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Don Stewart :: Why Does James Tell Sick People to Be Anointed with Oil?

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Why Does James Tell Sick People to Be Anointed with Oil? (James 5:13–16)

Divine Healing – Question 19

Does the Bible promise supernatural healing for every believer who is sick? It seems like this is the case from a passage in the Book of James. It reads as follows.

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (James 5:13-16 NRSV).

Does this promise that a believer will be healed from their illness whenever they call for the elders of the church? Is this passage a promise of divine healing if a believer is prayed for by the elders? There are some preliminary points that need to be made.

It Is Clear That Christians Are in View

From the passage we find that Christians are in view. Indeed, James asks, “Is there any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church.” The fact that James uses the terms, “among you” and “elders of the church” limits the promise to Christians. Therefore the question is, “In what sense is this verse a promise of physical healing to Christians?

Were These People Sick to the Point of Death?

There are some Bible teachers who think that the sick people that James is referring to are very sick. They contend the word is used in other contexts in the New Testament of those who are critically ill. For example, the word is used of a royal official whom Jesus healed. We read of this account in the gospel of John. It says.

Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death (John 4:46, 47 NRSV).

Here the word is translated “at the point of death.”

The same word is used of Dorcas who became critically ill and died. We read of what happened to her in the Book of Acts.

At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs (Acts 9:37 NRSV).

In this instance, the word is translated “became ill.”

Paul said Epaphroditus was near death. He used the same word in describing him. He described the event as follows

Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow (Philippians 2:27 RSV).

The argument is that this passage deals specifically with those believers who are critically ill, not merely those who are sick.

This Is Not Necessarily True

However this is not necessarily the case. As a matter of fact, the word is also used of normal illnesses without the thought of someone being near death.

Also, in each case where the people were critically ill the context tells us that. The word translated, “sickness” does not, by itself, have the idea of critical illness. Therefore, we cannot conclude that this is what James referred to. What we do know is that it is the responsibility of the one who is ill to call for the elders of the church. This assumes the person is able to do this.

There Are Many Possible Solutions

There are a number of different of ways in which this passage has been understood. They include the following.

  1. The passage has no relevance for modern day believers.
  2. It is the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of extreme unction – preparing the dying for death.
  3. The passage is a recommendation for the use of prayer and medicine
  4. Prayer alone is what is in view.
  5. These verses emphasize the person will be healed only if sufficient faith is exercised.
  6. Only spiritual healing is involved, not physical healing.
  7. The oil is symbolic of the believer yielding to the Holy Spirit.

The various views are argued as follows.

Option 1: The Passage Has No Application for Modern Day Believers

There are some who teach that this passage is irrelevant for modern day believers. This is argued in a number of different ways.

Some maintain that the book is specifically addressed to Jewish Christians, “the twelve tribes that are scattered abroad.” Consequently it has no bearing on Gentile, or non-Jewish, Christians. As most likely the earliest New Testament letter written it was addressed to those Jews which believed in Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Paul, who was the Apostle to the Gentiles, makes no such promises to the churches which he addresses. Therefore, this promise in James was only for those Jewish believers at the very beginning of the Christian era and thus it has no has relevance today.


While the letter may be addressed to Jewish Christians, the teaching is for the entire body of Christ (both Jews and Gentiles). James specifically addressed his comments to all those who believed in Jesus. He wrote.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (James 2:1 NRSV).

While the letter is specifically addressed to the twelve tribes which are scattered there is nothing in this letter that limits its use to first-century Jewish Christians. The fact that the sick were to call for the elders of the church shows that the teachings apply to Gentile as well as Jewish Christians. Indeed, the elders of the church were made up of Jews as well as Gentiles.

The remainder of the views assumes that this passage has relevance for today.

