Sadly, in this day and time when worship and every other conventional (Biblical) practice is being ignored, many practices of the “old-time religion” are being lost in translation. One of my fears is that my generation will lose many of these godly, spiritual practices clearly defined in the Word of God. Such is the practice of anointing the sick with oil.
In our Wednesday evening Bible study in the book of James we recently explored this particular subject. James said in chapter five verses 13-15,
Is any among you afflicted? let him pray.
Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
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:
Three conditions are pronounced in this text:
- those who are afflicted
- those who are merry
- those who are sick
James defines two responses to these three conditions:
- For the first two conditions (affliction and joy) there is something the believer is to do. The afflicted are to pray and the merry are to sing. James obviously believes that because they are “brethren” and know Christ as Savior and have the indwelling Holy Spirit, there are things in the life of that Christian he is to take directly to the Lord. When Christ died on the cross of Calvary, He purchased our access to God. The miracle of the new birth is that I have a new relationship with God and I can approach unto Him without the use of an earthly priest (II Tim. 2:5, Romans 5:1-4).
- However, for the third condition there is a different response. Regardless of the severity of the sickness James now speaks to the one who is so low in his spiritual life, physical life or emotional life He needs someone to aid him in his spiritual restoration. He turns to the elders of the church to pray with him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.
When I was a boy growing up in the hills of East Tennessee I remember many times when someone who had been given no hope of survival of cancer, or facing surgery, or a woman with a barren womb, would be anointed with oil. It was that Christian at the end of their rope who called for the elders of the church to anoint them with oil. It was not the flippant Christian with little devotion or personal prayer life. This anointing was reserved for those serious about the things of the Lord.
As I observe this command in James’ writings I believe he refers to three things:
The first is literal. The sick is to be anointed with this oil. This was an old-world symbol of healing. The prayer of faith that accompanies this outward expression suggests that we believe the Lord will grant total healing.
The second is medicinal, seeing that the ancients viewed olive oil as useful both inwardly and externally. The effect of this symbol is that regardless the seriousness of the illness, regardless of the modes of treatment that are being given the sick, we are dependent upon the Lord and add our prayers and trust in God to do whatever man may be attempting to provide. We see that the Lord is the author of all healing (Exodus 15:26).
The third is that we view this command spiritually. The Holy Spirit in the Bible is always symbolized by oil. This principle emphasizes the spiritual nature of this text and that the main thrust of the passage is not healing but praying.
Regardless of your exact interpretation of this text, you must agree with James that there are times when you reach the end of the rope either spiritually, physically or emotionally. My heart breaks when I think through my ministry of people who needed to turn to the elders of the church to pray with them, either to anoint their sick bodies with oil or to pray a fresh anointing of the Spirit of God on them emotionally or spiritually.
With a pastor’s heart I urged our people in that lesson to the importance of letting others bear with us in our burdens. Paul spoke plainly to the church at Galatia when he said, Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
The joy of membership for the Christian within the care of a local assembly is seen in those times in life, when overwhelmed, our fellow believers co-labor with Christ and offer the prayer of faith that shall save the sick and see the Lord raise our brother up.