Laying On of Hands



The Church and the Work: Assembly Life, CFP, 108-11, by Watchman Nee

(1) Should we practice the laying on of hands today?

The Bible does mention the laying on of hands, but it is not the same as what people call laying on of hands today. Nowadays, it is always viewed as a case of the "better" laying hands on the "lesser." But in the Scriptures there is equally the view that the "lesser" can lay hands on the "better" as well as the "better" can lay hands on the "lesser." As recorded in Acts 8, when the apostles Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritan believers, what they did was a case of the "better" laying hands on the "lesser." But Acts 13 tells us that in the church at Antioch, when several prophets and teachers ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said to them: "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them" (v.2b). So they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them away. Now we know from this same passage that Paul and Barnabas were apostles, but they had hands of the prophets and teachers laid on them. Yet in Ephesians 4 the apostles are listed first, then the prophets and the teachers. And hence in Acts 13 we find the "lesser" laid hands on the "better."

The biblical conception of the laying on of hands is not what people today usually think ofóthe latter being an action of the "better" performed on the "lesser." In the Scriptures, laying on of hands is but an expression of fellowship, sympathy and union. The laying on of hands spoken of in Acts 8 shows that the Samaritans were also joined to the body of Christ even as their baptism testified to their being joined to the death of Christ. The laying on of hands told of in Acts 13 indicates that the church was united with Barnabas and Paul and was in full agreement and fellowship with them. Their going out was the going out of the whole church. Such kind of laying on of hands exhibits to us that it was not only Barnabas and Paul who went abroad to preach the gospel but that the whole church at Antioch went forth with them. So that what the two apostles did was related to the entire church at Antioch. Their laying on of hands spoke not only of their fellowship with the ones who received this token (Paul and Barnabas) but also of the fellowship of the ones who received the laying on of hands with the whole church at Antioch. If anyone would go out from one locality to work for the Lord, it is best if he is sent out by the laying on of hands.

Let us be careful in our wiping out all the traditions of men from Scriptural teaching just as people cleanse dust from the glass. Some do not wipe the dust off but instead break the glass because it is filled with dust. Many may suggest that since we talk about elders and deacons and the laying on of hands we are not different from any denomination. Let us see that there is actually nothing wrong with these things in themselves; but what is wrong is that which men have added on to them. Our purpose today is not to destroy the works of the denominations but to restore the things which God had originally ordained. We cannot forsake biblical realities because of human adulteration. We instead ought to ask if God has so commanded. When I go out to do spiritual work, how many times I expect the brethren to lay hands on me to show that I do not go out alone but that the entire church sends me out. They are one with me.

(2) When Paul laid hands on Timothy, he imparted a gift to Timothy. Is a gift received through the laying on of hands?

What is a gift? It is the ability of a member. In other words, if you are an eye in the body, your gift is seeing; if you are an ear in the body, your gift is hearing. When a person is joined to the body of Christ, he immediately receives a gift. Why, then, did the apostle lay hands on Timothy? In representing the body of Christ, the apostle recognized that Timothy was also a member of that body. It pleases God that such laying on of hands will activate a gift in the person. What Acts 13 expresses is also the union of the body of Christ, although it is not for the manifestation of gifts but for the demonstration of the principle of our working together. Never can prophets and teachers impart gifts to apostles. I believe the laying on of hands should be continued. Nevertheless, Paul warned Timothy to "lay hands hastily on no man, neither be partaker of other menís sins: keep thyself pure" (1 Tim. 5.22). Hebrews tells us to "not lay again a foundation" (6.1). Both baptism and laying on of hands are included in that foundation. And hence, if we neglect the laying on of hands there will be some flaw in the foundation.

Laying On of Hands

Assembling Together, CFP, 17-31, by Watchman Nee

Wherefore leaving the doctrine of the first principles of Christ, let us press on unto perfection; not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the teaching of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.


Now when the apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit: for as yet it was fallen upon none of them: only they had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:14-17

And when they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied.

Acts 19:5-6

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is

For brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,

That ran down upon the beard,

Even Aaronís beard;

That came down upon the skirt of his garments;

Like the dew of Hermon,

That cometh down upon the mountains of Zion:

For there Jehovah commanded the blessing,

Even life for evermore.

