Answering Difficult Bible Questions

Anointing with Oil: Explaining James 5:14-15


“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 sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15, NKJV). This passage is one of the more difficult passages of James. Debate has certainly raged concerning the meaning of this passage. Pick up any number of commentators and one will see the variety of interpretations of this passage. In this lesson, I want to share with you the facts of my study. I want to share with you what the words mean and the background of these words used by James. Then we will spend time looking at what is the most likely interpretation of this text.

I. The Facts

A. Is anyone among you sick?

  1. Our first question centers around the nature of the sickness James is describing. Is James describing a spiritual sickness or is James referring to physical sickness? The Greek word itself means “to be weak; feeble.” Further, the word for “sick” is used throughout the New Testament to speak of physical sickness and spiritual sickness. Therefore, the word itself does not provide us any clues.
  2. We must look at the context of the passage to make a determination whether James speaks of a spiritual or physical illness. The context surrounding these questionable verses in James indicate that James is speaking of a physical illness. In James 5:10-11 James writes about the suffering and patience of Job. Of course, Job’s suffering was physical suffering afflicted on him by Satan. This theme is continued in verse 13, “Is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone cheerful?” Then in verse 14, “Is anyone among you sick?” The context is about physical ailments.
  3. Consider also verse 15: “and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” The key word on this sentence is “if.” If James is talking about spiritual sickness, why would James say “if he has committed sins?” Spiritual sickness is to have committed sins. James must be talking about physical sickness and for him to speaking about the possibility of having committed sins. If we were dealing with spiritual sickness, I believe verse 15 would more likely read that the prayer of faith will save the sick person and he will be forgiven. But it says, “the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” This seems to describe to different conditions: (1) being raised up from sickness and (2) if sins have been committed, those sins will be forgiven.
  4. Further, if spiritual sickness is in view, what does oil have to do with any of this? Oil was not placed upon Simon the sorcerer when he needed to pray for repentance of his sins. We do not see oil used in regards to spiritual illness. We are told to confess our sins and pray for one another when we are spiritually sick.

B. Pray over him

  1. The language here seems to indicate something special is going on, as if the elders are being directed in their posture to stand over the one who is sick. But the Greek word does not seem to communicate this concept.
  2. Thus, a couple translations including God’s Word and the New Century Version simply render this phrase “pray for you.” Albert Barnes in his Notes on the New Testament says it is to “pray with him and for him.” The point is that we should not read this phrase and assume the word “over” has a special significance or bearing upon how to interpret the passage. This Greek word is also translated as “on, upon, about, together” along with many other words.

C. Anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord

  1. This is a very important phrase for us to understand. We need to look at what it means to anoint, what oil was used for in the first century, and the meaning of doing these things “in the name of the Lord.” As we consider these things, let us be sure we are not defining these words in a 21 st century context but a 1 st century context. We need to put ourselves in the minds of the readers who received this letter.
  2. OIL. We cannot assume that since oil is used that there is some sort of divine act taking place through its use. Oil had an important purpose in the first century that many in the 21 st century do not recognize. A.T. Robertson in his book Word Pictures states that oil was “one of the best remedial agencies known to the ancients.” The Expositors Bible Commentary agrees, stating “oil was the most common medicine in biblical times.” Josephus records “during Herod’s last illness, he was given a bath in oil in hopes of effecting a cure.” The Mishna, which is the oral reciting of Jewish customs, declares the medicinal use of oil also.
  3. We can even see this usage of oil in the New Testament. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus tells how the Samaritan had compassion on him “went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:34). Here we see no miraculous connotation in using oil. Neither do we see this use of oil as a channel of God’s healing. Using oil for illnesses was extremely common, more common than putting a band-aid on our injuries.
  4. Oil was even used in New Testament times as a way of physical refreshment after washing. “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. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:16-17). Notice Jesus makes anointing one’s head the same as taking a bath, freshening up, washing the face, and being presentable in those days. I think it is also important to consider that this is the same Greek word for “anoint” that is used by James in James 5:14.
  5. ANOINT. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary also says this about the anointing oil of James 5:14: “There are a number of reasons for understanding this application of oil as medicinal rather than sacramental. The word aleipsantes (“anoint”) is not the usual word for sacramental or ritualistic anointing. James could have used the verb chrio if that had been what he had in mind. The distinction is still observed in modern Greek, with aleipho meaning “to daub,” “to smear,” and chrio meaning “to anoint.” Furthermore, it is a well-documented fact that oil was one of the most common medicines of biblical times.”
  6. With very few exceptions, this word for “anoint” in James 5:14 is not used in a sacred sense, but used broadly for the mundane and common. It is the other Greek word for “anoint” (chiro) that is used in context of the divine (Acts 4:27; 10:38; Luke 4:18).
  7. IN THE NAME OF THE LORD. Since the anointing of oil is to be done in the name of the Lord, it is assumed by many that this means the anointing would have special powers causing the healing. Alfred Plummer declares that the oil was “a channel of divine power and an aid to faith.” We will deal with the argument in a moment. But for the moment, I want us to see that simply because this is to be done “in the name of the Lord” does not mean this was conjuring divine power.
  8. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Does this mean that everything we do in life is through God’s special power or channel of grace? Of course not. The phrase simply means to do things by God’s authority. To do something “in the name of” is to have its authority. Everything we do in word and deed is to be with the authority of God. The same is true in 1 Corinthians 7:39 where a widow is told to marry “only in the Lord.” “In the Lord” does not designate any channel of divine power in the marriage. Rather, this is the authority of God to perform this act. So it is here in James 5:14. The praying and anointing of oil are authorized by God.
  9. Have you ever wonder if we should be praying for the physically ill in our gatherings together? I have wonder if we should, especially in regards to the Christian, since he or she is going home to be with God? But James gives us an answer that yes we are to pray for physical illness and that God will heal them of their infirmities.

