The Laying on of Hands

This is the fourth of the six topics listed in Hebrews 6 as the elementary teachings of Christ and the foundation of the Christian faith.

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God revealed Himself to certain men and woman and worked through them to fulfil His purpose. These were faithful to God’s call – not only by their own obedience, but also by instructing subsequent generations to continue in the same way. Christians, similarly, are both heirs to God’s promises as well as instruments for passing them on to others.

It is the equipping of successive generations of believers, and the passing on to them of the gifts and responsibilities of the faith, that is signified by the laying on of hands.


God promised Abraham, I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:1-3). As the consequence of this promise, salvation has come to the world. 

The Bible reveals why Abraham was chosen for this purpose. It says because God knew Abraham, that he would instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him (Genesis 18:19). 

The fulfilment of the promise depended on the faithfulness of future generations. Abraham’s descendants were later required by the Law of Moses: fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the Land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth(Deuteronomy 11:18-21). 

By carefully handing down the knowledge of God to subsequent generations, the children of Israel would continue in faithfulness to God until the blessing promised to Abraham was fulfilled. 

God appeared to Abraham to reveal the promise (Genesis 17:1). In the same way he appeared to Isaac (Genesis 26:24) and Jacob (Genesis 28:13-14) to make the promise to them. For this reason God speaks of Himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 3:16). 

The promise did not come to future generations in the same way. From Jacob onwards the blessing was passed on by fathers to their children through the laying on of hands. In this way Jacob (who was later called Israel) bestowed the blessing on his two grandsons born through Joseph.Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn. Then he blessed Joseph and said, ‘May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may He bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth (Genesis 48:14-16).

In legal terminology, a benefactor nominates a beneficiary to receive what was promised to him. The sentiment expressed by the laying on of hands is as follows: ‘what was due to me, or promised to me, let it fall upon this person whom I hereby appoint as my successor or substitute’. Jacob’s blessing expresses what he anticipated and wished for his grandchildren, based on his faith in God, who promised to make Abraham into a great nation. Jacob thus conferred the blessing prophetically, and Ephraim and Manasseh received the hope, not its fulfilment, and so became heirs to God’s original promise by faith.

A beneficiary comes ‘under the hand’ of their benefactor. This form of submission signified, in Bible times, being under that person’s protection (Genesis 41:35), authority (Exodus 18:10), power (Exodus 21:20), control (1 Samuel 21:3) or dominion (2 Chronicles 21:8). The beneficiary of a blessing thus understood that it was by submission to the benefactor that the blessing might come to fruition. In the case of the Abrahamic promise, this required that the beneficiary continued in the benefactor’s life of faith and to follow his example.

The patriarchs initially thought that the blessing should pass to the eldest son – according to the custom of their time – but later discovered that the heirs had to be discerned by their character. We have already seen in Jacob’s example that he placed his right hand on the younger of his two grandsons. Jacob remembered how his father Isaac intended to bless his older brother, Esau – who despised his birthright and sold it for a plate of food. Jacob, when it was his turn to bless his children, exercised discernment and conferred a blessing that was appropriate to each son’s character (see Genesis 49:28). The hope received through the blessing is founded on God’s promise, and since the promise is obtained by faith, it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2). 


The descendants of Jacob became slaves in Egypt so that God had to free them and lead them back to the Promised Land in order to fulfil His promise to Abraham. God entrusted this important task to Moses – who acted as His instrument of salvation. 

Just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob received the promise, Moses received his authority and commission directly from God. God appeared to Moses and spoke to him from the burning bush, and later proved Moses to be His servant by enabling him to perform remarkable signs (compare with Hebrews 2:3-4). 

Moses did not complete the journey to the Promised Land. Before he died, God instructed Moses to delegate his commission and authority to Joshua:Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the LORD … Moses did as the LORD commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the LORD instructed by the hand of Moses (Numbers 27:18-23). 

The authority that Moses had received directly from God was thus passed on by the laying on of hands – in the same way that Jacob passed on his blessing. The laying on of hands signifies human agency – and thus also human fallibility. Imperfect human transmission required the safeguard of a wider dispersion of gifts and responsibilities. Thus, while Moses spoke to God face to face, Joshua was made dependent on Eleazar the Priest to obtain decisions for him from the Lord.

