Metaphors Revealing the Holy Spirit, Part 3: Oil as a Metaphor for the Holy Spirit

By John McKinley Mar. 28, 2016 9:00 a.m. New Testament, Theology

In part three of this series, I will present the third biblical metaphor revealing the Holy Spirit: oil. We need to discern what the metaphor is, and what its meanings are within the biblical and ANE framework. I will be drawing some details from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. My goal is to recognize patterns of meaning that may be intended to expand our understanding of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in subtle ways hinted at through metaphors.  

Oil

Oil in the biblical revelation refers primarily to olive oil, not petroleum deposits. Uses of oil were for food, but importantly for light (oil lamps, as in the temple, Exod 27:20-21), consecration of the priests (Lev 8:30), a lotion for skin and ointment for hair (e.g., Ps 23:5), and for healing as a ritual invocation of God’s touch (Lev 14:1-18, cf. James 5:14). Olive oil has some medicinal properties that fit with the metaphorical usage in anointing for healing.

Among the more than 200 times that oil is mentioned in the Bible, the connection as a metaphor of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action is clear in the ritual of anointing prophets, priests, and kings. For example, when the prophet-judge Samuel anointed David with oil to be the new king of Israel, the next statement is that “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam 16:13 nasb). At this point in the history, we have already seen that God’s pattern with Moses and the elders of Israel, Joshua, the Judges, and Saul was to empower them by the Spirit for leadership and military prowess.

In David’s case, all his accomplishments subsequent to being anointed by the Spirit are to be interpreted as empowered by the Spirit. By contrast, the Holy Spirit had abandoned king Saul because of disobedience. After David, the Spirit of God also gifted Solomon with great wisdom, a natural connection with being anointed as king. Unfortunately, being anointed by the Spirit did not prevent Samson, Saul, David, or Solomon from failing in many ways.

Despite David’s failings, he figures as the model of God’s future work to save the people through the ultimate Anointed One, the Messiah to come in David’s family line. The patterns of anointing prophets, priests, and kings come together in Jesus the Messiah. By these three roles, Jesus is the man empowered by the Spirit to declare, reconcile, and accomplish God’s salvation for the people. The idea of anointing with oil points to the Spirit upon an individual, even for the Son of God.

The repeated emphasis on Jesus Christ as the Anointed One (meshiach and christos both mean “anointed”) plays on the metaphor of oil for the intense presence and action of the Holy Spirit. This connection seems clear in two examples where the Spirit’s presence is told in the terms of anointing with oil in relation to the Messiah.

Isaiah 61:1

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners (cf. Luke 4:18, nasb)

Acts 10:38

You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. (nasb)

I am not saying that every reference to oil in the Bible is a symbol for the Holy Spirit’s involvement, but I am saying that every reference to anointing implies either a plea for the Spirit’s action (as in consecration or healing) or a revelation of the Spirit’s presence to empower individuals (as for prophets, priests, and kings).

In the case of Jesus, Peter’s statement is an echo of the OT promises of the Messiah as the preeminent man of the Spirit. Peter credits the Spirit with all of Jesus’ works of teaching, miracles, healing, and exorcisms (cf. Matt 12:28). Some might be concerned that such a statement seems like the heresy that Jesus was merely a man of the Spirit and not also the Son of God and fully divine (Dynamistic Monarchianism, Adoptionism, and Ebionitism, all of which wrongly misread Jesus as merely a man empowered by a divine Spirit, and deny Jesus’ deity).

No, instead of heresy we can affirm with Chalcedonian Christology that God the Son took on full human existence while remaining what he was as God. In other words, the Word lived as a true man on our scale of limited powers, and he also bore the expression of the Spirit’s presence and action in a human life, in response to the Father. Any work God does in creation is the Spirit’s action, joined with the Word, and from the Father.

Instead of counting Jesus’ miracles as expressions of his divine power, we can follow the pattern of identifying him as the man of the Spirit to see the miracles as expressive of the Spirit’s work through Jesus. The miracles are the Spirit’s revelation of Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah, who is God the Son, Immanuel (Isa. 7:14) and Mighty God (Isa. 9:6).

The metaphor of oil—the visible and tangible liquid poured upon and absorbed by a human being—tells the invisible presence and action of the Holy Spirit. If right, then every reference to Jesus as Christ, the Anointed One, refers to his necessary association with the Spirit. The biblical associations of oil with light in oil lamps is a good fit with the Spirit’s work to reveal and illuminate God and his word. This meaning also overlaps with fire, which is another metaphor of the Spirit. When God reveals to people, the Spirit of prophecy anoints people to function as prophets. The use of oil in consecration and healing also fits with the Spirit’s work to sanctify people, which is stated multiple times in the NT.

Finally, the metaphor of oil indicates the continuity of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence and action between Jesus and Christians. Luke-Acts emphasizes a theme that the same Spirit at work in Jesus is now at work in Christians; this theology is concisely restated in the metaphorical statement of anointing. For example, John reminds Christians about the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and teaching of them by saying merely, “you have an anointing from the Holy One [= Jesus] … the anointing which you received from him abides in you … his anointing teaches you about all things …” (1 John 2:20, 27 nasb). Always in view to carry this theology is the metaphor of oil with its ideas of light, healing, and consecration.

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