The Biblical Ordinance of Anointing and Prayer for the Sick

The perfect model of the ordinance of anointing with oil is found in the Bible.  Let the Bible always be our guide when we anoint the sick and pray the prayer of faith over them. 

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 (James 5:14, 15).

“Let Him Call for the Elders of the Church”

The one who is sick initiates the call for anointing.  The elder or church member does not coerce, require, or make compulsory the anointing.  It can be suggested but the person must make the request themselves as James says, “Let him (or her) call for the elders of the church”  The sick person takes the initiative, indicating faith. He or she calls for the “elders,” not special healers, nor does he go to healing campaigns, nor does he or she give themself up to any auto-suggestive therapeutic influence, nor does he express belief in holy waters and bones and relics. They call for the elders of their own church who are representative of the universal Church of which Christ is the head.

These two verses should be seen in the contextual framework where they have been placed by their author in order to feel their own atmosphere.  Before the anointing with oil, a reading of this scripture validates to those who are present, the church elders, and the one being anointed, that they are following biblical principles and guidance.  Elders can include deacons, deaconesses, elders, priests, pastors, or associate pastors.

“Let Them Pray a Prayer of Faith”

James states “let them pray” which means those who are also at the anointing can pray along with the church elder and they are to pray the “prayer of faith.” 

James asks the question, “Is Any Among You Sick?”  This is addressed strictly to believers. James says “among you.”  This means that the elders are not to anoint a non-believer because they are not “among you” in the Body of Christ.  “Sick” is a strong word with primary reference to bodily sickness. No doubt psychosomatic difficulty would be included, but physical infirmity is not excluded.

“Let Them Pray Over Him, Anointing Him with Oil”

The oil has traditionally been olive oil for its significance during Old and New Testament anointings.  It is symbolic of the anointing of God and there is no special medicinal properties in the oil but there is significance in obedience to the use of the anointing by elders and the use of oil.  The anointing was to come first, then the prayer. The sentence can be correctly read, “Let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil.”

The Significance of the Anointing with Oil

Some students claim that the Greek word James used was purely a secular term. However a study of its use in the Old Testament leads us to accept James’ use of it as having sacred and ceremonial significance. The Old Testament was translated from the ancient Hebrew into Greek by about 200 BC. We can see how the Jewish rabbis used it in the following passages in the biblical tradition:

Genesis 28:18, 19 with 31:13 – The Hebrew word for anoint is the one from which comes “Messiah.” The incident described was one of sacredness and solemnity. The translators used the same word, which James used in our text passage.

Exodus 30:31 – The oil is used in this incident for a sacred purpose. The word for anoint is translated with James’ word.

Exodus 40:14, 15 – The word “anoint” occurs twice in the fore part of verse 15 and James’ word is used as the translation of the sacred word. “Anointing” occurs in the latter part of the verse and is translated differently by the word from which we get the word “Christ.” Thus James’ word and the word from which comes “Christ” are both used for the same ritual.

Numbers 3:3 – Again James’ word is used for an anointing which is sacramental. It should be noted that the New Testament writers frequently quote from the Septuagint as Holy Scripture. At least thirty times they quote from it directly. We conclude therefore that James rightfully used his word for a sacred ordinance.

The Significance of the Oil Itself

Oil was used in biblical times in at lest five ways: cosmetical, reverential, funereal, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes. Perhaps the most frequent interpretation of the oil in our text passage is that of a medicinal application. However, the fact that James instructs to call for the “elder” of the church and the above discussion will provide sufficient ground for considering the oil as having sacred significance. Oil was often used by the Hebrews and in New Testament times also as having symbolical reference to the Holy Spirit. The anointing and consecrating of the Tabernacle and its furniture would be a case in point. Our point is more definitely taken in the following considerations:

1 Samuel 10:1-6 – The anointing with oil expresses communication of the Holy Spirit to Saul.

1 Samuel 16:13, 14 – The gift of the Spirit, symbolized by the anointing with oil, having been conferred upon David, the Spirit was necessarily withdrawn from Saul, for there could be but one king.

Zechariah 4:1-6 – The question “What are these?” is answered in verse 6 with the words “by my Spirit.” The oil flowing into the lamps symbolized the Holy Spirit who was to strengthen Zerubbabel in his work in restoring Jerusalem.

It is advantageous to note that the Holy Spirit is the principle of physical life and sustenance: Psalm 36:9; Genesis 1:1, 2; Psalm 33:6; Genesis 2:7, compare with Job 27:3; Psalm 104:29, 30, compare with Job 12:10.

Jesus performed His miracles of healing and did all the work of His ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit: Matthew 3:16; Luke 4:1-14; John 3:34; Acts 1:2; Acts 10:38. We are to remember that Christ is the Head of the Church which is represented by the elders in this ordinance of anointing.

Key Points Summarized

1. This anointing is a sacramental and not a medicinal application of the oil.

2. The oil is a Scriptural symbol of the Holy Spirit.

3. The anointing with oil symbolizes the coming of the Holy Spirit, who is the life principle of the earth and in whose power Jesus healed, upon the sick person in healing power.

4. The anointing is a service of highest consecration and most complete dedication to God’s will and service as when Aaron was ordained high priest and David was consecrated as king.

“In the Name of the Lord”

James does not say “into the name” as does Jesus in Matthew 28:19, but “in the name.” The same phrase is used in Acts 2:38 of baptism and in Acts 3:6 and 16:18 with reference to healing. Scholars tell us that the phrase indicates or expresses “in the authority of.” The authority of Jesus with reference to baptism is stated in Matthew 28:18, 19. The authority of the anointing comes from Jesus as stated in Mark 6:7, 13.

Let Them Pray over Him . . . The Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick . . .”

James 5:13-18 is an argument for the efficacy of prayer in all kinds of afflictions. One special instance is given, that of one sick. Elijah is given as an example of the efficacy. But not all who have been anointed and prayed for live. And not all will be healed.  The anointing is not compulsory in that God will or should heal.   God’s will is sovereign and is always best for all in all circumstances.  Let there never be any accusation about lack of faith of someone is not healed. The sick has faith or he would not call for the elders. Those who are believers have faith.  So it is not a lack of faith at all. 

For other gifts of the Spirit read 9 Powerful Gifts of the Spirit From the Bible

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