What is the meaning of “anointing of the sick”?


Anointing oil, mentioned 20 times in Scripture, was used in the Old Testament for pouring on the head of the high priest and his descendants and sprinkling the tabernacle and its furnishings to mark them as holy and set apart to the Lord (Exodus 25:6; Leviticus 8:30; Numbers 4:16). Three times it is called the "holy, anointing oil," and the Jews were strictly forbidden from reproducing it for personal use (Exodus 30:32-33). The recipe for anointing oil is found in Exodus 30:23-24; it contained myrrh, cinnamon and other natural ingredients. There is no indication that the oil or the ingredients had any supernatural power. Rather, the strictness of the guidelines for creating the oil was a test of the obedience of the Israelites and a demonstration of the absolute holiness of God.


Only five New Testament passages refer to the practice of anointing with oil, and none of them offer an explanation for its use. We can draw our conclusions from context. In Matthew 6:17 Jesus mentions the everyday practice of anointing oneself with oil. In Mark 6:13 the disciples anoint the sick and heal them. In Mark 14:3–9 Mary anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship. In James 5:14 the church elders anoint the sick with oil for healing. In Hebrews 1:8–9 God says to Christ as He returns triumphantly to heaven, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever,” and God anoints Jesus “with the oil of gladness.”


There is nothing in Scripture that commands or even suggests that we should use similar oil today, but neither is there anything to forbid it. Oil is often used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit in the Bible as in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Christians have the Spirit who leads us into all truth and “anoints” us continually with His grace and comfort. “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.1 John 2:20


The biblical doctrine of the sovereignty of God states that God is almighty over all. He is in complete control of all things—past, present and future—and nothing happens that is out of His jurisdiction. Either He directly causes—or He passively allows—everything that happens. But allowing something to happen and causing something to happen are two different things. For example, God caused the creation of the perfect, sinless Adam and Eve; then He allowed them to rebel against Him. He did not cause them to sin, and He certainly could have stopped them, but He chose not to for His own purposes and to bring about His perfect plan. That rebellion brought about all manner of evil—evil created by God but not dictated by God as to who participates in evil, but allowed by Him to exist. (Isaiah 45:7)


Sickness is one manifestation of the two broad types of evil—moral and natural. Moral evil is man’s inhumanity to man. Natural evil is composed of things like natural disasters and physical sickness. Evil itself is a perversion or corruption of something that was originally good, but is now missing something. In the case of sickness, illness is a state where good health is missing. The Greek word for evil, ponerous, actually implies a malignancy, something that is corrupting a good and healthy state of being.


When Adam sinned, he condemned all of humanity to suffer the consequences of that sin, one of which is sickness.

“For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” Romans 8:20-22

God—the “one who subjected” the creation to frustration following the Fall—has a plan to eventually liberate creation from its bondage to sin, just as He liberates us from that bondage through Christ.


Until that day, God uses sickness and other evils to bring about His sovereign purpose, to glorify Himself, and to exalt His name. At times, He miraculously heals sickness. Jesus went through Israel healing all manner of sickness and disease (Matthew 4:23) and even raised Lazurus from the dead after illness killed him. At other times, God uses sickness as a method of discipline or as a judgment against sin. King Uzziah in the Old Testament was struck with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:19-20). Nebuchadnezzar was driven to madness by God until he came to understand that “the Most High rules in the affairs of men” (Daniel 4). Herod was struck down and eaten by worms because he took God’s glory upon himself (Acts 12:21-23). There is even at least one case where God allowed disease—blindness—not as punishment for sin, but to reveal Himself and His mighty works through that blindness (John 9:1-3).


When illness does come, it may not be the result of God’s direct intervention in our lives, but is rather the result of the fallen world, fallen bodies, and poor health and lifestyle choices. And although there are scriptural indicators that God wants us to be in good health, (3 John 2), all sickness and disease are allowed by Him for His purposes, whether we understand them or not.


Sickness is certainly the result of the fall of man into sin, but God is very much in control, and He does determine how far evil can go (just as He did with Satan and Job’s trials—Satan was not allowed to exceed those boundaries). He tells us He is all-powerful over fifty times in the Bible, and it is amazing to see how His sovereignty unites with the choices we make (both bad and good) to work out His perfect plan (Romans 8:28).


For those who are believers and suffering with sickness, illness, and/or disease in this life, the knowledge that they can glorify God through their suffering tempers the uncertainty as to why He has allowed it, something they may not truly understand until they stand in His presence in eternity. At that time, all questions will be answered, or perhaps more accurately, we will no longer care about the questions themselves.

Why Christians Believe What They Believe 

© 2020 Tony - Antonakis Maritis