Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. 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 5:13-15

I have been a Baptist pastor since 1985 and worked in Baptist churches since 1972. During that time I have stood beside many sick beds and death beds, praying with dear Christian people as this verse describes. I have had to perform well over one hundred funerals and try to comfort grieving families in times of sorrow and loss. I have done that pastoral duty with both joy and blessing, albeit not infrequently with tears. These are the times that you see the strongest Christian traits and the deepest faith of some of God’s great saints. There have been times when wonderful Christians have been more than ready to go on to see the Lord though family, friends, and medical personnel may not have understood their quiet resolve. In all of these times in which I have fulfilled my Biblical responsibility, I have never anointed someone with oil because I don’t believe that is part of my responsibility as a pastor/elder.

I have, however, often worked hand-in-hand with those wonderful medical people who do the modern equivalent of anointing with oil. Almost always, I would say as well, they have worked with me to allow me to perform the part that they don’t do—the prayer of faith. There have been many times that they waited in a pre-op room for me to finish my prayer with the family and their sick one before the surgery began, many times joining with us in the prayer. This has always been a fulfilling time in ministry. A.T. Robertson expressed this sentiment a hundred years ago,

Today we have a more advanced medical science which is, however, by no means final and infallible. We separate the functions of the minister and the physician. We prefer the doctor to the oil, but we still need God with the doctor. It is a great error for one to think that God is not to be called upon because we have a skilled physician. The minister still has a place, and a very important place, . . .”1

Yet there has always been a controversy over what James meant when he urged the anointing of the sick one with oil. Good men differ. Some have used oil with a view to helping heal, though not in the same vein as the Catholic Church that administers extreme unction upon the dying person, yet still believing that there is healing power in the oil. Some put oil on a sick person in a symbolic way, a kind of object lesson, showing the sincerity of the act. I have always taken a third view that the oil was medicinal and was administered to ease the pain, even if cosmetically, but was not connected to the prayer of faith.

The first view is held by many charismatics and healers and seldom finds its way into Baptist orthopraxy. The second view is much more common. Douglas Moo gives a more recent defense of the symbolic use and concludes, “But other factors suggest that James probably views the anointing as a physical action symbolizing consecration. . . We conclude, therefore, that ‘anoint’ in v. 14 refers to a physical action with symbolic significance.”2 The third view is strongly held by A.T. Robertson, R.C.H. Lenski,3 and recently by Donald Burdick who concludes, “There are a number of reasons for understanding this application of oil as medicinal rather than sacramental.”4 Burdick then gives three reasons which I will also list in this short article. In short, the Greek words used, the comparative New Testament passages, and the historical usage all suggest a medicinal use.

The Greek words used

There are basically two kinds of anointing, or two actions that can be taken with the oil. One is to physically apply the oil to the body. This may be done for a variety of reasons but the words used to describe this action all necessitate the actual applying of the oil. The other kind of anointing does not require any physical contact between the oil and the body. This is a spiritual consecration or positional anointing that makes a person (or thing) set apart.

Non-Physical anointing. We will consider the second, or positional anointing first. The word always used in this case is chriō (verb) or chrisma (noun) and two compound verbs built upon chriō. The most obvious use of this word is for Jesus Himself. He is called the Christ (Christos) because He is the Anointed One of God. In Acts 4:27 the disciples praised God in the face of Herod and Pilate who stood against “thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed.” Jesus is the Anointed One of God, not because any actual oil was put on His body by God, but because He was ordained of God to be the Christ.

Another use of chriō or chrisma is of the church of Christ. The church has been baptized by the Holy Spirit which is called an anointing (chrisma). John uses the noun three times in 1 John 2:20 & 27. The KJV has the word “unction” and also “anointing.” The verb (chriō) is used of the church once in 2 Cor. 1:21 where Paul says that God has “anointed us.” Believers in Christ are anointed by God in a spiritual or positional sense by being baptized by the Holy Spirit at the moment of our salvation. Just as our Spirit baptism was not a physical water baptism, so our anointing was not a physical rubbing of oil on our bodies.

