One of the unique biblical images God uses to teach us about life, walking with him and serving others are attached to the end of our arms. The hands are used for various purposes in both the Old and New Testament to reflect and teach us biblical truth. Paul's letters to Timothy have one of these purposes, the laying on of hands by pastoral leadership, on full display. In this essay we will look briefly on how God uses "hands" throughout Scripture concluding with a treatment on how Paul uses laying of hands in the epistles to Timothy.
Handy Metaphors in the Old and New Testaments
There are many references to hands in the Old Testament but there is an overarching theme for each of them. Hands represent action, the state of one's heart that finds itself into the world. Hands represent what we do, the actions we take and how our intentions are reflecting by character and works. We see this in hands being described as clean or unclean. For instance, clean hands represents a righteous life (see Job 17:9, Job 22:30, Psalm 18:20-24, Psalm 24:1-6, Psalm 73:13). Clean hands represent holiness of life and unclean hands represents a heart that is vile and wicked. The book of proverbs talks about hands that shed blood as being the hands of the guilty and wicked man. Furthermore the New Testament also talks about lifting up holy hands indicating the same thing. This is all a matter of the heart, though it is expressed with metaphors of the hands. Jesus made it clear that washing one's hands do not cleanse the inside of a man's heart; but the work of our hands is indicative of the condition of our hearts. Additionally, the nature of our work is seen in our hands in such prayers as Psalm 90:17 which reads: Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands! Here we find people asking God's favor upon the work of their lives. Jesus also uses a hand metaphor to talk about a manner of life in response to God's call on us. He tells us that no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). So it is a clear metaphor in scripture that the condition and action of hands represent the condition of the heart before God.
Finally, though he has no physical hands, God's own favor and work is expressed with the language of "his hands." The work of deliverance and redemption wrought by God in the Exodus is repeatedly described as being through "his mighty hand and outstretched arm." God's favor is expressed by his hand "being upon us." After Nehemiah goes before the King to ask for assistance in his work to rebuild Jerusalem we read this wonderful verse: And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me. When the hand of God is upon a people it is a sign of favor and his working on their behalf. This continues in the New Testament when Jesus is said to be raised from death and seated at the right hand of God. This is the place of power and authority beside a great King. To finish this essay we will further discuss how power and authority is symbolically and actively transferred to people through the laying on of hands.
Laying on Hands
Placing hands upon someone today to pray for them is becoming more and more common in evangelical churches. I find no problem whatsoever with the practice as it indicates belief, faith and standing with one another in prayer. However, the laying on of hands has specific meaning in Scripture of which I want us to be aware. In the brief space that remains we will examine how the laying on of human hands indicates conveyance of blessing, judgment, transferring of guilt for sin as well as for the ordination of people in the authority of God for gospel ministry.
In the Old Testament a father would convey the blessing and birthright to children and grandchildren through the laying on hands. It was a transaction that was symbolic of a fathers generosity and favor upon his descendents. Hands would also be placed by the priest onto an animal called the Scapegoat (Leviticus 16) which was being sent away from the people so as to take away their sins. Additionally, a person bringing their own peace offering would place his hands upon the animal symbolically putting his sins upon the sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1-5). Judgment upon a criminal was also demonstrated before the enactment of capital punishment by the placing of hands upon the offender. The manner in the Old Testament is clear. The authority to forgive sin, convey blessing, enact judgment was done in an official capacity in obedience to God's Word. The authority of God and the action of God is visibly seen through the laying on of human hands.
In the New Testament we see Jesus speak some powerful words to the disciples before he ascended back to the right hand of God. In articulating what has become known as the Great Commission, Jesus said the following in Matthew 28: And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Here is the line of authority-the Father has placed ALL authority to Jesus. Jesus then commissions his church to go in that authority and live the mission of God. We see very clearly that authority is vested upon Jesus' followers through the laying on of hands. This happens in several ways.
First, hands are laid upon the sick to pray for healing by both Jesus and his followers (Mark 6:5, Luke 4:40, Acts 28:8, James 5:13-15, perhaps Mark 16:18). Remember, it is the power of God that heals the body not the person's hands. The hands are a way of expressing faith and dependence and petition to God for healing. One more point. Even when the body naturally heals it is operating according to God's design not independent of it. So God is the source of all healing and he chooses whom he will heal and for what reasons. We can pray in faith and trust him to work if he so chooses. Ultimately, the final healing will come at the resurrection of the dead where we will receive immortal, incorruptible bodies and disease and death will be vanquished. Second, the Holy Sprit and spiritual gifts were at times imparted to a person from the placing on of hands and prayer (Acts 8, 9, 19). Note again, it is not the hands which give gifts, but God who has the power and authority. Furthermore, though this was a means by which God gave gifts he also does so without any intermediary. If he wants to gift his people he can also do so directly. The Spirit is also given to people today at the point of spiritual conversion and no apostle is required to convey this as Holy Spirit is promised to all who believe (Ephesians 1). Finally, there is a clear laying on of hands to set people apart for church leadership. In Acts 13 Paul and Barnabas are set apart for missionary service. In the pastoral epistles we see that hands are laid upon people, specifically our boy Timothy, to set him apart and confirm his calling to pastoral ministry. In doing so the authority of Jesus is recognized and the calling of God confirmed by those who are current ministers. Some see a pure line of hands back to the apostles themselves in ordaining to gospel ministry. This is why Paul exhorts so not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure...for the appointing pastor/elders prematurely can damage the credibility of ministry by the work of the hands of warped and immature men.