Joshua was not a natural descendant of Moses, as were those who received the blessing from the patriarchs.  Yet he was a worthy son and heir, and consequently received Moses’ gift through the infilling of the Holy Spirit: Joshua son of Nun was filled with the Spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him. So the Israelites listened to him and did what the LORD had commanded Moses (Deuteronomy 34:7-9).

By contrast Moses’ descendants by natural birth became idolatrous priests to the tribe of Dan (Judges 18:30-31). 

In later history, Elisha took Elijah for his father and received a double portion of his blessing on Elijah’s ascent into heaven (2 Kings 2:9-12). 

The principles shown from these Old Testament examples continue to apply to the laying on of hands in the Christian church. 


Whereas Abraham was entrusted with the promise – all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you –  the church is entrusted with the message of the fulfilment of this promise. The fulfilment is in Jesus Messiah, Abraham’s seed, through whom the supreme and ultimate blessing of redemption and reconciliation with God has come to all nations. By this message many are being saved as they put their faith in Jesus and become heirs of God: If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29). 

The gospel message must endure until the end of the age, when the whole created order is brought into submission to Messiah and the Kingdom of God becomes a consummate and uncontested reality. Just as Abraham and his descendants transmitted the knowledge of God to future generations, keeping the hope of the promise alive until its realisation, those entrusted with the gospel must teach it to subsequent generations of believers so that a true witness of Christ may be preserved until the close of the mortal age.

Those who believe the message must submit to godly instruction and learn diligently, to be prepared for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13). 

After Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel to a very large crowd. Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer … And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

As these new believers submitted to the apostles, the knowledge of God was handed down to them. As in the days of Abraham, the transmission is between parents and their children – but now in the spiritual family of believers in Christ. This is seen in the example of Paul – of whom it can be said, as in the case of Abraham, that God chose him, because God knew him, that Paul would instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just (Genesis 18:19). 

Paul instructed Timothy: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others(2 Timothy 2:1-2). We may safely assume that Timothy was not a natural descendant of Paul, but a son in the sense of Elisha and Joshua – by his submission and faithful adherence to Paul’s instruction.  

As in the time of the patriarchs, the elders confer spiritual gifts and blessings upon their “children”. As in those earlier days, the gifts are conferred prophetically – as a hope to be realised through perseverance in faith. This is clear once again in Timothy’s case, to whom Paul said:Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:18-19).  And also: Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:14-16).

It was necessary for Timothy to follow Paul’s instruction to realise the prophetic gift conferred on him by the elders at the laying on of hands. For Timothy to obtain the blessing, he was required to watch his life and doctrine closely and persevere in them!  

As Jacob exercised discernment in conferring appropriate blessings on his children, so the church elders must be careful to bestow gifts and authority according to the temperament and measure of faith given of the delegate. For this reason we are warned: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others (1 Timothy 5:22). 


As Moses received his authority from God and then handed it down, a believer’s authority is derived from the authority that God the Father conferred upon Jesus His Son. God gave him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), and for all time. This was shown to Daniel in a vision: I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed (Daniel 7:13-14). 

As King Saul was stripped of his position when David was anointed, so the advent of Messiah marked the time that the Sanhedrin – the authority ordained under the Law of Moses – would lose its privilege and authority. In fulfilment of a prophecy of Jacob in Genesis 49:10, the rulership departed from Judah at the coming of the one to whom it was due, and was then bequeathed on those who would bear the fruit of his kingdom (Matthew 21:43). 

By the authority given him, Jesus commissioned the apostles: Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20). This authority was uniquely given to his apostles, when Jesus said,  ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (John 20:21-22). Jesus’ manner of commissioning the apostles is likened to the way in which Jesus had received his own commission – as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Paul received his commission in a similar way, as he testifies to the Galatians: Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead (Galatians 1:1). 

From the apostles down, the divine commission is once again transmitted by the hands of men. 


