What is an Anointing? Meaning and Examples in the Bible

Anointing with oil is a common practice found in the Bible and modern Christianity. Discover how and why people are anointed as we look to the Biblical meaning and tradition.

Updated Feb 28, 2024
What is an Anointing? Meaning and Examples in the Bible

Anointing Meaning

"Anointing" refers to the act of consecrating or dedicating someone or something by applying oil or another substance. This term carries both literal and figurative meanings. 

In a literal sense, anointing involves the ceremonial application of oil in religious services, such as the anointing of priests, kings, or prophets in the Bible. Figuratively, "anointing" extends to a spiritual context, representing the divine empowerment, consecration, and favor the Holy Spirit bestowed upon individuals for specific roles or tasks. To be anointed signifies a special set-apart status for fulfilling a particular purpose or calling.

The Hebrew term mashach meant “to anoint or smear with oil.” The oil used for religious anointing was carefully combined with fine spices according to a detailed procedure prescribed by the Lord (Exodus 30:22–32). Using this oil for any other purpose was a grave transgression, bearing the punishment of being “cut off” from the community (Exodus 30:33).

The generic definition of anointing is “to smear or rub with oil, typically as part of a religious ceremony.” In Christian tradition, anointing is an important practice to heal the sick or designate a ceremonial meaning.

As defined in Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

Anointing: in the Holy Scripture, is either 1. Material, with oil, or 2. Spiritual, with the Holy Spirit.

Reasons for Anointing with Oil

1. Ordinary

Anointing the body or head with oil was a common practice with the Jews, as with other Oriental nations. (Deuteronomy 28:40; Ruth 3:3; Micah 6:15) Anointing the head with oil or ointment seems also to have been a mark of respect sometimes paid by a host to his guests (Luke 7:46) and Psalm 23).

2. Official

It was a rite of inauguration into each of the three typical offices of the Jewish commonwealth. a. Prophets were occasionally anointed to their office (1 Kings 19:16) and were called messiahs or anointed. (1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalms 105:15) b. Priests, at the first institution of the Levitical priesthood, were all anointed to their offices (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 3:3), but afterward, anointing seems to have been specially reserved for the high priest (Exodus 29:29; Leviticus 16:32), so that "the priest that is anointed," (Leviticus 4:3) is generally thought to mean the high priest. c. Kings. Anointing was the principal and divinely appointed ceremony in the inauguration of the Jewish Kings (1 Samuel 9:16; 10:1; 1 Kings 1:34,39). The rite was sometimes performed more than once. David was thrice anointed. d. Inanimate objects were also anointed with oil in token of their being set apart for religious service. Thus Jacob anointed a pillar at Bethel (Genesis 31:13; Exodus 30:26-28).

3. Ecclesiastical

Anointing with oil is prescribed by St. James to be used for the recovery of the sick (James 5:14). Analogous to this is the anointing with oil practiced by the twelve (Mark 6:13).

Spiritual Meaning for Anointing with Oil

1. In the Old Testament, a Deliverer is promised under the title of Messiah, or Anointed (Psalms 2:2; Daniel 9:25,26), and the nature of his anointing is described to be spiritual, with the Holy Ghost (Isaiah 61:1). See Luke 4:18 In the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth is shown to be the Messiah, or Christ or Anointed, of the Old Testament, (John 1:41; Acts 9:22; 17:2,3; 18:4,28) and the historical fact of his being anointed with the Holy Ghost is asserted and recorded. (John 1:32,33; Acts 4:27; 10:38). Christ was anointed as prophet, priest, and king.

2. Spiritual anointing with the Holy Spirit is also conferred upon Christians by God (2 Corinthians 1:21). "Anointing" expresses the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit upon Christians who are priests and kings unto God.

Biblical Uses of Anointing Oil

In the Bible, anointing with oil is served in religious ceremonies and used for grooming (Ruth 3:3; Matthew 6:17), refreshment (Luke 7:46), medicinal remedies (Luke 10:34), and burial customs (Mark 16:1).

Traditional Daily Use

Anointing with oil was traditional among the Hebrews as welcoming someone to their home. It also was common for early Christians to anoint themselves to revive or energize their bodies.  A common use of anointing oils would be to honor someone as an act of hospitality.

Medicine and Invocation for Healing

Oil was used for the sick as well as applied to injuries. High-quality anointing oils, medicines, and fragrances created with pure ingredients had calming and therapeutic properties from the medicinal attributes of natural plant extracts. The traditional practice would be to anoint those sick and pray an anointing appeal for healing.

The anointing of the sick is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The Anointing of the Sick is a biblically-based ceremony performed in certain Christian denominations for the benefit of a person who is ill, frail from age, or about to have major surgery. The ceremony petitions God for the person’s spiritual and physical healing through the Holy Spirit and is meant to unite the person with the suffering of Christ. Read more about this specific type of use of anointing oil in our article: What is Anointing of the Sick and is it Biblical? 

Protection in Spiritual Warfare

The phrase "anoint the shield" (Isaiah 21:5) indicates the practice of rubbing oil on the leather of a soldier’s shield so it would be agile and prepared for war. The common practice would be for preparing or engaging in a spiritual battle.

Bible Examples of Anointing

In the Bible, anointing is often associated with consecration, dedication, and empowerment for a specific purpose. Here are some notable examples of anointing in the Bible:

Anointing of Aaron and his sons: In Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 8:12, God instructs Moses to anoint Aaron, the high priest, and his sons with oil to consecrate them for their priestly duties.

Anointing of Kings: Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel in 1 Samuel 10:1. In 1 Samuel 16:13, Samuel anointed David as the future king while he was still a shepherd.

Anointing of Jesus: Jesus, the Messiah, is referred to as the "Anointed One." The term "Christ" is derived from the Greek word for "anointed." In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61, proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him because He has been anointed to preach good news.

Anointing for Healing: In James 5:14-15, believers are encouraged to anoint the sick with oil and pray for their healing, illustrating the spiritual power of anointing in physical restoration.

Anointing for Empowerment: In Acts 10:38, it is mentioned how God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power, empowering Him to do good and heal all whom the devil oppressed.

Anointing for the Holy Spirit: Believers in the early Christian community were anointed with oil as a symbolic act when they received the Holy Spirit. This is referenced in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 and 1 John 2:20, 27.

Anointing for Service: In Psalm 23:5, the psalmist speaks of being anointed with oil as a symbol of God's blessings and provision.

These examples highlight the diverse ways in which anointing is used in the Bible, symbolizing consecration, authority, empowerment, and God's favor in various contexts.

Photo Credit: Getty Images/dulezidar

This article is part of our Christian Terms catalog, exploring words and phrases of Christian theology and history. Here are some of our most popular articles covering Christian terms to help your journey of knowledge and faith:

The Full Armor of God
The Meaning of "Selah"
What Is Grace? Bible Definition and Christian Quotes
What is Discernment? Bible Meaning and Importance
What Is Prophecy? Bible Meaning and Examples


Christianity / Theology / Christian Terms / What is an Anointing? Meaning and Examples in the Bible