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One Essential Oil

Anointing in the Church Today

Recently, the elders of our church gathered after the Sunday morning service to pray over a member who had received a difficult medical diagnosis. Complicating her condition was her upcoming travel to Haiti to work as a nurse on a short-term mission. After hearing the heavy word from the doctor, she still felt the desire to go, but now new concerns were in view: she would be in a foreign place, and quality medical help would be difficult to come by if her own unpredictable condition were to become problematic.

We sent word around to the elders to gather with her and her family after the service. As I’d done before, I picked through my wife’s collection of small vials, and grabbed the one essential oil for leadership in the local church: the frankincense we use for anointing.

One Passage in James

This was not the first time we’d gathered as elders to pray together for, and anoint, a member in unusual circumstances, and likely it will not be the last.

Such a practice may be strange to many of us who grew up in mainstream evangelical churches. Mark 6:13 mentions Jesus’s disciples anointing “with oil many who were sick,” but James 5:14–15 is the one passage that plainly prescribes this practice in the life of the church:

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. 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.

Five important points make this Christian anointing of the sick distinct from every other anointing.

1. Who should call?

Verse 15 makes plain that “sick” in verse 14 is not a common cold, stomach flu, or even influenza. We may be quicker today to consider ourselves “sick” than they were in the first century. Elder prayer is for those in some serious circumstance and unusually difficult straits. One commentator surmises that “this sick person is bedridden and potentially helpless even to pray for him- or herself” (242). Another provides five pointers in the text that the situation is serious: the elders are called to the sick person; the elders do all the praying; the person is said to be “worn out” or “exhausted” (the meaning of “sick” in verse 15); the elders’ faith is in view, not the sick person’s; and the elders pray over the (bedridden) person (194). (Note here, contra so-called “prosperity gospel” claims, this prayer of faith is not offered by the sick person, but by the elders.)

Calling for the elders is not the Christian’s first recourse with any form of sickness or discomfort. However, Christians do have a backstop within the local church for escalating and dire physical conditions. Such support is not in lieu of medical help, but an appeal to God in, alongside, and over it.

2. Who should come?

James 5:14 specifically mentions the elders of the church. The New Testament consistently and pervasively attributes formal leadership in the local church to a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). It’s not elder (singular) — not one-man ministry — but elders (plural), a team of pastor-elders leading the church together.

“Elder” is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun pastor or shepherd in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). The same office is also twice called “overseer” in four texts (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). These are the formal leaders in the local church who don’t have authority or wield power on their own, but serve in a God-appointed, church-affirmed role in which they represent Christ to his church (to the degree they are faithful to Christ’s word), and the church to Christ.

Calling for the elders is the sick person’s way of coming to the church to ask for her collective prayer.

3. What should the elders do?

The elders should pray. The emphasis in the passage is on prayer, not anointing. “Let them pray over him, anointing . . .” The grammar of the passage communicates that the central reason the elders have come is to pray. Prayer is primary; anointing is secondary. Anointing, as we’ll see, accompanies prayer. The power is not in the oil, but in the God to whom we pray.

Note here that (unlike the Catholic sacrament of “extreme unction” which alleges its cues from James 5) the prayer, and aim of anointing, is for restoration to life, not consecration for death.

4. Why anoint with oil?

Here’s the part that can seem strange to some today. The problem is that we may never have considered the place of oil, and the act of anointing, throughout the Scriptures.

Throughout the Bible, anointing with oil symbolizes consecration to God (as in Exodus 28:41; Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Hebrews 1:9). The act of anointing does not, as some claim, automatically confer grace and remit sin. Rather, it is a “means of grace,” which accompanies prayer, for those who believe. Like fasting, anointing is a kind of handmaid of prayer, or an intensifier of prayer — a way to reach beyond our daily patterns in unusual circumstances.

Anointing with oil is an external act of the body that accompanies, and gives expression to, the internal desire and disposition of faith to dedicate someone to God in a special way. It is not here simply medicinal, as some have claimed, with our application today being to apply modern medicine along with prayer. Such a view overlooks the wealth of theology across the Scriptures about the symbolism and significance of anointing.

In fact, anointing is so significant that God’s long-promised King, who we eventually learn is God’s own eternal Son, is called Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek, which means Anointed. Christ himself is the greatest manifestation of consecration to God in his perfect human life, sacrificial human death, and victorious human resurrection from the grave.

So, here in James 5, as Douglas Moo writes, “As the elders pray, they are to anoint the sick person in order to symbolize that that person is being set apart for God’s special attention and care” (242). Anointing is not automatic in producing healing, but serves as a prayerful expression, and intensifier of our plea, asking God, and waiting for him, to heal.

If you ask, then, what kind of oil should we use, my answer would be, in light of the theology of anointing: not cheap oil. The very point of the oil is to symbolize the gravity and urgency of the occasion through lavishness and (appropriate) expense. This is not the place to go on the cheap end. The specialness of the act is tied to the preciousness of the oil.

5. How should they pray?

Finally, we have specific and important clarity about how the elders should pray: “in the name of the Lord.” The power is not in the oil or the elders or even in their prayers, but in God, in the name of Jesus Christ. When God answers with healing, he does so not decisively because of the oil or the elders, but because of the work of his Son, Jesus.

Which means the elders can pray boldly and with confidence. Where two or three elders are gathered for special prayer, there they should be expectant that God will move. The “prayer of faith” in verse 15 is simply the prayer of the elders from verse 14: the prayer offered in faith that can, and often does, heal.