The Laying On Of Hands
When Paul placed his hands on them, the holy spirit came on them, and they speak in tongues and prophesied. (Acts 19:6 NIV)
By Leonard Griehs
In the early days of the church, Paul took special steps to assure that the teachers he left with his churches would be properly fitted for their work. In Acts 20:28, he told the elders at Ephesus to “take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the holy spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God.” Paul knew that for them to be effective, they must have a deep knowledge of God, and consequently would have a danger of being caught up in the evangelistic work at the expense of their inner life. He told them of their duty to both feed the flock and warn the flock. As Paul was leaving, he warned them of both external and internal problems in the church of future days, and cautioned those elders to beware of false prophets who would arise to try to lead the church at Ephesus astray. In verse 33, Paul exhorts them to self sacrifice and self-denial in their ministry to the church. We then read in verses 36 and 37 that “when he had thus spoken he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him,” and sent him off to his work. This scripture perhaps best conveys the idea of the significance of the laying on of hands. The Ephesian elders were endorsing Paul’s commitment and wishing him God-speed on his journey to Greece.
Their laying on of hands conferred a special association with Paul and a special recognition of him in the work of God. elsewhere in the new testament, we find this to be the most common use of the ritual.
Why was it done? There are seven instances recorded in the new testament of the laying on of hands. They supply the entire testimony of God respecting this early practice. As is so often the case, however, a few examples of a similar practice in the Hebrew Bible will help us to better understand this ceremony.
Old Testament Instances
In the Hebrew Bible the ceremony was used to impart a personal blessing by God’s recognized spokesperson. In Genesis 48:14-16 NIV, we read, “But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Mannaseh’s head, even though Mannaseh was the firstborn. Then he blessed Joseph, and said . . .the Angel who has delivered me from all harm, may he bless the boys; may they be called by my name and by the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac. . .” Here Israel (Jacob) delivered a blessing upon his sons from his deathbed, indicating that they would prosper in the promise he was given from God through the wrestling angel. Jacob recognized that the promise would be channeled through his sons, and that they were each to play a special role in God’s promise to bless all the families of the earth. He indicated God’s choice for each son in the unfolding of the divine plan and gave them special abilities to assure their proper role.
Another instance of this kind of blessing occurs in Lev. 9:22, where “Aaron lifted up his hand toward the People, and blessed them . . .” Following the sacrifices of the sin-offering, Aaron raised his hand over the people to show God’s acceptance of the Israelites. Aaron knew that the success of the sacrifices meant that God was pleased and had chosen to be with the children of Israel for another year in the journey toward the promised land.
A second use of this ceremony is recorded at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses recognizes Joshua as the one God had chosen to lead the children of Israel into the promised land. We read in Deuteronomy 34:9 that “Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him.” At first reading, it might appear that Moses was passing on his authority and wisdom to Joshua. However, it was God, not Moses, who authorized Joshua for this great work. Joshua 1:2-5 says, “Moses, my servant is dead; now therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all the people. . .there shall no man be able to stand before thee all the days of they life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” Moses foresaw God’s choice for the rest of this great work, and by laying his hands on Joshua, recognized the continuity of the task that lay before him and indicated God’s blessing upon him..
Another use of the ceremony appears In the worship of the tabernacle, where the sacrificer laid hands on the animal before it was slain, “And he(the sacrificer) shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” This indication that the animal represented the person making the sacrifice was important in that what was done to the animal represented what would be accomplished by the worshipper. Later in the sacrifices we find the ceremony occurring with the “scapegoat,” where the sins of the people were transferred by the laying on of hands upon the goat before it was sent into the wilderness. “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel . . .” (Lev. 16:21) an identification with the subject of the ceremony.
In summary, the laying on of hands in the Hebrew scriptures showed a blessing upon the recipient to carry on the work of God in executing the plan, or to associate the purveyor with the subject in a work that was to be done.
New Testament Instances
In the New Testament, we find the laying on of hands associated with three different concepts: healing, conveying the gifts of the spirit, and endorsing a worker chosen by God to begin a great work. The first two uses fall exclusively within the possession of Jesus and his apostles in the work of forming the church, a concept similar to the execution by God’s patriarchs of conveying a blessing for the continuation of the work in building the nation of Israel. The third concept closely resembles the Hebrew ceremony of association with the one receiving the laying on of hands for a special work.
Jesus and his apostles healed through laying on of hands. (Matt. 9:18; Mark 5:23, 6:5, 8:22-25; Luke 4:40, 13:13; Acts 28:8) Through this ceremony the divine power (holy spirit) passed from Jesus and his apostles to the beneficiaries for a specific purpose. Paul, also commissioned as an apostle, used his power to heal others (Acts 28:8), but was apparently God did not allow him to heal himself. This suggests that the purpose of the healing was as a sign to followers, not a way to escape the perils of the flesh. While we cannot deny that some today use “healing” to eradicate illness, we find that God authorized the use of healing for Jesus and his apostles as a sign that He was with them in building his church.
Gifts of the Spirit
In addition to the theme text, two other scriptures describe this practice: “Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the holy spirit” (Acts 8:17-19); “Stir up the gift of God that is in thee, by the laying on of my hands” (2 Tim. 1:6).
The special gifts of the spirit, mentioned in I Cor. 12 were conferred through the laying on of the hands of the apostles. (They came spontaneously only in exceptional cases, as in Acts 2:4 and 10:45). In Acts 8:13-21, Simon Magus was unable to confer the gift he possessed to others and was reproved by Peter for offering money to obtain this power. The ability to pass on the gifts resided in the apostles alone. Even Philip, who was able to perform signs and great miracles, could not confer the gifts of the spirit, but needed to send for the apostles to do this. These incidents support Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 13:8, that these “gifts” would fade away with the deaths of the apostles. However, those gifts of faith, hope and love which Paul declared would abide forever were not miraculous gifts, but “fruits” as he describes later in this same passage.
Endorsing a Worker For God
Four events show the most common use in the New Testament was to indicate consent for and identification with one chosen for a work.
“Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbyter.”—1 Tim. 4:14
Timothy was very special to Paul. When Paul lay in his prison cell in Rome, months before his death, it was Timothy he called upon to help him. Others deserted him, but Timothy stayed faithful to Paul to the end, enough so that Paul referred to him as his “son” (2 Tim. 4:9-13. Paul had selected Timothy as his closest associate. Paul and Barnabas would part ways, but Timothy never leave. Paul had likely been present at Timothy’s baptism and had laid hands on him to grant him the gifts of the spirit. When Paul went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-19), Timothy was already a close associate.
At Jerusalem, James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, recognized the special role Timothy would play in Paul’s ministry and convinced the other apostles that they should give their special endorsement to Timothy. They did not choose or authorize Timothy, but merely recognized him as the one chosen by God for a special work with Paul, a knowledge conveyed to them through a special “prophecy” from the Lord.
“Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them” (Acts 6:6). Deacons were representatives of the church in Jerusalem who would be responsible for the more mundane matters of the church: administering to the poor, taking care of the widows, arranging for the distribution of food among the brethren. The office was created as a special support to the church which still exists today.
These deacons were not being commissioned to preach through the laying on of hands, nor were they given the gifts of the spirit. They were especially selected to execute the arrangements of the church. One of those selected, Stephen, would later become the first of Jesus’ followers to die in his footsteps. The laying on of hands showed approval for those chosen in executing the task at hand and showed association with them in that work.
“In the Church that was at Antioch . . . the holy spirit said, separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work where unto I have called thee. And when they had laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:1-3)
This at first sight seems strange, for Barnabas and Saul had been doing a work at Antioch for over a year! When this command came for Peter to lay hands on them, it was not to commission them for work, but to recognize their ordination by God for a special work and a personal association with that work. (See Acts 9:20-29 and 11:26). The laying on of hands denoted representation, just as in the case of the old testament offerers who laid hands upon the animal before it was slain, indicating that it represented them. Thus the congregation at Antioch associated themselves with these two representatives entering the field work. Later Paul and Barnabas returned to the church at Antioch to give a special report of the work done (Acts 14:26, 27; 15:3). It was a way for the brethren at Antioch to give their special blessing to these two early missionaries and tell them “God speed; you are representing us in your work.”
“Lay hands hastily on no man, and be not partaker of other men’s sins.” (1 Tim. 5:22)
When Paul sent a letter to Timothy, he was wrestling with many problems in the infant churches Paul described this in most solemn words: “Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 7:5, 6). Although Paul was a great evangelist, he had little time to solidify the churches. He depended on others to do this pastoral work. His admonition to Timothy cautioned the young disciple about being too hasty in endorsing the work of others in the church and to assure that they were supporters of the message that Paul had preached. Paul said there were many who would usurp the teachings he had brought to the church. If Timothy showed his support of an individual through the laying on of hands, he was associating himself with the teachings that person proclaimed. What a lesson for our own day in the choosing of those who would represent us before the congregation! Paul cautioned Timothy, “be sure that any you endorse represent your own thoughts, for you are associating yourself with him.”.
Application to Today
The custom of laying on of hands to indicate representation is generally not practiced in today’s church. Those churches that do practice the ritual have changed from the custom followed in both the old and new testament. Rather than showing association and identification, the practice has become part of an ordination process in authorizing one to preach. However, this was not the practice of the early church. Laying on of hands, which is no longer used to impart a gift of the spirit, and which no longer is used to indicate representation, is perhaps best avoided by those attempting to follow the admonition of scripture. The misunderstanding has caused confusion which is better done without. Many use it today to imbue subjects with supposed supernatural abilities or to give power in a kind of apostolic succession process. Perhaps the better way is to pray in the congregation for one who enters a work. In this way we assure that it is God who is recognized as the authority to choose whom he may for his great work of salvation.