Israel (who died in 1653 B.C.) used the laying on of hands not only confer on the two boys his family's name (Genesis 48:16) but also to transfer to them the right to receive God's birthright blessings (verses 16, 19 - 20). He inherited these promises of blessings through Isaac his father and Abraham his grandfather.
The practice of laying hands on individuals is considered one of the foundational doctrines of the New Testament church. The Apostle Paul encourages Christians, in the book of Hebrews, to build and grow upon this and other basic teachings in their walk as true believers.
1. Therefore, advancing beyond the beginning principles of the doctrines of Christ, we should go on to perfection . . . 2. Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:1 - 2, HBFV throughout)
Old Testament Examples
The laying on of hands was frequently used in ancient Israel's sacrificial system. For example, if it was deemed the nation sinned, bringing guilt upon all, the tribal elders were required to collectively offer a sacrifice (at the wilderness tabernacle, later the temple) in order to expiate the sin. They were to bring a young bull, confess the nation's sins upon it, then have the animal killed (Leviticus 4:13 - 21). Individuals were also allowed to give a sacrifice for their own personal sins. They were required to bring their sacrifice before the Lord then, while laying their hands on the beast's head, confess their sins and then have the animal wholly consumed by fire (Leviticus 1).
Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, Israel's High Priest was required to lay his hands on the head of a live goat and confess all the people's sins upon it. The animal was then released into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20 - 22).
The laying of a person's hands on another was also used to set apart, publically, the tribe of Levi (and their descendants) to serve as Israel's priests (Numbers 8:6 - 19). This ritual was also used by Moses to designate that Joshua would take his place in leading the children of Israel (Numbers 27:15 - 20, Deuteronomy 34:9).
New Testament Examples
The Old Testament ritual discussed in this article continued uninterrupted in the New Testament. It transformed, however, into a ceremony that more perfectly displayed God's miraculous power, love and mercy. In the first century A.D., it was performed by more people for more purposes than in any other time in Biblical history. At least eight books attest to its early church use.
Jesus not only laid hands on people to heal them (Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, etc.) but also to bless them. Parents were known to bring their little children to Christ to have him not only pray for them but also to bless them (Matthew 19:13 - 15).
One of the primary uses of laying hands on people was to beseech God to heal. The miraculous act of healing not only showed the Eternal's mercy toward the sick, it also glorified his name (John 14:13) and confirmed the truth of the gospel message. What is referred to as the "great commission" included the revelation to Jesus' disciples that they would be able to (according to God's will) heal those who were sick.
15. And He (Jesus) said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation . . . 17. And these signs shall follow those who believe: . . . they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover" (Mark 16:15, 17)
The apostle Paul not only received healing through this ceremony (Acts 9:17) he also used it, as God willed, to restore many back to health (see Acts 28:1 - 9). The book of James indirectly references the laying on of hands when the author states those who are sick should seek mature believers to anoint them with oil (James 5:13 - 15).
Receiving the Spirit
Laying hands on new believers to ask God to grant them the Holy Spirit was a common occurrence in the New Testament. Peter and John performed this act on those in Samaria so that they might receive God's spirit (Acts 8:14 - 17). Paul received the spirit after a disciple baptized and performed this ritual upon him (Acts 9:17).
The linkage between baptism, laying hands on believers and then asking for the Holy Spirit to be granted is made plain when Paul, in Ephesus, meets twelve men who only knew of the truth preached by John the Baptist. After the apostle revealed to them the knowledge of Christ, they became fully ready to become Christians.
5. And after hearing this, they (the Ephesian men) were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6. Now when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them . . . (Acts 19:5 - 6).
Setting Apart to Serve
The first New Testament occurrence of setting apart or designating individuals to serve (other than the twelve apostles themselves) happened less than two years after the early church began. Brethren, at the behest of the apostles, selected seven wisdom-filled men to oversee the daily needs of the church. After the selection, the men had hands laid upon them to dedicate them to this responsibility (Acts 6:1 - 6).
The church in Syrian Antioch was told by God to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work that he wanted them to do (Acts 13:1 - 2). The brethren, after they fasted and prayed, laid their hands on the two men and commended them to God's service. They then began what is commonly referred to as Paul's first missionary journey.
14. Do not neglect the spiritual gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the elderhood (1Timothy 4:14, see also 2Timothy 1:6).
Paul also warned Timothy not to rashly or impulsively set apart anyone to serve through the laying on of hands (1Timothy 5:22). Those hastily given important responsibilities risked corrupting themselves and becoming a detriment to the church.