Throughout the Bible we read of priests, kings and even ordinary people being anointed. What does anointed mean? Why would someone be anointed then or now?
Filled with anticipation, the 12 disciples moved in close to their Master, looking into His face. Just moments before, He had called them to Him (Mark 6:7). Now He was sending them out in pairs to preach the gospel, to cast out demons and to heal (verses 7, 12-13).
Concluding this story, Mark writes that “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (verse 13).
What did he mean by “anointed”?
The ancient custom of anointing
To understand what Mark meant, we must first understand the custom of anointing, which spans both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The most basic meaning of the primary word translated as “anoint” in the Old Testament, according to The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, is “to apply oil to a person or thing.”
Similarly, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines the word as “to ‘smear’ something on an object.”
In some instances, the word means nothing more than using oil on the face or other parts of the body, much as we might use lotions or creams today.
The book of Ruth includes an insight into the value of anointing. Naomi and Ruth, two vulnerable widows, relied on the generosity of their rich relative Boaz to survive. Hoping Ruth would make the best possible impression on Boaz, Naomi instructed her daughter-in-law to anoint herself after washing (Ruth 3:3).
Good quality oil was more than an ancient toiletry item. It was actually a sign of blessing comparable to bread and wine: “And wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15).
In the same way, one of God’s curses for a rebellious Israel would be a failure of the olive crop, resulting in no oil for anointing (Deuteronomy 28:40).
Anointing and healing
Mark states that the 12 disciples “anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:13). The anointing is part of the request for healing.
The physical anointing is not what heals. Instead, it symbolizes the healing power of God, offered freely through the established leadership in the Church. Christ had commissioned His disciples, conferring on them the authority to heal. It is this connection to the authority of the Church that explains why James instructs Christians to “call for the elders of the church” to be anointed when sick (James 5:14).
To learn more about this subject, read our article on “Divine Healing.”
A special anointing
The practice of anointing was prevalent throughout the ancient Near East, though scholars do not agree about its origin. Personal anointing was a widespread practice, and anointing also held a special place in ritual and ceremony.
The first instance of anointing mentioned in the Bible was ceremonial. After God appeared to the patriarch Jacob in a dream, Jacob poured oil on the rock that had been under his head while he slept (Genesis 28:18). Pouring the oil, in this case, was the same as anointing, as was made clear in a later dream. In that dream, God identified Himself to Jacob as “the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar” (Genesis 31:13).
There would have been no practical reason to anoint a rock, so this action was clearly ceremonial. Immediately after pouring the oil on the rock, Jacob renamed the place Bethel, or “House of God.” He also vowed to serve God (Genesis 28:19-22). In a sense, the anointing was an outward sign that Jacob was dedicating his life to God.
Anointing the tabernacle and the priests
Even before the tribes of Israel entered the Promised Land, God instructed Moses to prepare a tabernacle and priesthood. It was through this tabernacle and the attending priests that God would interact with His chosen people, which is why Scripture sometimes refers to it as the “tabernacle of meeting” (Exodus 27:21).
To emphasize this special purpose, God commanded Moses to anoint the tabernacle and all its furnishings, ceremonially setting them apart for holy service (Exodus 30:22-29). The priests who served in the tabernacle, and later the temple, were also fulfilling a special function, so they, too, were to be anointed (verse 30).
Most anointing in the Bible seems to be with ordinary olive oil, but God gave Moses a precise recipe for preparing this special anointing oil (verses 22-25). The oil itself, and the recipe, was so special to God that He commanded it not be used for any common practice. In fact, anyone who dared mix the oil for personal use would be cut off from the nation (verses 31-33).
Although Aaron’s sons were also to be anointed before serving as priests in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:12-15), the high priest came to be known as “the anointed priest” (Leviticus 4:3, 5; 6:22), signifying his unique status before God. It is here that we first see an anointing that sets apart a special individual, rather than a class of people, for a unique role.
Anointing the kings
Priests were not the only officials set apart for service through anointing. Kings of Israel and Judah were also anointed, generally by the high priest. Solomon, for example, was anointed by Zadok, the high priest (1 Kings 1:38-39), though the prophet Nathan was in attendance (verse 34).
