by Al Maxey

Issue #76 ------- October 11, 2003
He who advises a sick man, whose manner
of life is prejudicial to health, is clearly bound
first of all to change his patient's manner of life.

--- Plato (427-347 B.C.)


Elders, Prayer and Oil
A Study of James 5:14-15

This very practical epistle was written around 61-62 A.D. from the city of Jerusalem by James, the brother of our Lord Jesus. It was addressed to "the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad" (James 1:1), and has often been called "the Proverbs of the New Testament." The genuineness of this epistle was highly disputed in the first few centuries and was rarely quoted by the early church Fathers. One of the first to quote from it was Origen (185-254 A.D.). It was generally ignored, however, until endorsed by Jerome (340-420 A.D.) and Augustine (354-430 A.D.). The epistle of James was finally accepted into the canon of the NT at the 3rd Council of Carthage, which was held in 397 A.D.

"James' epistle was written to foster a practical ethical life. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, deals with practical application of truth to everyday situations. In vivid homely language it sets forth the ethical requirements of the Christian life" (Dr. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, p. 263-264). "Every true inward grace must bear outward fruits. This is the reason why there is little doctrine in James, but plenty about practice and morals. This then is an epistle on holy living, with great stress laid upon works, not apart from faith, but as both the proof and the fruit of faith" (Dr. Herbert Lockyer, All The Apostles Of The Bible, p. 200). James sought to encourage his readers to view performance as being just as essential as profession, and to view works as the visible demonstration and manifestation, thus affirmation, of one's faith.

One of the passages in this epistle that has often been the source of significant confusion, however, is found near the end of the final chapter. Some of the readers of these Reflections have asked if I would comment upon the teaching found therein. In preparation for those thoughts, notice the following:

James 5:14-15
(14) Is anyone among you 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;

(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.

Here we find the elders of the church visiting those who are sick. Astheneo is the Greek word that is translated "sick" in verse 14. It means "to be weak, infirm, deficient in strength, feeble; to be sick, frail, without energy." It is a word often used in the New Testament writings to cover a wide variety of physical illnesses. The word which is translated "sick" in the next verse (verse 15) is kamno, which means "to tire with exertion, to be weary; exhausted." It is a "weariness of mind" (W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words). It is very likely that James is referring to physical illness in verse 14, and then to emotional and spiritual weariness in verse 15. The former thus requires physical healing, the latter emotional and spiritual revitalization.

The elders of the church, who have been summoned by the one who is experiencing some form of physical illness (Albert Barnes, in his Notes on the New Testament, by the way, discusses at length the fact that members of the church who are sick must inform the spiritual leaders of their need, and not "presume that they know all about it, and then wonder why they do not come to see them, and think hard of them because they do not"), are instructed to do two things during the course of this "pastoral visit." They are to offer a prayer on behalf of the one who is sick, and they are to anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. It should not be overlooked that the emphasis in this verse is upon prayer. "'Let them pray over him' is the main verb, while 'anoint' is a participle. Moreover, the overall emphasis of the paragraph is on prayer. So the anointing is a secondary action" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 203-204).

As to the act of anointing, it should be noted that there are two different Greek words which are translated "anoint" within the pages of the New Covenant writings. They are: aleipho, which is the word used here in James 5:14, and chrio. "The difference is material, and is lost when both verbs are translated 'anoint;' only the second verb (chrio) should be translated in this way, for it is used with reference to the sacred act while the first (aleipho) refers to the common use of oil. This difference in Greek usage cannot be ignored! 'Anointing' in our English versions leaves the wrong impression" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James, p. 660-661). "Aleipho is a general term used for an anointing of any kind, Chrio is more limited in its use and is confined to sacred and symbolical anointings" (W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words).

