The most common use of the word cheir requires no research or explanation: the hand is the part of one’s body with which he performs the most ordinary of daily tasks. Even in reference to God’s messengers – natural or supernatural – (Mt.4:6), hands may simply be viewed as a tool or implement. However, the figurative uses of the term, referring to custodial care, power, or authority, and the employment of one’s hands to convey blessing and healing, or judgment and arrest, can require discernment, and it is these upon which I propose to focus this study.
The ambiguity is not unique to New Testament usage. It occupies an entire (very large) page of very small print in L/S, the Oxford lexicon of Greek usage. In addition to “hand or paw”, they note that it may refer to position (“on which hand [side]?”), careful rearing (“by hand”) of a child or animal, and leading (by taking one’s hand). It is used of prayer, voting, reaching out to help or protect, or in a hostile sense, to harm or destroy. “In hand” may denote “under control, in process, or at close quarters.” To place someone or something “in the hands” of another confers responsibility; giving or offering one’s hand attests authenticity or trustworthiness. The hand is often used to describe the attributes of the person using it, and may even be represented as acting of itself (“what your hand finds to do”). Indeed, it may be used of any act or deed, a person’s handiwork or handwriting, and even an anchor, axle, or pillar! And that is just a random sampling.
Forty-seven of the New Testament references to “hands” are purely physical. There are however a few significant points among them.
Pilate (Mt.27:24) clearly had in mind something deeper than simple cleanliness in his highly public “hand-washing” as he disclaimed responsibility for Jesus’ execution.
Paul’s statements that “God is not worshiped [helped or assisted] by men’s hands” (Ac.17:25) and “they are not gods which are made by hands” (Ac.19:2), define limits not only to physical hands, but to the domain of human effort.
His repeated (Ac.20:34, I Cor.4:12) reminder of his having personally earned the expenses of his labors and his associates reinforces his admonition that the faithful likewise should “work with their hands” (Eph.4:28, I Thes.4:11) in order to have resources to share with people in need.
“The Hand of God” or “the hand of the Lord” is credited with leading and protection (Lk.1:66, Jn.10:29, Ac.7:25, Heb.8:9) and creation (Ac.7:50, Heb.1:10, 2:7, I Pet.5:6), as well as judgment (Mt.3:!2, Ac.13:11, Heb.10:31). It was “into the hands of the Father” (Lk.23:46) that Jesus released his spirit as he died.
Jesus’ own hands seem to have been constantly busy! Offering loving blessing to children (Mt.19:13-15, Mk.10:16), and to his bewildered disciples (Lk.24:50), identifying his disciples as family (Mt.12:49), rescuing Peter from the consequences of his impetuosity (Mt.14:31), many unspecified “mighty works” (Mk.6:2), and healing “all manner of weaknesses” (at least 20x, probably more) by “laying his hands upon them”.
The Lord Jesus, who personified the love of God, was always touching people! Especially those who were not “supposed “ to be touched! Nothing more effectively communicates love – especially to folks that others deem “untouchable” – than a compassionate touch, or a comforting (or celebratory!) hug! And no, the idea of a “hug” is not a silly modern notion, and not at all extraneous. The word which has been rendered “touch” is haptomai – L/S:”to take hold of, to hang on to, to grasp, cleave, cling to” , and only secondarily “engage, undertake, perceive,” and even “to attack or apprehend”. It appears 13x as Jesus’ initiative toward a person in need, and 17x as people crowded to grab hold of “even the edge of his robe.” The result of those touches was usually healing, except for Jesus’ reassuring his frightened disciples after his transfiguration (Mt.17:7), and blessing little children (Mk.10:13, Lk.18:15). (Could this last have been the origin of the “group hug”?
Only once did he make a negative response to “touching”, gently telling Mary not to hang on to him (Jn.20:17), but to get busy and spread the wonderful news that he was alive. There were also parts of that glorious event yet to be completed.
The disciples, later apostles, and others in the early church, continued this practice of “laying their hands on” folks in need of healing, as Jesus had mentioned before his departure (Mk.16:18), but it seems also to have acquired additional significance among them. People were commissioned in this way for particular assignments (Ac.6:6, 13:3, I Tim.4:14, II Tim.1:6). Remember (#48) that this was simply a sign of brotherly approval and participation, and NOT the conferral of a lifetime title or position of status as it has become in modern rituals of “ordination”.
The gesture also accompanied prayer – not only for healing (Ac.3:7, 5:12, 9:12, 25:8), but also for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Ac.8:17,18; 9:12, 9:41, 19:6) and various unspecified “miracles” (Ac.5:12, 14:3, 19:11). It appears on the list of “basic” teachings in Heb.6:2.
Relief was sent to the sufferers in the Judean famine “by the hands of Barnabas and Saul” (Ac.11:30). Five times, Paul identifies the authenticity of a letter by his own handwriting (I Cor.16:21, Gal.6:11, Col.4:18, II Thes.3:17, Phm.19).
Some sort of spiritual empowerment seems to have been conferred on at least one occasion (II Tim.1:6).
Paul’s advice to Timothy to use the act of official commissioning cautiously and judiciously (I Tim.5:22) could be better heeded today.
We should also be aware that neither being “in the hands” [power, authority] of someone, nor “laying hands on” a person is always a good thing. Jesus warned that he was about to be “betrayed into the hands” of his enemies, who had repeatedly tried to “lay hands upon him” (13x), and that his followers could face similar treatment (9 or 10 times) – which they did.
But they did so with the full assurance of their Master’s confidence, promised in Jn.3:34, 10:28,29; and demonstrated in Jn.13:34, that not only they, but “all things” had been “given into his hands” by the Father – and that no force in heaven or earth could snatch them away.
May we also rest in that certainty, as we offer our hands in his service!