Laying On of Hands and New Christians
In Hebrews 6:1-2 we read:
‘1 Therefore, let us leave the basic teaching about the Messiah and be carried forward to maturity, not again laying a foundation of repentance from dead actions and faith in God, 2 of teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.’
In this passage the author lists six elements of Christian teaching that he says are basic: repentance, faith, baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection and judgment. In what follows I want to say something about the fourth of these, the laying on of hands.
Reasons for laying on hands in the New Testament
In the New Testament we find the laying on of hands being used in a number of different ways. It is used by God as a means of imparting:
See Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:23-25; Luke 4:40; 13:13; Acts 9:12-17; 28:8.
See Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-16.
(3) spiritual gifts and/or commissioning for tasks or ministries
See Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6.
(4) the Holy Spirit to new Christian converts
See Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-6.
The purpose of hands in Hebrews 6:2
We need to ask which of these uses the author has in mind in Hebrews 6:2.
Firstly, we should note that all the other five elements of basic Christian teaching in the list are things that apply to every Christian. So it seems highly likely that the laying on of hands is also referring to something that applies to all Christians.
A reference to healing therefore looks very out of place.
So too does a reference to blessing, since laying on hands for this is found in the NT only in the accounts where Jesus lays His hands on some young children (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-16).
Similarly, the NT examples of laying on hands for imparting spiritual gifts and/or commissioning for tasks or ministries (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22; 2 Timothy 1:6) don’t seem to be the sort of thing that would apply to every Christian.
We are left, then, with laying on of hands for imparting the Holy Spirit to new Christian converts.
It is true, as we will see below, that there are examples in Scripture where new Christians receive the Spirit without any hands being used. Nevertheless, receiving the Spirit is certainly something that applies to all Christians. So a reference to God imparting the Spirit would look very at home in the list of basic Christian teaching in Hebrews 6:1-2.
It is also worth noting that in Hebrews 6:2 laying on of hands is mentioned immediately after baptisms.
Although ‘baptisms’ is a plural word, it at least includes a reference to Christian water baptism. And on several occasions in the Bible Christian water baptism is mentioned and/or takes place at the same time, or almost the same time, as receiving the Spirit: Acts 2:38; 8:15-17; 9:17-18; 10:44-48; 19:5-6.
By contrast, water baptism is not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture in close connection with any of the other uses of laying on of hands mentioned above, except for healing in Acts 9:17-18 where receiving the Spirit is also referred to.
So the fact that laying on hands is mentioned immediately after baptisms in Hebrews 6:2 helps to suggest that the hands in this verse have to do with God imparting the Spirit.
All things considered, then, it seems natural to understand Hebrews 6:2 to be referring to laying on of hands as a means of God imparting the Spirit to new Christians. It is just possible, although unlikely, that the author is thinking of other uses of hands too. However, even if he is, he is still very probably referring to the use of hands for imparting the Spirit.
It seems highly likely, therefore, that Hebrews is saying that the laying on of hands as a means of new Christians receiving the Holy Spirit is a basic part of the Christian faith.
Only two other biblical references to this
The conclusion we have just reached causes us a problem, however. Hebrews apparently says that laying on hands for receiving the Spirit is a basic part of the faith. Yet there are only two other biblical passages that refer to this, Acts 8:14-19 and Acts 19:1-6.
Acts 9:17-18 is sometimes said to be another example. Here Luke tells us:
‘17 So Ananias went and entered the house, and when he had laid hands on him, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me, that is, Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, so that you might recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight . . .’
In this passage it might seem at first glance as if Ananias’ hands are used both for healing and for Paul to receive the Spirit.
However, Acts 22:12-16 clearly implies that Paul had still not had his sins forgiven after he had regained his sight and had received further instruction from Ananias. And someone who is unforgiven can’t receive the Spirit. So, when we read 9:17-18 in the light of 22:12-16, it makes sense to think that Ananias’ hands were used only for healing.
