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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Is there any biblical support for the massive anointing of the sick during a worship service?

The Bible says very little about anointing the sick. It is likely that in the early church it was a private ceremony. When Jesus’ disciples saw a sick person while they were preaching, they anointed her or him and prayed for healing (Mark 6:13). But the most important passage about this subject is found in James 5:14, 15.

1. Instructions for Anointing the Sick: The only specific biblical instruction concerning the anointing of the sick is found in James’s discussion of prayer. The apostle listed a series of steps for anointing the sick, implying that this type of prayer is to be offered in an orderly manner. First, a sick person invites the elders, the church leaders, to come and pray for him or her. This is clearly a private occasion, and takes place in the home of the person. Second, the elders pray over the sick person. Although the practice of laying hands on the person during this type of prayer is not mentioned, the phrase “pray over” implies that it was done. In any case, the anointing requires some physical contact with the person. Third, the act of anointing is combined with prayer. Olive oil is used during the ceremony. The significance of the oil is not clear, but the fact that oil was used for medicinal purposes (see Isa. 1:6) may suggest that it is used to indicate that this is a prayer for healing. It could also be that the oil is a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the divine life-giving agent (see Isa. 61:1-3). Fourth, during prayer the name of the Lord is invoked. This is another way of saying that those who pray are not relying on their own power but on the power of the risen Lord. Their request recognizes that they are unable to meet the need of the person who is ill. This excludes self-glorification and any sense of religious pride or superiority.

2. Significance of the Ceremony: Several things about this important ceremony are significant. First, the oil itself has no healing power. Healing occurs through the intervention of the Lord in response to the prayer offered to Him. Invoking His name is indispensable in this ceremony. Those who pray offer prayer in faith, trusting in the wisdom and power of God. The oil is symbolic, pointing to the power of Christ to heal through the Spirit. James made clear that the sick will be healed, and in many cases that takes place. Yet the mystery of prayer remains, because in some cases the prayer of faith requires us to trust God’s wisdom when He chooses to do otherwise. Second, sickness is not necessarily the result of sin in a person’s life. James wrote: “If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:15), leaving open the possibility that the disease had a natural cause. Third, the reference to forgiveness indicates that the healing for which it is being prayed is of a wholistic nature, that prayer brings both physical and spiritual healing to the person. The spiritual life is also renewed through the power of the Spirit and the confession of sin. Fourth, the prayer is not for a person who is dying but for a sick person requesting healing. The practice of extreme unction cannot be supported from James 5:14, 15.

3. Practical Implications: There is no biblical support for the practice of anointing the sick in large or small numbers during public religious meetings. James made clear that this was a private religious ceremony. A misinformed practice of anointing could easily lead into an overemphasis on the miraculous and the emotional. When that occurs, the reliability of a religious experience is usually determined by a supposed encounter with the Spirit of the Lord, independent of the witness of Scripture. We are people of the Word, and we should continue to give it its central role in the life of the church. Faith and practice must be judged by the clear instruction of the Holy Scripture.