Anointing with oil

Sickness: prayer and anointing
(how to examine the subject in Scriptures)

There are a few passages in Scriptures that people, churches, or denominations, have interpreted differently.  So, what happens when there are widely differing views on what a particular passage means?  Are we to merely accept even opposing views?  The first logical assumption we must make, is that there was one meaning and intent behind the passage.  God gave His word with purpose.  As the book author wrote, he used words that had a particular meaning by the people he was writing too.  This is what we must search for.  It is not necessary to set aside our own bias at the beginning; indeed that may be near impossible.  What is necessary is to fairly and honestly evaluate, by a totality of scriptures, if my or another position better fits all the evidence available. 

The following passage, given in two different translations for comparison, is one such passage requiring examination:

James 5:13-16   Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.  Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  (NIV)

James 5:13-16  Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.  (NASU)

Many questions arise from this passage:

  • Should everyone who is sick have elders come and pray over them?  

  • Must there prayer include being anointed with oil?

  • What ritual, if any, should accompany the anointing with oil?

  • Is this a guarantee that if the prayer is done right that the person will be healed?

How do you arrive at an answer to these questions?  The following is a brief procedure which takes into account the principles of Biblical interpretation.

#1. Search the immediate context.  This typically means examining the verses immediately before and after, but it also may include the overall theme of the book or letter itself.  In our example, we'll draw in a few verses before and after...

James 5:7-18  Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near. 9 Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!  10 Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.   12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear - not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.   13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.  (NIV)

What can be derived from the totality of this expanded passage?  The immediate context and subject is:

  • patience (v7, 8, 10)

  • attitude (v10, 12, 13)

  • perseverance (v11, v17)

  • answer to prayer in God's timing (v8, 11, 17-18)

This contextual theme should remain as an overriding framework for any understanding we derive from specific verses within.

#2.  What word is used or not used?  Language is quite specific and there is often more than one way to say the same thing.  Sometimes, a particular word choice adds an extra dimension or focus or emphasis.  Likewise, choosing a particular word over another speaks volumes in the negative.  In other words, why wasn't the other word used?

In verse 14, the word translated "anoint" was not any of these related Greek words:

[Not used]  NT:5548   chrio (khree'-o); probably akin to NT:5530 through the idea of contact; to smear or rub with oil, i.e. (by implication) to consecrate to an office or religious service:  KJV - anoint.  (Strongs)

Luke 4:18   "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  (NIV)

Acts 10:38   how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.  (NIV)

Hebrews 1:9   You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy."  (NIV)

[not used]  NT:5545     chrisma (khris'-mah); from NT:5548; an unguent or smearing, i.e. (figuratively) the special endowment ("chrism") of the Holy Spirit:  KJV - anointing, unction.  (Stongs)

1 John 2:20   But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.  (NIV)

1 John 2:27   As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit - just as it has taught you, remain in him.   (NIV)

Specifically, what weren't used were words most commonly employed for symbolic or ritual anointing (i.e. sacred or religious purpose).

The word actually used, chosen by the author with intent, is:

NT:218    aleipho (al-i'-fo); from NT:1 (as particle of union) and the base of NT:3045; to oil (with perfume):  KJV - anoint.  (Strongs)

This word usually denotes a literal application of oil for practical purposes (i.e. mundane and ordinary versus sacred or religious).  As such it could even be translated as "they oiled him" which sounds far less religious than "they anointed him".  With this ordinary use of the word in view, now consider the next part of our examination...

#3.  Does this word and subject come up elsewhere in Scriptures?  A relatively fast and comprehensive way to do this is to use an Englishman's concordance and search for examples of NT:218 (using the Strong's number for this word).

[Anointing with unspecified substance, but implied to be oil]  Matthew 6:16-18   "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  17 "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face  18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.   (NASU) [Compare Daniel 10:2-3, contrast Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 (a sign of feasting, blessing), Psalms 23:5   You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows., also 2 Samuel 12:20 a sign of normalcy  (NASU)]

... This oil was applied to signify normalcy, blessing, or honor.  It was something actually worn within their society.

[Anointing with spices] Mark 16:1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.  (NASU)

... Applied to the body to dampen or mask odor from decay.

[Anointing with perfume which is oil] Luke 7:37-38, 46   And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume.  ...    "You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume.  (NASU)

... Physically applied to signify honor

John 12:3  [Anointing with perfume which is oil] (At the home of Lazarus) Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard (oil from the Indian Nard plant), and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  (NASU)

... Physically applied to signify honor

So far all the examples have been in regards to physical application of oil, but not in regards to healing.  The remaining two examples are specifically in regards to healing.

