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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

Laying on of Hands

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One of the symbolic actions we meet a number of times in the Bible is the laying on of hands. It contained within it a wide range of meanings.

In Israel’s sacrificial system, before offering an animal in sacrifice, the offerers laid their hands on the animal’s head, indicating that the animal was their representative in bearing their sins (Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 4:1-4). When Israel’s tribal leaders, acting on behalf of the whole nation, laid their hands on the heads of the Levites, they symbolized that the Levites were their representatives in the service of God (Numbers 8:10-11). When the church in Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries, the elders of the church laid their hands on them, symbolizing the church’s identification with the two men as their missionary representatives (Acts 13:3).

From these examples it seems that important elements in the laying on of hands were those of identification and fellowship. This again appears to be so in those cases where the apostles laid their hands on people who received the Holy Spirit in unusual circumstances (Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6; see BAPTISM WITH THE SPIRIT).

Sometimes laying on hands symbolized more than representation or identification. It symbolized appointment to office. Moses appointed Joshua as his successor by the laying on of hands (Numbers 27:22-23). Church leaders appointed missionaries, teachers, elders and deacons to their positions by the ceremonial laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Timothy 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6).

The laying on of hands seems in some cases to have indicated transferal. It may have been a transferal of sin, such as happened when the high priest confessed the sins of Israel over the head of a goat on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:21-22); or it may have been a transferal of good, such as happened when a father passed on his blessing to his children (Genesis 48:14-16; cf. Mark 10:16).

Jesus and the apostles sometimes laid their hands on those whom they healed, possibly to symbolize the passing on of God’s power and blessing (Mark 6:5; Luke 4:40; Luke 13:13; Acts 9:17). In some cases the laying on of hands may have been a kind of acted prayer (Acts 28:8; cf. James 5:14-15).


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Laying on of Hands'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/l/laying-on-of-hands.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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