This means that outside Hebrews 6:2, only Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-6 refer to laying on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. And it seems strange that Hebrews would describe something as a basic part of the faith that is mentioned so rarely in Scripture.
We need to ask, then, how often in the early church Christians first received the Spirit through the laying on of hands.
Clear references to receiving the Spirit without hands
There are two places in the Bible where new Christians clearly receive the Spirit without any laying on of hands.
Firstly, there is the account of what happened on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13. This, however, was an exceptional event. So we are best not to see it as important evidence for the way in which early Christians first received the Spirit.
The other example is Acts 10:44-47, where Cornelius and his family and friends receive the Spirit.
References to receiving the Spirit that don’t mention hands
There are other places in the Bible where the author refers to Christians receiving the Spirit without mentioning hands.
In Acts 2:38 Luke informs us that Peter said:
‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
In Galatians 3:2 Paul tells the churches in Galatia:
‘I want to learn this one thing from you. Did you receive the Spirit by the deeds of the Law or by hearing with faith?’
And in Ephesians 1:13 Paul states:
‘In Him [Christ], you also, after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed in Him you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.’
In none of these three passages is laying on of hands said to be a means for Christians to receive the Spirit.
This doesn’t prove that these authors wouldn’t have expected hands to be used. The authors of the Bible tended to leave things unexpressed much more than we are used to in the modern West. And it is possible that in these three passages the author expected his original readers to understand that hands would be the means of receiving the Spirit.
Nevertheless, this is far from certain. And we should note clearly that hands are not mentioned in these texts.
References to conversion that don’t mention hands
Outside of passages that refer to receiving the Spirit, the Bible contains many references to people becoming Christians that say nothing of hands being laid on them.
In Acts 8:26-40, for example, we read about Philip evangelising an Ethiopian eunuch. The text says that Philip baptized him. But it says nothing about any laying on of hands.
Similarly, in Acts 16:14-15 Luke tells us how Paul led Lydia to Christ. We read that she was baptized. But nothing is said about laying on of hands.
I could give many more examples of passages where Christian conversion is referred to that don’t mention hands.
Again, however, we must bear in mind that the Bible tends to leave things unexpressed more than we are used to. So we mustn’t assume that no reference to hands means that the author expected his readers to understand that no hands would be involved.
Nevertheless, we should note clearly how few references there are in Scripture to new Christians receiving the Spirit through the laying on of hands.
Drawing a conclusion
So what are we to make of all this? How often did Christians in the early church first receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands?
I think this is a very difficult question to answer. But we must do our best. And we must be sure not to ignore any of the available evidence.
On the one hand, it seems unlikely that almost all early Christians received the Spirit in this way. Receiving the Spirit is an enormously significant event. And it is something all Christians experience. So it seems strange that if hands were almost always used in the early church, there are only three references to this in the entire Bible.
On the other hand, we mustn’t ignore these three passages.
Importantly too, Hebrews 6:2 does much more than give us an example of Christians receiving the Spirit using hands. It apparently tells us that this is a basic part of Christian teaching. It therefore seems highly likely that at least in the Christian circles that the author of Hebrews was part of, it was normal for new Christians to receive the Spirit by laying on hands.
I think a balanced conclusion to the discussion so far would be something like the following:
The Bible suggests that in the early church a common way in which Christians first received the Holy Spirit was through the laying on of hands. And this may have been the most common way.
This leads us to think about the present day. Does God want churches today to lay hands on new Christians for them to receive the Spirit?
A large majority of Christians believe that this is unnecessary, for different reasons:
Most Calvinists believe that Christians cannot even have faith in Jesus without first receiving the Spirit in regeneration.
Most evangelicals believe that God always gives the Spirit in response to faith and immediately following faith, without any laying on of hands.
Many other Christians believe that God gives the Spirit when a new believer is baptized in water, without any laying on of hands.
An evaluation of these attitudes
Firstly, those Calvinists who believe that regeneration leads to faith are making a big mistake. The Bible teaches that God doesn’t give the Spirit for regeneration until someone has saving faith.