Ps. 133

And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. . . . And he shall lay his hand upon the head of his oblation, and kill it at the door of the tent of meeting: and Aaronís sons the priests shall sprinkle the blood upon the altar round about. . . . and he shall lay his hand upon the head of his oblation, and kill it before the tent of meeting: and Aaronís sons shall sprinkle the blood thereof upon the altar round about. . . . and he shall lay his hand upon the head of it, and kill it before the tent of meeting; and the sons of Aaron shall sprinkle the blood thereof upon the altar round about. . . . And he shall bring the bullock unto the door of the tent of meeting before Jehovah; and he shall lay his hand upon the head of the bullock, and kill the bullock before Jehovah. . . . And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bullock before Jehovah; and the bullock shall be killed before Jehovah. . . . And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat, and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt-offering before Jehovah: it is a sin-offering. . . . And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin-offering, and kill the sin-offering in the place of burnt-offering. . . . And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin-offering, and kill it for a sin-offering in the place where they kill the burnt-offering.

Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33

Biblical Teaching and Example

The Bible clearly shows us the need for baptism. It also very clearly indicates the need for the laying on of hands. In both Samaria and Ephesus, the believers had the laying on of hands after baptism. This was what the apostles did in their time. Likewise, in our time the children of God will incur loss if they are only baptized but do not have the laying on of hands.

"Wherefore leaving the doctrine of the first principles of Christ, let us press on unto perfection" (Heb. 6:1), exhorts the writer of Hebrews. In Christian life, there are a few truths which are foundational. A foundation needs to be laid only once, but it must be firmly laid. What is it that is included in the doctrine of the first principles of Christ? Not only are repentance, faith, resurrection, and judgment listed, but also baptism and the laying on of hands. These two, then, are also foundational truths in Christianity. Our foundation will not be complete if the laying on of hands is missing.

The error of the church today is quite different from that of the Hebrews in the first century. The Hebrews, having laid the foundation, circled around and never went beyond it. Today, though, we go forward without ever having laid the good foundation.

Because those to whom the apostle wrote revolved all the time around such things as repentance and faith, baptism and the laying on of hands, resurrection and judgment, he exhorted them to leave the doctrine of the first principles of Christ and press on to perfection. But todayís Christians move too fast; we run away before the foundation has been laid. The apostles had to persuade people to leave, whereas we must induce people to return.

The Meaning of the Laying on of Hands

We have already seen what baptism has done for us. It calls us out of the world and thus delivers us from the world. It identifies us with Christ so that we may share in His resurrection. What, then, can the laying on of hands do for us? What is its meaning?

In the Old Testament we find that the laying on of hands has a double significance. It is mentioned most frequently in Leviticus, chapters 1, 3, and 4, so we will look there to find its first meaning.


The laying on of my hand on the head of the sacrifice in Leviticus 1 signifies that I am identified with the sacrifice and the sacrifice with me. Why do I not offer myself to God, but offer a bullock instead? "For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills" (Ps. 50:10), says the Lord. What is the use of bringing cattle or sheep to Him? God does not lack a bullock or a lamb. It is men that He wants to offer themselves.

But what would happen if I actually came to the altar and offered myself? I would be doing the same thing as the Gentiles did, as those who worshiped Moloch. In the Old Testament, there were people who served Moloch. Instead of offering cattle and sheep, they sacrificed their own sons and daughters on the altar to their god. Does our God desire only cattle or sheep? If we offer ourselves to God, how is our God different from Moloch? He is different in that Moloch demanded the blood of our sons and daughters, but our God requires us to offer ourselves. His charge is even more severe than that of Moloch.

It is true that Godís demand is more strict, but He shows us a way whereby we may sacrifice and yet not be burned. How? I bring a bullock or a lamb to the Lord. I lay my hand upon the head of the sacrifice. Whether I pray audibly or silently, my prayer is: This is I. I myself should be on the altar and be consumed by fire. I myself ought to be sacrificed, and I would indeed gladly offer myself to You. I should offer myself to be a burnt-offering, a sweet savor unto You. Lord, I now bring this bullock with me, and upon its head I lay my hand. By doing this, Lord, it signifies that this bullock is I, and I am this bullock. When I ask the priest to slay it, it is as if I am slain. When the blood of the bullock flows, my blood flows. When the priest sets the sacrifice on the altar, he has put me on the altar. I have laid my hand on it, so it is I.

Is not the same principle of identification illustrated in baptism? When I step into the water, I say this is my grave, for the Lord has buried me in it. I take the water as my grave. Likewise, as I lay my hand on the head of the bullock, I take the bullock as myself. When I offer it to God, I offer myself. The bullock stands for me.

