The Laying on of Hands

In this lesson Mike will discuss the symbolism and practice of the laying on of hands from both the Old and New Testament perspective.
Class by:

In the first eight chapters of this book we have dealt with the qualifications and responsibilities of elders and deacons. Elders were mature Christian men chosen by preachers or other elders according to specific qualifications. Their task was to provide leadership through teaching, prayer, example and shepherding. Deacons were Christian men, mature in the faith, chosen by the congregation according to certain qualifications and confirmed by the elders to carry out certain tasks.

We dealt with the two main controversial issues concerning elders and deacons:

  1. That the passage "husband of one wife" has been interpreted to mean many things, but the interpretation that teaches that this expression refers to a man who has only been married once in his life is certainly correct, and to choose these types of men would guarantee that this person is biblically qualified.
  2. That there is some evidence in non-biblical literature to suggest that there may have been women serving as deacons in ancient times. However, the passages that describe the qualifications required to be a deacon overwhelmingly support the teaching that only men were appointed as deacons, and we are biblically correct to select only men for this role in the church. (If the only source we look at is the Bible.)

I do not suggest that those who see these two issues in other ways are heretics and going to hell but rather, after verifying the evidence and carefully considering the teachings, I feel that the prudent, biblical and most edifying interpretation is the one that supports male spiritual leadership in the church.

Hands, especially the right hand, in Hebrew thought had great meaning: the right hand symbolized power and authority. (One carried the sword in the right hand.) The image of hands was often used to signify various ideas. For example:

Dropping the hands was used as a sign of weakness or lack of resolution, and to hold them up was the remedy.

10Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. 13So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.
- Exodus 17:10-13

Lifting the hands signified violence or, in other contexts, supplication in prayer.

Placing the hand under the thigh was a way to ratify an agreement. Abraham's servant did this as a promise to find Isaac a wife from Abraham's own people (Genesis 24:9). This gesture was like raising your hand when you give an oath in court today.

Washing the hands often signified innocence (Deuteronomy 21:6).

The hands were used to execute a transfer from one state to another. Sometimes both hands were used or laid upon something or someone else to signify a transfer from one person to the other as Jacob did in transferring a blessing to his sons (Genesis 48).

Levites were ordained as representatives of the people before God by the placing of the hands of the people upon them. The people transferred themselves to the Levites by the laying on of hands (Numbers 8:10).

The worshipers would place hands on an animal to be offered as a guilt sacrifice signifying that they were transferring their guilt to the animal, and the animal's death would carry their guilt away (Leviticus 1:4).

By the time of the New Testament the symbolism of the hand, and especially the laying on of hands, was a well-established idea. Jesus used this gesture, and so did the Apostles in special situations and with various meanings:

  1. Healing. Jesus laid hands on people to heal them (Mark 6:5) and so did His Apostles and early disciples (Acts 9:12 - Ananias; Acts 28:8 - Paul).
  2. Blessing. Jesus blessed the children by laying His hands upon them (Matthew 19:13), but we do not see this practice carried on by the Apostles or disciples.
  3. Praying. The Jewish custom was to raise one's hands in prayer, and it seemed that this gesture was still being practiced by Christians because Paul refers to it in I Timothy 2:8.
  4. Miracles. In the book of Acts we see the Apostles laying their hands on different disciples in order to give them the ability to do various miracles (tongues, healings, etc.). Sometimes this ability was conferred without the laying on of hands by anyone (i.e. the Apostles themselves, Cornelius) but when it was given by the laying on of hands, it was always the Apostles' hands.

In other words, you could receive the ability to do miracles directly from God or through the laying on of hands of the Apostles, but if you were not an Apostle, you could not transfer this to someone else.

14Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, 15who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. 16For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 8:14-17

After the Apostles, Cornelius and Paul there were no other examples of people receiving the power to do miracles directly from God, only through the Apostles. After the Apostles died you see less people able to do miracles since they were the only ones God used to transfer this power.

5. Ordination. This word means to appoint or to make stand, and is used in the New Testament to describe a situation where one person is appointed to a role or task. The laying on of hands symbolizes the transfer of authority and agreement to another's new role or task by one in authority (Acts 6 - deacons; Acts 13 - missionaries; II Timothy 1:6 - preachers).

The question is, "Do we lay hands today?" I believe that we should when the situation calls for it. If the Apostles did it, then we can and should when it is scriptural:

  1. Healing. We no longer have the miraculous power to heal and so we do not lay hands symbolically for this. We touch in order to encourage and show affection, but not to heal.
  2. Blessing. We are all brothers without authority over each other so we can pray for each other, but I cannot give you a blessing like Jesus could. Note that there is no further mention of this after Jesus is gone.
  3. Praying. There are all kinds of positions used to pray, and if one wants to lift hands, he or she is free to do so. The New Testament says that at that time people were still doing this so there is no reason why we cannot if we really want to. This is a personal choice to express and be perceived as reverent.
  4. Miracles. Again, we no longer can do miracles, and so we can no longer transfer this power as well.
  5. Ordination. We still commend and appoint men to preach, to serve as deacons, to go on missions, and so I think we can and should use this symbol to signify our approval and appointment of people into ministry.


Each congregation needs to make an effort to progress, an effort to create the environment for growth. God causes the growth but we are responsible for creating the environment for growth by developing each area of ministry. We plant and water but God causes growth. There is no growth without planting and watering. The laying on of hands is usually a sign that a church is growing because different people are stepping into greater roles of ministry, and the laying on of hands marks the transfer point from step to step in that development.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some examples from scripture of the practice of laying on of hands?
  2. From scripture and the associated text for this lesson, list some ways Jesus and the apostles used laying on of hands and how do these apply today? (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 9:12, Acts 28:8)
  3. What is the responsibility of the Lord's church in regards to fostering growth and how does this compliment God's role in causing growth?
  4. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?