Anointing the Sick

“Is anyone among you sick? 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” (James 5:14). How are we to practice this verse?

Greek has two verbs translated anoint. The first, chriō, is used for the ceremonial anointing of Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings. Such anointing did not actually do anything to the recipient other than formally set him apart for service. Elijah was to anoint Elisha as prophet, Moses Aaron as priest, and Samuel Saul and David as king. The adjec­tive related to chriō is christos —the person so anointed was Yahweh’s christos or Christ. The Hebrew word­ is māšîa or Messiah. Anoint­ing was significant. As David asked when urged to kill Saul, “Who can stretch out his hand against Yahweh’s māšîaand live?”

But chriō is not what James writes. A second word, aleiphō, was used not for ceremonial anointing, but for applying unguents after a bath or before exercise. Olive oil was often rubbed in medically—the Good Samari­tan treated the wounds of the traumatized traveller by pouring in oil (to moisten) and wine (as an antiseptic). So when James says the elders should anoint with oil, what he seems to say is that they apply the best-known medical treatment of the day “in the name of the Lord.” Then they should pray. The prayer and the medical treatment are either exercised simultaneously, or the prayer follows the treatment: “They are to pray over him having anointed him [as the grammar may suggest]….”

Here then is a wonderful example of the wholistic Christian approach to health and healing. We rely on neither medicine nor divine intervention exclusively, nor do we summarily dismiss either one. Rather, we seek the best medical advice and procedures available, all the while imploring the Lord himself to intervene. A valuable pattern for many areas of life.

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