the weblog of Alan Knox

Laying on of Hands…

Posted by on Mar 23, 2007 in ordinances/sacraments, scripture, service, spiritual gifts | 16 comments

Since my review of the chapter “Laying on of Hands” in Watchman Nee’s book Assembling Together generated some interest, and since admittedly I know little about this practice in the New Testament, I thought I would examine the passages where we see this. There will be very little analysis in this post. First, before we make any decisions about laying on of hands, we should look at the activity in Scripture:

And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:5-6)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:14-20)

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” (Acts 9:10-12 ESV)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. (Acts 9:17-19 ESV)

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:1-4 ESV)

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:1-6 ESV)

It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him healed him. (Acts 28:9 ESV)

Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. (1 Timothy 4:14 ESV)

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 ESV)

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, or God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (1 Timothy 1:6-7 ESV)

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of 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 ESV)

These are all the passages that I could find in Scripture that deal with the laying on of hands. There are a couple of other passages, but they seem to use the phrase “laying on of hands” in a different way: i.e. to lay hold of someone in order to arrest them.

There are several interesting things about this list from Scripture. First, “laying on of hands” is only mentioned in three books: Acts, 1 Timothy, and Hebrews. This certainly does not mean that the topic is unimportant; but, it is an interesting observation to me. Second, everything that seems to be “caused” by the laying on of hands is mentioned elsewhere in Scripture without mention of the laying on of hands. This makes it difficult for me to say that something “always” happens through the laying on of hands, or that something “never” happens without the laying on of hands.

So, what do we see associated with the laying on of hands, at least on occasion?

1. Setting apart for service.
2. Receiving the Holy Spirit.
3. Healing.
4. Spiritual gifts.

Also, I do not see a command to “lay hands on” people, such that we see with making disciples, or baptism or sharing the Lord’s Supper or many other activities.

What would you add about “laying on of hands” from these passages of Scripture?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 3-23-2007


    Very well done post. I think I would completely agree, but I would re-articulate #2 (receiving the Holy Spirit) say something like “receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit” or “receiving the infilling of the Holy Spirit” to be more precise and accurate in our understanding. I believe that when we simply say “receive the Holy Spirit,” that can be confusing language, implying receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that occurs at salvation, and not a subsequent experience as these Scriptures you astutely note describe. That is, in all of these passages, the persons who have hands laid on them are already saved, they already have received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But, they have not been filled with the Holy Spirit, or received the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and that is the distinction I would make so that people are clear about what is really going on in these situations. Make sense???


  2. 3-23-2007


    I hear what you are saying about “receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit” and “receiving the infilling of the Holy Spirit”. Again, there is one simple problem. That is not what the Scripture says. Look back at the passages that I listed. They say, “receive the Holy Spirit”. Perhaps adding “baptism” or “infilling” works well with our theology, but in this post, I’m simply stating what Scripture states.


  3. 3-23-2007

    I suppose the only thing I can say is that it is clearly a biblical practice and I really don’t understand why it isn’t practiced more today. I think we often simply don’t do things we don’t understand, but I think faith means exactly that.

  4. 3-23-2007


    OK — here are some questions for you to consider.

    (1) When you are saved (born again), would you agree that the Holy Spirit comes to indwell?

    (2) If your answer to question 1 is “Yes,” would you also agree that you have received the indwelling Holy Spirit, if you are born again???

    The reason I am asking these questions is because there is ALSO a passage (in John 20) where Jesus commanded the disciples to “receive the Holy Spirit” and breathed into them. I believe it was at this moment the disciples were SAVED (although they were not yet filled), and received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Do you believe that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at that point in time, or later – ???

    These are some of the wrinkles I believe that need to be ironed out.


  5. 3-25-2007


    I agree that those who are saved are also indwelled by the Holy Spirit. At this point, though, we are simply analyzing the passages of Scripture that deal with “laying on of hands”.


  6. 3-25-2007

    I believe this topic, and the way you deal with it (objectively) in this post, leads to some interesting questions regarding the sufficiency of Scripture and hermeneutics in general.

    With the exception of the Hebrews passage, in which “laying on of hands” is referred to as something “foundational,” the only other references we have in the NT to “laying on of hands” are historical references narrating specific events relating to specific people in specific circumstances. There is no passage that purports to teach a general, universal principle (except the injunction of 1 Tim. 5.22 to not do it “hastily.”

    This (along with other contextual factors) leads me to conclude that the “laying on of hands” referred to in Hebrews 6 is not the same “laying on of hands” referenced in the other NT passages, but rather the OT practice (on which their are numerous passages, some more directly didactic, as well). If “laying on of hands” were so “foundational” for us as Christians, it seems to me that God would have revealed to us some more specific principles related to its significance in the NT.

    What I do see in the NT is a practice that had symbolic significance, and, at times, accompanied such supernatural events as the impartation of the Holy Spirit (or the baptism, or the filling of the Holy Spirit), healing, and impartation of spiritual gifts. Just because these things happened that way at a particular time in history, under a particular set of circumstances, does not necessarily infer, as I understand it, that we ought necessarily to strive to imitate the example given to us in these passages.

    As a result, I find it hard to be dogmatic one way or another about “laying on of hands.” And, it seems to me that if it were really that big of a deal, God would have revealed something more about it than what He did in the NT.

