We spend our time in this life waiting for the Lord’s return. But we do not wait idly. We’re given work to do—kingdom work. One of the unique works that Christians are called to is caring for one another over time. In today’s reading, James gives us some instructions on how to do that. In particular, I want to focus on this strange little practice of anointing the sick with oil. What is that about?
Many churches today practice anointing the sick with oil. And based on James 5, all churches should.
James charges elders to gather to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. His explanation of this practice is very abbreviated. We’re given only a few specifics—elders, sick people, oil, and prayer. Regardless of how well we understand it, James gives the instruction, so we must seek to understand what it means.
James tells us the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective—or in the old language, it availeth much. I am convinced that in matters such as these, the Lord is as interested in what He is doing in the lives and hearts of His church leaders as He is in the bodies of the sick. God calls the leadership of the church to complete and pure reliance upon His grace and power to redeem and restore our fallen world and broken bodies.
The oil is not magic, and neither is prayer. We know anointing with oil is not a “sign-gift” given only to healers, because James does not call on those with a special gift of healing to pray. He calls the elders of the church to do it. Ordinary people. In humble reliance upon God’s grace and sober submission to His perfect will, elders pray for the sick in the name of Jesus, our Great Physician, in the hope that God will heal the person they love, here and now.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his book The Holy Spirit, summarizes this hope:
No right-thinking Christian would deny that God continues to be active in the world, to do wonderful things for His people, and especially to answer their prayers in keeping with His promises. It is still appropriate for the sick not only to consult a doctor but to “call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord”. The promise remains that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (James 5:14-15). People continue to be healed by God — through, above, and even against means.
If any are suffering with serious illness, the elders of the church are called to come to them, pray for them, and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, believing His promises are true, His power is strong, and His love is abounding in grace.
When we observe this practice, we’re praying for the Lord’s gospel to be proclaimed, for His Holy Spirit to be present, and for His glory to be revealed. And we boldly ask for a miracle, all the while praying as our Lord Jesus taught us, “not my will, but yours be done on earth as it is in heaven”—all by the grace of God and all for His glory. This is part of what it means to wait on the Lord.
Written by Russ Ramsey