The Imposition or the Laying On Of Hands

The Imposition or the Laying On Of Hands


What does the Church teach about “the laying on of hands,” and how should this ancient ritual function, or not, in the Church today?

Like anointing with oil, much confusion often surrounds these outward signs which the New Testament has very little (but something) to say.

Like fasting, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil go hand in hand with prayer. Because of the way God has made the world, and wired our own hearts, on certain occasions God has given something tangible, physical, and visible to complement, or serve as a sign of, what is happening invisibly and what we’re capturing with invisible words.

Before turning to what the Church teaches in the New Testament about the laying on of hands today, let’s first get our bearings by looking at how this practice arose, functioned, and developed in the story of God’s people.

First-Covenant Foundations

Throughout the Bible, we find both positive and negative senses of “the laying on of hands,” as well as “general” (everyday) or “special” (ceremonial).

In the Old Testament, the general use is most often negative: to “lay hands” on someone is to inflict harm (Genesis 22:12; 37:22; Exodus 7:4; Nehemiah 13:21; Esther 2:21; 3:6; 6:2; 8:7), or in Leviticus 24:14 to visibly lay God’s curse on the person who will bear it. We also find a special use, especially in Leviticus (1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33; 16:21; also Exodus 29:10, 15, 19; Numbers 8:12), where the duly appointed priests “lay hands” on a sacrifice to ceremonially place God’s righteous curse on the animal, instead of on the sinful people. For instance, on the Day of Atonement, the climactic day of the Jewish year, the high priest.

“And putting both hands upon his head, let him confess all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their offences and sins: and praying that they may light on his head, he shall turn him out by a man ready for it, into the desert.” (Leviticus 16:21)

This special (or ceremonial) laying on of hands is likely what Hebrews 6:1 refers to when mentioning six teachings, among others, in the first covenant (“the elementary doctrine of Christ”) that prepared God’s people for the new covenant: “repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1–2).

While the majority of Old-Testament mentions involve priests and first-covenant ceremonies (passing the curse to the substitute), two texts in particular (both in Numbers) anticipate how “the laying on of hands” would come to be used in the Church age (passing a blessing to a formally recognized leader). In Numbers 8:10, God’s people lay their hands on the priests to officially commission them as their representatives before God, and in Numbers 27:18, God instructs Moses to lay his hands on Joshua to commission him formally as the new leader of the nation.

Jesus’s Hands and His Apostles

When we come to the Gospels and Acts, we find a noticeable shift in the typical use of “the laying on of hands.” A small sampling still conveys the general/negative sense (to harm or seize, related to the scribes and priests seeking to arrest Jesus, Luke 20:19; 21:12; 22:53), but now with the Son of God himself among us, we find a new positive use of the phrase, as Jesus lays his hands on people to bless and to heal.

Jesus’s most common practice in healing is touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:22–25; Luke 13:13). Jesus also “lays his hands” on the little children who come to him, to bless them (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16).

In Acts, once Jesus has ascended into heaven, his apostles (in effect) become his hands. Now they, like their Lord, heal with touch. Ananias “lays his hands” on Paul, three days after the Damascus road encounter, to restore his sight (Acts 9:12, 17). And Paul’s hands, in turn, become channels of extraordinary miracles (Acts 14:3; 19:11), including the laying of his hands on a sick man on Malta to heal him (Acts 28:8).

What’s new in the Gospels is Jesus’s healing through “the laying on of hands,” but what’s new in Acts is the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit through “the laying on of hands.” As the gospel makes progress from Jerusalem and Judea, to Samaria, and then beyond, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), God is pleased to use the apostles’ laying on of hands as a visible marker and means of the coming of the Spirit among new people and places — first in Samaria (Acts 8:17) and then beyond, in Ephesus (19:6).

In the Church Today

Finally, in the New Testament Epistles, as we begin to see what is normative in the Church today, we find two remaining uses from Acts which echo the two mentions above in Numbers (8:10 and 27:18), and set the course for Paul’s references in 1 and 2 Timothy.

In Acts 6:6, when the church has chosen seven men to serve as official assistants to the apostles, “These they set before the apostles; and they praying, imposed hands upon them.” Here again, as in Numbers, we find a kind of commissioning ceremony. The visible sign of the laying on of hands publicly marks the beginning of a new formal ministry for these seven, recognizing them before the people and asking for God’s blessing on their labors.

So also, when the Church responds to the Spirit’s directive, “Separate me Saul and Barnabas, for the work whereunto I have taken them.” (Acts 13:2), then “fasting and praying, and imposing their hands upon them, sent them away.” (Acts 13:3). Like Acts 6:6, this is a formal commission performed in public, with the collective request for God’s blessing on it.

Commission to the Priesthood

In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul charges Timothy, his official delegate in Ephesus, Neglect not the grace that is in thee, which was given thee by prophesy, with imposition of the hands of the priesthood.

Timothy was ordained as a Priest not only by Saint Pauls words, but through the visible, tangible, memorable laying on of Saint Pauls hands. This public ceremony is what Saint Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 1:6 when he mentions the grace of God in Timothy “through the laying on of my hands.”

The last key text, and perhaps most instructive, is also in 1 Timothy. Again Paul writes, Impose not hands lightly upon any man, neither be partaker of other men's sins. Keep thyself chaste. (1 Timothy 5:22)

Now the subject is not Timothy’s own commissioning to the Priesthood, but his part in commissioning others to the Priesthood. The charge from Saint Paul comes in a section about Priest, honoring the good and disciplining the bad (1 Timothy 5:17–25). When leaders like Paul, Timothy, and others in the church formally lay their hands on someone for Holy Orders, they put their seal of approval on the candidate and share, in some sense, in the fruitfulness and failures to come.

Laying on of hands, then, is the opposite of washing one’s hands like Pilate did. When the Bishops lay their hands on a candidate for Holy Orders, they both commission him to a particular role of service and they commend him to those among whom he will serve.

To bring all this together in simple precise words...

The imposition, or laying on of hands, is used in the administration of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick and holy orders, as well as other rites, including exorcism. During the sacrament of confession, the priest extends his right hand forward when imparting absolution. During the Mass, imposition of hands is employed when the priest extends his hands over the bread and wine. During confirmation, the imposition of hands is used during the actual application of the charism.

The laying of hands by the bishop during ordination of priests or deacons is perhaps one of the most moving moments of what is a beautiful ceremony. After the bishop lays hands on the new priest or deacon, fellow clergy members follow.

Away from the sacraments, the imposition of hands is used in a variety of blessings of individuals and of things.”- The Catholic Commentator