In the Book of Acts, there are several examples of one human “laying” his hands on the body of another human. Which people did such a thing? What was the purpose or point of doing it? Here are some cases of laying on hands that we read about in the Book of Acts, and with each of them except one, we will list them in the order that they appear in the Bible.
(1) Acts 5 – The Sanhedrin council laid hands on the apostles. “Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison” (Acts 5:17,18). Obviously, when the adversaries of the Cause of the Messiah laid hands on the apostles for the purpose of imprisoning them, their action was not endorsed by the God of heaven, and such a deed was not part of the church’s work of evangelism, edification, and benevolence.
(2) Acts 8 – John and Peter laid hands on new converts in Samaria. After some in Samaria obeyed the gospel, the apostles “sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, For as yet He had fallen upon none of them . . . Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17). One new convert, Simon, the former sorcerer, offered to pay money to have the power which the apostles demonstrated – the power to lay hands on other disciples, with the result being that those disciples received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-20). Every indication is that only the apostles of the Christ possessed this special type of power. Philip, who preached in Samaria, performed miracles (Acts 8:6), but not being an apostle, he could not “pass on” the power to do miracles to others.
(3) Acts 9 – Ananias laid hands on Saul of Tarsus. Before the Lord sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, He appeared to him in a vision, telling him, “And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight” (Acts 9:12). When Ananias arrived in Damascus, he “entered the house, and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized” (Acts 9:17,18).
In this instance, the laying on of Ananias’ hands was for the purpose of healing Saul’s blindness. This example shows that in the first century non-apostles also did miracles and, at least in this case, a non-apostle did it by laying his hands on the ailing person. There is no proof that when Ananias laid hands on Paul, that he received the Holy Spirit at that time. True, Saul’s reception of the Spirit was connected indirectly with Ananias’ coming (Acts 9:17), but Saul received the Holy Spirit in a direct, miraculous fashion, via baptism with the Holy Spirit, just as the other apostles did (2 Corinthians 11:5).
(4) Acts 13 – Saints in Antioch of Syria laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers . . . As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3). The ones who were sent away are the same ones that had hands laid on them – that would be Barnabas and Saul. Saul/Paul was already a Spirit-empowered apostle before the Antioch brethren laid hands on him, so the purpose of their laying hands on him and Barnabas was not to impart to them miraculous powers. Their laying-on-hands action was taken to show their support of and endorsement of Barnabas’ and Saul’s mission. It was a way of saying, “We are behind you and with you in this task. Godspeed.”
(5) Acts 19 – Paul laid hands on about twelve men in Ephesus. “. . . they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:5,6). This is another example of disciples receiving miraculous powers after an apostle laid hands on them (Samaria, Acts 8:14-20).
(6) Acts 28 – Paul laid hands on the father of Publius. When Paul was en route to Rome as a prisoner, the leading citizen on the island of Malta, Publius, showed kindness to him and others. “And it happened that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and dysentery. Paul went in to him and prayed , and he laid his hands on him and healed him” (Acts 28:8). Why did Paul lay hands on that man? So he could receive physical healing.
(7) Acts 6 – The apostles laid hands on seven disciples whom the brethren in Jerusalem chose to help serve widows: “Whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them” (Acts 6:6). The apostles had earlier said that after the seven were selected from the multitude of disciples, they (apostles) would “appoint” those men over the business of taking care of the widows’ needs (Acts 6:3). So, by laying hands on those seven, the apostles were officially setting these men in their new role. In this case, did the apostles’ laying on of hands also result in those seven, including Stephen and Philip, receiving miraculous powers? It is possible, as no miracles of those men are recorded until after Acts 6.
What about laying on hands today? There are no apostles alive to do it, and there is no more miraculous healing, so there could be no miraculous activity associated with laying on hands today. If we chose to lay hands on someone as a sign of support or putting them into a new role, we would be wise to give a clear statement explaining that what we are doing has zero miraculous connotation.
— Roger D. Campbell