Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. — 1 Samuel 16:13
The first two times the word “oil” appears in Scripture, it symbolizes God’s presence. Genesis 28:18 says, “So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.” Similarly, Genesis 35:14, the second occurrence of the word, says, “Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he had spoken with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured out a drink offering on it and poured oil on it.” In both of these passages, God met Jacob in a special way, and it had such a profound impact on Jacob, that he couldn’t just get up and get on with his day. He had to mark it on his calendar. He had to do something do symbolize the importance of this event in his life. He had to find a way to say to the world, “This is where I met God face-to-face. This is where God became real to me.” To mark this moment and place in which the veil between heaven and earth was lifted for Jacob, he erected a pillar and poured oil on it.
Of all the symbols for the Holy Spirit, oil is the most robust of all. In fact, the most common symbol for God’s presence in the temple and in people’s lives is oil. The phrase “anointing oil” appears eighty-five times in the Old Testament alone. Fifty-four of the eighty-five occurrences of the phrase “anointing oil” are in the Pentateuch and are directly related to God’s holy presence in the tabernacle. Oil served as fuel of the lamps, fragrant anointing oil, and an ingredient in food offerings in the tabernacle. These uses of oil in the tabernacle (and later temple) highlight the points of comparison between oil and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, like oil: (1) illuminates (fuel for lamps), (2) nourishes (ingredient in food), and (3) beautifies (anointing oil).
Oil, like fire, is illuminating. While oil can be fuel for fire, it also has illuminating properties itself. In a word, it’s shiny. Unlike fire, people can literally wear the glow of the Holy Spirit by being anointed with oil. Anointing is a sign that God’s presence is with a person in special way. It is a sign of consecration. It means being set a part. Anointing became regular practice in the context of Israel’s kingship as kings were set a part as specially chosen by God for their commissioning.
Unlike Israel’s neighbors, royalty was not linked to a particular family (at least prior to God’s promised to David in 2 Sam. 7). What made a man king in Israel was God’s special choosing. The human king had a special relationship with God in that he represented the human extension of God’s rule over Israel—and by extension the entire cosmos—on the earth. Just like the Law made clear that it was imperative that Israel reflect God’s goodness in their behavior, it was likewise imperative that the king reflect God in the way that he ruled over God’s people. In other words, the king is a witness to the kind of King God is. If you want to see what God looks like in how He reigns over the universe, take a look at the King of Israel. The king had to reflect the goodness and wisdom of God in his leadership. The expectations for the king to resemble Yahweh is also why he is referred to the “Son of God” (Ps. 2 :7). The son is supposed to look like the Father. All of this resemblance, or reflection, is wrapped up in the symbol of oil. In order for the king to live up to the calling that he has received, he needs the help of the Holy Spirit. He needs a special empowering. He needs to be aglow with the Holy Spirit. This is an authentication factor in being set a part as God’s chosen king. How do we know that this is the king that God has chosen? The proof is in the pudding. The human king will glow with the special presence of God. This was symbolized in oil. The sign of God’s special, empowering presence for ruling over Israel with divine insight, wisdom, and power, was the glow of oil.
We see this in 1 Samuel 9–10, when God chooses Saul as the first King of Israel. It says,
Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him; he said, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the Lord has anointed you ruler over his heritage (1 Sam 10:1).
Here we see the symbol of oil linked to the special presence of God with the king as the chosen one. We see this yet again in the story of God’s choice of David as Saul’s successor. In speaking to Samuel, God said, “‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:12–13).
Because of this practice, anointing with oil became closely linked with kingship in Israel. This is why the Old Testament word for “messiah” literally means “anointed one.” As such, the “messiah” is the “chosen one.” He is the king with God’s special, abiding presence that empowers the king to reign in righteousness of God’s people. Once again, when the king is filled with the Holy Spirit, he is set a part by the glow of special ability to fulfill the task at hand.
John 4 tells the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at a well. In this story, Jesus is traveling through a foreign land and arrives with his disciples at a public well at mid-day. The disciples leave Jesus at the well to go find food and drink. While left alone, a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. While there, Jesus evangelizes the woman. He reveals her heart to her as well as his own identity as the Messiah. She goes away amazed, carrying the news that the Messiah has come. When the disciples return, they ask Jesus to eat the food they have brought him. Jesus tells them he doesn’t need to eat. He says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (Jn 4:34).
