Oil, Prayer, and Healing

Some of you might be familiar with the idea of healing prayer, and others may not. The practice comes from James 5:14-15. James tells those who are sick to ask the leaders of the church to anoint him with oil and pray for the Lord to heal.

First, let me explain the oil. The oil is a symbol used throughout the Bible for someone being set apart by God (Ex 28:41), for the presence of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:18; Acts 10:38; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22), and the sign of God’s favor (Ps 45:7). By anointing a sick person with oil we are creating a tangible expression of faith: that the Holy Spirit would come on the person in a unique way to work the Father’s healing power in Jesus’ name. God is the one who heals, the oil is merely a symbol. Like all symbols, the oil points beyond itself to something greater. In this case the healing power of God through the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

Second, why healing? When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3 they opened Pandora’s Box. In an excellent book on the subject of sin (called Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be) Cornelius Plantinga compares sin to a parasite, a corrosive agent, and vandalism - among many other pictures. He says that “Sin is disruption of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony” (5). We tend to think that sin is just a particular act to avoid (for example, marital intimacy vs adultery). But, the biblical picture of sin is that of a foreign agent sabotaging every facet of existence. This is why we get sick and why we need glasses. It’s why there is terminal cancer and seasonal allergies. All of creation is caught up in one great Civil War. 

Healing is Part of the Kingdom of God
So, when God comes to redeem humanity he does not just address the soul. Isaiah the prophet described Jesus’ ministry several hundred years before he came. In Isaiah 35:5-6 we’re told that when God comes

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

This same idea is expanded in Isaiah 61 to include nearly every aspect of culture and creation.

When Jesus finally lands on the scene we’re told that his ministry begins with a simple declaration: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (1:15). From there Mark 1:16-3:6 is story after story of Jesus healing thousands and delivering as many from demons. Each of the gospel writers will go to great lengths to make this connection between OT promises of the Kingdom and the ministry of Jesus (and later, the church). These instances of healing and deliverance are incredible. Yet, In his book on both Luke and Acts, New Testament scholar, Darrell Bock, says, “The important point is not so much the miracles themselves as what they portray (Luke 10:18-20). In Jesus’ ministry, God is present, exercising power through the one he has sent. In Acts, Jesus’ power is expressed through his appointed messengers, which shows that he has been raised and is active. The forces that oppose people meet their defeat and death through Jesus. He can deliver. In other words, physical salvation portrays spiritual salvation."

When we compare the Old Testament descriptions of God’s Kingdom, the gospel’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry and miracles as demonstrating the Kingdom of God. In his shorter book on the Kingdom of God, the late New Testament scholar, George Ladd said this, 

The Age to Come belongs to the future, and yet the powers of The Age to Come have entered into the present evil Age. The Kingdom of God belongs to the future, and yet the blessings of the Kingdom of God have entered into the present Age to deliver men from bondage to Satan and sin. Eternal life belongs to the Kingdom of God, to The Age to Come; but it, too, has entered into the present evil Age that men may experience eternal life in the midst of death and decay. We enter into this enteral life in the midst of death and decay.
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 71

Earlier in that same book on the subject of “eternal life” he says,

Eternal life has to do with the total man. It concerns not only my soul but also my body. When we finally inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:50), that which is mortal - our physical, frail body - will be swallowed up in life. Eternal life includes the redemption of our bodies. The inheritance of the Kingdom of God means the transformation of these bodies of flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:50).
— Ladd, G.E. The Gospel of the Kingdom, 69

Healing is Offered through God’s People
In Matthew 10:1 he gives this same ministry of healing and spiritual deliverance to the twelve disciples. Then in Luke 10 (chronologically after Matthew 10), Jesus assigns this work to seventy-two others. After the Holy Spirit comes to the whole church in Acts 2 healing is included in the work that God does through his people (3:1-10; 4:12-16; 8:4-7). By the time the book of James is written (c. mid-40’s AD) this practice of healing prayer had become common enough practice for James to provide some direction to the rest of the church. 

So, in summary, why healing? Because in Jesus the power of the age to come has become a real part of the Christian life and community. We pray for healing because we believe (1) that God wants to heal; (2) that healing can be part of the demonstration of God’s Kingdom coming into the present time; (3) Jesus has extended this work to the church (specifically, James 5).