“Where in the Bible does it say that?” It’s rare to find a New Testament passage that unpacks all the meaning and details of a given subject. Many times, it just assumes that the reader already knows the Old Testament background of the things and institutions that it mentions. Laying on of hands is a good example. The apostles laid hands on seven deacons (Acts 6:2-6); Paul laid hands on Timothy (1 Timothy 4:14). But what does this action mean? How did the early Christians understand it?
The earliest reference to the laying on of hands is found in Genesis 48:8-20, where Israel blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, by putting a hand on each of their heads. This blessing is more than simply wishing them well. It’s a bestowal of privileges due to the firstborn. Only in this case, Israel switches hands and gives the younger brother the blessing of the firstborn.
Moses also laid hands on Joshua at a very significant point in salvation history. When Moses knew that he was about to die, he prayed, “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, set over the community a man who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their actions; that the LORD’S community may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:15-23).
The Lord replied that Moses should “Take Joshua, son of Nun, a man of spirit, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand in the presence of the priest Eleazar and of the whole community, and commission him before their eyes. Invest him with some of your own dignity, that the whole Israelite community may obey him.” Moses did as God commanded.
In this instance, the laying on of hands was a sign that bestowed Moses’ authority and dignity to Joshua. Moses did this before a large audience so that the people would know that Joshua had received this authority. In other words, Moses, by the laying on of hands, gave God’s people a shepherd to lead them.
We learn elsewhere that the laying on of hands was more than just a symbol; it gave Joshua what he needed for his mission. Deuteronomy 34:9 says that after Moses died, “Now Joshua, son of Nun, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, since Moses had laid his hands upon him; and so the Israelites gave him their obedience, thus carrying out the LORD’S command to Moses.” Why was Joshua “filled with the spirit of wisdom?” It was because “Moses had laid his hands upon him.” Through the laying on of hands, God invested Joshua with what he needed to fulfill his calling.
With this background in mind, the New Testament references take on a new significance and help bring out certain details within St. Paul’s exhortations to Timothy that we would have otherwise missed. For example, Paul exhorts Timothy to “… attend to the reading, exhortation, and teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands of the presbyterate. Be diligent in these matters, be absorbed in them, so that your progress may be evident to everyone.” Timothy’s “gift” that was conferred by the laying on of hands echoes what we’ve seen concerning Moses laying hands on Joshua. Both Joshua and Timothy were invested with authority and the spiritual faculties to carry out their mission. Paul’s exhortations to Timothy also show us something important about this gift: The graces it gives weren’t automatic. Paul still needed to encourage Timothy to “stir into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6), so that he could grow in these graces.
Although Paul’s exhortations to Timothy applied to the sacrament of holy orders, it still applies to all of us in a general sense. All who are baptized and confirmed have received the gifts and graces to fulfill our calling as children of God, but we, too, have to grow in grace and “stir into flame the gift of God” that we have received.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.