From time to time, pastors have something called an “anointing service” primarily using olive oil. While there are examples in the Old Testament where oil was used to anoint Kings and Priests, is there evidence of its use in the New Testament? What is the purpose of an anointing service anyway? Is it for healing as discussed in James 5 or for some other reason? According to my research, theologians seem to have varied opinions on the application of James 5:14-15. Some reject it as a practice for today. Some try to obey it exactly as detailed in James and do it only when someone specifically calls for the elders of the church. Others go much further than James and make the use of oil a regular part of an anointing service.
James 5:14-15 says, “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.“
Could it be that some pastors’ actions become a mockery by setting up healing lines at anointing services and use James 5 to support their actions even though this passage does not support healing services? I can find no reference that the New Testament church was ever commanded to have anointing services. However, there does not appear to be any serious opposition to those who practice anointing of the sick when they call for the elders of the church according to the instructions in James.
Anointing with oil was a Jewish practice and apparently never mentioned among the Gentiles. I can only find references to anointing with oil for the purpose of healing only two times in the New Testament—James 5:14 and Mark 6:13. Mark 6:13 states, “And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” This scripture seems to refer to the time Jesus sent His disciples out two by two (v7)–“And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits.” One of His commands was that they go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6). Obviously, it was a Jewish practice. Although James has practical instruction for all of us, it was written to Jewish believers. For example, James 1.2 states, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” The “twelve tribes” refer to the Jewish people. Anointing with oil for healing is never mentioned in any other context in the New Testament.
Anointing with oil was an early practice that was never mentioned during the age of grace. Even speaking in tongues was mentioned much later than anointing with oil and there were different practices for the sick in later times. For example, Paul prayed for the removal of the thorn in the flesh (2Corinthians 12:7-9). He gave a medical prescription to Timothy (1Timothy 5:23). He often kept Luke the physician close to him (2Timothy 4:11); and he had to leave Trophimus at Miletum sick (2Timothy 4:20). If Paul had to ability to heal by anointing with oil, why didn’t he use that ability?
The early healings were confirmations that the spoken words of Christ and His apostles were truly from God. Mark 16:20 says, “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.” The signs (miracles) referred to were for the purpose of confirming the word and they provided absolute deliverance from physical illness.
James states that, “the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” This is a promise of healing and means that all who sought the elders and received the prayer of faith would be healed. Jesus went about “healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:3-5). Jesus sent out His apostles with power “to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease” (Matthew 10:1). Even after His resurrection, the apostles received sick folks and “healed every one” (Acts 5:16). It was only later that Paul prayed for deliverance and was refused (2Corinthians 12:7-9) or had to leave a co-worker behind because he was sick (2Timothy 4:20). When they first started, all who came to be healed were healed. Now, God shows us that He sometimes fulfills His will through sickness.
What is the purpose of an oil anointing service today? Oil was considered very valuable during biblical times. It was so valuable that God required a tithe of it to be given (Deuteronomy 12:17, 14:22-23) (Nehemiah 13:12). In the Bible, oil is generally considered to be a symbol for the Holy Spirit. As such, it could not be used when making an offering for sin (Leviticus 5:11; Numbers 5:15). People were anointed with oil to set them apart for service to the Lord. Mainly this was done for priests and for kings. The Tabernacle and all of the items associated with it were also anointed with oil (Exodus 30:22-29, 40:9-11). This was done with a special kind of oil that was mixed with different spices and ingredients, and it was not to be used for any other purpose (Exodus 30:22-23).
Why, then, are a few pastors today anxious to implement the anointing of oil into modern church practice? It could be that some are very sincere, wanting to do God’s will, yet misunderstanding the nature of the passage in James. On the other hand, it may be the case that a few in the church today are simply looking for a new experience of some sort.
Anointing people to set them apart for God’s service appears to have ended in the Old Testament. I could find no example of any person who was anointed with oil in the New Testament to set them apart for service to the Lord. While there does not appear to be any evidence that we should be anointing people today, I don’t believe there is any harm in doing so. However, we should keep in mind the reason why oil was used in the Bible. In the end, anointing with oil is never simply about healing the sick. It is chiefly about God getting the glory for being God, but that’s just my take.
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