"Aleipho is the mundane & profane, and Chrio is the sacred & religious word" (R.C. Trench). "The word Aleipho is not the usual word for sacramental or ritualistic anointing. James could have used the verb Chrio if that had been what he had in mind. The distinction is still observed in modern Greek, with aleipho meaning 'to daub, to smear,' and chrio meaning 'to anoint'" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 204). This is an important distinction in light of the fact that this verse is one of the primary passages the Catholic Church uses to justify its doctrine of Extreme Unction. In their Douay version of the Bible they write, in a footnote to this verse, "St. James promulgated here the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Presbyters is certainly used here in the sense of priests." They further write, "We see here a plain warrant of Scripture for the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, and any controversy against its institution would be against the express words of the sacred text in the plainest terms."

There have been two major interpretations put forth over the centuries as to the possible nature of this "anointing" and what it might signify:

A Symbolic Act --- The sick person was miraculously healed by the elders, and the anointing with oil "served as a token of the power of God by which the healing was accomplished" (Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, p. 301). "James in this remarkable paragraph plainly has under consideration the charismatic gift of healing, one of the special gifts that attended the early propagation of Christianity for the purpose of confirming the word of God" (Burton Coffman, Commentary on James, p. 124). "If the healing which James has in mind is miraculous, the oil was ceremonial; prayer was a part of the preparation both of the miracle worker and the onlookers (Matthew 17:21; John 11:41f). The reason for the elders being called is not so apparent. But it is probably because (since the gifts were distributed by the laying on of the apostles' hands, Acts 8:17f; 19:6) when these gifts were imparted, the elders would be the most likely to be selected to receive them. If this is the correct interpretation of the instruction of James, then the passage has no direct bearing on the practice of the church today" (J.W. Roberts, The Living Word Commentary: The Letter of James, p. 168-169). "One of the earliest books concerning Church administration is the Canons of Hippolytus, which goes back to the end of the second century or the beginning of the third. It is there laid down that men who have the gift of healing are to be ordained as presbyters, when investigation has been made to ensure that they really do possess the gift, and that it comes from God" (William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, p. 153).

A Medicinal Act --- "It is a well-documented fact that oil was one of the most common medicines of biblical times. It is evident that James is prescribing both prayer and medicine" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 204). "It means that the sick person's body is to be rubbed with oil just as the nurse now rubs a patient's body with alcohol. When James directs the elders to do it when they visit a patient, this means that the church, for which the elders act, is concerned about the body as well as about the soul" (R.C.H. Lenski, An Interpretation of the Epistle of James, p. 661-662). "What is here recommended was to be done as a natural means of restoring health, which, while they used prayer and supplication to God, they were not to neglect. I am satisfied that it has no other meaning than as a natural means of restoring health; and that St. James desires them to use natural means while looking to God for an especial blessing" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 827).

My personal conviction, after studying the matter in some depth, is that the second of these two positions (a medicinal act) is the one most likely intended by James in the passage under consideration. I believe the intent of the instruction is that elders are to employ any means available to them, both material and spiritual, to minister to the needs of those entrusted to their care. Many health care providers today are realizing that their patients often need far more than medicine; the whole person must be healed, and this often involves spiritual as well as physical care. That is why more and more hospitals are promoting Pastoral Care Units within their facilities. This is a principle long ago realized by the people of God, as perceived in James 5:14-15. When elders attend to the sick among them, they must help facilitate the healing of the whole person (physical, emotional, spiritual).

What Would You Do?

A question that has been posed for some years is: "Should elders, in connection with their prayers, be anointing the sick with oil?" (Wayne Jackson, The Christian Courier, October 13, 1999). In his article he wrote, "Though this procedure has not been practiced by Churches of Christ in modern times (as a general rule), some are suggesting that it ought to be a part of our ritual. How should this matter be viewed?" The preacher for the Dowlen Road Church of Christ in Beaumont, Texas declared in one of his sermons (which is published on the Internet), "Somebody asked, 'Why don't you obey James 5:14 and have the elders anoint the sick with oil?' As I studied, I realized that I have spent so much of my time trying to figure out whether or not we should be anointing people with oil that I have never taken the time to figure out what the passage in its greater context really means. In this lesson, I will answer the question, 'Why don't you anoint the sick with oil?' But in so doing, I hope we will learn the real import behind this passage." I think this brother is exactly right. Determining authorial intent is one of the keys to sound biblical interpretation. Application of that intent in real-life scenarios, however, is also foundational to Christian ministry. Perceiving James' intent within the broader context is one thing, perceiving how best to respond to the sick, who may not readily perceive that intent and who request anointing with oil in addition to prayer, is another! We must be prepared "to give an answer" in both cases.

