What Does it Mean in the Bible and Why Was it Done?

Anointing of Jesus
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Anointing was the practice of applying oil to the body.  It is described many times throughout the Bible and was a common custom in the Middle East.

As mentioned in Scripture, however, anointing was of two types: a physical anointing with oil or ointment, and an inner anointing with the Holy Spirit.

Anointing With Oil

Within the first type, oil was applied for many different reasons:

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

Bible scholars cite two possible origins 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 it was adopted by the Jews.

The formula for sacred anointing oil is given in Exodus 30:23-25:

“Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane, 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil." (NIV)

Myrrh was an expensive spice from the Arabian peninsula, famously given to Jesus Christ at his birth by the Magi.  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 the whole mixture boiled again to evaporate the water.

Anointing oil was typically applied to the head, but sometimes to the feet, as when Mary of Bethany anointed JesusAaron and his sons were anointed for their sacred priesthood.  Samuel the prophet poured oil on the head of Saul, Israel's first king, and David, Israel's second king.  Zadok the priest anointed King Solomon.  When a person was anointed in that way, 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.

Anointing of the Holy Spirit

The 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 his ascension.

The Anointed One was a special term that referred to the Messiah. When Jesus returned to his home town of 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)

To eliminate any doubt, Jesus told them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:21, NIV)

Following Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the record of the early church in Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit being "poured out," like an anointing oil, upon the believers.  As these early missionaries took the gospel to the known world, they taught with God-infused wisdom and baptized 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.

Many Protestant churches anoint with oil for prayers of healing as described in James 5:14: "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord." (NIV)

Bible References:

Among the 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.

Also Known As:

Also associated with ointment or chrism, a Greek word meaning "an anointing."


After the anointing of Solomon with oil, the people shouted "Long live King Solomon."

(Sources:, The New Topical Textbook, R.A. Torrey; The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor.)

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