Should Christians Be Anointed with Oil for Healing?
James 5:14: Eight Things to Consider
Many people have asked me if they should be anointed with oil when sick, as we’re told in James 5:14: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” In thinking about that verse, here are eight points to consider.
First, James was a very Jewish Christian writing to very Jewish Christians. He was a Jewish man through and through, bishop of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. He always saw things through Jewish eyes.
Second, the Epistle of James was probably the first New Testament book. It was written between Acts 8 and Acts 15. In Acts 8, the Jewish Christians were driven out of Jerusalem, and many of James’ church members were scattered throughout Galilee, Samaria, and beyond. James wrote to tell them how to be Christians wherever they were. But he was writing to Messianic believers from Jerusalem. The Gentile church had hardly gotten off the ground and wouldn’t be accepted until the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15.
Third, olive oil was a big part of Jewish life. The idea of anointing with oil goes back to Exodus 30, when the Lord told Moses to anoint Aaron and the priests using olive oil. Later, prophets and kings were anointed with olive oil, which became a symbol for the power of the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 61:1).
Leviticus 14 contains “regulations for any diseased person at the time of their ceremonial cleansing, when they are brought to the priest….” (verse 1). This chapter gives procedures for how the priests were to quarantine and treat those with diseases. Part of the treatment involved being anointed with olive oil. Verse 15 says: “The priest shall then take some of the log of oil, pour it on the palm of his own left hand, dip his right forefinger into the oil in his palm, and with his finger sprinkle some of it before the Lord… The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one to be cleansed and make atonement for them before the Lord.” This is the background of James’ comments. It was a Jewish custom and ritual.
This was not only ritualistic; it was medicinal. Leviticus 14:32 says: “These are the regulations for anyone who has a defiling skin disease….” To this day, olive oil has healing properties for skin. I battle psoriasis and sometimes resort to olive oil treatments.
Isaiah 1:6 shows how olive oil became a part of Jewish medical life: “From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness—only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or smoothed with olive oil.”
In the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, a Jewish man fell among thieves who beat him up and left him half dead. The Samaritan came along and “bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine” (verse 34).
There’s another interesting verse in Luke. In chapter 7, Jesus was invited to dinner by a Pharisee. A woman came and anointed his feet with perfume, and the Pharisee criticized her. But Jesus said in verse 46: “You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Apparently it was the custom in hot climates to greet guests with olive oil to rub into their dry scalps and skin, but the Pharisee didn’t do this.
Mark 6:12-13 describes the time Jesus sent His disciples out two by two: “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”
My conclusion to all this: When James told the sick person to call for the elders and be anointed with oil, he was speaking as a Jewish Christian to Jewish Christians within a Jewish culture and telling them to do what they had always done in their culture. It was ceremonial; it was medicinal; it was a natural part of Jewish life.
Fourth, the practice of anointing the sick with oil is not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. There’s nothing in the book of Acts about anointing the sick with oil. In all his writings, Paul never mentioned anointing the sick with oil—not even in the Pastoral Epistles in passages about the roles of elders and deacons. Peter did not mention this, even in 1 Peter, which is all about suffering. There’s nothing in the book of Hebrews about this. John never mentioned the practice in his writings.
There’s a general rule in interpreting Scripture that we should not base our doctrines or practices on isolated or unusual verses when they’re not part of a broader body of biblical truth. In his book on interpreting the Bible, Robertson McQuilkin says, “Greater weight is to be given to teaching often repeated. It is not wise to build an important doctrine on an isolated text, even though it is true that God does not need to speak twice to make His statements authoritative. Greater weight should be given to that which is often repeated and emphasized in Scripture…. A doctrine, particularly a major doctrine, should be built on a broad foundation of many texts and biblical emphases. The unanimity of the testimony of many passages provides a solid foundation” [Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press 2009), kindle location 4031-4041].
Fifth, there’s nothing wrong with doing what James says. When someone at our church asks the ordained elders—our ordained ministers—and the deacons to gather to pray and anoint them with oil, we always do it. It may not be in other passages of the Bible, but it is here in James; and if someone approaches us about this, we have no hesitation.
Sixth, there’s nothing magical about the oil and it’s not the essential part of the verse. The real emphasis here is on prayer. As I said, it’s not wrong to obey this passage literally; but if you don’t want to include the ritual of oil as you request prayer during an illness, don’t worry about it. The option of the oil is, in my view, optional. There just isn’t enough additional information in the Bible recommending this as a universal practice among Christians. It’s not wrong to obey this passage literally, but the real force in the passage is not oil but prayer in the name of the Lord. Look at verses 14-15 again: “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith [not the oil] will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.”
Seventh, this is not a universal promise of immediate and perpetual physical healing. Overall, the Bible presents a realistic view about healing. God has promised healing to His children—total healing, healing of body and mind and soul, for “by His stripes are we healed.” But we know from Scripture, from practical experience, and from common sense that God does not promise us perpetual and immediate healing on every occasion in this life. He has built tremendous healing mechanisms into our bodies. If you cut your finger, somehow that finger has the capacity of repairing the damage and healing itself. But sooner or later, we’re all going to pass away and go to heaven. But notice James’ use of the phrase in verse 15: “The Lord will raise them up.” That’s resurrection language. When we are in Christ we may or may not be immediately healed, but we are assured ultimate healing; and at some point soon in the foreseeable future, all who know the Lord Jesus will be alive, well, enjoying our glorified bodies, without any pains, plagues, paralyses, or prospects of illness.
Eighth, the most important thing for now isn’t the healing of our bodies from disease but the healing of our souls from sin. The remaining verses of the text say, “If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” When our souls are in good shape, it helps our bodies too. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Trust your doctor. Trust your pastor. But keep your eyes fixed firmly on your loving Lord.