God inspired James to give an instruction that prescribes a truly special service that elders perform, anointing the sick. Have we considered the origin of this unique ceremony?
Bible dictionaries and commentaries have much to say about the practice of anointing from early history until now.
What was the significance of anointing with oil? The Oxford Bible Companion states: "In the Hebrew Bible, the term is most often used of kings, whose investiture was marked especially by anointing with oil (Judges 9:8-15; 2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Kings 1:39; Psalm 89:20...), and who were given the title 'the Lord's anointed' (e.g., 1 Samuel 2:10; 1 Samuel 12:3; 2 Samuel 23:1; Psalm 2:2; Psalm 20:6; Psalm 132:17; Lamentations 4:20)."
The word anoint in Hebrew is mawshakh' a primitive root meaning to rub with oil, that is, to anoint, by implication to consecrate, also to paint (Strong's Concordance). When a soldier anointed his shield, he was likely rubbing oil onto the outer leather covering, to keep his shield in top condition.
The most common use of anointing was that of anointing a king. It was a ceremony regarded as sacred and was observed religiously from the earliest times, not only in Israel but also in Egypt and other places. So how did anointing come to be practiced in caring for the sick?
"Anointing in the East came into use as a means [to better] health. The entire body or head was covered with aromatic oil. Guests and strangers were anointed upon the head as a token of honor" (Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1917, p. 36). Many are familiar with the passage in Psalm 23:5: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over." This practice of anointing the head was also used for those who were set apart to be prophets, priests and kings.
The name "Christ" comes from the New Testament Greek word christos, which means "anointed." The comparable Hebrew word is mashiach, Messias in the King James New Testament. So both titles, "Christ" and "Messiah," refer to the "anointed one."
We may recall the story of Jesus Christ as He dined with a Pharisee, where a woman, a known sinner came to Him with an alabaster box of ointment. She stood behind Jesus crying; and then kneeling down, she began to wash His feet with her tears, wiping His feet with her hair. She then anointed His feet with this special ointment. She used "a mixture of various aromatics" that was far more expensive than the normal oil used to anoint the head, and was composed of costly aromatics (Barnes' Notes on Luke 7:46).
Anointing in the Church Today
How do we use the tool of anointing today? The Bible doesn't specify details about a right versus a wrong way to anoint. Some religions anoint the head with their finger in the shape of the cross, which we readily understand is wrong. The question has been asked by some members in the past, "Do you anoint the part of the body that is ill?" We do not, for we follow the example given to us of anointing the head with oil (Exodus 29:7; Luke 7:46).
Some put oil on their thumb before a prayer is asked and then put it on the person's forehead during the prayer. Others open the oil during the prayer and then put some on their thumb and/or fingertips, laying both hands on the head. Others rub oil on both hands before anointing.
The Bible does make it clear through several examples that the laying on of hands should be done when anointing the sick. "Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea. And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name. And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, 'My little daughter lies at the point of death. Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed; and she will live" (Mark 5:21-23).
This ruler put great faith in that healing, and he knew that the laying on of hands was for healing and that it was something very special.
"Heal the Sick"
In Mark 16:15-18 we find a commission given to the Church: "And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.'"
Throughout the book of Acts we read of many sick who were healed when God's servants laid their hands on them. The use of oil is not always mentioned, but when we look at the entirety of the passages and the admonition in James, we see that the oil is a vital part of the anointing. Remember, the word anoint means "to rub with oil."
Mark tells us they "anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them" (Mark 6:13). Oil represents God's Holy Spirit. We know it's not the oil that heals.
We also know it is not the elder performing the anointing who "heals." Some individuals want to be anointed by a particular elder because they heard that someone else that he anointed was completely healed.
Does it make a difference which elder does the anointing? After writing about being anointed by an elder, James tells us, "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" (James 5:15).
Healing comes from faith! It is God who heals! Is it the faith of the individual or the faith of the elder that heals? James says to "let them pray over him, anointing him with oil" and then "the prayer of faith will save the sick" (James 5:14-15). It is most likely the faith of both. The one comes in faith to be healed, yet the elder also has faith in the Creator of the universe, on whom we are calling in prayer to heal the sick.
The Anointed Cloth
With our busy schedules and the fact that many of our brethren live hours away in different directions, we also follow the biblical example that mentions the anointed cloth. Some brethren will automatically ask for an anointed cloth, instead of simply asking to be anointed. When asked if they want to be anointed immediately, some have had a confused look, like that hadn't even crossed their mind.
It is important for brethren to know the reasoning behind the anointed cloth, and why it is used. The first line of the letter we send out with an anointed cloth clearly shows when and why an anointed cloth may be sent: "When the minister is not able to be physically present, there is another scriptural method mentioned to seek God's healing."
The letter continues: "In the book of Acts, it states, 'and God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul, so that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them'" (Acts 19:11-12). Here we see that pieces of cloth from the apostle Paul were used to extend the gift of healing beyond his physical presence.
The letter goes on: "Following this example, I will make a special prayer to God on your behalf, anointing the enclosed cloth with a small amount of olive oil. Please go to a private place and ask God for His healing while you briefly place the cloth on your forehead. Remember that in His wisdom, God chooses how and when to answer our prayers, according to what is ultimately best for us. You may want to pray for others who may be suffering as well. Additionally it would be good to ask God if there is something that you can learn by going through this particular trial. Always keep in mind that we should pray God's will, and not our own, be done. When finished praying, please dispose of the cloth."
Anointing Doesn't Preclude Medical Treatment
Here we see that the individual still places the oil on his head and still asks a prayer. It is the faith of that individual that God rewards with healing. As Acts 19:11 notes, "God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul" (King James Version). When we understand that it is not the oil or the cloth but God who heals, these passages become plainer. Many have mentioned that they were healed after simply making the request for anointing.
Questions have arisen over the years, like "What can I be anointed for?" I know of many who have had the perception that anointing was for a person who was not going to rely on any medical help. Here is how we handle the subject in the letter we send out with an anointed cloth: "The Church does not discourage you from seeking professional medical advice or procedures to address your affliction, while at the same time looking to God for healing only He can give. Doing what we reasonably can for ourselves is a biblical principle. Just keep in mind that ultimately we are in God's loving hands, and that nothing happens apart from His perfect will."
Biblical examples of afflictions God healed people of include the following: blindness, being crippled, issues of blood (hemorrhaging) and leprosy. I have personally anointed for nightmares, sleeplessness, back pain, headaches, flu, colds, depression, hemorrhoids and more.
A question asked by a teen at one of our youth camps years ago was, Can a person be anointed for "mental problems," or does it need to be a "physical" illness? That's a good question coming from anyone, especially a youth. Christ's beating and death was a complete sacrifice; and healing is for the mind, body and spirit (1 Peter 2:24; Acts 8:7).
Study the subject of anointing. It may surprise you to learn all of the nuances of this ancient practice that is still performed by God's ministers today.