Option 2: The Roman Catholic Sacrament of Extreme Unction Anointing the Body for Death

From these verses in the Book of James, the Roman Catholic sacrament of extreme unction is built. The idea behind this sacrament is to prepare someone for death. The sick person is anointed with a special holy oil. The priest then anoints all the extremities of the body (eyes, ears, nose, and mouth) to rid it of any leftover elements of sin. This is in preparation for any spiritual conflict that might occur at the moment of death. This anointing, along with the prayers of the priest, is supposed to help bring about that persons salvation as they are about to face death. It is called extreme unction because it is the last of the holy unctions that is administered by the Roman Catholic Church.

Problems with the Extreme Unction Interpretation

The problems with this interpretation are many.

First, salvation is not some work that is dependent upon anything that we as human beings do. It is based upon something that Jesus Christ has already done on our behalf. Once a person has trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior they are ready to enter the next world. Nothing else is necessary.

Add to this the context is one of sickness – not death. James did not say, “Is there any one of you dying.” Rather he said, “Is there any one of you sick?” The context is not to prepare one for death but rather to restore them back to physical health. Therefore, the entire idea of anointing the sick for the preparation of death is foreign to this passage.

In addition, it does not say to call for the priest – rather it says to call for the elders. The leadership of the church is to be called to pray for that person. Furthermore, each believer in Jesus Christ is a priest.

Thus, another answer needs to be found.

Option 3: It Is the Use of Prayer and Medicine

A common interpretation of this passage sees both prayer and medicine in this context. Oil was a common ancient remedy. In fact, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus has the Good Samaritan pouring oil on the wounds of the injured man. We read.

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him (Luke 10:34 TNIV).

In addition, the Greek word used in James for “anoint” is aleipho. This has the idea of rubbing oil into the skin. In that day, it was a common medical practice to do this when people were ill.

James could have used another word for anoint chiro if he wanted to emphasize a ritual or symbolic anointing. Yet he chose the word that was commonly used for a medicinal rubbing of oil. This seems to indicate he was advocating the use of oil as medicine.

Along with the rubbing in of the oil, James also commanded the elders to pray for the sick. Prayer should always be part of the healing process along with medicine.

This view has James saying that believers should use a combination of prayer and the best medicine available for those who are sick. It is not necessary to assume that oil should be used as a universal remedy for any illness. The oil represents the best medicine available for whatever ails the person.

Response: Is the Oil Referring to Medicine?

While this is a popular view there are some problems with it. We can sum them up as follows.

Some have questioned this interpretation on the basis of the Greek word that James used. It is contended that aleipho has only the idea of symbolic anointing – not the idea of massaging or rubbing oil into a wound. If James wanted to emphasize the anointing with oil for the sake of healing he would have used other Greek words. This includes the Greek word epichiria, which means to “rub on.” We find this word was in John’s gospel.

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes (John 9:6 NRSV).

Here the mud was rubbed in, or spread, on the eyes of the blind man by Jesus.

There is another Greek word, egchiro, which means to “rub in.” We find it used in the Book of Revelation.

Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see (Revelation 3:18 NRSV).

It is argued that either of these words would be more suitable if the idea was for rubbing in for healing.

Other Unanswered Questions If the Oil Was Merely for Healing

There are other questions that are raised if the oil was to be used for healing. If the anointing of oil had some type of healing value, then why call for the elders of the church? Why not just use it at home?

Also, this type of remedy would be just as useful for non-Christians. Therefore, why emphasize it as something that is to be done by believers only? This is why the oil seems to be symbolic rather than something that is designed to heal the sickness.

Option 4: Prayer Alone, and Not Doctors, Should Be Used When Someone Is Sick

There is another perspective that says prayer alone should be used when someone is sick. God and He alone is the only one who can heal. This viewpoint believes that the Bible discourages believers to use doctors when they are sick.

Some Believe That It Is Wrong to Consult Doctors

There are people who believe that it is wrong for Christians to consult doctors when they are sick. The Old Testament example of King Asa is usually given. The Bible says.

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe; yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from physicians. Then Asa slept with his ancestors, dying in the forty-first year of his reign (2 Chronicles 16:12, 13 NRSV).

