One of the good things to have come out of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements is a greater awareness of the importance of laying on hands in Christian practice. This aspect of the Christian faith is still routinely neglected in more than a few parts of the church. But Pentecostals and Charismatics have helped to revive its use in many congregations, and this is something to be glad about.
Laying on of hands in the New Testament
In the New Testament we find the laying on of hands being used in a number of different ways. It is used in connection with:
See Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; ; -25; Luke ; ; Acts 9:12-17; 28:8.
See Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-16.
(3) receiving spiritual gifts and/or commissioning for tasks or ministries
See Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Timothy ; ; 2 Timothy 1:6.
(4) receiving the Holy Spirit
See Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-6; Hebrews 6:2.
Misunderstanding laying on of hands
There is a serious misconception that Christians often have about the laying on of hands. Many wrongly think it is just a symbol of something that is going on spiritually.
Those who take this view would see laying on hands for healing, for example, simply as a visible symbol of the healing that is taking place. Similarly, they would understand using hands to commission for a ministry merely as a symbol of the commissioning. And the same would be true for each context in which hands are used.
With an attitude like this, it’s easy to see why the laying on of hands is still sidelined in so much of the church. If the hands are just a symbol of something that is going to happen anyway, then they are obviously not very important.
Crucially, however, according to the Bible laying on of hands is actually a means by which God does things. It is a kind of spiritual channel through which He acts.
There could possibly be a symbolic element to it as well. But even if there is, this is only of minor importance. Essentially, in Scripture the laying on of hands is a channel through which God does something.
New Testament passages
It is true that not all the passages I listed above make it clear that laying on of hands is a channel.
(1) In none of the passages do we get the impression that it is not a channel.
(2) In most of the passages there seems to be at least an implication that the hands are doing more than just symbolising something that is going on.
(3) In some of the passages the hands seem clearly to be a channel rather than a mere symbol.
The following four texts are especially relevant:
In Mark Jairus, a synagogue leader, begs Jesus:
‘My young daughter is at death’s door. Come and lay your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’
The laying on of hands here should surely not be understood as just a symbol. Rather, there is a strong implication that it is a means of healing. The parallel account in Matthew 9:18 makes this almost as clear.
In Mark Mark tells us:
‘They brought to [Jesus] someone who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him.’
Again, it is very difficult to suppose that the laying on of Jesus’ hand (one hand, in this case) should be viewed as a mere symbol. It is far more natural to understand it as an important part of the healing process.
In Acts 9:10-12 Luke writes:
‘Now there was a disciple at
called Ananias. . . . And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to Straight Street and ask . . . for a man from Tarsus called Saul, for he is praying, and in a vision he has seen a man called Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”’ Damascus
Note in this passage that the purpose of the laying on of hands is so that Saul might see again. This strongly suggests that this action is a channel of healing and not just a symbol.
2 Timothy 1
In 2 Timothy 1:6 Paul encourages Timothy:
‘For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands’.
It is very difficult to understand the laying on of hands in this verse as a mere symbol. Instead, Paul’s words strongly imply that the hands were the means through which Timothy came into possession of the gift that Paul refers to.
Drawing a conclusion about the New Testament references
In the passages we have looked at, then, we can be very confident that the laying on of hands is a channel through which God acts. And as I have already noted, other passages seem to suggest that the hands are more than just a symbol, and no passages imply that they are not a channel. In view of these points, it makes sense to conclude that every time the New Testament refers to laying on hands, it is a means of God doing something. It is a channel through which He acts.
Importantly, there is no reason to think that there are two kinds of laying on hands in Christian practice, one a means and the other a mere symbol, especially as there is no evidence for the latter. Instead, by far the more natural conclusion to draw is that laying on hands in the New Testament is always a channel through which God does something.
The experience of Christians also points in this direction. Many believers will testify that the laying on of hands is a channel and not a mere symbol.
Personally, I have experienced laying on of hands on a few occasions. Each time I got a strong impression that the hands were a means through which God acted.
I have had hands laid on me successfully for healing on one occasion. I have also had hands laid on me that resulted in my receiving the gift of speaking in tongues. And I have laid hands on a few Christians through which they received the gift of tongues.