Secondly, Scripture doesn’t seem to give much support to the view that God’s standard way of doing things is to give the Spirit before water baptism.
I do believe that today God often gives the Spirit before baptism (and without any laying on of hands). But I think He does this as a kind of plan B, because so many churches today delay baptism longer than they should.
In the New Testament we consistently find that new Christians are baptized immediately upon coming to faith. And the same should happen today. But it hardly ever does. So I think God in His mercy often gives the Spirit before baptism, to prevent new Christians remaining Spiritless for days, weeks or months until they are baptized. But I don’t think this is His preferred way of doing things.
Thirdly, I think there is quite a good biblical case that can be made for the view that it is sometimes God’s will to give the Spirit in baptism without any laying on of hands. But Hebrews 6:2; Acts 8:14-19; 19:1-6 strongly suggest that omitting the hands is not always God’s will.
What should we do today?
Churches today obviously have to decide whether or not to lay hands on new Christians.
In making our decision, one thing we must not do is ignore what Hebrews 6:2 says. God chose to inspire the Bible with the teaching that it contains. And this means that He deliberately caused the author of Hebrews to say that the laying on of hands – apparently for receiving the Spirit – is a basic part of Christian teaching.
I would therefore suggest that the default position of churches today should be to lay hands on new Christians. If the leaders of a church choose not to do this, then the burden of proof is on them to come up with a strong reason why they shouldn’t.
I do think there might be times – maybe many times – when it really isn’t God’s will for hands to be used. But if in doubt, it seems best for us to lay on hands. This seems to be the course of action that is most faithful to the Bible.
Absence of apostles doesn’t change this
Some Christians would say that the conclusion I have just reached is made invalid by the fact that there are no apostles alive today. They argue as follows:
In the early church, only the apostles laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. There are no apostles alive at the present time. Therefore, when Christians first receive the Spirit today, laying on hands is never the means God uses. Instead He always just does it Himself without using any human agents.
I counter this argument in some detail in my article, The Holy Spirit, Non-Apostles and Laying On Hands. Here is a brief summary of that article’s conclusion:
It is true that there are no apostles today who have anything like the authority that the twelve and Paul had. Whether there are apostles in a weaker sense today is debated. However, there are good reasons for believing that in the early church non-apostles often laid on hands for Christians to receive the Spirit. So, even if there are no apostles at all today, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use hands.
Consequences of not using hands
If it is God’s will, as it seems to be, for hands often to be laid on new Christians today, a question arises. What are the consequences of not using hands when God wants them to be used?
There are a couple of points to make here.
First, God will surely not leave genuine believers without the Holy Spirit. The discussion above has shown that biblical teaching on this subject is not all that clear. And we shouldn’t think that God would refuse to give the Spirit for failing to follow difficult and obscure scriptural teaching.
In fact, this becomes even more unthinkable in the light of Romans 8:9. Here Paul states:
‘. . . if someone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he doesn’t belong to Him.’
In other words, to remain without the Spirit is to remain unsaved. And it is not reasonable to think that God would withhold forgiveness from someone simply because they didn’t have hands laid on them.
Second, however, it should be recognised as a fact that many Christians in our day have quite a limited experience of the Spirit. And when people who have been Christians for some time later have hands laid on them for the first time, they often seem to take a big step forward in their experience of spiritual things.
It does seem, then, that failing to lay hands on new Christians can sometimes mean that they have a rather stunted, limited experience of the Spirit.
This is not to say that when God wants hands to be used but none are, Christians always end up with a limited experience of the Spirit. And, as I have said, I think there may well be times when it is not God’s will for hands to be used at all. But I do think that sometimes no hands means lack of experience of the Spirit.
The precise timing of laying on of hands
There is one final question we need to answer. When the leaders of a church decide to lay hands on a new Christian, at what point exactly should this happen?
I think immediately following water baptism, literally within the next minute or so, is appropriate. There seems to be no better timing than this.
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