Those who believed after Pentecost and submitted to the apostles’ teaching grew and matured in their faith. Very soon a special need arose and some of those early believers were ready to be set apart for that ministry. This event is described in Acts 6:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’ This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7). 

Also, as God identified Joshua for ordination at the hands of Moses, so the church was led by the Spirit to commission certain of its members. Acts 13 contains an example: 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.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off  (Acts 13:2-3). 

This practice continues today. But as Isaac was undiscerning in his choice of Esau, so it is that many improper candidates have been ordained. By placing their hands on a person the elders confirm that they recognise God’s calling on him and are releasing him for that purpose. Alternatively, they demonstrate that the person is being appointed for a specific role or function within the congregation.

Many will abuse the gifts and offices of the church to further their own ends. This includes those who think that godliness is a means to financial gain (1 Timothy 6:5) and those who seek their own following, as Paul warned the Ephesians: I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after themselves (Acts 20: 29-30). By teaching or commissioning such a person the church simply equips him for greater deception. They who strengthen the hand of evildoers also share in their sins (Jeremiah 23:14).

The elders are held responsible for their appointment (1 Timothy 5:22) and the person receiving the charge submits to the elders and accepts an accountability towards them for the proper performance of his task. 


The laying on of hands is part of the process of arranging the activities of the church into their proper order.

Very soon after the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, Moses appointed elders over their divisions (Exodus 18). At God’s instruction, he consecrated various persons and groups for specific duties, e.g., the Levites for the priesthood (Numbers 8) and various artisans for constructing the Tabernacle. Certain attributes were also stated as prerequisites for the persons holding various offices. Also by God’s instruction, the camp of the Israelites was arranged for proper worship, with the tabernacle at its centre and each of the twelve tribes stationed around it in its various divisions (Numbers 2). God is not a God of disorder (1 Corinthians 14:33). 

The New Testament instructions for orderly worship (1 Corinthians 11), the division of responsibilities (1 Corinthians 12) and the qualities required of church leaders (1 Timothy 3), have their precedent in these activities at the time of the Exodus.

The term church is derived from the Greek word for an “assembly” or “gathering” and designates the community of believers – not its buildings or structures. The church is “the body of Christ,” i.e. Jesus’ physical presence in the world after his ascension, of which he remains the head (Ephesians 4:15-16) – motivating and leading it through the Holy Spirit. 

The body has many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12). It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13). 

Members perform diverse roles, but are united in love and purpose (Ephesians 5:21). The various parts depend on each other and cannot function alone. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ (2 Corinthians 12:21). Just as Joshua needed Eleazar to hear from the Lord, so God has ordained mutual dependencies within the body. The church is corporately the fullness of him (Ephesians 1:23) and the Spirit dwells in it communally (Ephesians 2:22). Prophets are subject to the control of prophets (1 Corinthians 14:22). God’s presence is ordained where two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20) and each part submits to the others (Ephesians 5:21). 

Those in the position of overseers, or commissioned to specific service, are to meet the specified criteria, with the emphasis on personal integrity and the ability to teach (see 1 Timothy 3:1-15; Titus 1:5-16). Worship is communal and requires the gathering together of believers in regular meetings (Hebrews 10:25). 

In light of these principles, there are two common departures from the biblical model of ordination evident today.

  • The first is where individual believers operate independently, outside of any real oversight or accountability (the “loose limbs” phenomenon). The Bible speaks of those who despise authority (2 Peter 2:10), who do not accept sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3) and pollute themselves with unbiblical and undisciplined spiritual practices (2 Peter 2:11-12). 
  • The second departure is where structure becomes sacrosanct. The functions of the church are over-regulated and members are inhibited from following the Spirit in their service of God. We see from the book of Acts that Stephen was appointed to minister to the widows (Acts 6:5), yet still had the freedom to argue in the synagogues (Acts 6:9). Timothy while serving as a pastor and teacher was told to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). 

Certain denominations make a formal distinction between priesthood and laity – in contrast with the Biblical church, in which all are priests functioning together as a body in the work of Christ (1 Peter 2:5). In other cases the leadership is held out as those who ‘have the anointing’ or form ‘the covering’ for the rest. However, the Bible teaches that to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good  (1 Corinthians 12:7). Mutual accountability is in order, rather than individual dominance (Ephesians 5:21). 