Jesus is the model. He demonstrates here that God has created humanity to glorify Him. When this happens, satisfaction and comfort fill the deepest parts of the human soul. Complimentary to this is Matthew 4:4 where Jesus quotes the Old Testament saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
The nourishing work of the Holy Spirit as oil is very different than the nourishment of this world. The abiding presence of Christ is different than the comfort of convenience, or material wealth, or satisfaction that comes from advancing in socio-economic status in society. These comforts do not endure. The comfort and satisfaction that comes from the praise of men, Jesus says, is the extent of the reward. In describing the Pharisees who like to be measured as righteous among the people, Jesus says,
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:1–6).
Jesus makes clear that this sort of earthly reward isn’t like that one stored up in heaven for those pure of heart. The reward of heaven is enduring.
In ministry I had to break the habit of thinking that I was getting in God’s way. I was often plagued by the thought that in all my human imperfections and idiosyncrasies, I was going to mess up God’s work. I’ll never forget the first time I preached a sermon. I was so nervous. I wasn’t nervous because of the public speaking aspect of it, but because I didn’t feel worthy to be the vessel through whom God would speak. I knew I would mess it up. The last thing I wanted to do was distort people’s image of God by misrepresenting him.
What helped me break the bad habit of thinking and feeling this way was Leviticus 14:10–32. This passage comprises instructions for ceremonial cleansing for priests. The instructions are: first apply, water and oil to the right earlobe; then to the same to the right earlobe, the thumb of the right hand, and lastly to the big toe on the right foot. So what does all of this mean?
For starters, the water represents cleaning that prepares for the presence of God. It is only once sins have been dealt with that the Holy Spirit can move in. Concerning the ear, the oil represents the Holy Spirit in speaking wisdom to His servants. They don’t have to do ministry blind! They have special insight and knowledge as to the most effective strategies for disciple-making and overall Kingdom building. As for the toe, the oil is the symbol that the Holy Spirit illuminates our path (Ps. 119:105). Thomas Oden says, “The lamp of the Word that guides our path through the ark is kept burning by the Spirit” (Oden, 1992, p. 45). This means that God is trustworthy concerning where He’s leading for ministry.
Lastly, we have the oil on the thumb. This, at least for me, is a symbol that the Holy Spirit makes the work of our hands—no matter how imperfect—beautiful. He perfects the imperfect. Once again, regarding the oil on the thumb, Oden notes that this means that human hands “might become an instrument of righteousness” (Oden, 1992, p. 46). To seal this act of consecration, “The remainder was poured on the head so the whole soul might be consecrated to God in an act of overflowing grace” (Oden, 1992, p. 46).
The Holy Spirit administers the grace of God in abundance so that people, like Abraham and the disciples, are eligible for service in God’s world-redemption plan.
There’s another way that the Holy Spirit as oil makes the church beautiful. The Holy Spirit, in applying the redemptive work of Christ, removes the ugly stain of sin. The beautiful image of God in all of humanity has been perverted by the fall. Instead of being selfless, we are selfish. The Holy Spirit, through the work of forgiveness and sanctification, restores the selfless, beautiful image of God in people. The Holy Spirit prepares the bride to be suitable for the day of the wedding.
The Holy Spirit, like oil, (1) illuminates, (2) nourishes, and (3) beautifies. Illumination by anointing is the mark of consecration or being set a part for God. It is a sign that people—ranging from an individual to a collective people group—belong to God. The messiah in particular is aglow with the special empowerment of the Holy Spirit as both deliverer and co-regent with God over His people and the creation. The Holy Spirit nourishes by creating an eternally satisfying union between believers and Christ. The oil of the Holy Spirit fills the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit administers gifts for service in the Church which are eternally fulfilling. In the end, there is nothing more nourishing than doing the work of the Father with the help of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, the Holy Spirit as oil makes the work of human hands beautiful. The cleansing of sin guilt takes away the ugly stain of selfishness and returns the beauty of the image of God to every believer.