THE HOLY SACRAMENT OF ANOINTING
As the name says, this sacrament refers to consecration by oil. A careful reader of Scripture will, of course, immediately realize that the New Testament writings never mention anything about oil for consecration, and he will conclude that the sacrament comes neither from Christ’s teaching nor from apostolic church practice. But before I say anything more about this subject from a biblical and historical perspective, I want to give a few texts from the Orthodox literature that explain to us how the Eastern Church understands this world of sacraments:
“When medical problems arise, patients who believe pray to God for their health, because God can do what to a human doctor is often impossible. Patients often need a member of the clergy, a ‘church elder’ who will pray with perseverance and for a long time. According to rank in the breviary, he can invoke the grace of God upon patients and pray for his healing by anointing him with holy oil. This is why this act is called ‘consecration with holy oil’. Limited human power can conjure the omnipotence of God that emerges through the sacrament of anointing with holy oil. When you face illness and troubles, the Holy Church, as a compassionate mother has established for patients in critical need the sacrament of anointing with holy oil. For this sacrament, the holy apostle of Christ says: ‘If any man sick among you, let him call the elders of church and read a prayer over him, and let him help in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will help patients, and the LORD will heal him, and if he did sin, forgive him … Pray, therefore, God, for one another to be healed, because the constant prayer of the righteous can help much.’(Ja. 5:14-16)”
“The Holy Sacrament of Anointing with Holy Oil. And it is proof of God’s wisdom to think about people. Being omniscient, He provides all, including a gracious exit from the preparation of each situation. He knows that people, after separation from Him, the Source of life and health, will be subject to diseases, and He prepared the cure in the form of a holy sacrament, and recommended his Apostles to heal patients. So the apostles anointed with oil (consecrated, of course) many patients, and healed them (Mk. 6:13). Therefore the apostle St. James recommends this sacrament to Christians in times of disease: ‘If any man sick is among you, let him call the elders of the church to pray over him, and let him be anointed with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will help a patient, and the LORD will heal him, and, if he committed any sins, forgive him. (Ja. 5:14-15).”
These texts reveal several facts:
(1) The holy sacrament of anointing with oil was established by the “Holy Church”, and she performed it by anointing with oil and consecrating patients who were gravely ill.
(2) This sacrament is alleged to have come from the apostles who “understood” the need to anoint the sick with consecrated oil.
(3) Orthodox priests perform this sacrament by praying (i.e., reading a prayer) over patients in order to heal them.
(4) The apostles commanded us to perform this sacrament over people who are sick.
It is my deep conviction that the Orthodox texts just cited above are contrary to the teaching of the New Testament apostles of Christianity, as well as to the documents from Church history. What is certain is that Orthodox theologians distort biblical texts and historical facts in order to rationalize their teaching on this teaching based not on the Bible but on “holy tradition”.
To prove that the doctrine of “the holy sacrament of consecration with oil” comes from
the Holy Scripture, we will examine information from the works of Eusebius Popovic. Before doing that, I want to stress one important fact. This sacrament of “holy oil” has no reference in the New Testament whatsoever. Specifically, if the holy sacrament were truly grounded in apostolic teaching, it seems unlikely that any disciple of Christ would have remained silent about consecration with oil to help people. Namely, although the apostles and other church elders in the first century did anoint sick people with oil and prayed for their healing, the mere mention of these events in and of itself does not validate the existence of “the holy sacrament of anointing with oil”. It merely shows the existence of the practice of rubbing someone with oil in the name of the Lord. These are two completely different things.
Secondly, the archpriest Marinkovic, citing the fact that the apostles had to practice the anointing of the sick in order to treat them, says they certainly “understood” that this oil was initially consecrated (though the Bible says nothing about it). No, that would immediately solve the concerns about whether the apostles really consecrated oil or not. We will examine the historical data.
“It is not about anointing patients with holy oil… i.e., anointing with holy oil connected with prayer, in Latin “oleum infirmorum” or “oil for the sick ones”, rubbing patients with oil, unction. Only in the 12th century did the Roman Catholic Church coin the term “extrema unction”, that is, final anointing. We do not find any extended documentation on this apart from the epistle of James, when the ‘elders’ rubbed patients with oil in the name of the Lord, and they prayed over them for relief and when needed the forgiveness of sins.”
