Dear Church Family,
Earlier this week, elders of our church visited an ill member of our congregation, anointing him with oil and praying that the Lord would heal him. Some may wonder about this practice. What’s the purpose? Is it biblical? How is this practice different from the Roman Catholic practice of holy unction (or last rites)? Well, I thought that I would take this opportunity to answer some of those questions.
The Biblical Basis for Anointing and Praying for the Sick
The biblical basis for the practice in which the elders of the church anoint with oil and pray for the sick comes from James 5:13-18:
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.
14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.
16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.
18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.
Notice a few key things that this passage teaches. First, this passage teaches us that our disposition as believers ought to always be one of praying and praising (James 5:13). We are to be ever oriented toward God in prayer and praise, acknowledging Him in all things (Proverbs 3:5-6; Philippians 4:11-13).
Second, this passage teaches that when sick, members of the church ought to call upon the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil (James 5:14). The parties in this process are members of the church and the elders of the church. Anointing with oil and prayer for healing is a privilege of God’s people. And, it is the elders of the church, not simply any individual or even the pastor alone, but a plurality of elders who are to come and anoint and agree with one another in prayer.
Third, while anointing with oil, the elders are to pray for two things: healing and forgiveness of sins (James 15-16). In the Gospels, Jesus’ healing of the sick gave evidence or testimony to His authority to forgive sins (e.g., Mark 2:9-12). Having ascended into heaven, Jesus is no longer physically among us. And, since the time of the Apostles, the gift of healing is no longer given to specific individuals. However, as Christ intercedes for us at the right hand of God in heaven, He is our great physician who is able to heal our physical bodies and forgive our sins – “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). So, in obedience to God’s Word and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the elders anoint the sick person with oil, praying for his healing while also praying that the Lord would forgive his (and our) sins.
You see, as this passage makes clear – I suppose, this is the fourth thing – anointing with oil and praying for healing and forgiveness of sins is an ecclesial practice. It is not intended to be received or administered by an individual in private; it is a communal practice of the church. It is a reminder that because individual believers are united by faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, we are also therefore united to one another as the body of Christ. We share in one salvation – “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” Ephesians 4:4-6).
Fifth, and finally, James uses the example of the prophet Elijah by way of encouragement and to explain what he means when he teaches that “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16-18). Here, we are taught to recognize that the great prophets of old accomplished mighty things through prayer – even though their natures were like ours. Yet, even though Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, what does James mean by “a righteous man” (v 16)? Well, the best way to answer that question is by considering James’ definition of a righteous man from earlier in this same letter. James quotes Genesis 15:6 and the example of Abraham to teach us that “a righteous man” is one who has been justified by faith in God – by believing in the promises of God as fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ (James 2:23).
Not “Extreme Unction” or “Last Rites”
I am not an expert in Roman Catholic (RC) theology or practice, but as I understand it, extreme unction (often referred to as last rites) is the seventh and final sacrament of the RC sacramental system. It is a rite that is added to the anointing a sick person with oil. It may only be performed by a RC priest and its purpose is to reduce or eliminate the individual’s time in purgatory (the place, according to RC theology, where sins are atoned for or ‘burned off’ before one may enter heaven). Hopefully, through our examination of the instructions from the book of James above, it is obvious that the biblical practice in which the elders of the church anoint with oil and pray for healing and forgiveness of sins is nothing like the superstitious and extrabiblical practice of extreme unction.
The Significance of Anointing with Oil
Still, to some, anointing with oil may seem like an archaic practice or maybe even a belief in magical rites and incantations. It is nothing of the sort. In the Old Testament, priests were ordained through anointing with oil (Exodus 29:7; Leviticus 8), the tabernacle was made holy through anointing with oil (Exodus 40:9), and kings were anointed with oil and the Spirit of the Lord came upon them (1 Samuel 16:13; 1 Kings 1:39). In the New Testament, the Apostles anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them (Mark 6:13) and the good Samaritan healed the man by pouring on oil and wine (Luke 10:34).
However, most significantly I think, the imagery of physically anointing one who is sick with oil reminds us of those times recorded in the Gospels when Jesus healed people with His own saliva. A man who was deaf and spoke with difficulty was brought to Jesus as people implored Him to lay His hands on him. Jesus put His fingers in the man’s ears, applied His own spit to the man’s tongue, and prayed to His father in heaven that the man would be healed. Immediately the man could hear and speak (Mark 7:31-37). Likewise, in Mark 8:22-26, Jesus healed a blind man by spitting in his eyes and laying His hands upon Him. And, in John 9:6-7, Jesus healed a man who had been born blind by mixing His spit with dirt and applying the clay to the man’s eyes.
In his sermon on this last passage from John 9, Augustine admonishes, “Behold, against what cross they have miserably stumbled, who would not confess their blindness to the Physician! The Law had continued in them. What serveth the Law without grace? Unhappy men, what can the Law do without grace? What doeth the earth with the spittle of Christ? What doeth the Law without grace, but make them more guilty?”
When elders anoint those who are sick with oil, it is a reminder of “the spittle of Christ” by which the deaf were made to hear and the blind were given sight. What’s more, as Augustine helpfully points out, we are reminded of how the Law of God condemns us, yet by God’s grace our sins are forgiven! And so, “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises.” (James 5:13)
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch