'Jesus, you're brilliant!' exclaimed a new Christian. Another, blissfully unaware of terms like 'outreach', 'evangelism' and 'winning the lost', said, 'I think I'm going to be a recruiter for Jesus.'

Isn't it marvellous when unchurched people describe their experience of the Lord without the jargon. Sadly, they don't stay that way for long. Within weeks they're 'flowing in the Spirit', 'moving in faith' and 'ministering under the anointing'. They've learnt a whole new language.

It wouldn't be so bad if that language was biblical. We can't avoid expressions like 'redemption', 'faith' and 'holiness' if we're people of the Book. They're Christianity's verbal framework. But it's unhelpful to clutter our vocabulary with heaps of unbiblical terms or—even worse—with biblical terms used in an unbiblical way.

Years ago, while editor of Restoration magazine, I ran a series called A Spanner in the Words—Adjusting our Vocabulary. Today, the 'in' phrases may be different but the need for adjustment remains. Take 'anointing', for example. It's on everybody's lips but it's rarely used correctly and requires major effort with a monkey-wrench rather than tinkering with a spanner. So what's it all about?

Anointing is an act, an event, something that's done to you. Anointing means having oil poured on your head, and it was done in Old Testament days to kings, priests and prophets to set them apart to their royal, priestly or prophetic calling.[1]  It symbolised the empowering of the Holy Spirit. As the oil flowed down from your head onto your face and the collar of your clothes,[2] so you could expect the Holy Spirit to come upon you and empower you for the job.[3]

Anointing happened to you once, and once only.[4]  You couldn't have 'a new anointing'. Nor could your anointing be undone, not even by sin—King Saul, long after he had forsaken the Lord's ways, remained 'the Lord's anointed'.[5]

In all this we can distinguish two things: the anointing itself, which was an act or event, and the anointing-oil, which symbolised the Holy Spirit. The two should not be confused.

When we come to the New Testament, anointing takes on a whole new dimension. Now, it's not just a few kings, priests and prophets who have oil poured on them to equip them for their task, it's all believers. That's no surprise because, in Christ, all believers are kings, priests and prophets.[6]

With us, there's no literal pouring of oil on the head. Rather, we receive what the Old Testament anointing-oil symbolised: the Holy Spirit himself. Jesus himself set the pattern for us, as he does in everything. At his baptism, as he emerged from obscurity as a village carpenter to embark on his public ministry, the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove.[7]  Referring to this event, Peter said, 'You know what has happened throughout Judea… how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.'[8]

Jesus' anointing was an event that happened on a particular day at the River Jordan. The 'oil' was the Holy Spirit, who came on him in power. As a result, he came to be recognised as the Messiah, which means 'Anointed One' in Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament . He was also the Christ, which means 'Anointed One' in Greek, the language of the New.

Anointing was always for a purpose, and in Jesus' case Isaiah prophesied what that purpose would be. He gave Messiah's job-description. Accordingly, Jesus took Isaiah's words on his own lips at the beginning of his ministry: 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'[9]

Our own experience is in line with his. Like him, we get anointed once, and once only. It's when we receive the Holy Spirit or, to use an alternative term, when we are baptised in the Holy Spirit—something that happens, ideally, as part of our Christian initiation. It's to this that Paul refers when he says, 'Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.'[10]  The three expressions are simply different angles on the one truth, Paul's triple underlining of the importance of receiving the Spirit.

Your anointing is not the Holy Spirit. He's the 'oil' that you were anointed with. Your anointing was your baptism in the Holy Spirit, your initial, dramatic receiving of him in power. It was an event, and one as memorable as having oil poured on you Old Testament-style. So you can't have any more anointings. The anointing is, by definition, initiatory and a one-off. You may—and I hope you will—have further experiences of the Spirit, occasions when you feel his presence and power particularly keenly, but strictly speaking they're not anointings.

Nor should we say, 'Fred's preaching was really anointed tonight.' It's people who are anointed, not preaching or singing, guitar-playing or prophesying. We all know what it means, of course: 'There was an exceptional sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit as Fred preached'—which is fine. But let's be sure it was indeed the Holy Spirit. It's all too easy to equate his presence with noise, a dramatic presentation and sometimes, sadly, with hype.

We should be careful, too, with the phrase 'anointed to…' People ask, 'What's your anointing?' and expect a reply like, 'I'm anointed to lead the congregation in worship from the keyboard.' Again, we know what that means, but it's a misuse of the term. We're all anointed to do the same thing as Jesus. Head and body are one—Christ the Head in heaven, and ourselves, the church, his body on earth.[11]  His job-description and ours are one and the same: 'to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.'

Within that general brief the Lord has dispensed a whole variety of gifts, both natural and spiritual, to get the job done. Your speciality may be the keyboard, or teaching, or caring for children, or prophesying. But those are gifts, not 'anointings'.

The initial event of being anointed leads to life in an anointed condition, and the good thing is that you can't 'lose your anointing'—you can't become a non-king, a non-priest and a non-prophet any more than you can become unborn. John says, 'You have an anointing from the Holy One…As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you…'[12]  God anointed you, and the condition is by definition permanent. Through unwholesome talk or bitterness you may grieve the Holy Spirit.[13]  By your lack of thankfulness or a critical attitude to prophecy you may even quench him, damping down the fires of his activity in and through you.[14]  But you can never get rid of him; you can never revert to an unanointed status.

Be encouraged! Whether you feel the presence and power of the Spirit with you at a particular time is really neither here nor there. He may show himself plainly at times as wind or fire—and having a taste for the spectacular we all enjoy that—but at other times his 'still, small voice' speaking through you may be so quiet that you don't realise it's there.

Just remind yourself daily: 'I'm anointed', and expect to live in the good of it.

Copyright © David Matthew 1999

1. Examples are, for a king, Solomon (1 Kings 1:39); for a priest, Aaron and his sons (Exodus 30:30); and for a prophet, Elisha (1 Kings 19:16).

2. Psalm 133:2

5. 1 Samuel 24:6; 26:9; 2 Samuel 1:14

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Understanding anointing

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.


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3. For example, 'Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power' (1 Samuel 16:13).

4. The obvious exception that proves this rule is David. He was anointed as king three times. The first was privately, in his father's house, while Saul still occupied the throne (1 Samuel 16:13); the second was when, after his time as an outlaw, he became king of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4); and the third was when he became king over Israel as a whole (2 Samuel 5:3).

6. We are kings, reigning with Christ (Romans 5:17); we are priests, able to enter God's presence without any human intermediary (Revelation 5:10); we are prophets, able to declare the word of the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:31).

7. Luke 3:22

8. Acts 10:37-38; see also Acts 4:26-27

Anointed with oil

9. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2

10. 2 Corinthians 1:21-22

11. Colossians 1:18; 2:19

12. 1 John 2:20, 27

13. Ephesians 4:29-31

14. 1 Thessalonians 5:18-21

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