The Role of Anointing Oil in the Bible

Anointing Oil and Bible Verse

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The practice of anointing with oil, described many times in the Bible, was a common custom in the Middle East. Medicinal anointings were used for medical reasons to treat and heal the sick. Sacramental anointings were performed as an outward symbolic representation of a spiritual reality, such as God’s presence, power, and favor upon someone’s life.

Anointing with oil typically involved applying a mixture of spices and oils or a specially consecrated oil to the body or an object for several specific reasons. In the Bible, the application of anointing oil was associated with times of rejoicing, prosperity, and celebration. It was also used for personal grooming, purification, healing, as a sign of hospitality and a mark of honor, to prepare a body for burial, consecrate religious objects, and sanctify people for the offices of priest, king, and prophet.

One type of anointing oil in the Bible was part of a symbolic ritual, but the other type brought supernatural, life-changing power. 

Anointing Oil in the Bible

  • Anointing oil was used for both medical purposes and spiritual or ritual dedications.
  • There are two types of anointing in the Bible: a physical anointing with oil or ointment and an inner anointing with the Holy Spirit.
  • Anointing oil in the Bible was customarily made with olive oil, which was abundant in ancient Israel.
  • Among more than 100 biblical references to anointing are Exodus 40:15, Leviticus 8:10, Numbers 35:25, 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Kings 1:39, Mark 6:13, Acts 10:38, and 2 Corinthians 1:21.

The Significance of Anointing Oil in the Bible

Anointing with oil was applied for many different reasons in Scripture:

  • To proclaim God’s blessing, favor, or calling on a person’s life, as in the case of kings, prophets, and priests.
  • To consecrate holy implements in the tabernacle for worship.
  • To refresh the body after bathing.
  • To cure the sick or heal wounds.
  • To consecrate weapons for war.
  • To prepare a body for burial.

As a social custom associated with joy and well-being, anointing with oil was used in personal grooming: “Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil,” says Ecclesiastes 9:8 (NIV).

The process of anointing typically involved applying oil to the head, but sometimes to the feet, as when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus: “Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance” (John 12:3, NLT).

Dinner guests had their heads anointed with oil as a mark of honor: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5, CSB).

Simon the Pharisee was critical of Jesus for allowing a sinful woman to anoint his feet (Luke 7:36–39). Jesus scolded Simon for his lack of hospitality: “Look at this woman kneeling here. When I entered your home, you didn’t offer me water to wash the dust from my feet, but she has washed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but from the time I first came in, she has not stopped kissing my feet. You neglected the courtesy of olive oil to anoint my head, but she has anointed my feet with rare perfume” (Luke 7:44–46, NLT).

In the Old Testament, people were anointed for purification purposes (Leviticus 14:15–18).

Moses anointed Aaron and his sons to serve in the sacred priesthood (Exodus 40:12–15; Leviticus 8:30). Samuel the prophet poured oil on the head of Saul, Israel’s first king, and David, Israel’s second king (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:12–13). Zadok the priest anointed King Solomon (1 Kings 1:39; 1 Chronicles 29:22). Elisha was the only prophet anointed in Scripture. His predecessor Elijah performed the service (1 Kings 19:15–16).

When a person was anointed for a special calling and office, they were considered protected by God and were to be treated with respect. The oil itself had no supernatural force; the power always came from God.

In the New Testament, people were often anointed with olive oil for healing (Mark 6:13). Christians are symbolically anointed by God, not in an outward purification ceremony but through participation in the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:21–22; 1 John 2:20).

This anointing of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Psalms, Isaiah, and other places in the Old Testament but is primarily a New Testament phenomenon, in connection with Jesus Christ and with his disciples, after the Lord’s ascension.

The word anoint means “to set apart, to authorize and equip for a task of spiritual importance.” Jesus Christ was set apart by the work of the Holy Spirit for his ministry of preaching, healing and deliverance. The Holy Spirit sets believers apart for their ministry in Jesus’ name.

The Formula and Origin of Anointing Oil

The formula or recipe for sacred anointing oil is given in Exodus 30:23-25: “Collect choice spices—12½ pounds of pure myrrh, 6¼ pounds of fragrant cinnamon, 6¼ pounds of fragrant calamus, 24 and 12½ pounds of cassia—as measured by the weight of the sanctuary shekel. Also get one gallon of olive oil. Like a skilled incense maker, blend these ingredients to make a holy anointing oil.” (NLT)

This sacred oil was never to be used for mundane or ordinary purposes. The penalty for misusing it was to “be cut off from the community” (Exodus 30:32–33).

Bible scholars cite two possible origins of the practice of anointing with oil. Some say it started with shepherds putting oil on the heads of their sheep to prevent insects from getting in the animals’ ears and killing them. A more likely origin was for health reasons, to hydrate the skin in the hot, dry climate of the Middle East. Anointing with oil was practiced in ancient Egypt and Canaan before the Jews adopted it.

Myrrh was an expensive spice from the Arabian peninsula, famously given to Jesus Christ by the Magi at his birth. The olive oil, used as a base, equaled about a gallon. Scholars think the spices were boiled to extract their essences, then the fragrant water was added to the oil, and then the mixture was boiled again to evaporate the water.

Jesus Is the Anointed One

Anointed One was a unique term that referred to the Messiah. When Jesus launched his ministry in Nazareth, he read from a synagogue scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NIV). Jesus was citing Isaiah 61:1–3.

To eliminate any doubt that he was the anointed Messiah, Jesus told them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, NIV). Other New Testament writers confirmed, “But to the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever. You rule with a scepter of justice. You love justice and hate evil. Therefore, O God, your God has anointed you, pouring out the oil of joy on you more than on anyone else’” (Hebrews 1:8–9, NLT). More Bible verses that refer to Jesus as the anointed Messiah include Acts 4:26–27 and Acts 10:38.

Following Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the record of the early church in Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit being “poured out,” like anointing oil, upon the believers. As these early missionaries took the gospel to the known world, they taught with God-infused wisdom and power and baptized many new Christians.

Today, the rite of anointing with oil continues to be used in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Church, and some Lutheran Church branches.

Sources

  • The New Topical Textbook, R.A. Torrey.
  • The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger.
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr.
  • Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. Martin Manser.
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Fairchild, Mary. "The Role of Anointing Oil in the Bible." Learn Religions, May. 26, 2022, learnreligions.com/anointing-oil-in-the-bible-5270379. Fairchild, Mary. (2022, May 26). The Role of Anointing Oil in the Bible. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/anointing-oil-in-the-bible-5270379 Fairchild, Mary. "The Role of Anointing Oil in the Bible." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/anointing-oil-in-the-bible-5270379 (accessed July 3, 2022).