Chriō is never used in any other sense but this non-physical anointing. However, the two compound verbs are used in interesting ways. Epi-chriō is used twice in John 9:6, 11 in the story of the blind man upon whom Jesus made clay with his spit and “anointed” his blind eyes. This was obviously a physical placing of clay upon the blind man. The other compound verb is eg-chriō used in Rev. 3:18 of the church at Laodicea needing to “anoint” their eyes with eye salve. But in neither of these cases is the pure verb (chriō) used, and in either place the case could be made that the physical element used had nothing to do with any cure that resulted. The physical element was at best a symbol of the spiritual work that was needed.

Physical anointing. The second kind of anointing is described primarily with the Greek verb aleiphō, but sometimes with murizō (verb), muron (noun), katacheō twice, and epixeō once. James uses the verb aleiphō in 5:16. This verb (there is no noun use in the NT) is used nine times in eight verses in the New Testament and always describes a physical application of oil. Jesus said to anoint one’s face with oil when fasting (Matt. 6:13); the apostles anointed with oil and healed (Mk. 6:13); the sinning woman anointed Jesus’ feet with oil (Luke 7:38, 46); Mary anointed Jesus with oil (John 11:2) and also anointed His feet with oil (John 12:3); and the women anointed Jesus’ body for burial (Mk. 16:1). The LXX uses this word for the anointing of the high priest for service (Exod. 30:22-33). Since James uses this word, it must also mean a physical applying of oil to the body.

A similar word (murizō, muron) is used as a virtual synonym with aleiphō. The verb is used once of Mark to describe Mary’s action of anointing Jesus (Mk. 14:8); and is used nine times in the noun form, “ointment,” all in the same contexts as above, with the addition of Rev. 18:13 also as “ointment.”

Then there are three other places where the physical kind of anointing is described. The word katacheō is used twice, both to describe Mary’s anointing of Jesus (Matt. 26:7, Mk. 14:3). The other usage is instructive. Epicheō is used only once in Luke 10:34 in the story of the good Samaritan. This man “bound up his wounds, pouring in (epicheō) oil and wine.” Even Douglas Moo says this is where oil “clearly has a medicinal use.”5 Perhaps Dr. Luke alone used this word because of its medicinal meaning but was unique to his time and place of writing. It does show, however, that oil was a common cure for wounds in the body.

Of the two kinds of “anointing,” Lenski feels that only the non-physical should be translated with the word “anointing” because we loose the difference when both are thus translated. He says, “Only [chriō] should be translated in this way [i.e. ‘anoint’] for it is used of the sacred act while [aleiphō] refers to the common use of oil. We do not ‘anoint’ a piece of machinery, we ‘oil’ it.”6 Burdick similarly concludes, “The word aleipsantes (‘anoint’) is not the usual word for sacramental or ritualistic anointing. James could have used the verb chriō if that had been what he had in mind. The distinction is still observed in modern Greek, with aleiphō meaning ‘to daub,’ ‘to smear,’ and chriō meaning ‘to anoint.’”7

The conclusion from the uses of the New Testament words is that what James describes is definitely a physical placing of oil on the body. The mixing of this application with any other spiritual significance is either nonexistent or would be very rare (only perhaps Mary’s physical anointing is said by Jesus to be with a look to His burial, Jn. 12:7).

Comparative New Testament passages

James was the first New Testament writer to use aleiphō and therefore doesn’t rely on another writer for meaning. It is not wise at this point to try to apply some principle about James being the first time the subject of anointing is mentioned, and then determining all other mentions by this. Myron Houghton warned, “If truth has been progressively revealed, then making the first mention of that truth crucial to its meaning simply cannot be true; in fact the opposite concept would seem better supported: the later mentions of a truth, particularly if found in the NT epistles, would present a clearer, more focused and detailed explanation of a truth found elsewhere in the Bible.”8   James used the common word for smearing oil on a sick body. Later mentions of the word aleiphō and chriō must stand alone in their own contexts. Yet, we find that other writers used the word aleiphō in virtually the same way as James thus confirming the very natural meaning of placing oil on the body, even medicinally.

James wrote in the late 40s A.D., Luke wrote in the late 50s or early 60s. Dr. Luke’s description of pouring oil into a wound for medicinal purposes carries on the meaning and practice that we first see in James. This was common in the first century and beyond. None of the New Testament uses contradicts a medicinal meaning by James.

Historical uses

All writers that I have referenced admit that oil was used for medicinal purposes in the first century. Moo says, “Ancient sources testify to the usefulness of oil in curing everything from toothache to paralysis.”9 Burdick gives a common observation,

Furthermore, it is a well-documented fact that oil was one of the most common medicines of biblical times. See Isaiah 1:6 and Luke 10:34. Josephus (Antiq. XVII, 172 [vi. 5] reports that during his last illness Herod the Great was given a bath in oil in hopes of effecting a cure. The papyri, Philo, Pliny, and the physician Galen all refer to the medicinal use of oil. Galen described it as ‘the best of all remedies for paralysis’ (De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis 2.10ff). It is evident, then, that James is prescribing prayer and medicine.10

It may be difficult for us in the twenty first century to grasp the medicinal advantage of rubbing oil on a sick body. Oil was obviously used also for simple cosmetic purposes, cleansing, perfuming, as well as helping in healing. But whether we think it useful or not, they obviously did in biblical times and it seems that James was instructing caring church members to help sick people by doing it.

Objections

Those who add a symbolic use to the application of oil are not totally out of bounds. Of the few times I have been asked to anoint some sick person with oil (and politely refused) it was mostly intended as a sign of some sort of one’s trust in God’s healing power. I think this may be commendable, but unnecessary. Moo goes further and says,

“The medicinal [only] view is problematic for two reasons. First, evidence that anointing with oil was used for any medical problem is not found—and why mention only one (albeit widespread) remedy when many different illnesses would be encountered? Second, why should the elders of the church do the anointing if its purpose were solely medical? Surely others would have done this already were it an appropriate remedy for the complaint.”11

First, James is encouraging believers to help a sick member. If oil was common in the first century, it would be natural to use that as the example of help. I may advise a sick person to “see the doctor” when, it may turn out, he needs a surgeon, or some other specialist, but “doctor” is the most common way of instruction. So was applying oil to an ailing body. Second, the elders were called primarily for the prayer of faith. It would not be beneath them to apply the oil also, but it could be done by anyone. It is noted by most that the aorist imperative “let them pray over him” is to be done after the aorist participle “having anointed him” with oil. That is, the elders were there for the prayer which they did once the body was smeared with oil. It made no difference whether they applied the medicine or someone before them.

And so . . .

We can conclude (about James 5:14) that the grammar of the passage suggests that the oil was physically smeared upon the body of the sick person and that it was not necessarily connected to the prayer of the elders. Also, we can conclude that James uses this language apart from any other New Testament usage, but is nevertheless consistent with all other NT usages. And we can also rest assured that anointing a sick body with oil was the common thing to do in New Testament times.

At times when brothers and sisters have loved ones hurting or even dying, their cry for help is sincere and sometimes desperate. Their request for the symbolism of oil comes out of these feelings and should not be treated unkindly. I have found that a gentle explanation of the passage in James as to why the oil is not necessary because they are already under good medical care, and because such symbolism will not affect our prayer in any way, is a better help than acquiescing to their request. Such a request is more of a weakness in faith than a strength, and relying on prayer to save the sick is a much better kind of faith. There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that our faith in God needs this kind of ritual. Robertson concludes, “There is here no such superstition as sending for a minister when death is at hand to perform a magical ritual ceremony to stave off death.”12 To this I cringe for the strictness of expression, but agree with the truthfulness of the issue.

Notes:

  1. A.T. Robertson, Studies in the Epistle of James (Nashville: Broadman Press, originally published in 1915) 190.
  2. Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 241-242.
  3. R.C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1966) pp. 660-665.
  4. Donald W. Burdick, James, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) p. 204.
  5. Moo, 241.
  6. Lenski, 660.
  7. Burdick, 204.
  8. Myron J. Houghton, “An Evaluation of the Law of First Mention,” an unpublished paper, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, p. 10.
  9. Moo, 239.
  10. Burdick, 204.
  11. Moo, 241.
  12. Robertson, 190.