The first two kings of Israel, Saul and David, were anointed by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 9:27; 10:1; 16:13). This particular prophet was also a Levite (1 Chronicles 6:33-38), which is why, in his youth, he could serve the high priest at the tabernacle.
Even the rebellious Absalom sought the air of legitimacy through anointing, but in his case, he was anointed by the people rather than a priest or prophet (2 Samuel 19:10). His anointing could not consecrate him to God’s service. It meant nothing more than the anointing involved in personal grooming!
The anointing of David offers us a glimpse into another facet of this practice. Immediately after Samuel anointed him, “the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). Anointing was associated with God’s gracious gift of His Holy Spirit to those people He calls to serve Him.
The Lord’s Anointed and the long-awaited King
When someone was anointed through God’s human agents, that person was consecrated to fulfill a specific duty. The prophet Samuel had anointed Saul as king, and so David referred to Saul as “the LORD’s anointed” (2 Samuel 1:14). The Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul effectively admitted to opposing the Lord God. To allow him to live would be to condone rebellion of the worst kind, which is why David had him executed (verses 15-16).
Ultimately, the concept of the Lord’s anointed would take on an even greater significance. That’s because of a promise God made to David years later. Through the prophet Nathan, God told David that He would establish a perpetual monarchy through David’s descendants (2 Samuel 7:12-16). David’s physical heirs continued on the throne for generations, until Babylon finally crushed Judah and Jerusalem. (Biblical prophecy and history indicate that the throne continues to this day. See our sidebar “Is There a Connection Between the British Monarchy and the Bible?”)
David came to recognize that the coming Anointed One, Lord, Son and King was greater than himself (Psalm 2; 110). And from the time of the exile, God’s people began to see in the promise to David a reference to a special King. That King would bring to earth the Kingdom of God, crushing all opposition to the Eternal.
This meaning is explicit in Daniel’s 70-weeks prophecy, in which this individual is called “Messiah the Prince,” which literally means “the Anointed One, the Prince” (Daniel 9:24-25). The faithful of all generations have looked for and awaited the appearance of the Messiah, the Anointed One.
What this means for us
Christians know the Anointed One—the Messiah, or the Christ in Greek—has made His initial appearance (Acts 10:38). Now we wait for His return, a time when He will usher in a new age, characterized not only by peace and abundance, but by vibrant health. His throne will be the source from which healing will flow to the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).
Today, we have been imbued with His Spirit, which is “an anointing from the Holy One” (1 John 2:20, 27). For Christians, this anointing is not physical. John uses the word as a metaphor.
True Christians have repented, been baptized and received God’s Spirit through the laying on of hands, and as such, they have been set apart for a specific role. Members of the Church have been anointed with the Holy Spirit to participate in the work of God, making “disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) and preparing to be “kings and priests” with the returning Messiah (Revelation 1:6).
Sidebar: Anointing in the Bible
Anointing was a common practice not only among the people of Israel, but also among other people of the ancient Near East, including Egypt and Babylon. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the custom served a number of different purposes and took on a variety of meanings, some of which are listed here:
- To enhance one’s appearance (Ruth 3:3).
- To symbolize joy and prosperity (Psalm 45:7; 104:15).
- To conclude a period of fasting or mourning (2 Samuel 12:20; 14:2).
- To polish military equipment (Isaiah 21:5).
- To consecrate the tabernacle, altar and utensils (Exodus 30:22-29).
- To consecrate priests for holy service (Exodus 28:40-41; 30:30).
- To set kings apart for service (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13).
- To set prophets apart for service (1 Kings 19:16).
- To empower foreign kings to fulfill God’s will (Isaiah 45:1).
- To symbolize God’s favor toward Israel (1 Chronicles 16:22).
- To symbolize God’s blessing on individuals (Psalm 23:5).
- To prepare a body for burial (Matthew 26:6-12; Mark 16:1).
- To symbolize God’s healing power (Mark 6:13; James 5:14). For more about the New Testament instruction for those who are sick to call on the elders for prayer and anointing with oil, see “Divine Healing.”
- To symbolize the giving of God’s Holy Spirit (Psalm 89:20; 1 John 2:20, 27; Acts 10:38).
- To indicate the Messiah, the “Anointed One” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted in Luke 4:18; Daniel 9:23-25; Acts 4:27).