint we must try to take in, looking at life as they view it. Then we will find out that only in that way we can really comfort, speaking the Word of God as it fits their particular circumstances, but also that it is much easier to comfort them.
It is to be understood, of course, that we can comfort with nothing else but God’s Word. It is our only means. True sick visitation is then also a visitation that centers about God’s Word. How often is an hour not spent with a sick one discussing all kinds of things, and then finally, yes, a word of prayer is offered up, preceded perhaps with reading a small portion of Scripture. Such visiting naturally is not really worthy of the name of sick visitation. And when we say that we can comfort with God’s Word only it means that His Word is the only thing we can use in this work. To be sure we can do as the world, give those who are sick our sympathy and wish them a speedy recovery etc. But that is not sick visitation, neither do we then come with God’s Word. I do not mean to say that we should not long for those things. Such is natural, especially when the nature of our sickness allows us to entertain such hopes. When we however, come with God’s Word to the sick we come with something different. That Word, as we said, shows and teaches them the reality of life. It tells us to prepare our house because we’re going to die. It tells us that we are dust and must return to the earth, that to everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die. In it God tells us that He returns man to destruction. We are consumed by His anger and by His wrath we are troubled. The days of our years are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow. Ps. 90. Our only hope is in Christ Jesus who has overcome death and now has the keys of death and hell. In a beautiful way this same idea is expressed in the article of the consolation of the sick in the back of our Psalter. It follows the one work of God from Adam to the consummation of all things. In Adam we have all died, and therefore must now return to dust. God’s wrath is now upon us, but our only hope lies in Christ Jesus. And being reconciled to God through Him we now ought to have an earnest desire of being delivered from this mortal body, and received the crown of righteousness.