The Bible frequently invests this simple gesture with weighty symbolism. Its significance can be fruitfully evaluated in connection with four concepts: blessing, miraculous power, separation, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Although the imposition of hands accompanies the pronouncement of blessing relatively infrequently in Scripture, the association occurs with remarkable consistency. Just as Jacob blesses Joseph's children by the imposition of hands ( Gen 48:14 ), so Jesus takes little children in his arms, places his hands on them, and blesses them ( Mark 10:13-15 ; cf. Matt 19:13-15 ). Related to these passages are those that speak of the high priest raising his hands over the people in order to bless them ( Lev 9:22 ), a pattern Jesus follows when he, perhaps acting as the great high priest, blesses his followers immediately before his ascension ( Luke 24:50 ).
Jesus and his followers also frequently placed their hands on those whom they intended to heal by miraculous power. Although the term "blessing" does not appear in these contexts, certainly those who experienced these healings understood in an especially powerful way the benediction of God's favor ( Mark 5:23 ; 7:32 ; 8:23-25 ; Luke 4:40 ; 13:13 ; Acts 9:12 Acts 9:17 ; 28:8 ; 5:12 ).
Often the imposition of hands is associated not with blessing but with separation from the larger group. Thus in the Old Testament hands are imposed on sacrificial animals in order to set them apart for a special purpose ( Exodus 29:10 Exodus 29:15 Exodus 29:19 Exodus 29:33 ; Lev 1:4 ; Leviticus 4:4 Leviticus 4:15 Leviticus 4:24 ; Leviticus 8:14 Leviticus 8:18 Leviticus 8:22 ; 16:21 ; Num 8:5-15 ; 2 Chron 29:3 ). The notion of separation for an uncommon purpose probably also lies behind the imposition of hands on the Levites during their ceremony of consecration ( Num 8:5-15 ) and behind Moses' imposition of hands on Joshua during the ritual in which he was designated as Moses' successor ( Num 27:18-23 ; cf. Deut 34:9 ).
The concept of separation may explain references to the laying on of hands in Acts and the Epistles as well. The gesture was included in the ceremony that separated seven gifted men from the rest of the early Jerusalem church for the task of overseeing the distribution of food to those in need ( Acts 6:3-6 ). Similarly the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch laid their hands on Saul and Barnabas in order to "separate" them for their ground-breaking mission work ( Acts 13:3 ). In view of the critical nature of the tasks for which the imposition of hands set people apart, Paul naturally wanted Timothy to avoid laying hands on people too quickly as a precaution against putting people in charge of tasks for which they were not qualified ( 1 Tim 5:22 ; cf. Heb 6:2 ).
The concept of separation may also explain why the imposition of hands occurs so frequently (although not invariably) in connection with the coming of the Holy Spirit or with the giving of the gifts that the Spirit distributes ( Acts 8:17-19 ; 19:6 ; cf. 1 Tim 4:14 ; 2 Tim 1:6 ). Since God's Spirit is the Spirit that sanctifies or sets apart (hence the term "Holy Spirit"), it inevitably separates those on whom it falls from the world around them. Moreover, by the gifts it distributes, God's Spirit separates some from others within the church for special tasks.
There is a sense in which the idea of separation for a special purpose, so clearly visible in many instances, binds together all the occurrences of the phrase. Even in the context of formal blessings and astonishing miracles, the imposition of hands signifies the separation of a person, a people, or even a bodily part ( Mark 8:25 ) as the recipient of an unusual manifestation of God's grace.
Bibliography. E. Lohse, TDNT, 9:428-29, 431-34; M. H. Shepherd, IDB, 2:521-22; M. Warkentin, Ordination: A Biblical-Historical View.
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