What Does It Mean to Be Anointed in the Bible?

Anointing is a ritual in which people and places are set apart as portals between heaven and earth.

Prophets, priests, and kings were anointed in the Old Testament. And the title Christ in the New Testament literally translates as “anointed one.” But what does that mean? This post draws from the comments of Tim Mackie and John Collins in a seven-part series by the Bible Project explaining that anointing is a ritual in which people and places are set apart as portals between heaven and earth. The story starts in the Garden of Eden and ends with contemporary Christian disciples.

Listen to the Bible Project Podcast.

What was the biblical practice of anointing?

There’s a ritual in the Bible involving fragrant plants and spices that make a rich oil to pour on special objects or people. This is called anointing oil, and its meaning is rooted in the story of the Garden of Eden, where God provided water for the dry land, and formed the human—filling him with his Spirit. This is the first anointing.

What did anointing symbolize?

The oil becomes itself the symbol of the liquid life of God. It’s the water of life and God’s Spirit combined together, used to mark a person or a place as a bridge between heaven and earth.

This BibleProject video about what it means to be anointed in the Bible traces the topic from the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament to Christian disciples today.

What are some examples in which an object was anointed in the Bible?

Jacob’s ladder

During his wilderness exile, Jacob had a dream. He sees a stairway leading up to heaven. When he awakes, he anoints the stone on which he slept and called the place, “House of God.” A place where heaven and earth are one.

Israelite tabernacle

The Israelites built the tabernacle in the wilderness. When it was completed, they anointed the tent with oil, marking it as a place where God’s heavenly presence has come down to earth.

What did it signify when prophets, priests, and kings were anointed?

Israel’s priests and their kings were anointed with oil to set them apart as leaders. With the kings, the priests, and the prophets you get this image of a portal of God’s rule (for the king) a portal of God’s presence (through the priest), and a portal for God’s word and purpose (through the prophet).

All those heavenly realities are brought to earth, so to speak, through this one who’s marked by the oil.

How was Saul an example of a biblical anti-Christ?

Here’s what’s surprising: King Saul—the first anointed king—becomes the first anti-Christ in the Bible. The Greek word Christ is the Greek word for anointed one, so the anti-Christ means “anti-anointed one.”

What’s interesting is the first anointed king in Israel’s history actually becomes the biggest obstacle to the anointed king that God wants to raise up. That is, David, his replacement. So, Saul becomes the first anti-anointed.

What did Isaiah prophesy about an ultimate anointed one?

David’s sons just keep on failing. And Israel gets more and more corrupt until God lets them get carried off into exile. And so now, with no land, and no kings, how will God be faithful to his promise to David?

Well, the prophet Isaiah writes that God will bring a new deity who will rule in a new way.

That’s what Jesus experiences here.

What Isaiah believes we need is not just a new king from the line of David—we know what those guys are mostly like—what we need is another David. He won’t look like a royal, glorious heir from the line of David, ruling in Jerusalem. It’s not going to be like that. Somehow that ruler is going to look like somebody who is rejected, isn’t honorable in the eyes of important people. And he identifies with people in their suffering and grief.

The new David will bring justice and crush the serpent once and for all. But it won’t be by brute force or military power. This anointed servant is going to accomplish justice for the nations, but you wouldn’t pick him out in a crowd.

What’s interesting is it uses what you think would be violent imagery—with the sword he will strike his enemies—but what he’s striking and slaying with are his words. His words will bring about order. His words will push back chaos and disorder and death in the land.

What is the literal meaning of Christ?

It’s a Greek word—chrio—which, when you talk about a person who has been poured or smeared with oil, the title of that person is Christos, which is the title, Christ.

The Hebrew word for that is masiah. And what you call someone who has had oil smeared all over them is mashiach—from which we get the word, Messiah.

Why is Jesus called Christ if he never had an anointing ceremony in Jerusalem?

The Gospel writers treat the baptism of Jesus like an anointing ceremony where God pours out not oil, but his spirit.

The claim of this narrative is that the oil ceremony is a symbol of the original human image of God’s anointing of Eden, where God provides water on the dry land to grow a garden. And then pours out his spirit on a particular lump of the dry ground that is then formed into the shape of a human, but is not yet alive—until it is christened with the Spirit of God.

That’s what Jesus experiences here.

How was Jesus anointed before his death?

There’s a story of Jesus getting anointed by some kind of perfumy, expensive oil, by a woman in each of the four Gospels. However, they’re split into two categories.

In the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John, what we hear of is of Jesus’ feet being anointed. In Luke, it’s a woman who’s just called a “sinful woman,” and she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. And then in John 12, it’s Mary in Bethany.

The sufferings of Christ become a model.

Then you get two stories: one in Mark 14 and one in Matthew 26. It’s Jesus’ head being anointed by someone called Mary at Bethany. And Jesus connects this to His coming burial.

So, there are four stories—two about feet anointing, two about head anointing. And different details from the stories kind of swap between the two. That’s a whole rabbit hole.

What do “Christians” mean in the context of anointing?

After Christ’s resurrection, his disciples then—and every disciple since—receive God’s spirit as well, making all the disciples of Jesus anointed ones who follow the Anointed One.

They’re people marked by God’s spirit so that more and more of earth can be filled with the life of heaven.

How are Christ’s sufferings a model for today’s Christian?

What’s significant is that the sufferings of Christ become a model for the suffering of Christians. Because to be the anointed one is to be one outside of Eden who endures the tests of our trust and allegiance on behalf of others.

There’s something that marks the suffering of the righteous that becomes a witness to the sufferings of Christ.

About the Bible Project

The Bible Project is a crowd-funded nonprofit organization that creates free study materials, including podcasts, blogs, and Bible videos. The nonprofit group isn’t connected with any specific religious denomination.

Further reading

Anointing in the Bible resources

Scriptures on anointing

This is a list of scriptures on anointing in the Bible:

  • Genesis 28:18
  • Exodus 28:41
  • Exodus 30:25
  • Exodus 40:9
  • Leviticus 8:10, 12
  • Leviticus 21:12
  • Deuteronomy 28:40
  • 1 Samuel 9:16
  • 1 Samuel 15:1
  • 1 Samuel 24:6
  • 2 Samuel 1:14
  • 2 Samuel 12:7
  • 2 Samuel 19:21
  • Psalm 2:2
  • Psalm 23:5
  • Isaiah 61:1
  • Mark 6:13
  • Luke 4:18
  • Luke 7:38, 46
  • Acts 4:27
  • Acts 10:38
  • 2 Corinthians 1:21
  • James 5:14
  • 1 John 2:20, 27

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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