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Thursday, April 26, 2018

To Anoint or Not To Anoint?

Sometimes we get questions to the Truth&Circumstances podcast that are more straightforward theological or interpretive questions rather than difficult everyday situations needing biblical solutions.  When we get those kinds of questions, I like to try to answer them here.  I just got another good one:

What is your take on anointing someone with oil? My church doesn’t practice it, which made me doubt if it’s Biblical because all the churches I ever attended that did do oil-anointing were not solid churches. However today I came across James 5:14 and it appears to be a Biblical command to anoint one another with oil when praying for the sick. Is this a practice my church should embrace? Or am I missing something in my interpretation of the text?

First, let me give you the reference from James: 

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:14 ESV

As a young adult, I studied the book of James in an inductive study group in a church that did not anoint with oil.  I’ll never forget when we got to James 5 — it seemed to me that the teacher had to do multiple exegetical backflips to explain why we should not anoint people with oil as prescribed in this verse.  We had applied the book in such a straightforward fashion up to that point.  All of a sudden, we were told to do the opposite of what the text so clearly taught.

So my experience was very similar to that of the person who asked this question.  Just reading the text in a cursory fashion would lead one to believe that the elders of the church should anoint the sick with oil and pray for them when the sick call upon them to do so.  After studying the issue very closely, my view has not changed.  

Let me point out some things about the situation in James 5 that will help frame the rest of my answer.  First, it appears that the anointing described there was at the request of the sick person.  I don’t think this precludes the elders offering to do this for the sick person, but the text directs the sick person to call for the elders.  Second, it was the elders specifically who were called to pray and who did the anointing.  That is, there does not seem to be warrant here for all church members to anoint with oil.  Third, the person was likely extremely ill, possibly terminally.  We can deduce this from the fact that the text says “the prayer of faith may save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (v15).  Fourth, the anointing does not seem to have been done publicly, but in the sick person’s home.  Again, the person “calls” for the elders to “come”, and then is “raised up,” all of which would indicate that the elders went to wherever the sick person was rather than the sick person coming to a public gathering.    

I point these things out because they may explain why the questioner has seen people anointed with oil in "non-solid" churches and has not seen people anointed with oil in "solid" churches.  The questioner mentioned that she is aware of certain churches that do anoint, but that they were not “solid churches.”  It’s possible that the reason the questioner knows those churches anoint with oil is because they were doing it in contexts and situations which do not coincide with this passage.  Some denominations, particularly those known for abuses of the gifts of the Spirit, are known to use oil for all kinds of things outside of those prescribed by Scripture.  These denominations can tend to have shaky theology in other areas as well, which may have led to the questioner associate the use of oil with bad theology.      

(Incidentally, I believe that many churches (not all!) that do not anoint with oil in the biblical way prescribed by James 5:14 abstain because they also associate the use of oil with these errant pockets of the church.  In a well-intentioned effort to avoid any appearance of evil, they throw the biblical baby out with the errant bathwater.)

On the other hand, because of the private nature of what is depicted in James 5:14, there may be many “solid” churches whose elders do anoint with oil, but it is not obvious because, in accordance with the passage, it is not done publicly.  That is the case with PBF.  The elders at PBF have observed this biblical practice in the past and will continue whenever we are called upon.  


Now, one more thing.  I imagine some will wonder - what is the point of the oil?  I’ll quote from the ESV Study Bible: “[The oil] is best seen as a symbol representing the healing power of the Holy Spirit to come upon the sick person… ‘In the name of the Lord’ means that it is God, not the oil, that heals.”  So when we anoint with oil and pray, we are not using a magic potion.  Rather, we are obeying the Scriptures, using a symbol for the healing power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the person, praying that the Spirit would do what only He can do - bring healing to that person.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

What's your message? How Contending for Political Views Online Affects Our Gospel Witness

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1 Cor 2:2

Everyone has a message.  Everyone thinks his message is worth hearing.  But there is only one that is truly transformational - the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In light of that, how peculiar that so many professing believers spend so much energy online making political arguments, pushing political messages. 

Is it the best thing for the Kingdom for believers to use our social media voices for political purposes?  I’d like to make the argument that it is not.  

When we advocate for political opinions on social media:

We unintentionally add a political component to the gospel in the minds of unbelievers.
When we post political opinions and argue for those positions, and then share the gospel and appeal to people to repent and trust in Jesus, in the minds of some, we have attached Jesus to a particular political persuasion.  In other words, we may have inadvertently communicated by example that in order to come to Jesus one must repent, believe, and become a Republican or Libertarian or Democrat.  The last thing we should want to communicate to someone is that they must have a particular party affiliation in order to be a Christian.

We unintentionally alienate many of our friends from us and the gospel.
The gospel itself is inherently divisive.  In spite of what many in the world would say, Jesus Christ is the greatest divider of all time (Matt 10:34-39).  He divides all people into two groups - believers and unbelievers, the found and the lost, the blessed and the damned.  They are divided based upon how they respond to His call to repent and trust in Him.  

The gospel doesn’t need any help from us in offending people.  When we advocate for political views, we may be alienating half of our friends or more before we’ve ever spoken a word about Jesus.  In other words, we’ve offended before the gospel has had a chance to!

