What does the Bible teach about “the laying on of hands,” and how should this ancient ritual function, or not, in the church today?
Like anointing with oil, much confusion often surrounds these outward signs which the New Testament has very little (but something) to say.
Like fasting, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil go hand in hand with prayer. Because of the way God has made the world, and wired our own hearts, on certain special occasions we reach for something tangible, physical, and visible to complement, or serve as a sign of, what is happening invisibly and what we’re capturing with invisible words.
Before turning to what the New Testament teaches about the laying on of hands today, let’s first get our bearings by looking at how this practice arose, functioned, and developed in the story of God’s people.
Throughout the Bible, we find both positive and negative senses of “the laying on of hands,” as well as “general” (everyday) or “special” (ceremonial).
In the Old Testament, the general use is most often negative: to “lay hands” on someone is to inflict harm (Genesis 22:12; 37:22; Exodus 7:4; Nehemiah 13:21; Esther 2:21; 3:6; 6:2; 8:7), or in Leviticus 24:14 to visibly lay God’s curse on the person who will bear it. We also find a special use, especially in Leviticus (1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33; 16:21; also Exodus 29:10, 15, 19; Numbers 8:12), where the duly appointed priests “lay hands” on a sacrifice to ceremonially place God’s righteous curse on the animal, instead of on the sinful people. For instance, on the Day of Atonement, the climactic day of the Jewish year, the high priest
“shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21)
This special (or ceremonial) laying on of hands is likely what Hebrews 6:1 refers to when mentioning six teachings, among others, in the first covenant (“the elementary doctrine of Christ”) that prepared God’s people for the new covenant: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1–2).
While the majority of Old-Testament mentions involve priests and first-covenant ceremonies (passing the curse to the substitute), two texts in particular (both in Numbers) anticipate how “the laying on of hands” would come to be used in the church age (passing a blessing to a formally recognized leader). In Numbers 8:10, God’s people lay their hands on the priests to officially commission them as their representatives before God, and in Numbers 27:18, God instructs Moses to lay his hands on Joshua to commission him formally as the new leader of the nation.
Jesus’s Hands and His Apostles
When we come to the Gospels and Acts, we find a noticeable shift in the typical use of “the laying on of hands.” A small sampling still conveys the general/negative sense (to harm or seize, related to the scribes and priests seeking to arrest Jesus, Luke 20:19; 21:12; 22:53), but now with the Son of God himself among us, we find a new positive use of the phrase, as Jesus lays his hands on people to bless and to heal.
Jesus’s most common practice in healing is touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:22–25; Luke 13:13). Jesus also “lays his hands” on the little children who come to him, to bless them (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16).
In Acts, once Jesus has ascended into heaven, his apostles (in effect) become his hands. Now they, like their Lord, heal with touch. Ananias “lays his hands” on Paul, three days after the Damascus road encounter, to restore his sight (Acts 9:12, 17). And Paul’s hands, in turn, become channels of extraordinary miracles (Acts 14:3; 19:11), including the laying of his hands on a sick man on Malta to heal him (Acts 28:8).
What’s new in the Gospels is Jesus’s healing through “the laying on of hands,” but what’s new in Acts is the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit through “the laying on of hands.” As the gospel makes progress from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, and then beyond, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), God is pleased to use the apostles’ laying on of hands as a visible marker and means of the coming of the Spirit among new people and places — first in Samaria (Acts 8:17) and then beyond, in Ephesus (19:6).
In the Church Today
Finally, in the New Testament Epistles, as we begin to see what is normative in the church today, we find two remaining uses from Acts which echo the two mentions above in Numbers (8:10 and 27:18), and set the course for Paul’s references in 1 and 2 Timothy.
In Acts 6:6, when the church has chosen seven men to serve as official assistants to the apostles, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” Here again, as in Numbers, we find a kind of commissioning ceremony. The visible sign of the laying on of hands publicly marks the beginning of a new formal ministry for these seven, recognizing them before the people and asking for God’s blessing on their labors.
So also, when the church responds to the Spirit’s directive, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2), then “after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3). Like Acts 6:6, this is a formal commission performed in public, with the collective request for God’s blessing on it.
Commission to Ministry
In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul charges Timothy, his official delegate in Ephesus,
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.
For our purposes here, the point is not precisely what gift Timothy received (though both the previous and following verses mention teaching), but how the elders commissioned him into his formal role. Timothy was sent off for this specific assignment with the public recognition of the recognized leaders — not only by their words, but through the visible, tangible, memorable laying on of their hands. This public ceremony may be what Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 1:6 when he mentions a gift of God in Timothy “through the laying on of my hands.”
The last key text, and perhaps most instructive, is also in 1 Timothy. Again Paul writes,
Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)
Now the subject is not Timothy’s own commissioning, but his part in commissioning others. The charge from Paul comes in a section about elders, honoring the good and disciplining the bad (1 Timothy 5:17–25). When leaders like Paul, Timothy, and others in the church formally lay their hands on someone for a particular new ministry calling, they put their seal of approval on the candidate and share, in some sense, in the fruitfulness and failures to come.
Laying on of hands, then, is the opposite of washing one’s hands like Pilate did. When the elders lay their hands on a candidate for ministry, they both commission him to a particular role of service and they commend him to those among whom he will serve.
God Gives the Grace
With both the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, the elders come before God, in special circumstances, with a spirit of prayer and particular requests, but whereas anointing with oil asks for healing, the laying on of hands asks for blessing on forthcoming ministry. Anointing with oil in James 5:14 privately commends the sick to God for healing; the laying on of hands in 1 Timothy 5:22 publicly commends the candidate to the church for an official ministry. Anointing sets the sick apart and expresses the need for God’s special care. Laying on hands sets apart a qualified leader for specific ministry and signals fitness to bless others.
Laying on of hands, then — like anointing or fasting or other external rituals for the church — is not magic and does not, as some claim, automatically confer grace. Rather, it is a “means of grace,” and accompanies words of commendation and corporate prayer, for those who believe. Like baptism, the laying on of hands is a kind of inaugural sign and ceremony, an initiating rite — a way of making an invisible reality visible, public, and memorable, both for the candidate and for the congregation, and then through the candidate and congregation to the world.
It serves as a means of grace to the candidate in affirming God’s call through the church and in providing a tangible, physical moment to remember when ministry gets hard. It’s also a means of God’s grace to the commissioning leaders, who extend and expand their heart and work through a faithful candidate. And it’s a means of God’s grace to the congregation, and beyond, in clarifying who are the official leaders to whom they will seek to submit to (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
And in it all, the giver and blesser is God. He extends and expands the ministry of the leaders. He calls, sustains, and makes fruitful the ministry of the candidate. And he enriches, matures, and catalyzes the congregation to love and good works, to minister to each other, and beyond, served by the teaching, wisdom, and faithful leadership of the newly appointed elder, deacon, or missionary.