Hence, the first meaning of the laying on of hands is identification. This is its prime significance in the Old Testament. I am identified with the sacrifice and it is I. Today both the sacrifice and I stand in the same position. When it is brought to God, I am brought to God.



There is a second significance to the laying on of hands in the Old Testament. In Genesis we see how Isaac laid his hands on his two sons* and how Jacob laid hands on his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh (48:8-20). Jacob laid one hand on each of his grandsons and blessed them. So the laying on of hands becomes the impartation of blessing. With whatever blessing one is blessed, it shall come to pass.

In short, the significance of the laying on of hands is twofold: identification and impartation. These two may again be summed up by another word, communion. Through communion, we become identified; through communion, what one person has flows to another person.

* Editor's note: Implied in chapter 27:27-40.

Why Christians Must Have the Laying on of Hands

We now proceed to ask: Why should Christians have the laying on of hands? Why does the Bible show us this act performed by those who are representative of the body? Why do the apostles lay hands on believers after the latter are baptized?

To answer these questions, we need to explain first what is meant by the body of Christ and what the anointing oil refers to. Let us read 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 together with Psalm 133. Christianity is really a marvel. The marvel lies in Godís intention to secure on earth a man who is absolutely obedient to Him, who can fully represent Him and who lives out His life exclusively. Today God has already set up this man to be Christ and Lord. "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly, that God hath made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom ye crucified" (Acts 2:36). God poured out His own Spirit upon this Man, Jesus of Nazareth, as the Head. In other words, the Lord Jesus does not receive the anointing oil as an individual but as the Head of a corporate body. As the Holy Spirit is poured upon Him, the Head, the same Spirit is poured on the body which is the church. Thus He receives Godís anointing for the sake of the body.

His name is Christ (Christosóthe Anointed One), and our name is Christian (Christianosóbelonging to the Anointed One). He is the Head, and the church is the body. God does not intend to create only one individual; His desire is for a corporate man. If the church were left to herself, she could not possibly satisfy Godís heart nor could she maintain Godís testimony, for she herself has no strength. That is why God must pour His oil upon the church. With the oil, she can satisfy Godís demand, for the oil represents Godís authority. The authority of God is given to the church through the anointing oil.

Let it be noticed, however, that Godís oil is not poured on any one member nor does it fall on all the members; rather it is sent to the Head. The Holy Spirit is given to the Head, not to the body. But as the Head receives the oil, the whole body is anointed. Do we see the difference here? The concern is not how each individual member receives the Holy Spirit, nor how all the members receive the Holy Spirit, but how the Head is anointed.

How, then, are we to receive the oil? If we stand in the body, the oil which has been poured on the Head will naturally come to us. Since the oil is not given to individuals, it is impossible for us to receive the anointing on an individual basis. This does not mean that we will not be individually anointed; it simply asserts that we cannot ask for individual anointing. The difference involved here is great. Many fail to receive blessings from God because they seek the Holy Spirit on an individual basis.

When the precious oil was poured upon Aaronís head, it ran down upon his beard and down to the skirt of his garments. Aaronís skirt was quite long, for it covered his feet. In other words, the oil which is poured on the head flows to the lowest part of the body. It is, therefore, clear that people enjoy the anointing oil today not because of their personal condition before God but because of their standing in the body. If we stand in our place beneath the Head, the oil will most assuredly come down upon us. Receiving the oil is not merely a personal matter nor even a body affair, but strictly a matter of taking a position in the body under the Head.

It is imperative as we travel the spiritual road, that we have the power of the Holy Spirit in order to testify. Otherwise we will witness in the flesh. The holy oil is never poured on human flesh. This is a point we need to take note of. We cannot do anything according to our own thought; we must have the anointing oil. Whether we have it depends on our having a proper relationship with the body. It does not rely upon our asking or our prayer.

Let it be re-emphasized: the Bible never teaches that the body is anointed. It only mentions that the Head is anointed. The body is anointed because the Head is anointed. If the body wants to be anointed independently, it will never receive the anointing. The precious oil is poured on Aaronís head, not on his body, though it does then flow down over the whole body from the beard to the skirt. Only the ignorant will seek individual anointing; only the simple will look for an independent anointing. Whoever is subject to the Head by standing in his particular place in the body as appointed by the Head will receive the anointing oil.