The fact that Asa went to doctors for healing instead of the Lord is an argument against using physicians rather than prayer.

In sum, this view says the Christian exercises faith by going to the Lord alone and bypassing all medical remedies.


This is not an answer which fits with the Scripture. For one thing, the problem with Asa was not that he consulted doctors; the problem was that he did not consult the Lord! Furthermore, there is nothing in Scripture that says believers should not consult doctors.

Indeed, Luke records the following account of what happened to him and the Apostle Paul when they were shipwrecked on an island.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us courteously three days. And it happened that the father of Publius was lying in bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul went in to see him and after he had prayed, he laid his hands on him and healed him. After this had happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases were coming to him and getting cured. They also honored us with many marks of respect; and when we were setting sail, they supplied us with all we needed (Acts 28:7-10 NASB).

The setting of this story is Paul and Luke having been shipwrecked on this particular island. Paul laid his hands upon and healed the father of one of the officials. Others then came to be healed. The fact that verse ten says, “they honored us” may indicate that what we have here is a combination of supernatural healing by the hands of Paul, and the skilled medical work of Luke – a trained physician. In other words, some of the healings may have been the result of Luke’s medical knowledge.

Whatever the case may be, the Bible is certainly not against sick or diseased people using the medical knowledge of physicians to be restored to health.

Option 5: All Who Are Anointed Will Be Healed – If They Have Enough Faith

There is also the perspective that this passage teaches healing for all those who exercise sufficient faith. They hold that God has laid this down as a binding ordinance for the church.

This doctrine basically says that any believer who has great faith will be healed from whatever ailment they are suffering from. It is something all believers have the right to claim. If they are not healed, then their faith was somehow lacking.


This perspective mistakenly assumes that God somehow wants every believer well all of the time. This is totally at odds with Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible teach perfect health in this life is something the believer can claim.

There are some also hold that sickness is always a result of sin. Therefore, it should not be part of the life experience of the believer. Yet this too is contrary to the Scripture. Sickness can come from a number of different reasons – not necessarily sin.

Also, it is never the amount of faith that determines whether or not one will be healed. The Bible stresses the object of the faith – not the amount of faith. All the faith in the world will not help someone if God, for His own reasons, does not want that person to be healed.

Whatever this passage means, it certainly is not a justification for “faith healers.” Note that James says that the people are to call for, “the elders of the church”. He does not say to call for someone who has the gift of healing. Consequently, James seems to rule out the need for faith healers.

As for the equating of sickness with sin, James says here, “If they have committed any sins.” It does not assume that the person is sick because of his or her sin.

Thus, this solution is not the answer.

Option 6: The Subject Is Spiritual Healing, Not Physical Healing

There is the perspective that the subject is spiritual healing, not physical healing. This view avoids the difficult problems that are involved with this passage by making the issue a spiritual rather than a physical one. The arguments for this are as follows.

The Context of James Is Spiritual Persecution

The context of James is encouragement through persecution. The Jewish believers were spiritually weak because their faith had been attacked. They had been driven out of their land because of persecution. This is the subject that James is addressing. He encourages believers to remain faithful during this time of persecution.

James begins his letter by encouraging patience through these times of trial. At the end of his letter James returns to this theme. James 5:7-11 encourages faithfulness in the midst of their ongoing persecution.

The stress of persecution would obviously take a heavy toll on the people. James then begins to address this issue in verse 13. He gives practical advice with respect to what to do with suffering. Prayer is the instrument that gets the believer through these times of trial.

He asks if anyone is “suffering.” This has the idea of being treated badly – not necessarily being physically sick. The exact same word is used in verse 10 of the suffering of the prophets. This did not have physical illness in mind. The suffering cannot be limited to physical illness.

The Word Translated Sick Can Mean Weak

He then asks, “Is anyone sick?” The word translated “sick” in James 5:13 actually means “weak.” It literally means, “without strength.” It is not necessarily a term for physical sickness in this context. When this term is used in the gospels it does speak of a physical illness.