Only the Lord know how many doors for the gospel have been closed by online political disputes.  Some people are so opposed to one set of political views that when they hear those views espoused by a person, everything that comes out of that person’s mouth then becomes suspect, or worse, automatically intolerable.  I’ll admit, there are some celebrities that I find so obnoxious because of their political views that if they were to say, “the sky is blue,” my Pavlovian response would be to say, “No, it’s not!”  That phenomenon is a two-way street.  So when someone of the opposite political persuasion hears me first contend for my political views, then share the gospel, they may lump the gospel together with the political views and say to all of it, “hogwash!”

I want to do everything possible to refrain from giving unnecessary offense so that a door to the gospel is always open.  If offense is going to take place, let the gospel do it!

We advertise that our hope is in man and man’s solutions to man’s problems.
Remember that the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hands of the Lord - he turns it wherever He wishes (Pro 21:1).  Politicians, armies, social institutions, and social media political warriors are all pawns in the hands of a sovereign God who is working out His plan in His perfect time.  This does not deny our responsibility to do what is right - this short article is not the place to discuss the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility - but by clamoring, arguing, and posturing for political solutions to man’s issues, we betray a lack of faith in the one thing that makes all things new - the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

There is one thing that can set the world aright.  It isn’t getting guns off the streets or protecting the 2nd Amendment.  It isn’t social programs or lower taxes.  It isn’t a donkey or an elephant.  It is the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who have repented and trusted in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  If we’re going to exhaust ourselves pushing a message it should be a bloody cross not a party platform.  

We advertise hope by what we talk about.  When we preach political solutions, we implicitly tell our audience that ultimate hope is in man.  When we preach the gospel, we tell our audience that ultimate hope is in Christ.  There is a reason that Paul said, “I purposed to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  It’s the only hope!  Everything else distracts from the one thing that can save.

We show that political wins and losses are more concerning to us than lost souls.
If we know that contending for political causes ostracizes those on the other side of the political divide and costs us a hearing for the gospel, and we continue to do it, what must be said about our concern for the lost?  We would rather be known to be right politically than to see the lost be reconciled to God.  Are we willing to ostracize half of our social media friends to make a point about guns?  Are we willing to pound our chests politically at the cost of an opportunity to proclaim the Lord of Glory?  May it never be!


“What’s my message?”  What a critical question to consider as we engage with people online.  Everyone has a message.  Everyone is communicating a worldview.  If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you have the only message that saves and sanctifies.  It’s the only message that fixes the problems man clumsily tries to remedy with his political solutions.  It does it by reconciling sinners to God and changing their hearts.  We must be so careful with what and how we communicate.  If you’re a believer, your message is the gospel.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

He Breathed On Them

In the text on Sunday, we saw John 20:22, And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  We didn’t have time to deal with it, so I wanted to address it here.  Some of us us may have thought, “what’s the big deal?”  Well, the issue is that it appears that Jesus imparts the Holy Spirit to the disciples there, while in Acts 1:8, Jesus says to the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  The obvious fulfillment of Acts 1:8 comes one chapter later when the Spirit comes like a mighty rushing wind on the day of Pentecost, all were filled with the Spirit, and began to speak in tongues.  So, did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit when Jesus breathed on them or on the day of Pentecost?  More importantly, do we have a genuine bible contradiction here?

My position is that there is good reason to hold that Jesus makes a symbolic gesture in John 20:22, pointing to the ultimate outpouring of the Spirit that would come at Pentecost.

In spite of the English translations, the best way to understand the text is simply, he breathed and said to them…  There is no explicit prepositional phrase indicating that Jesus breathed on the disciples.  Most lexicons hold that the word itself means to breathe on, however these lexicons are based upon New Testament usage, and John 20:22 is the only use of this word in the New Testament.  Usage outside of the New Testament supports the idea that the word simply means to exhale.  There is no reason to believe that Jesus was breathing on or into the disciples.  D.A. Carson writes, “Unless one adopts a literalistic and mechanical view of the action, understanding the Holy Spirit to be nothing less than Jesus’ expelled air, one is forced to say that the ‘breathing’ was symbolic…”1

That this was a symbolic act makes sense given what we see in the rest of John’s Gospel.  There is no noticeable difference in the behavior of the disciples after Jesus breathes and says these words.  The disciples still meet behind locked doors (20:26), indicating they are still afraid of the Jews, a far cry from the boldness we see in Acts 2.  When Thomas finally believes, it is not because of the promised witness of the Spirit (15:26-27), but because Jesus has allowed him to touch His hands and side (20:27-28).  In John 21, it appears the disciples are tending back toward their old ways of life - Peter, John, and others go fishing.  Later in ch21, there is still a twinge of the old “who’s the best disciple” thing going on (21:20-22).  In other words, the disciples do not act like Holy Spirit-empowered people until Pentecost.

First century believers would have instantly recognized the symbolism, given that they were aware of what happened at Pentecost - a might rushing wind.  Ancient Near Eastern languages almost uniformly use the same word for breath and wind.  They likely would have understood Jesus to be saying, “I’m not only giving you my mission, but the power for my mission,” referring to the coming outpouring at Pentecost. 


One might wonder why Jesus make a symbolic gesture like this?  Well, Jesus does many things in the Gospels that the disciples don’t understand.  But it makes sense if we look at the greater context.  After the resurrection, Jesus affirmed all the things He told them before the cross.  “I’m giving you a mission, and I’m giving you everything you need to accomplish the mission.”  He told them about the Spirit before, and this was a unique way to say that that promise was still standing.  

1D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 652.

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