By Timothy Sparks


(Footnotes are marked with an *; see EXEGESIS OF JAMES 5:13-20: PRAYER, PRAISE AND SPIRITUAL HEALING for the complete exegesis)

“Is anyone among you weak? Let him invite the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary, and the Lord will raise him up and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him” (Jas. 5:14-15).

In the New Testament, unless James is the exception, there is no mention of the elders conducting a miraculous healing ministry for the physically sick. Paul mentions “gifts of healing” (1 Cor. 12:9, 28, 30), but he does not indicate to whom it was given. Paul had miraculous powers; but instead of the Lord instructing him to heal himself of his “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power reaches completion in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Instead of telling Timothy to call for the elders and have them anoint him with oil to heal his physical illness, Paul told him to “use a little wine” (1 Tim. 5:23). In the New Testament there is far greater emphasis on spiritual healing than on curing the physically sick.

Both Paul and James teach that Christians are to consider physical distresses as opportunities to rejoice and to grow spiritually (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:16-18; Phil. 4:4; Jas. 1:2-4). Hayden states, “The sudden emergence of instruction dealing with a ministry of divine healing for the sick at the end of a book stressing solely matters of spiritual concern seems somewhat incongruous.”1*

The word “sick” occurs twice in several translations of Jas. 5:14-15 (e.g., NKJV, NASB, NIV). Two different words appear in the Greek text. In verse fourteen the word is ἀσθενέω. Thomas says, “An overwhelming majority of scholars understand James to be addressing those who are physically sick when he uses the term ἀσθενέω.”2* While scholarship largely holds that James is dealing with physical illness, according to Arndt and Gingrich, ἀσθενέω can have a literal or figurative meaning: “weak, powerless 1. lit. of bodily weakness 2. fig. of religious and moral weakness.”3* Perschbacher suggests that the primary meaning is “to be weak, infirm, deficient in strength.”4* The context determines whether ἀσθενέω is referring to physical weakness or spiritual weakness. Hayden affirms, “. . . ἀσθενέω is a word which is used in the Epistles primarily to describe a spiritually ‘weak’ person, and therefore James 5:14 should be properly translated, ‘Is any weak among you?’ The context would certainly be agreeable to this rendering.”5* Jesus says that those who are physically sick need a doctor (Mk. 2:17). James says that those who are spiritually sick should call for the elders (the spiritual leaders).

James gives instructions that the elders should “pray over” the person who is weak, “having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord.” There is no doubt that the literal anointing with oil was an actual practice long before James writes. Samuel’s anointing of David was literal (1 Sam. 16:13); but “anointing with oil” was also used figuratively (Ps. 23:5). Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Is. 61:1; Lk. 4:18). He then applies Isaiah’s message of anointing to himself (Lk. 4:21). The Spirit’s descending on Jesus as a dove at his immersion seems to provide a picture of Jesus being anointed by the Spirit (Mt. 3:16). The writer of Hebrews uses “oil” metaphorically when he refers to Isaiah’s mention of “the oil of gladness” (Is. 61:3): “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness more than your companions” (Heb. 1:9).

I will examine the following three views of the purpose of anointing with oil: (1) medicinal, (2) sacramental and (3) symbolic. Concerning the medicinal use of oil, Karris states as “an assured fact” that the ancients believed “olive oil had healing qualities.”6* Isaiah 1:6 is a reference to wounds and bruises that have not been soothed with oil. While Isaiah is apparently referring to the actual practice of using oil on physical wounds, his use of “oil” in this context is part of the symbolic imagery of spiritual sickness.

Josephus clearly conveys that oil was used during Herod’s terrible illness. One of the many remedies that Herod allowed his physicians to try was seating him in a tub of warm oil.7* Philo expresses the value of olive oil by saying, “Again: why need we seek for more in the way of ointment than the juice pressed out of the fruit of the olive? For that softens the limbs, and relieves the labour [sic] of the body, and produces a good condition of the flesh; and if anything has got relaxed or flabby, it binds it again, and makes it firm and solid, and it fills us with vigour [sic] and strength of muscle, no less than any other unguent.”8*

One reference in the New Testament that associates oil with healing is the occasion when the apostles anointed the sick with oil (Mk. 6:13). Thomas states, “While most commentators acknowledge that oil had medicinal associations in antiquity, there appears to be unanimity of opinion that the anointing with oil described in Mk 6.13 served as a symbol of God’s healing power.”9* Another reference to oil is when the Samaritan poured oil and wine on the wounds of the man who had been beaten by robbers (Lk. 10:30-34). However, Shogren adamantly insists that “Oil was by no means regarded as a panacea in the first century; we need not suppose that the medical profession of those days was that primitive.”10* While it is clear that oil was used in ancient times for medicinal purposes, James says that “the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary,” not the oil. James’ use of “oil” does not refer to medicine for the body.

Next, in examining the sacramental view of anointing with oil, Richardson states that the Roman Catholic doctrine of “extreme unction,” which is “the practice of anointing the sick as an instrument of grace,” uses Jas. 5:14 as its foundation.11* Calvin says, “The Papists boast mightily of this passage, when they seek to pass off their extreme unction. . . . I will only say this, that this passage is wickedly and ignorantly perverted, when extreme unction is established by it, and is called a sacrament, to be perpetually observed in the Church.”12* Wesley similarly states, “That novel invention among the Romanists, extreme unction, practised [sic] not for cure, but where life is despaired of, bears no manner of resemblance to this.”13* While this passage does not teach the Catholic doctrine of extreme unction, Catholics do have some good points that should be considered. Willmering expresses that spiritual healing is implied by the fact that James does not mention calling for a physician; that the anointing is to be done “in the name of the Lord;” and that it is closely related to “the prayer of faith.”14* Harrington says, “What is expected from the prayer and anointing is that the sick person ‘will be saved’ (sōzō) and ‘the Lord will raise him up’ (egeirō). These . . . are prominent in the ‘spiritual’ vocabulary of the New Testament.”15*

The third view is that the anointing is symbolic. The two words that mean “to anoint” are ἀλείφω and χρίω. Martin says that χρίω would have been a better choice to show that the anointing was symbolic; but the choice of ἀλείφω does not rule out the possibility.16* The phrase “having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord” immediately after “let them pray over him” seems to indicate that James links prayer with “oil” by means of a figure of speech called a metalepsis.17* Gieger says, “The ‘anointing with oil’ may be a figurative adjunct to the prayer of the elders.”18* The elders are to “pray over” the person, which conveys the idea that their prayer is a symbolic anointing. Upon completion of the prayer, the elders will have anointed the spiritually weak person with prayer, which is the spiritual oil. For James, the oil is prayer.

In verse fifteen the word some translators render as “sick” (e.g., NKJV, NASB, NIV; but which is better translated “weary”) is κάμνω: “and the prayer of faith will save the one who is weary.” κάμνω occurs in the following passage: “For consider him who has endured such hostility by sinners against himself, so that you may not grow weary (κάμνω) and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your struggle against sin” (Heb. 12:3-4). Arndt and Gingrich confirm that the primary meaning of κάμνω is “be weary, fatigued.”19* The writer of Hebrews tells Christians not to grow weary in their spiritual struggle against sin. Clearly, κάμνω refers to spiritual weariness. In the same way, James uses κάμνω to refer to the one who is spiritually weary.

The word “save” (σῴζω) refers to spiritual salvation. However, Collins says that most Protestant commentators and even some Catholic commentators believe that it means “heal.”20* The primary meaning of σῴζω is “to save, rescue.”21* While it can refer to physical healing, all the other occurrences of σῴζω in James refer to spiritual salvation (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20).22*

1* Daniel R. Hayden, “Calling the Elders to Pray,” Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (July-September 1981): 259.

2* John Christopher Thomas, “The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: James 5:14-16,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 2 (1993): 30.

3* Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed., rev. William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1979), 115.

4* Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed., The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 56.

5* Hayden, 260.

6* Robert J. Karris, “Some New Angles on James 5:13-20,” Review and Expositor 97 (Spring 2000): 213.

7* Josephus Jewish Antiquities 17.171-172.

8* Philo On Dreams 2:58.

9* Thomas, 35.

10* Gary S. Shogren, “Will God Heal Us─A Re-Examination of James 5:14-16a,” Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989): 102.

11* Kurt A. Richardson, James, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 230.

12* John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. and ed. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 355.

13* John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 16th ed. (New York: Phillips & Hunt, n.d.), 606.

14* H. Willmering, The Epistle of St. James, A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard, Edmund F. Sutcliffe, Reginald C. Fuller, and Ralph Russell (London: Nelson, 1953), 1176.

15* Daniel J. Harrington, “‘Is Anyone Among You Sick?’ New Testament Foundations for Anointing the Sick,” Emmanuel 101 (July 1995): 415.

16* Ralph Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), 208.

17* Loren G. Gieger, “Figures of Speech in the Epistle of James: A Rhetorical and Exegetical Analysis” (Ph.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1981), 73-74. Gieger defines “metalepsis” as a double metonymy: “The words used in this figure of speech are a substitution of a related idea, as in metonymy; but another idea (which is not expressed) has to be supplied by the reader in order to grasp the full meaning of the expression.” Gieger cites the cross as an example of metalepsis. The cross first represents the act of crucifixion, or Jesus who was crucified on the cross; and then it represents the results of his atonement by means of crucifixion. Gieger also cites “the twelve tribes,” “the wheel of nature” and “anointing with oil” as possible examples of metalepsis in the Book of James.

18* Ibid., 80.

19* Bauer, 403.

20* C. John Collins, “James 5:14-16a: What is the Anointing For?,” Presbyterion 23 (February 1997): 85.

21* Perschbacher, 399.

22* Martin C. Albl, “‘Are Any Among You Sick?’ The Health Care System in the Letter of James,” Journal of Biblical Literature 121 (Spring 2002): 138.

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