Toward the tail end of the book of James, there’s a brief and enigmatic command: “Let him [i.e., the sick person] 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 ESV).
If you grew up in a Baptist church, chances are you’ve never seen this in action. Anointing people with oil feels foreign to you, even a little scary.
On the other hand, I know a lot of people who come from churches that love anointing people with oil. If that’s you, you may have some anointing oil in your purse or your car right now.
So who’s right? Should we do what James suggests, or was that a one-time deal? To answer that question, it helps to get a little context for what James was talking about.
Some say that the oil James is referencing here just means medicine. There’s reason to think that, too, because throughout the Bible oil is used as a type of medicine (like in the story of the Good Samaritan). But there were lots of other medicines besides oil in James’ day, and if James was trying to give pragmatic medical advice, he probably would have used a different word than “oil.” Plus, if James is referring to medicine here, why would he expect the elders to administer it? Wouldn’t that task be better left to doctors?
I tend to read this with a more spiritual connotation. After all, throughout the Bible, oil is a symbol of the Spirit coming on someone for a particular purpose. When David was called to be king, he was anointed with oil. When new priests were commissioned, they were anointed with oil. I think James is using the same imagery in a new context, encouraging people to ask God to move in their lives in a unique way—just as he did when people were anointed in the past.
That’s not to say, however, that James is pitting prayer against natural means of healing. The miraculous doesn’t have to replace the natural. It can—and does—supplement and complete it.
For example, when Paul learned that Timothy had some stomach issues, he didn’t tell Timothy to confess his sins or claim some healing promise. Nope. Instead, he encouraged Timothy to take some medicine (in this case, wine). Or think of Luke, who was a doctor when he started to travel with Paul: There’s no indication that Luke laid his practice aside as he journeyed; instead, he became a faithful follower of Jesus and a physician.
Anointing with oil has a special significance. But it’s important to remember that oil isn’t a requirement for prayers of healing. It’s a symbol. Not once in Scripture do we find Jesus or the apostles anointing someone with oil when they pray for healing. Not once. That doesn’t mean we should avoid it (James seems to encourage it, after all!); just that we shouldn’t feel like oil is required for our prayers to work.
Anointing with oil has a special significance. But it’s important to remember that oil isn’t a requirement for prayers of healing. It’s a symbol.
What does this mean for me? When I pray for God to heal someone, I’ll often ask for God to do that in either natural or supernatural ways—“God, whatever way you want to do it!” And sometimes, though not all the time, when I’m praying for healing, I will anoint someone with oil, especially if they ask for it. When I anoint with oil, I always remind the person I’m praying for of its meaning—that it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s power at work in their heart, soul, and body, whether they are physically healed or not.