Question from Patricia in Michigan
ASK THE PASTOR: Should Christians use anointing oil for the sick?
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. – James 5:14 (NIV)
This passage provides the clearest scriptural support for the practice of anointing the sick with oil. I firmly believe in the importance of this practicel. However, this verse is open to multiple interpretations. The three most common interpretations are as follows:
Roman Catholic View: RC interpreters find here the legitimacy for ‘extreme unction’, a practice whereby a priest administers sacred oil (after a complicated ceremony to actually make the oil “holy”) in a rite to a sick or dying person.
Medicinal View: Many Protestants view the oil as the medicine of the New Testament day. They would see this as the first-century equivalent of going to a doctor.
Symbolic View: This view understands the oil to be symbolic. Combined with prayer and in the name of the Lord, the oil serves as a physical symbol that the sick individual is being set apart unto the Lord.
To decide among these options, we first need a better understanding of the Biblical practice of anointing. To ‘anoint’ literally means to pour or rub oil on a person or thing. In the Old Testament, the practice of anointing could be used in secular situations (such as finalizing a legal contract, or preparing a shield for battle) or for religious purposes. Regarding the latter category, objects were anointed, such as the temple and its furnishings (Ex 40:9-10), garments (Lev 8:30), and sacred vessels (Ex 30:26). Religious anointing was also used for certain types of people, such as kings (I Kings 1:39; 2 Kings 9:6), priests (Ex 29:29; Lev 4:3), and prophets (I Kings 19:16; 1 Chr 16:22; Ps 105:15). The person anointed was symbolically set apart as holy and consecrated to the Lord. In other words, they were his and to be used according to his purposes. In the New Testament anointing the sick is connected with the preaching of repentance. Mark 6:12-14 states that “they went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them….” The James passage cited above is in the same vein as the Mark passage.
The Roman Catholic view cannot be accepted for the simple reason that it is a clear elaboration of the passage. James 5:14 contains no hint of priestly oversight (“the elders”) nor is the oil considered sacred. The focus of the passage (and its surrounding verses) is on personal repentance, faith, and submission to God—not some religious rite. The Medicinal view has some advantages but ultimately fails. Certainly Olive oil, according to Old Testament and Jewish understanding, was prized for its nurturing of human well-being and for its healing properties. But the passage specifically says the elders should anoint with oil. If the issue were simply the application of medicine why involve the church elders? Certainly family members or a local physician would be better choices. If health care were in view, the contemporary application would be to bring the church leaders with you to your next doctor’s appointment!
The best understanding of this passage is that the anointing of oil upon a sick individual is a symbolic declaration that this person has been set apart to God. Medicine has failed. Human ability has failed. The leaders of the church gather together, and in the name of the Lord, symbolically pronounce their submission to and faith in the almighty God. Such an anointing in not a guarantee of healing; rather, it is a declaration of faith. If the person recovers, God is glorified because He was the agent of healing. If the person does not recover, God is glorified because the person was set apart for Him as His special treasure.
In the end, anointing with oil is never simply about healing the sick. It is chiefly about God getting the glory for being God.
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