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A Biblical Theology of Oil

Until the resurgence of interest in therapeutic oils, most in our day have been far removed from understanding the important role that oils played throughout human history. Oils played a important role in health care as many had potent medicinal value. While much may be appreciated about the medicinal value of therapeutic oils, the theological and symbolic importance of oil is one that ought to be studied and valued by all believers. The Bible is replete with references to oil--the symbolism of which is developed in a biblical-theological manner, from the Tabernacle to the establishment of the Kingdom and from the establishment of the Kingdom to the coming of Christ and from the coming of Christ to the building of His Church. Consider this brief synopsis of the development of the divinely instituted typological and symbolic use of oil: The account of Jacob anointing the rock on which he slept is first reference to oil in Scripture (Gen. 28:18; 35:14). This is clearly a ceremonial act, by which God was teaching His people something about His redeeming work. Jonathan Edwards, reflecting on the symbolism of the anointing of this stone, wrote:

This anointed pillar is a type of the Messiah, or anointed, who is often called a stone or a rock, and is the house of God wherein the Godhead dwells and tabernacles....This is the stone that was Jacob’s pillow, to signify the dependence the saints have upon Christ, and that ’tis in him they find rest and repose, as Christ invites those that are weary to come to him, and they shall have rest [Matt. 11:28]...This stone signified the same with the altar that he built there when he returned (Gen. 35:7), and the pillar that he set up and poured a drink offering and oil upon it (v. 14).1

Edwards again noted the spiritual role that oil played in the Old Testament--typifying the love of the Holy Spirit--when, under the heading "Holy Spirit," he wrote in one of the Miscellanies:

Oil well represented excellence and love because of its flowing smoothness, and because it was used by them for the sake of beauty; as the Psalmist says (Ps. 104:15), it was to make the face to shine; which is the proper effect of an extraordinary effusion of the Holy Spirit and exercise of divine grace, as in Moses and Stephen. The shining of man’s face, we know, is put for beauty, excellence and joy; and of God’s countenance, [for] his love and favor. Especially did the holy anointing oil resemble love and excellence by its great preciousness and fragrance. Love is compared to this anointing oil by the Psalmist; “Like the precious ointment,” says he, etc. (Ps. 133). ’Tis again compared to ointment (Cant. 4:10) and to the spices with which the holy oil was perfumed, all over that song.2

The Lord employed oiled in the service of the Tabernacle to typify aspects of His redemptive work. The priests were commanded to have "oil for the light, and spices for the anointing oil and for the sweet incense" (Ex. 25:6). The oil fueled the light that lit the way to the most holy place. Additionally, that oil was used to fuel the burning of the incense, that was to be burned at the hour of prayer, which would, in turn, rise to the heavens. In both, the oil represents the Holy Spirit, by whom Christ was the Light of the world (John 8:12). In turn, Jesus pours the Spirit out on believers, making His people the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). As the light in the Tabernacle showed the way into the Most Holy Place so Christians are filled with the Spirit in order to bear witness to Christ. In this way, believers function as the light directing others into the presence of God through the Redeemer. The oil for the sweet incense typifies the role that the Spirit plays in anointing our prayers and in making them rise to God like sweet incense. Without oil, there would be no spiritual light and no sweet offering of prayer and praise. The Holy Spirit fuels our witness and our prayers (Acts 1:8; Eph. 6:18).

In addition to the instructions concerning the lamp oil and incense oil, the Lord also commanded Moses and Aaron to make a "holy anointing oil" with which to anoint the Tabernacle itself and all that was in it--together with the Priests themselves. This reflected the principle of consecration. The holy anointing oil symbolically made things and people holy; yet, there was a caveat. "It shall not," said the LORD, "be poured on man’s flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people" (Ex. 30:32-33). It was holy because it represented the Holy Spirit. It was not to be put "on man's flesh" or "an outsider" because they represented the weakness and unholiness of the sin nature--and the human efforts--of man. 

When we come to the Psalms, we find an array of redemptive-historical allusions to oil. Reaching back to the time of Aaron, the Psalmist speaks of the love and fellowship that exists between believers on account of their union with their High Priest. This is a typological picture of the oil of the Holy Spirit running down from the great High Priest Jesus onto the members of His body--the church (Psalm 133). The anointing of the High Priest for ministry (Lev. 21:10) served as a living picture of the Spirit being given to Christ for His ministry to His people. The writer of Hebrews draws all of this together when he cites Psalm 45 (a Psalm about the Messiah-King) in which the Psalmist speaks of Christ being "anointed with the oil of gladness" (Heb. 1:8-9). He is the one who is "anointed before His companions." Christ received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34) in order to be the One who pours the Spirit out on His people (Acts 2:17-18; 33).

In the prophets, God refers to the gift of regeneration under the figure of oil. In Ezekiel, He says, "I washed you in water; yes, I thoroughly washed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil" (Ez. 16:9). Additionally, the Lord symbolized the empowering work of the Spirit in the ministry of His King and Priest under the type of the olive tree and the oil in the golden lamp stands (Zech. 4:3, 6, 14).

When we move into the New Testament, we find the fulfillment of all the typological references to oil in the Old in the relationship between Christ and His Church. As He received the Spirit when He was anointed for His Messianic ministry at His Baptism (Luke 3:22), so He breathes the Spirit out on His people at the resurrection and ascension (John 20:22; Acts 2:33). The Apostle John explained how believers are now given the understanding of the truth about Christ and are kept from being deceived by the evil one:

"You have an anointing from the Holy One and understand all things"..."the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him" (1 John 2:20; 27).

The Lord set aside oil to typify the application of the saving and consecrating work of Christ through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the uniting agent between Christ and His people. As He received the Spirit for the work of redemption, Jesus now pours the Spirit out on His people in order to anoint them in the truth and set them apart for Himself. 1. Edwards, J. (1998). Notes on Scripture. (H. S. Stout & S. J. Stein, Eds.) (Vol. 15, p. 84). London; New Haven: Yale University Press.

2. Edwards, J. (2002). The “Miscellanies”: (Entry Nos. a–z, aa–zz, 1–500). (T. A. Schafer & H. S. Stout, Eds.) (Corrected Edition, Vol. 13, p. 347). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

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