Earlier this month, the pastors received an email from one of our members:
In a little over a week, our daughter leaves for a 3-month medical mission trip to Haiti. As you may know, she has MS. It has been controlled for over a year, but in the last few weeks it has flared up. Her doctor has, with great caution, permitted her to leave the country. But given the flare up and the serious lack of medical facilities and expertise in Haiti, as the doctor is concerned, so we are concerned. Can the pastors pray over her after worship this Sunday — for God’s grace and mercy on her as she serves the poor, the homeless, the orphaned, and the sick in Haiti?
So, before I left for our gathering that Sunday, I picked through my wife’s collection of small vials, and grabbed the one essential oil for leadership in the local church: the frankincense we use for anointing. And as we prayed over this member after the service, we anointed her in name of Jesus.
James 5:14–15 is the passage that prescribes this practice in the life of the church:
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. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.
Let me very briefly ask and answer five simple questions about anointing with oil in the Christian church.
1. Who should call?
Verse 15 makes plain that “sick” in verse 14 is not a common cold, headache, stomach flu, or even influenza. We may be quicker today to consider ourselves “sick” than they were in the first century. Elder prayer is for those in some serious circumstance and unusually difficult straits.
Calling for the elders is not a Christian’s first recourse with any form of sickness or discomfort. However, Christians do have a backstop *within the local church* for seeking help with difficult physical conditions. Such support is not in lieu of medical help, but an appeal to God in, alongside, and over it.
2. Who should come?
James 5:14 specifically mentions *the elders* of the church. The New Testament attributes formal leadership in the local church to a team of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1, 5) — not one elder (singular), but elders (plural).
“Elder” is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun *pastor* or *shepherd* in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). (The same office is also twice called “overseer” in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7). The elders, or pastors, are the formal leaders in the local church. They don’t have authority in and of themselves, but serve in a God-appointed, church-affirmed role in which they represent Christ to his church (to the degree they are faithful to Christ’s word), and the church to Christ.
Calling for the elders is the sick person’s way of coming to the church to ask for her collective prayer.
3. What should the elders do?
The elders should pray. The emphasis in the passage is on prayer, not anointing. “Let them pray over him, anointing . . .” Prayer is primary; anointing is secondary. The power is not in the oil, but in the God to whom we pray.
Note here that (unlike the Catholic sacrament of “extreme unction” which alleges its cues from James 5) the prayer, and aim of anointing, is for restoration to life, not consecration for death.
4. Why anoint with oil?
Throughout the Bible, anointing with oil symbolizes consecration to God (as in Exodus 28:41; Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21; Hebrews 1:9). The act of anointing does not, as some claim, automatically confer grace and remit sin. Rather, it is a “means of grace,” which accompanies prayer, for those who believe. Like fasting, anointing is a kind of assistant to prayer, or an intensifier of prayer — a way to reach beyond our daily patterns in unusual circumstances.
Anointing with oil is an external act of the body that gives expression to the internal desire and disposition of faith to dedicate someone to God in a special way. Anointing here is not simply medicinal, as some have claimed, with our application today being to apply modern medicine along with prayer. Such a view overlooks the wealth of theology across the Scriptures about the symbolism and significance of anointing.
In fact, anointing is so significant that God’s long-promised King, who we eventually learn is God’s own eternal Son, is called *Messiah* in Hebrew, *Christ* in Greek, which means *Anointed*. Jesus Christ himself is the greatest manifestation of consecration to God in his perfect human life, sacrificial human death, and victorious human resurrection from the grave.
Anointing the sick is not automatic in producing healing, but serves as a prayerful expression, and intensifier of our plea, asking God, and waiting for him, to heal.
5. How should they pray?
Finally, we have specific and important clarity about how the elders should pray: “in the name of the Lord.” The power is not in the oil, or the elders, or even in their prayers, but in God, in the name of Jesus Christ. When God answers with healing, he does so not because of the oil or the elders, but decisively because of the work of Christ.
Which means the elders can pray boldly and with confidence. The “prayer of faith” in verse 15 is simply the prayer of the elders from verse 14: the prayer offered in faith that can, and often does, heal.
Which reminds us of our need to confess our sin. Let us pray.
Prayer of Confession
Father in heaven,
How often in our ailments have we turned decisively to other humans for help, instead of to you? We have put our faith in human doctors and human medicine and human treatments, rather than in the God who has given them to us. It is remarkable the kind of knowledge and skill you have given doctors today. And the kind of medicines and treatments that humans have been able to discover and construct in your common kindness. And yet, Father, you never meant for these gifts to replace you, the Giver, and the one we look to finally as the Great Physician. Rather, you mean for us to appeal to you in, alongside, and over every treatment.
And this is just a glimpse into how prone we can be to turn our trust from the invisible God to the things we can see with our physical eyes. Father, forgive us for our little faith. Help our unbelief, as we confess other sins now to you silently in this moment.
Father, we thank you that you are a God who heals. For those who are in Christ, you will wipe away every tear. One day you will heal all our sicknesses and diseases. And in your lavish grace, you do often choose to heal even in this fallen and sick-soaked world.
Father, in a world that tries at every turn to condition us only to the things that are seen, give us the eyes of faith. Tune our hearts and open our eyes to see the things not seen. In every cold and cough, in every bout with the flu, in every injury and disease, in every pain and trial, give us eyes of faith to see beyond the forms of this world, that are passing away. In every doctor visit and medication and treatment, and every daily task and act of service, give us trust in you, our Great Physician. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen. . . .