There was yet a further application of the laying on of hands in the Old Testament. When a priest consecrated an animal for sacrifice as a sin offering or guilt offering, he laid his hands on the victim in acknowledgement that it had to die in his place – or in place of the people – for the sins which he confessed over it. 

In the case of a capital offence, the witnesses were required to lay hands on the person to be stoned to death, as seen in the example of the man convicted of blasphemy: They put him in custody until the will of the LORD should be made clear to them. Then the LORD said to Moses: Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him (Leviticus 24:12-14). 

The laying on of hands is by implication an acceptance of accountability for what is to be done to the victim. ‘By my sin I am responsible for the death of this animal,’ or, in the case of the blasphemer, ‘by my testimony I am responsible for the death of this law-breaker’.  

In the same way, discipline in the church has to be done by the testimony of witnesses: Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning (1 Timothy 5:19-20). 

The most extreme form of punishment in cases of flagrant and unrepentant sin is excommunication – an expulsion from the assembly of the redeemed,and thus also from its benefits and its promised inheritance. The motivations for discipline are to preserve the purity of the body and the hope that the sinner may come to repentance.

Questions related to this topic 

1. Do miracles always prove authority from God? 

Although there have been many men since that days of the apostles with gifts of healing and other miraculous powers, these gifts were not given to establish confidence in those persons for redemption or doctrinal truth. Nor do miracles alone prove authority from God, since many oppose the truth and yet perform miracles. This was the case with Pharaoh’s magicians (Exodus 7:11), and is also the case with those who oppose the gospel (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). 

2. How do we discern authority in the church? 

Authority is given for building up the church, not for pulling it down (1 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10). Those who have real authority will use it in this way – to bring people to Christ and not to themselves, to lead them to repentance, teaching them to renounce the world and to take hold of the heavenly hope and establishing their faith on sound doctrine. 

We are told to discern a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:20) and by its roots (James 3:12).The fruit of the Spirit is described as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control … those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:22). 

While spiritual gifts are often counterfeit or difficult to discern, selfish ambitions, worldliness, greed and the other lusts of the flesh are often quite evident. Bad fruit indicates a bad tree. 

Looking to the roots criterion, it is unlikely that someone trained and ordained by a charlatan should be a stalwart of the truth. From whom has the worker received his gifts and his instruction? 

Therefore, instead of looking at formal credentials or to natural or even to apparent spiritual gifts, leaders should rather be assessed by their doctrine and way of life. 

3. Is it possible to impart the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands? 

We see from Deuteronomy 34:9 that Joshua received the Spirit by the hands of Moses, and there are various accounts in the book of Acts of believers receiving the Spirit at the hands of the apostles. But the Spirit comes from God and is always given by Him. 

In Joshua’s case, Moses was acting on God’s instruction when he laid hands on him. Similarly, Peter was sent to the house of Cornelius by vision and divine revelation (Acts 10). We can assume that wherever the Spirit is given on the laying on of hands, a similar discernment or revelation must precede the event (1 Timothy 5:22).  

Any person who acts indiscriminately and with obvious lack of discernment regarding the person on whom the ‘spirit’ is being conferred, will not imparting the Spirit of God.

4. Can someone receive a curse through the laying on of hands? 

No one can curse those whom God has blessed. This was the lesson of Balaam in Deuteronomy 23:4-5. See also Romans 8:31. 

Some of what Jacob conferred on his sons may appear to be a curse (Genesis 49), but we must remember that his blessing was a prophetic statement based on the recipient’s character. 

5. When should I permit the laying on of hands? 

Before submitting to the laying on of hands, try to answer the following questions: What task or responsibility am I being appointed or equipped for? How am I related to the person who wants to lay hands on me? What evidence is there of the Spirit at work in his own life? How well does this person know you and why does he want to lay hands on you? Did he pray and fast over it? Is he committed to teach you the way of truth and to work for your maturity in Christ?