The Apostles Laid Hands on Believers

The Word of God shows us how after one is baptized into Christ, he receives the laying on of hands through those who are Godís appointed authority, such as the apostles. The apostles represent the Head, Christ, as well as the body of Christ. When one receives the laying on of hands, he bows his head and worships, for hereafter he will never again raise his own head but will submit himself under authority. His own head is no longer head; instead he is under authority.

The apostles represent the body. As they lay hands on the believers, it is as if they are saying that we all have fellowship with one another for we are one. "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles" (1 Cor. 12:28a). Being first, they can very well represent the church. By the laying on of their hands, they declare to the believers: "Brethren, you are one with the body of Christ, therefore the precious oil which flows down from the Head comes to you."

The apostles also represent Christ. "First apostles"óthe "first" here implies authority; that is to say, they are delegated authorities of the Head. So when they lay hands on the believers, it is equivalent to the laying on of the Lordís hands. Through their hands, not only the church but also Christ has laid hands on the Christians. Henceforth, we are subject to the authority of Christ the Head.*

* Editor's note: not only the apostles, but also others laid hands on the believers (see Acts 9:17 and 1 Tim. 4:14).

How to Receive the Laying on of Hands

We find that the meaning of the laying on of hands has two aspects: identification and impartation. The laying on of hands in the first aspect joins a person to the body and in the second aspect communicates what the Head has for the member. It requires being a member in the body as well as being subject to the authority of the Head. No one can say he is sufficient alone. The new life which he receives is corporate in nature; it does not allow independence. In the body, he lives; out of the body, he dies. On the basis of this identification is the impartation of blessing.

If a brother lays hands on me, it is not a meaningless or indiscreet act. My eyes must be opened to see that hereafter I am but a child among many children, a cell among many cells, one member among many members. I live by the life of the body just as in this physical body every member lives by the whole body. If I act independently, I come to an end and thus will be useless. If I cease to fellowship with other children of God, something is drastically wrong with me. No matter how strong I am, I cannot exist all by myself. If I am cut off from the body, I will surely die. I cannot boast of my own strength. I am strong because I am in the body. If I am disconnected from the body, I am altogether finished; by the laying on of hands, though, I am connected to the body.

At the time of the laying on of hands, I should realize, "Oh, Lord, I cannot live by myself; I have to confess this day that I am but one member in the body. Only in the body can I live, only in the body can I have the oil." Is this clear? One receives the oil because the Head has been anointed. If one is subject to the Head and is also joined to all the children of God, his submission as a member within the body draws the oil upon him.

Supplementary Lesson on the Laying on of Hands

Let us take up the case of the Samaritans and the case of the Ephesians. In Samaria a number of people believed in the Lord and were baptized through the labor of Philip, but they did not receive the Holy Spirit. According to Godís Word, they were saved. They did not receive the Holy Spirit because they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Now when the apostles who were in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John over to pray for the believers in Samaria that the latter might be given the Holy Spirit. As the apostles laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit.

What is the advantage of the laying on of hands as illustrated by this particular incident? It enables the oil to flow to me. I, as a member, today acknowledge my place in the body and take my position under the Head. Such acknowledgement brings the oil upon me. A new believer can receive the anointing of the precious oil right away through the laying on of hands, even though it takes a lifetime for him to learn well all the lessons involved in it.

In baptism I declare that I have forsaken the world; in the laying on of hands I announce that I have entered into the body. The former is negative in that I give up the world while the latter is positive in that I join the body. It means that I need this day to be identified with all the children of God, and I need to be subject to the authority of the Head. When I place my whole being under the authority of the Head, I receive the inflow of the oil. As soon as my position is right, the oil starts to flow to me. But if my position is wrong, how can the oil come to me? The Samaritans were in a peculiar situation: they had believed in the Lord and were saved; yet they had not received the Holy Spirit. The apostles came to put them under the Head. By laying hands on their heads, thus putting them under the authority of the Head and joining them to the whole body, the marvelous thing happenedóthe Holy Spirit was poured upon them.

Next comes the incident in Ephesus. When Paul went there to preach the gospel, he found twelve disciples who had already been baptized with the baptism of John. They were disciples, they had believed; yet they had only received the baptism of John. Paul therefore asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They answered negatively by saying they had not so much as heard whether the Holy Spirit had been given. Paul immediately discovered they were deficient in something fundamental.

This story is rather interesting. Why had they not received the Holy Spirit if they had already believed? The answer is that there was something lacking in the first principles. They had been baptized, but upon inquiry it was discovered that they had been baptized with the baptism of John, not baptized into Christ. Hence Paul prescribed believerís baptism for them, that they should be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Once this step was taken, he laid hands on them without asking any further questions. Through the laying on of hands, they were identified with the body and were made subject to the authority of the Head.

However, no one should have the laying on of hands without first being baptized. (The house of Cornelius, though, was an exception which will later be discussed.) The rule is: the Holy Spirit descends on those who have been delivered from the world and identified with Christ in death and resurrection through baptism; they then see how they must live in the body and be subject to the authority of the Head. Let me emphatically say that the anointing oil is more than a mere outward manifestation; it is an inward reality.

Psalm 133 shows us how the Head is anointed. In the anointing of the Head, the whole body is anointed; thus every member is anointed. Immediately praises rise up in me for the oil which has flowed down from the Head and has reached me, a member of the body. Whether the Lord gives outward manifestation or not is a minor concern. The outward phenomena of Pentecost ought not to be overly stressed, for we believe it is but to affirm that these people were being anointed. The issue lies in the anointing, not in the outward manifestation. The thing that is important is to know from where the oil comes. The anointing upon the Head is what has become the anointing upon the member. For this reason, the laying on of hands with prayer is a marvelous thing.

The One Exception in the Bible

The only exception in the Bible to the above happened in the house of Cornelius. The household of Cornelius had neither been baptized nor had had the laying on of hands; nonetheless, the Holy Spirit came upon them. Why was there this one exception? Since the time of Pentecost, all the apostles originally had the idea that the grace of the Lord was only for the Jews. They themselves were Jews; even the Lord Jesus was a Jew. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the Jews. The three thousand saved then and the five thousand saved later were all Jews, Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from various nations. So up to the time of Cornelius, all who had received this grace were Jews. Whether the same grace would be given to the Gentiles was unknown to them. The Jews customarily looked down upon the Gentiles as dogs and lower animals. Even Peter found it very hard to change his view.

We all know it is not easy to break through darkened minds. It was, therefore, a matter of great significance to open the door of salvation to the Gentiles. This began with the house of Cornelius. Even in the case of the Samaritans, the people were related to the Jews, though they were not pure Jews. But the Lord also desired to save the Gentiles. How was He going to initiate this? First, He gave Peter a vision of "a certain vessel descending, as it were a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven" (Acts 10:11-12). The Lord commanded Peter to rise, kill, and eat. But Peter seemed to know better than Godís command for he answered that he had never eaten such things, meaning he had never had anything to do with Gentiles. This was done three times until Peter got the message. How very stubborn the human mind is! After three times, even people with a poor memory can remember. Peter could not pretend that he had seen wrongly nor could he excuse himself by saying he had forgotten.

As he meditated on the vision, the men from Caesarea were at the door asking for him. He immediately understood the purport of it. Even dogs under the table ate the childrenís crumbs; the Gentiles had their share in the salvation of God. He went with the men unhesitatingly; but, still, to baptize the household of Cornelius was something he dared not do. True, these Gentiles had already believed, but what would the brothers from Joppa accompanying him say if he baptized them? They would not recognize the baptism and would accuse Peter of acting independently. He was in a dilemma. He himself was clear as to the Lordís intention, but these brethren were not clear. So how could he make a move? But the Lord answered by pouring the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and the other Gentiles though they had neither been baptized nor received the laying on of hands. Thus, when he returned to Jerusalem, Peter could say that since the Holy Spirit had descended before he made the gospel clear, he could do nothing but make up the deficiency by baptizing them. The baptism was for the sake of their being separated from the world and entering into Christ. The laying on of hands was omitted, however, because they already had received the anointing oil which it signified.

Later on, at the council in Jerusalem, the same problem concerning the Gentiles was raised. Peter restated his experience, and thus the door of salvation was kept open to the Gentiles.

In Samaria there was the laying on of hands, but in Caesarea there was none. In Acts 15 the Lord used this case in Caesarea to prove Paulís point, but in Acts 19 Paul himself laid hands on the disciples he found in Ephesus. Thus it shows that the matter of the laying on of hands yet continues up to the present.

We Must Walk with All of Godís Children

New believers need to be shown that they cannot live independently but they must be members one of another and learn to be subject to the authority of the Head. They ought not to be rebellious, but should rather walk together with all the children of God. Thus they will manifest the fact of anointing both in their lives and in their works.