However, when this word is used apart from the gospels it does not speak of physical illness. In the two times the word is used by Paul it denotes weakness, not sickness. For example, we read the following in Second Corinthians.

Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:29 NRSV).

Here the word is translated ‘weak’ and not “sick.”

There is another example of the word in Second Corinthians.

Since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you (2 Corinthians 13:3 NASB).

Again the context of the word suggests the meaning “weak” rather than “sick.” Therefore we cannot assume the word means physical illness in this passage.

Spiritual Healing For Spiritual Problems Is What Is Being Addressed

The context should solve whether physical or spiritual illness is in view. James 5:13–18 can be better understood as speaking of spiritually healing in the midst of persecution. It is addressing people who are spiritually weak and who need spiritually healing from the trials they are enduring. Therefore the suffering that James was addressing was spiritual, not physical suffering. It is not sickness, but weakness in which he was referring to.

Those who are spiritually weak call for the elders of the church to pray for them. The anointing of oil could produce some physical relief for the persecuted believer while the prayers would produce the spiritual relief. In this sense the entire person, body and spirit, is being strengthened through this process. The goal is restoration of the afflicted or wounded believer. There is nothing in the context of someone calling for elders to pray for them merely because they are physically ill.

The fact that James then says, “if they have committed any sins, they will be forgiven” clearly demonstrates that spiritual healing is the subject. This is because the Bible emphasizes that not all physical illness is a direct result of personal sin. Sin can cause a person to be sick but all sickness cannot be attributed to sin in a person’s life. However spiritual defeat can always be attributed to sin or lack of faith. This is the subject that James is addressing.

This View Solves Many Problems

This view solves the problems connected with trying to understand how prayer from the elders of the church can bring physical healing to those who are ill. No longer will Christians need to be disappointed when they are not healed after following these instructions recorded in James. We do not have to obligate God to heal someone when He does not promise to do so.


While those who hold this view believes that it solves many problems others who reject this view believe there is nothing in the passage that remotely suggests that we are dealing with spiritual illnesses rather than physical illness. The passage is clear that genuine sickness is involved. God could not have given any more specific instructions of what the sick should do when they are ill.

Option 7: Anointing with Oil Is Symbolic of Yielding to the Holy Spirit

This particular view does not see any medicinal value in the anointing with oil. Anointing with oil is used symbolically throughout Scripture. Those who are anointed consecrate, or yield, themselves to the service of the Lord. The anointing here is also viewed symbolically. It is the yielding of the believer to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life.

Thus the sick believer yields himself or herself to the Lord so that the will of God may be done in that person’s body. It does not guarantee that the person will be healed – it only guarantees that the committed Christian will be in God’s will no matter what occurs.

There Is Nothing Magic in the Oil

The oil has no value to heal. It is the prayer of faith, not the oil, which is emphasized. The oil can be likened to the waters of the Jordan River where Naaman the leper was healed (2 Kings 5:1-14). In that case, the healing was based upon his obedience to the Word of God – not to any medicinal value of the waters of the Jordan River.

These are the most popular views that attempt to understand this difficult passage. We need to make a few more observations about it.

Unanswered Questions from This Passage

There are indeed some difficult questions from this passage in James that need answering. They include the following.

Does This Passage Promise Healing to Everyone?

First, is this passage a guarantee that the sick or infirmed believer will be healed? James does say, “The prayer of faith will save the sick.” The fact that countless Christians have been died from their sicknesses after having been prayed for and anointed with oil shows that this is not a universal promise for all believers at all times.

It seems best to take this promise in accord with the other things that God has said about prayer. John wrote.

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us (1 John 5:14 ESV).

This would qualify the answer to any prayer for healing as, “according to His will.” The remainder of Scripture teaches that God does not heal in every circumstance. Believers not only get sick, they die. This is not only the teaching of Scripture it is has been the experience of Christians as well.

What Is the Relationship of Sickness to Sin?