“The consecration of water… Water was intended for daily use in prayer, especially to sprinkle people and things – holy water, which indicates the symbolic cleansing proclaimed and expected from God, and upon God hearing the prayer, ritual cleaning is done. The holy action comes more from the Old Testament, and water baptism, which came later, is the first consecration. A similar reason was offered for chrismation of patients by anointing with oil, as after baptism, it would consecrate the person.”
Obviously, the citations above show that the consecrated oil used for anointing sick people was introduced only many years after the Apostles. Water was used as consecration in baptism and in sprinkling people and objects. Eusebius says this “Sacrament” is unknown beyond what is written in the epistle of James, and that no information on the “consecration of oil” precedes James. As previously mentioned, it is important to carefully study all the New Testament verses that speak about the treatment of disease using anointing oil. In this way it will become more persuasive that Orthodox teaching on this issue does not square with the Bible.
Anointing and Healing in the New Testament
Along with verses from Mark 6:13 and James 5:14 that address the relationship of healing and anointing with oil to cure disease, relevant verses in the New Testament also include Luke 10:3 (in connection with Isaiah 1:6) and Revelation 3:18. First of all, I want to look at the meaning of anointing and healing specific to these verses, and then we will examine James later.
What I would first like to emphasize is that olive oil in ancient Eastern nations, including Israel, was used in treatment as a medical tool. It is certainly true that the oil could not help cure many diseases, but it certainly could treat some ailments, e.g. wounds and boils. The prophet Isaiah vividly describes Israel’s apostasy like a sick condition of the entire body, and notes:
“Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.”
In the New Testament parable of the Good, Christ the Lord mentioned that the injured man’s wounds were dressed with oil and wine, for clean and efficient healing:
“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.”
In Revelation, Christ the Lord vividly counsels people to buy oil from Him for anointing the eyes and gaining a healthy (spiritual) vision for seeing one’s own true spiritual condition:
“I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.”
As we see, rubbing oil to treat certain diseases mentioned in the Bible had a literal and therapeutic meaning, as well as a metaphoric, symbolic meaning of healing from spiritual illness. Mark in his Gospel mentions one example of the apostles anointing the sick with oil, which is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels:
“And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them. They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed [treated] them.”
It is a known fact that the Lord Jesus Christ healed people from disease mostly in a direct way, by the force of His divine words, without any physical contact with them, and thus also did the apostles in the same way. However, once the Lord and his disciples healed the sick by bending down and allowing for direct physical contact, either by their laying hands on the sick person, or else the sick person touched parts of their clothing. Mark 6:13 describes a case when the apostles treated sick people by rubbing them with oil. This cure by using oil certainly could have been the result of the inherent healing properties in oils, which can have a direct physical impact upon patients’ health. (Note the expression “treated them”, which involves the use of medicinal substances and natural treatment, not the term “healed them”, which involves miraculous healing.) Neither can one exclude the possibility that this is an “anointing in the name of the Lord” as mentioned in the epistle of James.
However, careful scholars of the New Testament writings must be quick to observe the circumstances related to the various events of healing and miracles in the first century, in particular the changes during the apostles’ ministry as time passed. Namely, the apostles were themselves suffering from certain diseases of which they themselves could not cure, despite their desires and prayers.
Such is the example of Paul the “chief healer”, who had a physical illness or some other obstacle that the Lord would not remove from him (2 Cor. 12:7, 10). Also, Paul’s associate Epaphroditus was miraculously healed after falling ill and nearly dying (Phil. 2:27). However, he recovered naturally from his illness. Trophimus had a similar example, where he had to leave Paul for Miletus to receive natural treatment (2 Tim. 4:20). Moreover, for our Lord Christ, the prophet Isaiah predicted that He would be “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3), regardless of the fact that He could have exerted His divine power to never fall ill or be susceptible to weaknesses.