    Watchman Nee, as I understand him, generally takes the opposite hermeneutical approach: if something is included in the NT, even, if only by example, it is there for a reason, for our instruction as believers throughout history. Although I can appreciate Nee’s motivation in taking this approach, I believes it leads him to speculate, and arrive at dogmatic conclusions about certain things in the NT for which I don’t believe we have sufficient warrant to be so dogmatic.

    Interestingly enough, while we’re on the topic, I believe that Nee is not the only one who does something similar. It seems to me that several elements of traditional “Baptist” ecclesiology, while based upon interpretations differing from those of Nee, depend on similar hermeneutical practices.

  7. 3-25-2007


    I agree with everything you said in your comment – especially the last paragraph. Someone should write a blog post – or a book – about that. Do you want to tackle that one?

    By the way, this is not the first time that I have heard the list in Hebrews 6 identified as Jewish rituals. That is an interpretation that is interesting to me, but one that I don’t know enough about to comment on. It would seem to fit with the author’s exhortation not to return to Judaism.


  8. 3-26-2007

    I just found this after finishing my latest post on “Hermeneutics and the Holy Spirit or Hermeneutics versus the Holy Spirit?” based in large part on a comment David made over at my blog. Interesting discussion, Alan, and great comment, David.

  9. 3-26-2007

    Alan and David,

    I am going to respond to some of what David wrote in order to further explain some of my own thinking.

    First, I believe that if we see a pattern in Scriptures, then we should accept that as normative for today. In the Book of Acts, we saw a pattern of Paul and Peter laying hands on people for a reason, at a foundational moment in their Christian walk. Perhaps this is why “laying on of hands” is referenced in Hebrews 6.

    David, I do not believe that anything in Hebrews 6 refers to OT practices. Heb. 6:1-2 states, “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings (or baptisms) and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” Given the layout of the Book of Hebrews more generally, and how Christ is portrayed as superior to the OT ways of relating to God, I cannot say anything here is an OT practice. Quite frankly, such a belief would go against the grain of Scripture — because the ceremonial law has been abrogated by Christ and the New Covenant.

    I do believe that God has revealed specific principles about the laying on of hands in the Scriptures, but you can only ascertain those by observing what Paul and Peter did, and the apostles. Just doing a “word study” on “laying on of hands” will not give you a full revelation of the subject.

    I tend to agree with Nee’s approach, that if something is given for example in the Scriptures, even if in a narrative, then we are to take note and observe and learn from it, because it is significant. After all, Jesus spoke in parables, and while a parable is a fictional narrative to teach a lesson, I believe the Book of Acts is a non-fictional narrative that teaches SEVERAL lessons, doctrinally.

    So, those are my thoughts for now.


  10. 3-26-2007


    I’ve enjoyed the discussion as well.


    You said: “Just doing a “word study” on ‘laying on of hands’ will not give you a full revelation of the subject.” Which passage that does not mention “laying on of hands” is necessary to understanding “laying on of hands”?


  11. 3-26-2007


    That wasn’t my point. The point I was making when I said that is there is more to understanding the Scriptures than just studying them. We must let and allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate and reveal what the Scripture means to us. We cannot just do “word studies” of concepts in order to accomplish that. If we become too stuck in the text, we limit God and the Holy Spirit’s revelation. That was my point.


  12. 3-26-2007


    I agree that we cannot understand the Scriptures apart from the Spirit. Like I said in my previous comment (on “Who is your pastor?”), my concern is that it sounds like you are saying that the Spirit has revealed something to you (and perhaps to others) that is not found in Scripture, but that is normative for everyone.

    After dialoging with you for a few weeks, I don’t think that is what you are saying. But, that is how it sounds.

    So, I prefer to begin with what God has revealed to everyone through the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. This is more than word studies. It is trying to learn everything that Scripture says about “laying on of hands”.

    Having said, I do believe that the Spirit can and does guide us and communicate with us individually.


  13. 3-26-2007


    I agree that we should begin with the Scriptures. I think we’re on the same page here, but just articulating what we believe in different ways. We come from different theological backgrounds, and that might have something to do with it. As a charismatic, I am open to more “hidden meanings,” for lack of a better term. I’m not trying to push it there, but I think there are some things that just are not “black and white” in the Scriptures. I think the bigger picture with “laying on of hands” involves the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, which is a larger issue.


  14. 3-27-2007


    I’m sure you realize the danger of “hidden meanings”. I will continue to stick with the text of Scripture, illuminated by the Spirit, for normative beliefs and practices.


  15. 3-27-2007


    And that is why I said I’d not push that envelope here. I don’t always think the “hidden meanings” thing is appropriate in all circles, and definitely not in the blog world here — and I think you’d agree with that.

    And yes, for normative beliefs and practices, you DO want to stick to the text as illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, most of the “hidden meanings” sermons that I’ve heard deal with OT stories, and not NT beliefs and practices. So, I think I’m mostly with you there. 🙂

  16. 3-27-2007


    You said: “And yes, for normative beliefs and practices, you DO want to stick to the text as illuminated by the Holy Spirit.” I agree completely, which is why I spend so much time examining the text of Scripture and asking others to explain their beliefs from Scripture.