D. Saving the sick and raising him up

  1. Verse 15 is just as important to read as verse 14. Notice what act is saving the sick: “the prayer of faith.” James does not say that it is the oil at work acting as a channel of divine power from God. It is the prayer that will save. But it is not just the prayer, it is the prayer of faith. This statement ties back into what James said earlier in chapter 1, verses 6-7 where we were commanded to ask in faith without doubting, else we cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord.
  2. The Greek word for “save” in verse 15 is used in both the salvation of sins and the making well of the body from illness. So this word also does not help us definitively know that James is speaking of the physical sickness or spiritual sickness.
  3. James says, “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.” The phrase “raise him up” means “to rouse, waken from sleep.” It seems to suggest that the person we are talking about is gravely ill, such that this saving of the sick will allow him to “rise up” because he could not before due to the illness.

II. Putting It Together

A. Understanding the teaching

  1. The above lays out what I believe to be the facts surrounding the passage in question. I have done my best to keep my opinion out, only drawing necessary conclusions from the facts. Let us now spend some time trying to put all of the pieces together.
  2. When James says “is any among you sick,” I do not believe James is asking if someone has a cold or is generally not feeling well. Due to what James says in verse 15 about raising the sick one up, I believe we are talking about someone who is gravely sick. If not, then the work of the eldership would be ruined as they would be forced to go to everyone’s home every week for every small infirmity that each Christian had. The role of an eldership is for spiritual leadership and it would not make sense for James to change that role into one of helping people who have the flu. I believe we are dealing with serious sickness.
  3. James says to call for the elders of the church to pray for the one who is sick. Assistance may be necessary for the one who is ailing. In those days, being able to apply oil to oneself when seriously would require help. Thus, the elders should make sure the person was receiving the medical attention necessary. But, as James points out, the important part of this work is the prayers. Let this person’s condition be in the prayers of the saints so that he may be healed and raised up from this serious condition. But prayer was not to be used alone. Christians were expected to use the medical means necessary and available to help with the illness.
  4. It is surprising to me how often I see religions declare that they will be healed of a sickness by the power of God, and will refuse medical treatment. Of course, these people die more often than not when refusing any help. But James is actually commanding the opposite. Yes, we are to rely on God to heal us and raise us up, but we are to use the treatments that the medical community can provide. God can use the simple things of this world to heal our flesh and God can use the power of prayer for the ailments that medicine cannot treat.
  5. If James had used the other Greek word for anointing that refers to the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Christ, then I would be more apt to see the anointing oil to be a reference to God using His power through the use of oil. But that is not the word James used and furthermore, to the first century reader, all James was telling the elders to do was make sure the person received proper medical attention.

