James 5:13-16: Anointing with Oil

By William Stewart

James, who wrote this letter "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations" (James 1:1), was the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19) and the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13). His letter is a book of encouragement to the scattered Jews suffering persecution, and an exhortation to strengthen their faith, their lives, and their testimonies (James 2:24).

Chapter five of James exposes the sin of misusing riches (James 5:1-6), calls for his audience's patience in light of the Lord's return (James 5:7-8), inspires them with a reminder of the patience of Job (James 5:10-11), and warns against swearing (James 5:12). But it is James 5:13-16 that gets the most attention:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
There are several interpretations of this passage. Some believe it means all sickness can be healed by praying; others have used this as the basis for Extreme Unction, special prayers of a priest; while still others believe it refers to anointing with oil as a healing medicine, like the good Samaritan in Luke 10:33.

However, the Greek word for "trouble" in verse 13 is kakopatheo, an affliction or a hardship, and the Greek word for "sick" in verse 15 is astheneo — to be feeble, (a: negative, sthenos: "strength" — "without strength"). Although, this word is translated "sick" in the gospels and most of Acts, it is translated "weak" in 15 other verses (including Acts 20:35; Romans 4:19; 1 Corinthians 8:11, 12; and 2 Corinthians 12:10).

The Greek for "sick" in verse 16 is an entirely different word, kamno, properly meaning "to toil, or tire," and found only in one other verse in the New Testament, Hebrews 10:3, which translates it as "grow weary."

The literal meanings of these words change the understanding of the verses. James is referring to those who had grown weak and weary both morally and spiritually because of the persecutions and suffering they faced. They needed help from the elders of the church "to pray over [them] and anoint [them] with oil in the name of the Lord." In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, the elders were told "...we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone." Another time Paul instructed the elders, "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak..." (Acts 20:35). It was part of the ministry of the elders to help the weak.

The word for "anoint" is aleipho, which means to oil, to rub with oil, as is found in the instructions Jesus gave for those fasting in Matthew 6:17: "'But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.'" It was also the traditional way to greet a visitor to one's home as Jesus mentioned in Luke 7:45-46: "You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet." Such a greeting was used to refresh a person.

By the elder's ministry, the weak and weary would be refreshed, encouraged, and uplifted by the elders rubbing oil on their heads and praying for them. Prayers offered in faith would restore them spiritually — "...the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven."

James 5:16 is the conclusion of these verses: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." Mentioning their sins shows it was a spiritual healing desired, not a physical one (Matthew 13:5; Hebrews 12:13; 1 Peter 2:24). Forgiveness of sins is always a personal issue (1 John 1:9), but we are encouraged to pray one for another (1 Corinthians 11:33; 12:25), and Paul requested prayer from others (Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1; Hebrews 13:18).

This passage is similar to how Jesus taught to restore a sinning brother: " If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over" (Matthew 18:15). We also read in Galatians 6:1-2, "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

So, despite what some pastors preach, James 5:13-16 does not ensure physical healing but spiritual healing. Although God does arrange for healing of wounds and illnesses at times, we will not be fully whole until we receive our glorified bodies. But He is always willing to help us grow more spiritually and emotionally healthy.

Image Credit: Name; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Christian-Life  |  Controversial-Issues  |  Hardships  |  Ministry-Church  |  Theological-Beliefs

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Published 5-8-17