In the epistle of James we read: ‘Is anyone 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 sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 5:14-15). The controversy over these words, especially James’ injunction to the elders to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil, has been long-standing in the history of the church. It is clear that the emphasis of the passage is on prayer and forgiveness (vv.14-16a), but it is nevertheless true that James mentions that the elders are to anoint the sick person with oil. What do we make of this? It seems that there are five possibilities.
Firstly, James could be referring to the Roman Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction: The Douai version of the Bible sees a ‘plain warrant’ for the Roman Catholic sacrament in the words of James. At first sight, this might seem convincing but we should note that James calls for the elders (plural), not the priest (singular). Also, James expects the sick person to recover, so he is obviously not referring to any last rites.
Secondly, James could be underwriting the healing ministries of the Pentecostal and charismatic churches: James does expect healing, so again this seems at first to be a reasonable reading of the text. But against this is the fact that the anointing takes place in private, not at a well-publicized healing service. Nobody is ‘slain in the spirit’ in a crowded hall. It all takes place in the privacy of the sick person’s home or perhaps at hospital. Also, it is undertaken by the ordinary officers of the church, not by special healers. There is nothing in the New Testament lists of qualifications for elders which indicates that they must possess the gift of healing (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9).
Thirdly, this may have been a commandment for the apostolic age alone: Matthew Henry and John Calvin both adopted this view. It runs aground, however, because the reference by James is to the ordinary office of the elders, not the extraordinary office of the apostles. There is simply nothing in the text to confine the literal nature of James’ injunction to the church of the first century.
Fourthly, the oil may represent medicine for physical healing while prayer is to be used for spiritual healing. Jay Adams suggests something along this line. It is no doubt eminently sensible, and seems to have more going for it than the first three possibilities. Oil was used for medicinal purposes. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, oil and wine were poured onto the wounds of the battered Jew (Luke 10:34). Galen, the great physician from the second century and, incidentally, an opponent of Christianity, declared that oil was ‘the best of all remedies for paralysis’. That may be so, but it is hardly true that oil is suitable for all illnesses. We need more evidence to be convinced of this interpretation.
Fifthly, the oil might be a visual aid to be used in prayer for the sick. When Jesus sent out the twelve, it is said that they preached a gospel of repentance, cast out many demons, anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them (Mark 6:12-13). This surely is what really lies behind James’ injunction. Just as the laying on of hands is a kind of physical, acted prayer, so the oil is a physical symbol of God’s comforting presence.
This fifth interpretation seems to make most sense. It takes the passage as it stands. Oil can have a calming effect on a sick person. It signifies healing, and it points us to Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One – anointed not with oil as the Old Testament prophets, priests and kings, but with the Holy Spirit.
When Francis Schaeffer was dying of cancer, he called for the elders of the church to anoint him with oil. This did not keep him from death, but it does seem to be obeying what the text is saying. There have been only three occasions in my ministry – each in recent times – when I have carried out James 5:14-15 in the spirit of the fifth option. On each occasion there has been a noticeable improvement in the health of the person who was seriously sick, although on no occasion could a miracle be claimed.
It may be that the appeal of Roman Catholic and Pentecostal claims to healing are at least partly due to evangelical neglect of God’s ordinary ministry to our health. We have no iron-clad promises of health and wealth. Paul suffered his thorn in the flesh despite his fervent and repeated prayers that it be removed (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Yet for all that, God has told us what to do in times of sickness. We are to call for the elders, pray for forgiveness of our sins, and have the elders anoint us with oil. God has promised to hear us and to raise us up – which, in the context, surely is referring to a physical recovery rather than death and resurrection.
We may not fully understand this passage, but we are to trust and obey even when we do not fully understand. Church elders are to pray for the sick and to anoint them.