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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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TOUCH.—The word ‘touch’ is always associated in the Gospels with Christ Himself, except in one instance. The exception is Luke 11:46 ‘Ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers,’ a passage requiring no exposition.

I. Christ’s touch

1. Christ’s touch of healing.—Christ habitually established outward contact with the sick as a sign and means of healing. Besides the word ἄπτεσθαι, ‘touch,’ there are used such phrases as ἐπιτιθέναι τὴν χεῖρα, ‘to lay the hand upon,’ and κρατεῖν τῆς χειρός, ‘to take by the hand.’ It might at first be supposed that there was a slightly more mediatorial significance about the latter phrases, as though our Lord were rather acting as the delegate of another than on His own authority, but it will be found, on examination of parallel passages, that this distinction cannot be observed. The wide extent of Christ’s contact by touch with human malady is seen as soon as the passages recording this act are enumerated. By a touch only, recorded in its simplest form (ἄπτεσθαι), Christ healed a leper (Matthew 8:3), fever (Matthew 8:15 where Mark 1:31 has κρατήσας τῆς χειρός), blind people (e.g. Matthew 9:29), the ear of Malchus (Luke 22:51). By a touch, recorded in its stronger form of grasp or imposition of hands, He healed one deaf and dumb (Mark 7:33), the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26), a woman with a spirit of infirmity (Luke 13:13), the epileptic lad (Mark 9:27), many divers diseases (Mark 6:5), and the dead daughter of Jairus (Matthew 9:25).

2. Christ’s touch, other than of healing.—Here four instances are to be noted: the arresting touch laid upon the bier of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:14 ἥψατο τῆς σοροῦ); the upholding touch or grasp offered to Simon Peter upon the sea (Matthew 14:31 ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα ἐπελάβετο αὐτοῦ); the encouraging touch laid upon the disciples after the Transfiguration, when ‘he touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid’ (Matthew 17:7 ἥψατο αὐτῶν; cf. Revelation 1:17 ‘He laid his right hand [ἔθηκε τὴν δεξιάν] upon me, saying, Fear not’); the touch of blessing vouchsafed to the children brought by their mothers (Matthew 19:15 ἐπιθεὶς αὐτοῖς τὰς χεῖρας).

The Incarnation itself has been truly described in one of its aspects as God’s coming into touch with men, or God’s putting Himself where men can touch Him. St. Paul says that men ‘seek the Lord, if haply they may feel after [lit. ‘handle’] him’ (ψηλαφήσειαν, Acts 17:27); and one purpose of the Incarnation is that in Christ this desire may be satisfied. And, accordingly, to recognize something symbolic about the ‘touches’ of Christ mentioned in the Gospels, is no mere exercise of fancy.

(1) In the instances recorded above we are, as a first step, permitted to see the broad fact of Divine love seeking friendly contact with those for whom it cares. Our Lord is not ashamed to call men brethren. He lays His hand upon the bier; takes children in His arms; holds up a sinking disciple; encourages by touch as well as by word those who otherwise are overwhelmed by fear. Thus we see already an acted parable of how in the Incarnation our Lord ‘taketh hold of the seed of Abraham’ (Hebrews 2:16 ἐπιλαμβάνεται, the word already quoted of Jesus ‘catching’ Peter on the waves to hold him up). In Christ, ‘God put on the garment of humanity, and drew near in person, that we might clasp Him as a kinsman in our arms’ (Ker, Sermons, 1st ser. 191). Instead of the spoken ‘word’ of the OT prophets, addressed only to the hearing, there is now the living ‘Word,’ meeting the lives of men in warm and friendly contact.

(2) But a further and deeper truth suggests itself when we pass to the many records of Christ’s touch of healing. There we see what might be called the victorious vitality of the Incarnate Saviour, whose touch represents not only a sign of friendliness, but the opening of a channel of life imparting power. If it be true that the ‘fundamental meaning of the symbol’ of laying on of hands in the OT—on an offering, a criminal, a young disciple, etc.—was ‘identification by contact’ (Swete in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 85a), then even to the self-consciousness of Jesus there must have been something deeply significant about the deliberate touch or imposition of hands on others. It meant that He identified Himself with them in their weakness; and that He identified them with Himself in His superabounding life. ‘He touched nothing which He did not’—heal. Christ said to men, ‘Because I live, ye shall live also’ (John 14:19). He revealed this Divine power amid immense variety of malady, and amid the human helplessness of many of the cases.

(3) Still another step is offered to us when we observe that Christ healed by touch such a disease as leprosy, where contact with the polluting ailment was distinctly forbidden by the Levitical law (Leviticus 13:46). For here we see a vivid representation of Christ’s identification with mankind, not only in weakness but in defilement. To touch the blind or deaf was the act of a Divine physician; but to touch the leper was more than this—it was the act of One who could triumph over pollution, who could come in contact with defilement and yet not be defiled. ‘Another would have defiled himself by touching the leper: but He, Himself remaining undefiled, cleansed him whom He touched; for in Him health overcame sickness, and purity defilement, and life death’ (Trench, Miracles, 233). Thus the life revealed in the Incarnation not only sustains and heals, but delivers from the guilt which it is not afraid to meet in closest contact.

(4) Finally, in many of the instances we can discern in Christ’s touch an admirable means of suggesting the presence of a Healer, and so of challenging faith. ‘Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you’ (Matthew 9:29). The touch of our Lord must often have been of the nature of a challenge. It provoked attention, proffered help, and awaited response.

