James 5:14: Healing by Anointing with Oil? (Part 1)

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Verse 14:[1] Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, (Mark 6:13; 16:18) anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord…

[Is any infirm, etc., ἀσθενεῖ, etc.] Is sick (or, infirm [Gataker]) anyone among you? (Beza, Piscator). If anyone is sick. So this word is taken in Matthew 10:8;[2] 25:36;[3] Mark 6:56;[4] Luke 4:40;[5] Philippians 2:26, 27.[6] The Syriac: is in sorrow. It answers to the Hebrew חָלָה, as it appears in Proverbs 23:35.[7] What is here ἀσθενεῖν, is in the next verse κάμνειν, to be weary or sick[8](Grotius).

Is any sick? Or infirm, though not desperately and incurably.

[Let him induce, etc., προσκαλεσάσθω, etc.] Let him call for the elders of the Church (Piscator, Estius, etc.). Not all (Pareus), but those that were furnished with the gift of healing (Gomar, similarly Pareus). He understands, either, the Pastors and others that govern the Church (Calvin): or, the Bishops (Estius, Hammond), whose duty it was to visit the sick (Hammond), or other Priests (Estius, Hammond), duly ordained by the Bishop (Estius), and delegated by him to this office (Hammond). Question: Why does he say elders, speaking of only one infirm man (Estius)? Responses: 1. At that time the well-being of the faithful was attended to with such zeal that many came together to the sick man (certain interpreters in Estius). Seven Elders are wont to be summoned to this matter in the East (Grotius). 2. Many were the Elders, or Bishops, not indeed in one city, but in this entire Church of dispersed Jews; one sick man was not understood to summon many, but some one of those (Hammond). 3. There is here an Enallage of number, as in Mark 15:32, thieves, in the place of one thief (Estius).

Let him call for the elders; especially teaching elders, they being usually best furnished with gifts who labour in the word and doctrine, 1 Timothy 5:17. It is in the plural number, either by an enallage for the singular; q.d. Let him send for some or other of the elders; or, because there were in those times usually several elders (an ecclesiastical senate) in each church.

[And let them pray over, etc., ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν] In the place of ὑπὲρ αὐτοῦ, over him (Beza). Over him (Vulgate, Gataker, Vatablus), that is, for his sake (Vatablus). Perhaps he has regard to the rite of the imposition of hands employed in the healing (Beza). For him (Grotius, Beza, Piscator).

And let them pray over him; as it were setting him before God, and presenting him to him, which might be a means to stir up the greater affection and warmth in prayer; see 1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:33, 34; John 11:41; Acts 20:10; 9:40: or laying on their hands, as Acts 28:8, which yet seems to be for the same end.

[Anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord] That is, in Christ’s stead, or by the Elder as a minister of Christ (Estius): or, with the name of the Lord invoked (Beza): or, by the institution of Christ, Mark 6:13; namely, because among the Jews, Oil was signifying Divine grace: as also the imposition of Hands, which also is wont to be applied with respect to the sick, Mark 16:18; Acts 28:8. Now, all these things were done in the name of Christ, Mark 16:17; Acts 3:6, 16; 19:13. Proculus, a Christian, once healed the Emperor Severus[9] by oil, as Tertullian testifies in To Scapula (Grotius). Now, they understand this place, either, 1. concerning natural healing through oil, which in the East was excellent, copious, and useful for healing bodies (certain interpreters in Estius). But then he would order physicians, rather than Elders, to be called (Estius). But he wills Elders to be called, that they might conjoin with this bodily medicine spiritual medicine, namely, of admonition, consolation, and prayer. This medicinal anointing of the sick was most common among the Jews, as it is related in both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds [see the words in Lightfoot[10]]. But to this the Jews were joining incantations, as the Jerusalem Talmud testifies. Now, James was unwilling that the use of this salutary medicine be abolished because of this abuse, but in the place of these impious incantations he prescribes the prayers of the Elders, etc. (Lightfoot’s Chronicle 145). Or, 2. concerning the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (Estius, Menochius). But it is objected, 1. that that Sacrament, according to the Papists, heals, not the body, except rarely and beyond the purpose of the Sacrament, but the soul. But here it is evident that he treats of the healing of the body, as the words, ἐγείραι, to raise up, σώσαι, to save, κάμνοντα, the one being sick; but then of the healing fo the soul (Cameron). 2. Extreme Unction is only conferred on those that are about to die, and concerning whose life hope is given up, that it might be travel-provision for those departing from this world. But this anointing is designed for restoring health (Hammond). Or, 3. Concerning that gift of healing, which was thriving at that time (Calvin, Cameron, Hammond, thus Gomar), Matthew 10:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28, 30 (Gomar). Now, this healing was accomplished sometimes by a word alone, as in Acts 9:34, 40; 14:10; 16:18; sometimes by clasping of hands and embracing, Acts 3:7, 16; 20:10; sometimes by imposition of hands, as in Mark 16:18; Acts 9:17; 28:8 (Hammond); sometimes by this anointing, as in Mark 6:13 (Gomar, Hammond). But to this opinion it is objected, 1. that the other precepts in this Epistle are perpetual: Therefore, the precept also (Estius). Response: Certain of Paul’s precepts are also temporary, like that concerning Prophecy, 1 Corinthians 14, and concerning the habit of women prophesying, 1 Corinthians 11 (Cameron). 2. Not all Elders, nor only Elders, had this gift. Therefore, Elders would not have been sent for, but those strong in that gift (Estius). Response: That Gift was thriving among the Elders especially (Cameron): And in general gifts of miracles were given especially to Ministers, so that they might confirm the doctrine delivered by them with miracles (certain interpreters). 3. The grace of miracles was not extending itself to the spiritual effects that this anointing has (Estius). Response: Not the anointing, but rather the prayer joined with it, had these effects: then they were often joining the miraculous healing of bodies and the healing of souls, as in Matthew 9 and often elsewhere (certain interpreters). 4. This anointing belonged to the faithful. But the use of miracles was principally for the conversion of unbelievers (Estius). Response: This miraculous healing, although wrought among believers, was nevertheless an apt means for the conversion of unbelievers (certain interpreters). 5. If it was in the power of whatever Elders to heal the sick, then no one would have died (certain interpreters in Cameron). Response: they did not possess this gift in such a way that they might heal whom and as often as they might will, but as often as it was expedient for the glory of God, and for the well-being of the sick; the disclosure of which matter was in the power of the Spirit, by whom he, who was furnished with that gift, was led (Cameron).

Anointing him with oil; an outward rite used in those times, in miraculous healing sick persons, which might then be kept up, while the gift whereof it was the symbol continued; but the gift ceasing, it is vainly used. These cures were sometimes wrought only with a word, Acts 9:34; 14:10; 16:18; sometimes by taking by the hand, or embracing, Acts 3:7; 20:10; sometimes by laying on of hands, Mark 16:18; Acts 9:17; sometimes by anointing with oil, Mark 6:13: and so this is not an institution of a sacrament, but a command, that those elders that had the gift of healing, (as many in those days had,) being called by the sick to come to them, should (the Spirit of the Lord so directing them) exercise that gift, as well as pray over them. In the name of the Lord; either, calling upon the Lord, and so joining prayer with their anointing; or, in the name, is by the authority of the Lord, from whom they had received that gift.

[1] Greek: ἀσθενεῖ τις ἐν ὑμῖν; προσκαλεσάσθω τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους τῆς ἐκκλησίας, καὶ προσευξάσθωσαν ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν, ἀλείψαντες αὐτὸν ἐλαίῳ ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ Κυρίου·

[2] Matthew 10:8a:  “Heal the sick (ἀσθενοῦντας), cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils…”

[3] Matthew 25:36a:  “Naked, and ye clothed me:  I was sick (ἠσθένησα), and ye visited me…”

[4] Mark 6:56:  “And whithersoever he entered, into villages, or cities, or country, they laid the sick (τοὺς ἀσθενοῦντας) in the streets, and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment:  and as many as touched him were made whole.”

[5] Luke 4:40:  “Now when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick (ἀσθενοῦντας) with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them.”

[6] Philippians 2:26, 27:  “For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick (ἠσθένησεν).  For indeed he was sick (ἠσθένησε) nigh unto death:  but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.”

[7] Proverbs 23:35:  “They have stricken me, shalt thou say, and I was not sick (בַל־חָלִיתִי); they have beaten me, and I felt it not:  when shall I awake? I will seek it yet again.”

[8] James 5:15a:  “And the prayer of faith shall save the sick (τὸν κάμνοντα), and the Lord shall raise him up…”

[9] Septimius Severus reigned from 193 to 211.

[10] John Lightfoot (1602-1675) was a divine of such distinction and learning that he was invited to sit as a member of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster.  He specialized in Rabbinic learning and lore.  He brought that learning to bear in his defense of Erastianism in the Assembly and in his comments upon Holy Scripture.

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