On none of these occasions did I sense that the laying on of hands was a mere symbol. It seemed to be integral to what was going on. And I know that other Christians who have experienced laying on hands are also convinced that it is more than a mere symbol.
The idea that the laying on of hands is just a symbol, therefore, doesn’t fit with Christian experience.
Summing up the discussion so far
To sum up the discussion so far, then, both Scripture and experience indicate that laying on hands is a channel through which God does something. It is not a mere symbol.
We should use hands today
Importantly, there is no good reason for Christians not to use the laying on of hands today. The New Testament makes it clear that the early church made use of this practice in various contexts. And we must remember that part of the reason God has given us this collection of writings is so that we can follow the example of first century believers.
It is true that there are more than a few Christians today who say that laying on hands should no longer be practised. They agree that God wanted believers in the first decades of the church to do this. But they claim that the time for doing so has long since passed.
The Bible, however, nowhere teaches that we should expect laying on of hands to cease after the first decades of the church. So in the absence of such teaching, we should assume that it is God’s will for it to continue throughout the church age. Instead of coming up with forced and unconvincing explanations of why biblical teaching and examples should not be followed today, the humble believer needs to make following Scripture his or her goal.
I freely admit that I find the laying on of hands to be very mysterious. I don’t pretend to understand it at all. Nevertheless, our task as Christians is to follow the instructions and examples in Scripture, whether we understand them properly or not. God has taught us about laying on of hands in the Bible, and we should aim to act on what we read.
Consequences of omitting hands
The laying on of hands, then, should be practised by churches today. And, as we have seen, it is a means, a channel of God doing something.
It therefore seems reasonable to think that omitting this practice will sometimes have negative consequences. If laying on hands does not occur when God wants it to occur, then the means by which God wants to do something has not been used. And it makes most sense to think that in some of these cases God will not actually do the thing in question, although He would like to.
I am sure that there will be occasions when God in His mercy overrules and acts anyway, even though His misguided or at times rebellious children are not using the means He wants them to use.
For example, I don’t believe that anyone with saving faith would remain without the Holy Spirit, even if God wanted to use the laying on of hands as a means for their first receiving the Spirit but this means was not used. Nevertheless, I do believe that some Christians who have never had hands laid on them for receiving the Spirit have a rather limited experience of the Spirit.
As far as healing is concerned, I think there will be people who remain unhealed because hands have not been laid on them. It is true that sometimes it will be God’s intention to heal without any laying on of hands. At other times, although He might want hands to be used as a means, I think that in His mercy He will heal even if the hands are omitted. But I do think that there very probably will be times when God wants to use hands as a means of healing, this means is not used, and the person in question remains unhealed as a result.
As for receiving gifts or being authorised for ministries, I think too that there are probably times when Christians are less equipped than they would be if they had had hands laid on them.
Careless use of hands
Although laying on of hands is important, it is nevertheless not something that should be done carelessly.
In 1 Timothy Paul tells Timothy:
‘Do not be hasty in laying hands on anyone . . .’
This verse is apparently about laying on hands to commission for a ministry. And it is true that Paul’s main point seems to be simply that Timothy shouldn’t ordain men as elders without careful consideration. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that the need to be cautious can apply to other reasons for laying on hands too.
In this respect, there is one situation that I think is especially worth mentioning. Those who are involved in the ministry of deliverance from evil spirits sometimes say that a spirit can transfer from one person to another during the laying on of hands, if proper care is not taken. Either the spirit can transfer from the person who lays on hands to the person having hands laid on them. Or the transfer can happen in the opposite direction. I have actually witnessed this myself, and it reminds me of the need to be cautious and prayerful before laying on hands.
Such cases are quite rare, however, and Holy Spirit-led laying on of hands is not dangerous.
Following biblical instruction
According to the Bible, then, the laying on of hands is a means, a channel through which God does things. And Christians should often be laying on hands today.
In fact, I think that the laying on of hands for receiving the Holy Spirit should commonly be a part of Christian initiation. On this point see my article, ‘Should Hands Be Laid on New Christians?’
Let those of us, therefore, who are not content to follow church traditions when they conflict with Scripture, make it our goal to follow biblical instruction in this area. Every church should aim to include the laying on of hands in its practice.