II. Touching Christ.—The occasions on which men are recorded in the Gospels to have touched, or sought to touch, our Lord may be arranged as follows. The principle guiding the arrangement will be referred to when the instances have been collected.

1. The touch of desire or faith (the verb in this first group is ἅπτεσθαι).—‘As many as had plagues pressed upon him, that they might touch him’ (Mark 3:10). ‘They besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment’ (Mark 6:56 ||). ‘A woman … came in the crowd behind and touched his garment. For she said, If I touch but his garment, I shall be whole’ (Mark 5:27-28 ||). With these may be associated the act of the woman in Simon’s house, who washed Christ’s feet with tears, and anointed them with ointment, and of whom the Pharisee said later, ‘This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is which toucheth him’ (Luke 7:39).

2. The touch of curiosity or indifference.—The most vivid instance of this is in the story above referred to of the woman with an issue of blood, where, in the different Gospels, no less than four Greek words are used to depict the thronging of the multitude, so finely distinguished from the significant touch of faith which brought healing to the sufferer. Mk.’s word is συνθλίβειν, ‘throng’ (Mark 5:31). Lk. uses no fewer than three words: συμπνίγειν, lit. ‘choke’; συνέχειν, ‘press’; ἀποθλίβειν, ‘crush’ (Luke 8:42; Luke 8:45). ‘Out of that thronging multitude one only touched with the touch of faith. Others crowded upon Him, but did not touch Him, did not so touch that virtue went forth from Him on them’ (Trench).

3. The hostile hold of restraint or enmity.—Since, in dealing with the touch of Christ, we included instances of His ‘laying hands’ on others, so in pathetic contrast the following instances must be included here. ‘And when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him’ (κρατῆσαι αὐτόν, the word often used of Christ’s more kindly activity) (Mark 3:21). ‘No man laid hands on him (ἐπέβαλεν τὴν χεῖρα), for his hour was not yet come’ (John 7:30). Though the connexion be not one of verbal identity, such references to a false or hostile touch of Christ suggest themselves as the betraying kiss of Judas (Mark 14:45), and the smiting in the high priest’s palace (Mark 14:65).

4. It is better to class separately the very interesting references to the touching of our Lord after the Resurrection. These are as follows: ‘They came and took hold of his feet (ἐκράτησαν αὐτοῦ τοὺς πόδας), and worshipped him’ (Matthew 28:9)—the permitted grasp of recognition and adoration. ‘Handle me (ψηλαφήσατέ με), and see’ (Luke 24:39); ‘Reach hither thy hand (φέρε τὴν χεῖρά σου), and put it into my side’ (John 20:27)—the solicited touch of reverent experiment. ‘Touch me not (μή μου ἄπτου), for I am not yet ascended unto the Father’ (John 20:17)—the forbidden handling of selfish and premature rapture.

When God and man were brought near in the Incarnation, it was natural that the Divine hand should be seen stretched out manwards in healing and help (see above); but natural also that human hands should be seen groping Godwards, seeking closer contact. An American missionary bishop tells of an Indian who knocked one day at his door, and said: ‘I have often gone out into the woods, and tried to talk to a Great [Note: reat Cranmer’s ‘Great’ Bible 1539.] Spirit of whom my father told me. But I could never find Him. Perhaps you don’t know what I mean. You never stood in the dark, and reached out your hand, and could not take hold of anything.’ The idea is precisely that of St. Paul; men ‘seek the Lord, if haply they may handle him’ (ψηλαφήσειαν αὐτόν, Acts 17:27). Now it is this identical word, strangely enough, that our Lord uses in the gracious invitation to His disciples: ‘Why are ye troubled? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me and see.’ In the Incarnation this longing has been responded to. So that, when St. John sets forth the main purpose of his First Epistle, he uses this same word again, and with what Westcott declares to be a ‘distinct reference’ to the passage in Luke, he states that purpose to be the disclosure to others of ‘that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1).

In the Incarnation, then, God has put Himself where men might touch Him; and in the various instances of touching Christ, grouped above, we see how men responded to this opportunity. There were those who sought with all their hearts for closer contact, impelled by the sense of need, or by the impulse of adoring love; ‘the history of all God’s dealings with man is the record of an approach nearer still, and nearer … until faith puts its fingers into the print of the nails, its hand into the wounded side, and constrains us to cry, My Lord, and my God’ (Ker, l.c.). There were those who merely jostled and thronged our Lord, but obtained no blessing, because enlightened by no deep desire. And there were those whose only impulse towards God manifest in the flesh was one of repudiation and dislike.

Only one passage of those quoted above seems at first sight to put itself outside the general symbolism. This is the record of our Lord’s saying to Mary Magdalene: ‘Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended unto the Father,’—a passage of which the interpretations are nearly as numerous as the commentators. But is not the explanation to be found in the present tense of the injunction, combined with the contrasted command, ‘But go,’ etc.—as though our Lord were saying, ‘Keep not on touching me, making sure of me in a selfish rapture, for the duty of the moment calls thee to be a witness to others; handle me not, but go to my brethren, and say unto them’? And if it be objected, as by Godet, that on that view the following words, ‘I am not yet ascended,’ present’ absolutely no sense,’ the answer is that the hour was coming later, when, after the gift of the Spirit, close and intimate communion with Christ could be given along with the work of witness and service,—when it would be possible for a soul to be both in contact with the living Lord and also a messenger for Him,—when (in other words) the disciple could be in ‘touch’ with Christ by His Spirit and also ‘go’ on His errands.

R. Stevenson.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Touch'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​t/touch.html. 1906-1918.
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