Question:

Will you please explain James 5:14 to me? I am especially interested understanding "Anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." I have heard of elders in the church just recently who did this to a very sick lady that was on her deathbed. Is this verse to be taken as something the elders should do today? Is it symbolic? And is this verse dealing with spiritual gifts at that time?

Answer:

"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" (James 5:14).

It is true that some of the disciples in the first century were given the gift of healing. "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills" (I Corinthians 12:6-13). Notice, however, that the Spirit did not give all gifts to each Christian. Each was given different abilities. In fact, a later passage in I Corinthians 12 implies that some Christians did not receive any miraculous gift at all.

As you read through the qualifications for elders in I Timothy 3 and in Titus 1 you will notice that there is a distinct lack of any mention of miraculous gifts. A man could serve as an elder without having any spiritual gift. Especially note that there is no mention that an elder had to have the gift of healing in order to be an elder.

Next, consider that miraculous gifts did not involve medicine. In biblical days, oil was used in the practice of medicine. "So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him" (Luke 10:34). One of the properties of oil is that it soothes damaged skin and helps to stop bleeding. Wine, whether vinegar based or alcoholic based, makes a good antiseptic. However, in the Bible, miracles are noted because they suspended the natural process of healing. It wouldn't be a miracle to enhance the normal healing powers of a medicine. Miracles generally happened suddenly and instantly. There is no indication that healing required the anointing of oil anywhere in the Bible.

Therefore we conclude that what is being discussed is not miraculous gifts, but the request through prayer for God's Divine providence to interfere in a situation. In prayer we find that elders would be especially qualified for the task. As the passage continues James talks about the importance of the faith of those praying. "And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:15-16). Just as it doesn't require a miracle to receive God's forgiveness, it doesn't require a miracle to receive God's aid in giving healing to the sick. It is the prayer of faith that makes the difference, not a gift given by the Holy Spirit earlier.

Anointing with oil was used under the Old Covenant to mark a person as being dedicated to the service of God, such as the anointing of the priests (Exodus 28:41) and the anointing of the king (I Samuel 10:1). It is possible that the anointing mentioned here James is indicative of such dedication. However, it is the only mention of such a practice being done in the church. It is difficult to determine the precise purpose.

Since we know oil was used for healing and the statements deal with healing by prayer and the anointing of oil, I'm inclined to see this as James telling us to do the best that we can for the ill among us and then pray to God to grant the actual healing, making up for our inadequacies.

Another view is that both the sickness and oil are being used as metaphors. The word astheneo, which is translated as "sick" is also translated as "weak," such as in Romans 14:21. Thus James could be stating that if anyone is spiritually ill or weak, that he should call for the elders who will give him spiritual medicine for his illness (the word of God, as in Psalm 107:20) and pray for him. Seen this way, the following verses fit much better. "And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:15-16).

Personally, I think both physical and spiritual healing are being discussed at the same time by blending the two ideas into one whole.