Foundations of the Faith

the elementary teachings in Hebrews 6
that prepare disciples in Yeshua to move on to maturity

Laying on of Hands

In the Law of Moses, we find that the laying on of hands was used in a very specific list of circumstances. These were to teach us the basics of how this foundation of the gospel operates.

The circumstances in Torah where laying on of hands played a part: three kinds of offerings, the slaying of the man who had cursed G-d, the dedication of the Levites, and the commissioning of Joshua. In each case, the object on which hands were laid was the symbol of a spiritual transfer being made by the one(s) laying hands.

In the cases of the offerings, the person or people for whom the offering was being made placed their hands on the head of the animal being offered. These three kinds were the "sin" offering, to cover sins; the "peace" or "fellowship" offering, to make peace with G-d (or alternately, to "reconcile" or "complete" an imperfect, fragmented spiritual relationship - the Hebrew word "shlamim" can be understood in all these ways); and the "whole burnt" offering, to express a total surrender to G-d (the "olah", literally an "ascending" offering).

In the case of the sin offering known as the "scapegoat", for example, the instructions were as follows: "[Aaron] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites - all their sins - and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert."

In these offerings, the animal becomes a replacement for the person or people making the sacrifice; the animal dies, and the person goes free. The placing of the hands on the head of the sacrifice is for the symbolic transfer of the sins or the personal situation of the one for whom the sacrifice is being offered.

With our Lord Yeshua as our sacrifice, this kind of guilt transfer happens in the spirit, from us to Him. When we take His broken body and the cup of His blood in our hands, symbolized by the ceremony of the Lord's Supper (or, communion), we are spiritually laying our hands on His head. Messiah is actually all three kinds of sacrifice:

"G-d made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of G-d."

"But now in Messiah Yeshua you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Messiah. For He Himself is our peace [offering]..."

"Yeshua said, 'Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to My brothers and tell them I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My G-d and your G-d.

The second type of laying on of hands in the Torah was done by the witnesses to the blasphemy of a man who was to be stoned: "Take the blasphemer outside the camp. All those who heard him are to lay their hands on his head, and the entire assembly is to stone him." The message was that the sin of that man against G-d's Name, and its punishment, were being placed on his own head; and that those who had witnessed the sin were separating themselves from the evil deed.

This is a different purpose for laying on hands, but the principle is the same as that of the substitute sacrifices: the blood-guilt for the sin is being placed on the head of the one who will bear the consequences.

We see a similar spiritual statement being enacted by Paul: "But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, 'Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility.'" He symbolically shook out his clothes, presumably because laying his hands on the sinners was not possible in that case. This alternate way of transferring spiritual responsibility to the sinner was likely derived from Yeshua's teaching to His disciples: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

The third kind of laying on of hands in Torah was for the purpose of commissioning. Again, a substitution was being made, but this was for sacrificial service. Israel placed their hands on the Levites to commission them as their representatives for service to G-d in support of the priests. "You are to bring the Levites before the LORD, and the Israelites are to lay their hands on them. Aaron is to present the Levites before the LORD as a wave offering from the Israelites, so that they may be ready to do the work of the LORD."

In the New Covenant, we have the commissioning of the deacons with the laying on of hands, who were chosen to "serve tables" in place of the twelve disciples. This was functionally very similar to the appointment of the Levites to support the priests in their service.

Related to this was the commissioning of Joshua: "So the LORD said to Moses, 'Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him; You shall put some of your authority on him, in order that all the congregation of the sons of Israel may obey him.' Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses." As a result of Moses' request to God, Joshua carried on with the task of causing Israel to inherit the land of promise, since Moses had become disqualified at the waters of Meribah. Joshua received new power as a result: "Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him."

A similar commissioning was seen with Paul and Barnabas, by the direction of the Holy Spirit, and with the laying on of hands by the prophets and teachers in the congregation at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).

According to the New Covenant, the laying on of hands additionally becomes the means of a transfer of spiritual power for healing or deliverance, and for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Paul explained that for him, this power was the result of the weaknesses that he was willing to live with: "But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Messiah's power may rest on me. That is why, for Messiah's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

This was also true of the Lord: "For to be sure, He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by G-d's power. Likewise, we are weak in Him, yet by G-d's power we will live with Him to serve you."

Finally, we have this warning about commissioning: "Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others." Haste implies that we have not had time to prove the consistent service of the person being commissioned. Since he will be serving as our representative, sins in his life will be "served up" as a part of the ministry that we are commissioning. Our lack of care in selecting such a person will result in his problems being charged in part to our spiritual account.

Scripture references, in the order that they appear:
Leviticus 16:21-22
2 Corinthians 5:21
Ephesians 2:13-14
John 20:17
Leviticus 24:14
Acts 18:6
Matthew 10:14-15
Numbers 8:10-11
Numbers 27:18
Deuteronomy 34:9
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
2 Corinthians 13:4
1 Timothy 5:22

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