Having previously introduced the doctrine of the laying on of hands, and discussed its practice in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, let us now conclude our discussion of this doctrine by pointing to the commonalities between the practice of the laying on of hands that we can note in the two parts of the Bible and also come to some conclusions about the doctrines involved in this practice. Given the fact that the laying on of hands is spoken of often in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament and that the author of Hebrews explicitly notes it as a basic and fundamental doctrine, why does it receive so little attention and why is it so little understood?
First of all, let us note the different aspects we have previously seen concerning the laying on of hands and see what similarities exist between these disparate uses of the practice of laying hands in the Bible. In both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, we have noted that the laying on of hands can be used to ordain people into positions of civil and religious leadership, to aid in healing, as well as to place someone under civil or ecclesiastical judgment for a sin or offense. In the New Testament we also see that the laying on of hands occurs after baptism (generally) so that the Holy Spirit can be given by God to a new believer. In all of these cases, we can note that the person laying hands on someone else does so as a representative of God and expects that God will respond in power based on the symbolic action of laying hands on someone, whether in a good or bad way, whether involving healing, the investiture of someone in office, or the judgment of someone as a malefactor according to the laws, judgments, and statues of God as enforced by human authorities.
Even though the Holy Spirit is by far a more widespread phenomenon in the New Testament than it is in the Hebrew scriptures, we can note as well that the anointing of someone into a civil or ecclesiastical office was intended on providing them with access to the Holy Spirit so that they could lead God’s people effectively. Since this was the case before the Holy Spirit was given widely to believers as a whole, we may expect that the laying on of hands at baptism is a recognition of a believer becoming part of the royal priesthood and holy nation of God upon repentance and baptism and being accepted by church authorities into the membership. We would also expect that the laying on of hands mentioned by Paul for church leaders like Timothy would indicate that a greater measure of God’s Holy Spirit is being sought to for those ordained leaders so that they may more effectively serve the people of God in a proper fashion. In a like sense the increased judgment upon believers with the Holy Spirit makes sense, since God has always held those with greater power and greater knowledge with greater responsibility, and the rise in power that comes from a widespread giving of the Holy Spirit to believers means that ordinary believers have more responsibility than the ordinary citizens of the Israel of old.
That said, it is worthwhile to note the sacramental aspects of the laying on of hands. Traditionally speaking, Catholics view there as being seven sacraments and Protestants view there being only two in the taking of the bread and wine as part of the New Testament Passover as well as baptism. It should be noted, though, that the laying on of hands represents a separate sacrament to that of Baptism, although the laying on of hands usually (except in situations like Acts 8) takes place immediately after baptism, especially for those organizations which practice adult full immersion baptism. It should be noted, though, that the laying on of hands is a sacrament that as a broader context than the conferring of the Holy Spirit after baptism, but also involves the anointing of the sick in the hope that God will use His Spirit to provide healing for ailing believers, the conferring of offices upon those who serve the people of God, and even in the exercise of congregational discipline on those who have committed evil and are being judged accordingly. There is a great deal of power in all of these deeds, for by the laying on of hands we expect healing, the transformation of the life of the believer by the indwelling power and presence of God, the exercise of judgment, and the righteous exercise of authority on behalf of the well-being of God’s people. This is a great deal of power that is expected to come from the touch involved in the laying on of hands.
It is for this reason that the power to lay hands on others in a proper fashion has always been limited within scripture. When it comes to the laying on of hands after baptism, only the ministry within the Church of God has been granted that authority. Even Philip, a deacon of no mean ability in preaching and someone whose baptism tours are notable in scripture, did not have the authority to lay hands on believers and grant them the Holy Spirit in Acts 8. Likewise, it is the religious leadership of the priests and prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and the apostleship and ministry in the New Testament that has the authority to lay hands when it comes to healing and ordination as well. Similarly, it was the agents of civil and religious authority that have the power to lay hands on evildoers to consign them to judgment, even when, as Jesus notes in the Gospels quoted above, they do so improperly, thinking they are doing a favor to God when they are not, as was done to Stephen the martyr in Acts. In all of these cases, therefore, one cannot lay hands without having the proper authority, or one is simply transgressing the boundaries that God has set.
How, then, are we to act according to this knowledge? First, we must recognize the vital importance of the laying on of hands as an aspect of the power granted, with responsibility required accordingly, for those who serve the people of God in civil and religious matters. In addition to this, we must recognize that the proper laying on of hands is an aspect of covenants made between God and man where the power of God is being expected to follow according to the act of laying hands on someone. Whether the power expected is that of healing, of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, of the additional Spiritual power and discernment sought, or for purposes of judgment, it is not an act to be taken lightly. Before we can properly practice the laying on of hands, it is worthwhile for us to understand its importance and to take it seriously. In asking God to bind in heaven what we are binding on earth through our actions, we had better make sure to the best of our God-given abilities that we know what we are about. To lay hands on someone improperly is to place ourselves in the hands of the living God for judgment, and that is not something that we should view in a light and cavalier fashion as has sadly been the case all too often in the past. We can, and should, know better now.