As is evident from the New Testament, miraculous healings were increasing at a time when Christ revealed His messianic mission to the Israelites, as well as in the first years after the establishment of the Church. Yet miracles are clearly “reserved” only for the apostles and a few Christians in the first century who possessed the gift of healing the sick (1 Cor. 12:9, 28). Memorable miracles were predicted by Christ (see Mk. 16:17-18), and referred to the remaining consequences for the believer when bitten by a viper (Acts. 28:1-6), speaking in strange new tongues (Acts. 2:1-13, 1 Cor. 12:10), and drinking poison – without its harmful consequences, etc. But, as I mentioned earlier, as time went by, and the teachings of Christianity became established, the Lord no longer had any “reasons” to work miracles through the apostles as was the case in the beginning. Thus, the epistle of James teaches people in case of illness to invite their church elders who would be with them and pray over them for recovery:
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
In the above text we see a few things related to one and the same event. Elders visit the ill. The text mentions prayer for healing, anointing with oil (probably as a visible sign of the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit), and recognition for their forgiveness of sins. Apostle James does not mention here only the prayer of the church elders, but prayer
to God as powerful and effective, and also that other believers should pray “for each other.” Also mentioned is the confession of sins “to each other”, and not before priests (despite how the Orthodox would like to interpret this verse). What is particularly important for the healing of the ill is that the sick person must have the firm belief that the Lord can heal him. Namely, James says:
“But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”
The same condition is true in most cases when the Lord Jesus Christ healed sick people while He still walked this earth. One evangelist noted the following circumstances that preceded the healing of some ailing people:
“Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.’ Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ He said, ‘Your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed from that moment.”
“Then Jesus answered, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’ And her daughter was healed from that very hour.”
“Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’”
However, what is also very important is that the anointing is done “in the name of the Lord.” Namely, despite the strong belief in the omnipotence of the Lord and no question of God’s ability to fully heal every disease, every Christian has the heart that longs for the fulfillment of God’s will in his life. Therefore, because of his looking to Christ, the Christian will act when he understands the Lord’s will (which might even include not sending healing). Specifically, the Lord says:
“For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”
During his prayer addressed to the Father, and despite a very strong desire to remove Himself from all the suffering to come from crucifixion, Jesus accepted His will – that this prayer would not be answered:
“He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’ Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’”
Jesus is God and is quite aware that He can avoid death on the cross and the time to destroy all His enemies (Matt. 26:52-54). Instead, He voluntarily subjects Himself to the will of his heavenly Father, who sent Him for the salvation of mankind. Christ the Lord showed this attitude as an example for every reborn Christian (even those who are very sick and desire healing), which is: “Not my will, but Thine.”
Anointing of patients, therefore, is no guarantee for healing anyone, because the sovereign will of God determines whom He will heal and whom He will not. Also, we need to understand that this “sacrament” is not established for the treatment of severely ill patients (contrary to the Orthodox claim), because those such as Trophimus and Epaphroditus were very ill, yet the apostle Paul did not exercise his gift of healing on their behalf, and certainly not “the sacrament of anointing with ill”. Instead, after much prayer and the grace of God, they used natural means to fight against their illnesses.
It is certain that miraculous healings of sick patients occurred in the first century. Such healings occur even today. However, even during that long period of time, as in our modern era, not everyone is healed, and especially not by using the so-called “sacrament of anointing by oil”.
Based on studying the above material on this sacrament, we can conclude that there is no biblical justification of its existence in the form as promoted and practiced by the Eastern Orthodox Church.
All the knowledge we gained during the study of the sacraments in Orthodoxy, which are based on the inerrant Word of God, the Bible, and supplemental facts from church history, clearly indicate that these Eastern teachings do not originate from Scripture. Rather, they derive entirely from their “sacred tradition”. As we proved in our previous study, which will become more evident later in the book, study of the Holy Scriptures has completely irreconcilable differences with the teachings coming from the minds of later religious teachers, who have their own understanding of Christian truth is shaped under the influence of pagan religions and philosophies.
Another of these later teachings introduced is the belief that Jesus’ mother Mary is the Queen of Heaven. In the next chapter we will acquaint ourselves more with this teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy.