Spiritual Gifts (VI): The Laying on of Hands

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

An important supplement to the study of spiritual gifts is a discussion of the sometimes knotty problem involving Paul, Timothy and the elders of Lystra. The episode in mind involves two passages, 1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 1:6, and raises the question of just who was responsible for imparting a spiritual gift to Timothy: Paul or the elders. The implications of this query for present controversy is quite evident and thus worthy of our attention as we close this series.

A Historical Perspective

In order to understand and appreciate the nature of some of the incidents in the lives of Biblical characters, we must cast ourselves back- into their historical context. Many symbolic gestures and rituals which occur in the Scriptural record are relatively meaningless to us simply because our culture has no such custom (cf. “holy kiss” or “feet-washing”). The “laying on of hands” is one of those kinds of gestures; full of meaning for the Biblical characters involved with it, but rather obscure ‘to those observing it from a sophisticated 20th century viewpoint. We must appreciate the context of the situation before we can even begin to understand the importance for those participating in such an occasion.

The act of the laying on of hands has always been a Biblical means of displaying honor, appointment or approval. In Gen. 48:14, we witness the patriarchal custom of “blessing” one’s sons which involved laying the hands upon the head. In Lev. 1:4, an integral part of a certain sacrifice involved the laying of hands upon the head of the burnt-offering. In a vivid example, Joshua was appointed successor to Moses as leader of the children of Israel in Num. 27:18-23. In this episode, Jehovah commanded Moses to take Joshua and “lay thy hand upon him and set him before Eleazar the priest and before all the congregation; and give him a charge in their sight” (Num. 27:18, 19). Likewise, the men chosen is Acts 6 to take care of the daily ministration for Grecian widows were set “before the apostles and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them” (vs. 6). In each of these instances, the particular sacrifice or individual involved was set apart for a particular honor, duty or responsibility in a “ceremony” which involved the “laying on of hands.” This act symbolized the respective sanctification for each individual without any peculiar connotation of the miraculous or special gifts. These examples establish the fact that the “laying on of hands” has at times historically meant something other than the impartation of spiritual gifts.

As we demonstrated in the first article in this series, only the apostles were able to impart these gifts. The incident in Samaria establishes this very important fact. Samaria had received the gospel, but as yet had not received any spiritual gifts (Acts 8:14-16). When the apostles Peter and John arrived, they laid their hands upon the converts who subsequently received such gifts. Simon the sorcerer saw how the gifts were administered and erroneously sought to buy the power to bestow them from the apostles. Further, in Acts 19, Paul laid his hands on the Ephesian converts and consequently they “spake in tongues and prophesied” (vs. 6). It is apparent then that no non-apostle (whether preacher, elder, deacon, etc.) could impart those gifts.

The Incident With Timothy

This incident involved the following items which must be correlated:

1. The laying on of the hands of the presbyters (1 Tim. 4:14).

2. The laying on of the hands of Paul (2 Tim. 1:6).

3. A spiritual gift (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).

4. A prophetic utterance (1 Tim. 4:14).

Any explanation of these events and their relation to each other must take into account two elements which cannot be so:

1. This episode cannot mean that the spiritual gift was imparted by the presbyters. We have already seen that the presbytery had no power to bestow such gifts. Further, Paul says specifically that it was through his hands (2 Tim. 1:6) that the gift was imparted. “With the laying on of the hands of the presbytery” does not imply that the elders themselves had anything to do with the actual impartation of the gift. A. T. Robertson comments, “Here again meta (with) does not express instrument or means, but merely accompaniment. In 2 Tim. 1:6 Paul speaks only of his own laying on of hands, but the rest of the presbytery no doubt did so at the same time and the reference is to this incident.”(1)

2. This episode cannot mean that the gift was bestowed by prophecy as an instrument or means of impartation. Again, the sense of the passage is “accompanied by prophecy.” In other words, something was said, inspired by the Spirit, in connection with this ceremony. William Hendriksen translates 1 Tim. 4:14 this way: “Do not grow careless about the gift that is in you which was granted unto you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery,” and comments, “In all probability this refers to what happened at Lystra on Paul’s second missionary journey. It was then that Timothy by the operation of the Holy Spirit had been amply endowed with this gift. Of this and of the character of his task he had been made aware through (dia) prophetic utterance of inspired bystanders. Moreover, all this was in association with (or accompanied by: meta) the imposition of the hands of the presbytery …. Paul’s own hands had also rested upon him (2 Tim. 1:6).”(2) This is not the only time prophecy is connected with the laying on of hands (compare Acts 13:2, 3).

A Harmony of the Passages

We must place ourselves back into New Testament times and realize that our early brethren utilized certain “ceremonies” in assemblies in which men were set apart to some particular office or duty (cf. Acts 6:6; 13:2, 3; 1 Tim. 4:14). These were very solemn, dignified occasions which an assembly of brethren would use both to edify themselves and to make the one set apart aware of his responsibilities to God. Evidently, this was just such an occasion which involved Timothy. Timothy, a young convert, took part in an assembly designed to teach him his responsibility, impart to him a spiritual gift and to make him conscious of the function of that gift (cf. 2 Tim. 1:6). As some spoke by inspiration (by prophecy), Paul along with the elders in that location laid his hands upon Timothy. Paul’s imposition of hands gave Timothy a spiritual gift; the elders’ imposition set forth their own encouragement and approval to the young preacher as he embarked upon his service to God.

Such “ceremonies” were edifying and meaningful to our early brethren. These were not “official ordinai:on” ceremonies; there was nothing inherently authoritativ:. in the actions of these elders. Rather, they afforded a congregation the opportunity to proclaim truth and to inspire and encourage those “set apart” unto a particular function. May we learn the value of using such occasions to teach and encourage each other in our own assemblies, finding appropriate symbols from our own culture to facilitate the meaning.


1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), p. 581.

2. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1957), p. 159.

Truth Magazine XIX: 9, pp. 141-142
January 9, 1975