Luke 10:33-34   But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.  (NIV)

...  Both the oil and wine were physically applied for medicinal reasons, as aids to healing.

This brings us to a passage that doesn't appear to have a reason for the anointing, yet is an act specifically related to healing.  For comparison we have provided three different translations...

Mark 6:12-13  They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (NIV)

Mark 6:13  And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.  (NASU)

Mark 6:13   And they were driving out many demons, anointing many sick people with oil, and healing. (HCSB)

While driving out demons, anointing sick people with oil and healing are all joined together by "and" clauses in the Greek, it does not imply or require that all three had to pertain to each individual.  In other words, one person may have a demon (which could manifest itself as illness) but their healing would be accomplished by driving out the demon.  Others may need application of oil (i.e. physical treatment), still others supernatural healing (the implication of the final clause).  This is a natural understanding of this passage, especially when taking into account the normal use of the specific Greek word that was employed for anointing.

Prior to leaving this section, extra evidence regarding medicinal purposes for oil comes from the Old Testament book of Isaiah.  While speaking metaphorically of Israel, it shows that from ancient times oil was recommended and used to treat illness and injury.

Isaiah 1:6   From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness - only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.  (NIV)

#4.  Are there examples of positive non-action in Scriptures?  If a something appears to be prescribed as an "always" action in Scriptures, what does the example of Scriptures show?

If all elders were supposed to anoint with oil every time they healed, then there appears to be a contradiction in Scriptures.  The apostles (also called elders, i.e. 1 Peter 5:1, 2 John 1) didn't always follow this.  In fact, as recorded in Scriptures, they healed many times without application of oil.  (In the book of Acts, alone, there are many examples: Acts 3:6; 5:15-16; 9:34; 14:8-10; 16:18; 28:8-9).  Their absence of anointing with oil makes sense though.  As these were all supernatural healings, they wouldn't need the physical application of oil as we saw in section 3 in regards to Mark 6:13.

#5.  Consider Scriptural implications of the action.  Does the action bring with it implications that go beyond the physical act?

For example; the Old Testament Law required people who were sick to be excluded and not touched.

Leviticus 13:45-46    "The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, 'Unclean! Unclean!' 46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.   (NIV)

Leviticus 14:1-9   The Lord said to Moses, 2 "These are the regulations for the diseased person at the time of his ceremonial cleansing, when he is brought to the priest: 3 The priest is to go outside the camp and examine him. If the person has been healed of his infectious skin disease,  4 the priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the one to be cleansed. 5 Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. 6 He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. 7 Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the infectious disease and pronounce him clean. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields.  8 "The person to be cleansed must wash his clothes, shave off all his hair and bathe with water; then he will be ceremonially clean. After this he may come into the camp, but he must stay outside his tent for seven days. 9 On the seventh day he must shave off all his hair; he must shave his head, his beard, his eyebrows and the rest of his hair. He must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water, and he will be clean.   (NIV)

In the New Testament, a new standard is exhibited.  Jesus and his disciples were willing to have physical contact with the sick and not exclude them as was the former practice of the Law.  Certainly the physical application of oil would be in keeping with this newly established New Testament example...

[Jesus]  Matthew 8:14-15   When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.   (NIV)

[Jesus]  Mark 1:41-42   Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"  42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.  (NIV)

[Paul]  Acts 28:7-9   There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. 8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9 When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured.  (NIV)

Taken together, this examination and examples show that application of oil is a physical treatment - not some type of ceremonial service.  Beyond those who churches who completely ignore this passage, some have turned this into a specified ritual, complete with mandatory actions, words, etc. (i.e. saying in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, while making a cross on the forehead with oil).  Some even prescribe specific oils that must be used (having had ritual prayers and blessing of the oil itself).

#6.  Forming a conclusion regarding anointing the sick.  What can be determined from this passage, with certainty, is that it is focused on prayer (in faith).  This prayer is not to be to the exclusion of physical treatment or application of medicines (as some have tried to do, claiming the use of medicine shows lack of faith).  Also, the passage makes certain that the sick individual is not to be excluded.  The elders (plural) should be willing to come and visit and physically help and pray as they are requested (for the text says the ill person is to call for them.  This assumes that the ill person recognizes themselves to be ill, even as the two verses following assume that the person sinning recognizes themselves to be in sin).  Like all prayer, the result rests in the One to who we pray and, of course, to His timing for healing and restoration.

This answered one question of interpretation from this passage.  Now for another one: Does this passage claim that if it is done right, or with the right amount of faith, that everyone will be healed?  See our article on this related question: Does God guarantee healing to every believer?


Article by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries (c) 2011
As posted on
Non-profit duplication permitted - a courtesy email is appreciated