B. Looking at consequences

  1. Spiritually sick. If James is referring to spiritual sickness, then I have a few problems that one must accept. (1) If James is speaking about spiritual illness, what does oil have to do with any of this? If we are looking at someone who is not physically infirmed whatsoever, but simply is a Christian who has turned away from the Lord, why would oil be physically placed on the person? (2) But let me take it a step further and encourage you to carefully read this text. Who is to take the first step? The elders do not take the first step and go to the ailing one. Rather, the person who is sick is to call for the elders. A spiritually sick person will not call for the elders, except in a rare instance. In my experience, I must go visit the wayward soul and encourage them to turn to the Lord. I do not have fallen away Christians calling me to come talk to them. I have to take the initiative and so would an eldership. In Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, the shepherd has to go find the lost one, the lost sheep does not seek after the shepherd. (3) The context in the previous verse is about physical toil-“is anyone among you suffering? Is anyone cheerful?” The context is not dealing with spiritual problems. (4) The end of verse 15 becomes a problem by saying “if he has committed sin.” There would be no question if the person had committed sins if we are talking about spiritual sickness.
  2. Miraculous healing. I also believe there are many problems with understanding James to be speaking of the gift of healing through miracles in the first century. (1) Nothing in the text seems to indicate that James is dealing with the miraculous at this moment. In fact, James says it is the prayer that heals the sick person, not the miracle of God. (2) If this is miraculous, I would ask why oil is used at all in this process? Obviously oil is not needed since it is God who is going to break the laws of the universe by performing the impossible on this sick one—a miracle. (3) If this is miraculous, why are the elders of a church called to perform the task? Are we supposed to assume that every elder of every church in the first century had the miraculous gift of healing? Should not have James asked for the sick one to call someone in the church who had this particular gift and not the eldership? (4) If this is miraculous healing, then I believe a major consequence is that James 5:16-18 becomes meaningless. The context may seem on the surface to suggest that James 5:14 is a miracle because James references a miracle by Elijah in James 5:16-17. But the point of the argument is the power of prayer, not the miracle. James argues that Elijah was a man just like us. Was James writing only to people who had the power of miracles and said that Elijah was just like those who could perform such wonders? Not at all. James, in fact, is arguing the opposite. James is telling these Christians to look at what Elijah was able to do through the power of prayer. We can also accomplish much through prayer.
  3. Holy Spirit healing. Finally, some argue that we need to put oil on our sick people today because this is the way God will heal the one who is sick. But this also leads to great problems. (1) What happens with a church that does not have elders? Does this mean that no prayers and healing will take place until an eldership is in place? One cannot say that God will hold it against a Christian because the local church he or she attends does not have elders! (2) To argue this establishes a situation common to the Catholic church. That is, you cannot have prayers answered directly from God, but need a mediator between us and God. We know the scriptures tell us that there is only one mediator and that is Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). If we need the elders to be our mediator for physical healing, then we have gone down the road of Catholicism and have established our priesthood. (3) If anointing was the way that God would heal the sick, why is there no other place in the New Testament where we see anointing with oil prescribed to the Christians? When Dorcas became sick in Acts 9, why do we not read of her being anointed with oil to prevent her death? Why did Paul leave Trophimus sick in Miletus in 2 Timothy 4:20 when he could have applied anointing oil and had him healed? Why wasn’t Lazarus anointed with oil when he became sick so that he would not have died? Why did not Paul have the elders anoint him with oil for his thorn in the flesh? Anointing with oil as a prescription for God’s healing power is just not found in the scriptures. The oil is used with sickness only as a traditional medicinal remedy.
  4. I believe the GNT accurately represents what James was telling us and this translation may help us see it better as well. “Are any among you sick? They should send for the church elders, who will pray for them and rub olive oil on them in the name of the Lord. This prayer made in faith will heal the sick; the Lord will restore them to health, and the sins they have committed will be forgiven.” Translating the word “anoint” literally as “rub” helps remove the mystical feeling that many attach to this passage. This helps us see that the rubbing of oil in the first century was common among unbelievers and heathens as it was of the believers.
  5. James’ instruction is rather simple and it is used in our congregation. When someone is seriously ill, members of the church pray for the one who is sick and ensure that there is nothing that person needs. The one who is sick is to do what they can through medicine to overcome the illness and the saints can help in that manner. Before Phil Roberts passed away, many Christians were sending money to help him be able to receive the best medical attention he could receive. I believe this is what God is calling for us to do for each other. The use of the elders shows how connected a local church was to be. If we think it odd to have the elders of a church being called during a grave illness, then I believe it simply shows that we are too distant from one another.
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