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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 (James 5:14, 15).

        There is the “oil of joy for mourning” in Zion (Isaiah 61:3). The oil of joy fits in with James' urging of “count it all joy” (James 1:2) in trials and his anointing with oil. Trials (peirasmos) are tests, which can be any affliction, persecutions, loss of a loved one, problems in work or family, or sickness. James concludes his epistle by referring to one's illness, even if it be caused by one's sins.

        The Spirit through James writes, the sick are to call for the righteous elders to come and pray for them and anointing them with oil. The prayer of a righteous man prevails much.

        But you may ask, "Where does the oil come in?" Is it real? Whereas Isaiah speaks with a metaphor, this oil anointing in James 5:13-18 is physical and real.

Elijah, a human, praying for rain

       The power of the prayer of faith is the subject of James 5:14-18. Praying for a miracle is not the subject. Anointing of oil is not the subject. There is no mention of a request for or a means of acquiring a miracle or a sign. To underscore the instructions for prayer, an example of the prayers of a righteous person is given.

        The Holy Spirit uses the example of the prayer of Elijah with "like passions as we are"; i.e., a         human with like nature and constitution as we.         He was like you and me. His work was servant of God but the instance spoken of here is of a faithful man tallking to God. God answered the prayer not with a "miracle" but with the natural process of what science calls the water cycle. It didn't just pour water from Heaven miraculously, i.e., immediately, like God had rained fire on the sacrifice as a sign for the people earlier in 1 Kings 18:35-38. God answered Elijah's request for rain providentially and naturally. That's what James said. I.e., Elijah had like passions as we.

        God had stopped the rain cycle for three years, and then after Elijah's prayer, resumed the natural order of the water cycle. After checking the sky seven times, “        he said, Behold there is a cloud, small as a man's hand, arising out of the sea        ” (1 Kings 18:42-45). The Spirit says that God will answer our prayers like that. It may take a while but He will provide.

        The Practice Of Anointing With Oil

        The Bible writers refer to the current social customs. It refers to “foot washing” (Luke 7:44), “holy kiss” (Luke 22:48; Romans 16:16), “covering of veils” (1 Corinthians 11:16), “praying on the housetop” (Acts 10:9), "reclining" (John 13:23) during dining with feet at your back (Luke 7:44),i “seeking comfort under a fig tree” (John 1:48), etc. What are these? We don't “wash one another's feet” in our culture. They did it because of the custom of hospitality for refreshment after walking distances in sandals. “One of the primary forms of footwashing was as a sign of welcome. According to John Thomas, the best documented and most frequent accounts of footwashing are found in contexts where the washing precedes a meal or banquet”. iv We are not to make it like a religious act like the Pharisees did their "washings." In America we do not greet one another with a kiss (like the French do). So the command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” does not mean that we are to add this as a religious act. We don't wear veils (1 Corinthians 11:16) or even hats anymore.

               So it is with “anointing with oil”.   We don't anoint one another with oil as hospitality or for burial like Mary did Jesus. It is not a religious act. The Christians are commanded to call for the elders to pray and anoint them with oil but the latter is not a religious act.   Oil was used in worship under the Old Testament priesthood system (Exodus 25:6; 30:25). But that system was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14-17) along with the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8; 9).

The Use of Olive Oil

        “While whole olives were eaten during meals, olive oil was generally reserved for cosmetic and medical applications”v

        The practical side of using oil was medicinally for wounds (olive oil; see the story of the Good Samaritan) and certain types of skin healing and alternative or preventive medicine. It was used for burial. It was used on a regular basis for refreshment of body and soul.

        Anointing oil was a refreshing daily grooming. It was bestowed on guests as hospitality (like washing feet) and to honor them in parties (head or feet; Luke 7:38; John 11:2; Psalm 23:5 ).

