WITH the intensification of interest in certain theological circles in the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit and a contemporary interest in the doctrine of apostolic succession, some comparative study of the place held by the laying on of hands in the Biblical context might be of value to the readers of THE MINISTRY.
The laying on of hands as a symbolic act ranges throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It always bears the connotation of an act of sharing or of bestowal, most often in the bestowal of blessing in one form or another. The first instance is that of Jacob, upon the occasion of his imminent death, when he blessed the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:13, 14). Even so early, it is of interest to note that the act was so significant that it mattered which hand went on which head.
At the dedication of the priests to the sanctuary service the children of Israel (possibly through their designated leaders) laid their hands on the priests' heads to consecrate them (Num. 8:10). Similarly, at the succession of Joshua to Moses' position as leader, Moses laid his hands on Joshua's head in the sight of the people (Deut. 34:9). It is of interest to note here that Joshua's possession of the Spirit is linked to this laying on of hands, but elsewhere (Num. 27:18) it is recorded that Joshua already had the Spirit, so the laying on of hands must have been simply a public acknowledgment of the choice of God. As the Lord told Moses, "Thou shalt put some of thine honour upon him, that all the congregation of the children of Israel may be obedient" (Num. 27:20).
Many times in the Old Testament, prophets record that "the hand of the Lord" was upon them (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Kings 3:15; Eze. 1:3; 3:14; 8:1; Dan. 8:18; 10:10). Each case involved a vision or the receiving of a specific message from the Lord to be delivered to the people.
Just as the circumstances under which the laying on of hands was practiced varied in Old Testament times, the New Testament records parallels of each variation:
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In addition, in the New Testament the laying on of hands was used in the healing of the sick by both Jesus and Paul (Mark 6:5; Acts 28:8).
We now turn our particular attention to the charismatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit in connection with the laying on of hands. Interestingly, these occasions are recorded only in the Book of Acts. (Is it because Luke the physician had a particular regard for the phenomena?)
Generally, from the account in Acts 8: 15-17, the receipt of the Holy Spirit is considered to follow upon three steps: (1) confession of faith by baptism, (2) an apostle's prayer, and (3) the apostle laying on his hands. Prayer may be a recognition that God is the source of the expected blessing, while the laying on of hands is a recognition that the church is His channel for that blessing. It will be seen in the following analysis, however, how often this pattern holds:
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It is apparent charism does not always accompany the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Charism was poured out without laying on of hands or baptism or prayer upon occasions. Then, there were baptisms by apostles when no mention of charism is made; and there was the laying on of hands when no charism is mentioned.
Equally significant, the Holy Spirit was given sometimes before baptism, sometimes upon the occasion of baptism, and sometimes quite a while after baptism. Moreover, the Holy Spirit was poured out (though with no mention of charism) when others than the apostles themselves laid on hands (as Ananias with Saul). It should be noted, however, that there may have been charismatic gifts—and for that matter, prayers and the laying on of hands —where the Scripture record is silent on the matter. But surely such silence must argue for a lack of significance, at least.
Upon only two occasions did charismatic gifts attend the laying on of hands: Cornelius, and John's disciples at Ephesus. This may show the Spirit's impartial concern toward Jews and Gentiles, that like the Father and the Son, He is no respecter of persons.
Beginning with Saul and Barnabas, the laying on of hands became a symbol of the ordination to the ministry. Such ordination was done by the church as a whole, through its designated leaders (1 Tim. 4: 14; see also Acts 13:2, 3; Num. 8:10). This argues against the doctrine of apostolic succession, as Paul and Barnabas were not ordained by apostles. Nor does the record reveal anyone who was ordained to the ministry by the twelve apostles.
In Hebrews 6:2 the laying on of hands is listed among basic doctrines, but it is not clear in which capacity—that of blessing, succession to office, ordination, receipt of charism, or healing. Possibly it refers to all of them under the single heading of recognition of the church as God's channel of blessing.
Ellen G. White noted that the practice of laying on of hands was later greatly abused, "as though a power came at once upon those who received such ordination, which immediately qualified them for any and all ministerial work, as though virtue lay in the act of laying on of hands. . . . It was merely setting the seal of the church upon the work of God—an acknowledged form of designation to an appointed office."—The Story of Redemption, p. 304.
It seems clear that the receipt of the Holy Spirit and His gifts is not to be tied down to any mechanical or ritualistic form, whether of laying on of hands, or of praying, or anything else. One's reception must depend wholly upon one's personal relationship to God, and whether God sees fit to bestow the gifts (1 Cor. 12:11). The laying on of hands, therefore, is an expression of the church, not an act that binds God to a certain course.