Over the years I have encountered several elders who have stated they have faced situations where some of their members called for them, when they were very ill, and asked that they be anointed with oil as the elders prayed for them. These elders were all somewhat perplexed as to what to do, and thus their responses varied. Some refused, others complied. What would YOU do?

I would love to hear from the readers of these Reflections on this matter. Some of you have probably faced this challenge ... some of you may be facing it now. How did you respond? What was your rationale for your response? Some of you may be wondering how you would handle such a request if it ever presented itself to you ... and it just may at some point in your ministry. Perhaps as we reflect on this together, and share our thoughts and insights into the Word, we can come to a better appreciation of God's will in this special circumstance. I thank you in advance for your responses. I will plan to share them in a future issue of Reflections if enough of you respond.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Please add my name to your Reflections sendings. I found the one on "How Long Is Forever?" quite thought-provoking and good for further edification and examining of beliefs.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Hi, Al. Just a quick note to say that I liked your response to the reader who asked about what you consider to be wickedness.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I enjoyed your comments on Gamaliel and his advice. Do you suppose he had been informed of Saul's Damascus road experience? Or was that former student out of favor, and out of communication? Wouldn't it be interesting to know his reaction to Paul's conversion if he had heard? Maybe that was the reason for his cautious advice to the Sanhedrin. He didn't quite believe, and yet ....!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Brother Ian ... takes the position that the ungodly will be consciously exposed to perpetual torture. He understands "destruction," as it relates to the ungodly, to be a conscious, endless, ongoing devastation. "Destruction" in the numerous biblical passages carries the same meaning as it does in 2 Peter 3:12, where Peter says the heavens (universe) will experience destruction when the Lord comes again. Does that mean there will be an incessant destruction throughout eternity, a never-ending, on-going activity, or does it refer to a final destruction whose results are eternal? Jude speaks of those in Sodom and Gomorrah who suffered "the punishment of eternal fire" when their cities and their sexually perverted inhabitants were destroyed (vs. 7). But was the fire itself eternal -- never-ending? Is it still burning? Of course not. The fire was not meant to be endless, only the results. And so it will be with the ungodly. Their punishment will be forever, never-ending, as the results will exist throughout eternity.

Believers everywhere agree that the ungodly will be punished. There's no contention in that department. So the real question is: Do the Scriptures teach that the ungodly will be subjected to excruciating torture perpetually, or will they eventually be obliterated? If subjected to conscious, perpetual torture -- without end -- what will we do with those Scriptures that speak clearly of "destruction"? (2 Thess. 1:9; Matt. 7:13; 2 Pet. 2:3; 3:7; Philp. 3:19) ... and we could go on and on. Hear me now. Satan is real. Hell is real. Eternal or everlasting punishment is real. But not endless torture. God is a God of mercy and compassion. He is not a master torturer. Nothing could be as cruel and brutal as subjecting someone to excruciating torture forever. I tell you plainly, this is not the God I know!

From an Evangelist in Texas:

Brother Al, Somehow I lost your lesson on the soul, spirit and body. I know it will be some trouble, but would you please send it to me as I am in studies with several about the soul being destroyed and REALLY liked what you had written on the subject. I teach this: that the question is life or not life. Only those that God finds doing His will shall live forever, nobody else!! (1 John 2:17). Please send me that lesson, I want to copy it for my classes I teach at the prison.

Issue #28 --- The Rich Man and Lazarus
Issue #28a --- The Thief on the Cross
Issue #32 --- Nature of Man: Body/Spirit/Soul
Issue #41 --- A Meeting in the Air
Issue #44 --- Reflecting on Hades
Issue #45 --- Torture or Termination?
Issue #46 --- The Consuming Fire
Issue #51 --- Created in the Image of God
Issue #62 --- Souls Under the Great Altar
Issue #68 --- Message of the Munching Maggot
Issue #74 --- How Long is Forever?

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