What Is the Laying on of Hands?

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The "laying on of hands" is one of oldest religious rituals mentioned in the Bible. Its first direct reference in Scripture occurs in Egypt, when the dying patriarch Jacob (renamed Israel) has a special blessing he wishes to bestow on Joseph's two children (Genesis 48:14).

Jacob used the laying on of hands ritual to 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).

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 (Hebrews 6:1 - 2).

The laying on of hands was frequently used in ancient Israel's sacrificial system. If it was deemed the nation sinned, bringing guilt upon all, the tribal elders were required to collectively offer a sacrifice. They were to bring a young bull to the tabernacle, confess the nation's sins upon the animal's head, and then have it killed (Leviticus 4:13 - 21).

The laying on of a person's hands, upon an animal, was also performed once a year by the High Priest. On the Day of Atonement he would confess the nation's sins on a live goat and then release it to the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20 - 22).

Jacob tricking Isaac and receiving his blessing
Jacob tricking Isaac and receiving his blessing
Mattia Bortoloni, 1717 - 18

This Old Testament ritual 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 early church, it was performed by more people for more purposes than in any other time in Biblical history.

Jesus performed not only the laying on of hands ceremony in order to heal people (Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, etc.) he also used it to bless them. The miraculous act of healing not only showed the Eternal's mercy toward the sick, it also glorified his name (John 14:13). What is referred to as the "great commission" included the power (according to God's will) to heal those through laying hands on them (Mark 16:15, 17, see also Acts 9:17, 28:1 - 9 and James 5:13 - 15).

Laying hands on new believers to ask God to grant them the Holy Spirit was also a common occurrence in the New Testament. Peter and John performed this act on those in Samaria (Acts 8:14 - 17) and Paul himself received the spirit after being baptized (Acts 9:17). Paul would later perform this simple ceremony in Ephesus (Acts 19:5 - 6).

Hands laid on an individual to set him apart for a special service was also utilized in the New Testament. Brethren used this ceremony, at the behest of the apostles, to anoint seven men to oversee the daily needs of the church (Acts 6:1 - 6). Paul and Barnabas were set apart to preach the gospel through this ceremony (Acts 13:1 - 2). Paul admonished his close friend Timothy to not neglect his gifts and calling given to him through the laying on of hands (1Timothy 4:14, 2Timothy 1:6).

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