There is also the relationship of sin to sickness. Sickness may be a result of sin. Paul wrote of those believers who wrongly participated in the Lord’s Supper. He explained it in this manner in his letter to the Corinthians.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 11:27-30 TNIV).

These people in Corinth became ill because of their sin. Some even died prematurely. Therefore, it is possible that sickness can have a relationship to sin.

However, Jesus said that some sickness was not a result of sin. We read the following episode in the Gospel of John.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him (John 9:1-3 NRSV).

Consequently, the Bible teaches that while sin may result in sickness, it also may not.

What We Can Learn From This Passage

While there are a number of views with respect to the meaning of this passage, and who is being addressed, there are a number of things that we can learn. They are as follows.

  1. The passage either deals with Christians who are sick or who are suffering spiritually.
  2. When a believer is sick or suffering spiritually, they should call for the elders of the church.
  3. This person should be anointed with oil in the name of Jesus Christ.
  4. The elders should then pray for the physical healing, or the spiritual healing, of the believer.
  5. The believer should confess any sin.
  6. If the passage is dealing with physical illness, then God will heal the believer of the sickness – if this is His desire.
  7. If the passage is dealing with spiritual suffering, then prayer from the elders can help the believer regain spiritual strength.
  8. The sick person places themselves totally at the mercy of the Lord. Consequently, the believer can rest in the knowledge that the will of God will be done whatever the final outcome. This is of great comfort.

Whomever James is addressing, those with physical illness or those who are suffering spiritually, there is nothing in this passage that forbids the use of doctors or medicine when one is sick. In fact, the passage may not even be addressing physical illness.

This sums up the various views on how to interpret this passage. As we can readily see, many questions remain unanswered.

Summary – Question 19
Why Did James Tell Sick People to Be Anointed with Oil? (James 5)

James tells believers to call for elders of the church when they are ill. The elders are to anoint the sick person with oil and pray for them. James says that the prayer of faith will save them. What does this passage mean? Are Christians guaranteed they will be healed if they do this? There are a number of ways in which this passage is interpreted.

There is the view that this procedure is no longer relevant for the church today – it was limited to first century Christians or Jewish Christians. Therefore, we have no need to discuss what this passage means for us. However, it is not necessary to conclude this. This being the case, we need to find a solution to what he meant.

The Roman Catholic Church sees it as the basis of administering the sacrament of “extreme unction.” This refers to anointing the person who is about to die. Yet there is nothing in the context which refers to the person being near death. Instead, it is about those who are ill.

Others see this as a use of prayer and medicine. In this case, the oil is viewed as a reference to medicine. Thus, when a person is sick a combination of prayer and medicine should be employed for the person to be healed. However, it has been argued that this would not seem to have any special meaning for Christians since non-Christians could also anoint their sick with some type of medicinal oil. While this is true, the non-Christian would not be praying to the God of the Bible for their healing.

Some believers think this is a command not to use medicine but to use prayer only when illness occurs. Yet this would be contrary to the teaching of the rest of Scripture. Indeed, the Bible allows for Christians to consult doctors when they are ill as well as use things for medicinal purposes.

We also have the view that spiritual rather than physical healing is what is being addressed. The problem with holding this perspective is that the context seems to be clearly speaking of physical illness.

There is also the view that the oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit. It is the prayer which will deliver the person, not the oil. Whatever the passage may mean, there are a number of things that we can conclude.

First, believers should call for the elders of the church when they are physically ill. This practice is not limited to first-century Christians.

The sick should be anointed with oil in the name of Jesus Christ. The elders should then pray for the healing of that person who is ill.

If God so desires, He will then He that person. However, this passage does not guarantee healing in every case. In fact, God never guarantees that believers will have good health in this life.

This passage says nothing, one way or the other, whether medicine or doctors should be used when someone is sick. From other passages we learn that going to doctors, as well as using medicine, is permissible.

If spiritual suffering, rather than spiritual suffering is in view, then the elders should pray for those who are experiencing difficult times.

Thus, while we may not know exactly how to understand this passage, we can make a number of conclusions from what it teaches.

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