I like to use olive oil for cooking. But imagine you walked into the kitchen and I smeared a handful of it across your forehead. You’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Yet this was a common practice in ancient times. In the hot and dusty Middle East, oil soothed the skin and was therefore applied liberally—even to guests (Ps. 23:5). As Psalm 104:15 puts it, God gave people the substance to make their faces “glisten with oil.”
Anointing with oil could also take on a more special significance: setting someone apart for a specific vocation from God. The Hebrews had a unique word for this “sacred calling” kind of anointing (mashach) to set it apart from the more ordinary “daily moisturizer” usage (cukh). But what was this sacred anointing all about?
Set Apart for Service In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed by way of inauguration into their vocation. For example, Elijah the prophet was told to anoint Elisha, his successor (1 Kings 19:16). God told Moses the priests were to be anointed, marking their entrance into “a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations” (Ex. 40:15). The high priest was called “the anointed” after being consecrated to his office by oil in a public ceremony (Ex. 29:8; Lev. 4:3; Lev. 8:12).
And perhaps most significantly, the king was commissioned as leader of the nation through a public ceremony that involved being anointed with oil. Think of a presidential inauguration, where every four years our newly elected leader stands before the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in a massive assembly that marks the beginning of a new term. But rather than simply take the oath of office, ancient Israel’s new king was drenched with oil, which was poured over his head.
Being anointed, however, was about more than just holding office. It was about using one’s position to care for God’s world. When we talk about a call from God, some people envision this as something that pulls you out of your community into privilege, like moving into a country club where you don’t have to deal with the frustrations of the common folks anymore. But for Israel, anointing was actually being called into a special kind of service to the community. These were public officials who were taking on some extra responsibility for the neighborhood.
When the king was anointed, it was hoped that God’s character—and even more powerfully, God’s Spirit—would accompany him to fulfill this high calling. For example, we’re told that when David was anointed as king, “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon [him] from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).
In fact, “the Lord’s anointed” eventually became a synonym for king. (See 1 Samuel 12:3, 1 Samuel 12:5; 1 Samuel 26:11; 2 Samuel 1:14; Ps. 20:6.) Of course, some kings didn’t do so well— we all know how corrupt politicians can get. But in the midst of Israel’s bad kings arose their hope for a good one to come. In fact, “Messiah” (meshiach) means, literally, “the Anointed One,” a word that includes the Hebrew root for this “sacred anointing” (mashach). The coming Messiah embodied Israel’s longsuffering hope for God to return and set the world right again. The Greek word for Messiah is Christos, which we’ve brought into English as Christ. The Christ was the one who would be anointed to bring God’s justice to earth, and this hope is fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus, the Anointed One
A frequent title for Jesus in the New Testament is “the Anointed One.” (See John 1:41; Acts 18:5.) Jesus’ baptism is depicted as His anointing (Matt. 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34), where He’s drenched beneath the waters and arises to be publicly declared God’s beloved Son—the anointed one of Psalm 2:2, the chosen one of Isaiah 42:1. In this way, He is set apart and empowered by the Spirit for His mission, which is one of service.
This is the inauguration of the Lord’s ministry to establish His kingdom. As He launches His ministry, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 to show exactly what this anointed endeavor would entail: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). In Jesus, Israel’s hope for God’s anointed—the One who would deliver the people from physical, spiritual, and political oppression—had arrived. And they rejected Him.
As Jesus prepared to go to His death, Mary anointed Him for burial (John 12:1-11). This is perhaps the most significant anointing in the Scriptures, because Jesus was being set apart for the highest sacred calling: to atone for sin and save the world. And He was anointed not by a prophet, priest, or king, but by a woman (See Luke 7:37)—a representative for the church as the bride of Christ. The King is anointed to lay down His life for His bride.
Faithful and Good
We are told in 2 Corinthians 1:21 that God has “anointed us”—not with water or oil, but with His Holy Spirit. We’ve been drenched in the goodness of God’s very presence and set apart for a special calling—to lay down our lives for God’s glory in the neighborhood. Our purpose isn’t to atone for sin and save the world. And few, if any, of us are prophets, priests, or kings with significant political or spiritual authority. Instead, God has set us apart for Himself—not to be pulled out of the hard places, but rather to faithfully serve within them—to act as faithful caretakers, following Him all our days, and standing firm in faith. He’s calling us, you and me, to labor alongside Him in bringing restoration.
Illustration by Adam Cruft