(Article from “DESIRING GOD”

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.

  1. 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 14:2320:1721:181 Timothy 4:145:17Titus 1:51 Peter 5:15). 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 20:28Philippians 1:11 Timothy 3:1–2Titus 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 28:41Luke 4:18Acts 4:2710:382 Corinthians 1:21Hebrews 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, Christin 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.

  1. 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.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for and pastor at Cities Churchin Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines.

Should We Anoint the Sick with Oil (James 5:14–15)?

As a Reformed, low-church Protestant, I’m naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of religious ritualism. Prayer labyrinths? No, thank you; I’ll stick with corporate prayer in the church and the private prayer Jesus commends (Matt. 6:6). Candles and incense? Again, I’ll take plain preaching and congregational singing. So when asked whether we should anoint the sick with oil, I confess I reflexively resist the idea. For someone in my theological tribe, pouring oil on someone just feels . . . weird. But faithful theology isn’t an enterprise in following feelings or intuitions, it’s a matter of submitting to Scripture, wherever it leads.

In this case, Scripture directly addresses whether we should anoint the sick with oil.

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. (James 5:14–15).

This passage is notoriously enigmatic, and I certainly don’t have the final word on it. But since it seems to answer the question proposed in the title of this article, it’s worth considering how this text should shape ministry to the sick in our congregations.

I have no intention of untying every exegetical knot (there are many!). Instead, I hope we can get a general idea of what James is commending by simply asking questions of the text and following the basic hermeneutical principle that we should always let clearer parts of Scripture guide and constrain our interpretations of more difficult passages like this one.

With that throat-clearing out of the way, let’s consider four questions that help us understand what James is commending.

1. Should we apply this passage to every sickness?

James isn’t suggesting you get on the phone with your elders and ask them to break out the oil every time your seasonal allergies act up or you get the sniffles. The fact that the sick person in this text has to “call for” the elders to visit him suggests that this person is significantly ill—unable to attend corporate gatherings or other functions where they might encounter the elders. Further, the description of healing in verse 15 also suggests the illness is severe.

2. Why should the sick call on their elders?

Pragmatically, calling your elders to pray for you in a time of sickness puts your needs not only before them but, likely, before the whole congregation. As the shepherds of your church, the elders are best suited to know how to care for you, how to express your needs to the church, and how to minister the hope of the gospel.

The end of verse 16 may provide another clue why the sick should call on their elders to pray for them. In that verse, James teaches that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Given the qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1–7) and their responsibility to model godliness for the congregation (1 Pet. 5:3), the elders in your church should be above reproach, and you should invite their intercession.

Notably, James indicates that the sick man initiates contact with the elders and asks for prayer and anointing. These are acts of faith and humility on his part, expressions of humble reliance on the God who holds the power of life and death in his hand.

3. What’s the deal with the oil?

James’s mention of oil is certainly one of the most enigmatic parts of the passage. Let’s rule out what anointing with oil doesn’t mean.

First, James isn’t teaching the Roman Catholic doctrine of extreme unction. He nowhere indicates that we should see anointing the sick with oil as a “sacrament.” Furthermore, the use of oil in this passage isn’t to prepare the sick for death but is appended to the prayers that look for healing and restoration.

Second, James isn’t suggesting that the oil bears any magical or supernatural quality. The healing results from the elders praying “in the name of the Lord.” The oil is secondary in this passage, adorning the central act of prayer—our humble expression of dependence on the Lord for all things, particularly our health.

Finally, the oil in this passage isn’t medicinal, as some commentators suggest. While an intriguing proposal, there is no evidence in this text that “oil” should be read as a stand in for medicine. In fact, in Mark 6:13, the only other time we find oil and healing connected in the New Testament, the oil is clearly not medicinal, since the healings described in that passage are supernatural.

So what’s the point of anointing with oil? Likely, anointing with oil simply symbolizes consecration to God, as it often does elsewhere in Scripture (cf. Num. 3:31 Sam. 10:1Ps. 89:20). Anointing with oil is a physical act expressing a spiritual truth: we belong to God and have committed ourselves wholly into his care. Prayer expresses this point with words; anointing with oil expresses that point in action.

4. Does this passage promise those anointed will be healed without exception as long as they have enough faith?

The beginning of verse 15 seems to suggest that “prayers of faith” inevitably result in physical healing. Certainly, such an interpretation doesn’t accord with reality. Godliness is no guarantee of physical health, nor can it perpetually deter death (Heb. 9:27). Furthermore, Paul himself, perhaps the most faith-filled Christian ever, had to leave Trophimus sick in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20).

Rather, James is reminding us that prayer that pleases God springs from the living faith he described in chapter 2. On some occasions, God uses these faith-filled prayers as the means through which he heals the sick. Praying in faith isn’t a magic formula that twists God’s arm to do what we want. Rather, praying in faith both boldly asks God to heal a sick brother or sister and humbly trusts God’s perfect plan—a plan that culminates with Christ “saving” and “raising up” all of his people in the resurrection.

Humble Reliance on God’s Mercy

Should we anoint the sick with oil? It depends on the situation.

On the one hand, God doesn’t command Christians to seek out every sick brother or sister and anoint them. But if someone seriously ill desires healing, then yes—one way they can express their wholehearted reliance on and submission to God is by asking righteous men to intercede for them and symbolize their commitment to the Lord by being anointed with oil.

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