        Oil was employed as a daily item of “toiletry”ii in ancient times (much like bathing and cosmetics are used today). In periods of sickness, or fasting, this casual use of oil was suspended (e.g., Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; 14:2; Daniel 10:2, 3; Micah 6:15; Matthew 6:16, 17). iii Its use was so common that one did not wash and anoint himself if he were declaring himself publicly as suffering or fasting (Matthew 6:16). Hence, its absence was noticeable. Fasting was usually included in mourning. However, a Christian according to Jesus is to do what?

        “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face” (Matthew 6:17,18).

Some Ancient Uses of Olive Oil.

        There are many ways people from the Mediterranean traditionally use olive oil. Bathing a newborn baby in olive oil calms the baby and cleans the babys delicate skin gently. A new mother can also use olive oil to ease pain, such as skin irritation from breast feeding.

        “The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had no soap. They massaged olive oil into their skin, then scraped it back off, along with dirt and dead skin. ...Olive oil served as a face wash and eye makeup remover. It was used as a skin moisturizer. A little olive oil in the bath was like a spa treatment, leaving skin silky and fresh.” vi

What About James 5?

        Why would the elders anoint in James 5? Our choices include ceremonial appointments, hospitality, medical, and refreshment. Was anyone being appointed? No. The context is certainly not this. In fact, there are two Greek words for anointing; one is for religious ceremonial purposes (christos). Thats why we call Jesus the Christ (christos, the Anointed). That is, He is the religious Anointed One of God; our King, our High Priest, and the Prophet of the gospel. Such ceremonial anointing was used under the Law in the Old Testament.

        The other word for anointing is aleiphoG218; i.e., rubbing with perfumed oil (Strongs). Its used in such passages as Mark 6:13 and is during the healing. Trench in his N.T. Synonyms points out that Aleipho is the mundane and profane". This is the word used in James 5 (A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures).

        We continue to ask our questions. Was this anointing in James 5 to provide hospitality? No. The person was in his own house. Was it to heal the person? No. It says the confidence in prayer will do that. In fact, is this not the emphasis of the passage for us? If it was not for medicine, special appointments, nor hospitality, then that leaves the refreshment practice. This is true faith in our praying.

        Not only is washing the face, etc., refreshing to us all, but especially to one who is sick. If one has faith in the effectual power of prayer of the elders, it would be logical to clean up, so to speak. (Obviously, this mandate does not exclude the advice of physician.) Therefore, in this case if one had faith and confidence in God answering the prayers of the elders (righteous ones) he would accept the anointment.

        James is exhorting the brethren (and us) to accompany our prayers with the “anointing of oil,” i.e., the resumption of normal refreshments. The use of anointing of oil would be out of place and odd in our day and time. Just as the veil is governed by custom (1 Corinthians 11:16) so it is with the anointing with oil. It was strictly a refreshment custom of the time.

        There is still that “oil of joy” in Zion (Isaiah 61:3). Anoint yourself with joy from God.

        No matter what our trial is, we can “count it all joy.” Even if we are sick? Yes. Count it joy that God is allowing you to be tested (James 1) for so He tested Abraham in Moriah.


ii Toiletry: “an article or preparation (as toothpaste, shaving cream, or cologne) used in cleaning or grooming oneself —usually used in plural” - Merriam-Webster online.

iii ISBE: ““To abstain from it was one token of mourning (2 Samuel 14:2; compare Matthew 6:17), and to resume it a sign that the mourning was ended (2 Samuel 12:20; 2 Samuel 14:2; Daniel 10:3; Judith 10:3). It often accompanied the bath (Ruth 3:3; 2 Samuel 12:20; Ezekiel 16:9; Susanna 17)”. The reference adds, “the native olive oil, alone or mixed with perfumes, was commonly used for toilet [grooming] purposes.”

  iv John Christopher ThomasFootwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community,(Sheffield: JSNT Publishers,1991),. 29 early-church-and-the-liturgy-2/#_ftn15



Gaylon West
Throw Out the Lifeline