Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God , and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands…(Hebrews 6:1-2)
The fourth component of the “elementary doctrine of Christ” as found in Hebrews 6:1–2 is “the laying on of hands.” Let’s begin exploring this concept of “laying on of hands.” The first time we see this phrase used in a ritual sense (rather than in the context of violence — “to lay hands on” someone) is in Exodus 19 in reference to the consecration of the priests and then again in Numbers 8 with the consecration of the Levites.
“Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, and you shall kill the ram and shall take its blood and throw it against the sides of the altar” (Exodus 29:15–16).
When you bring the Levites before the Lord, the people of Israel shall lay their hands on the Levites, and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. (Numbers 8:10–11)
The next time we see this expression used is in the transmission of authority from Moses to 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. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey. And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the Lord. At his word they shall go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he and all the people of Israel with him, the whole congregation.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and made him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole congregation, and he laid his hands on him and commissioned him as the Lord directed through Moses. (Numbers 27:18–23)
Notice that in this passage the laying on of hands connects the concepts of inauguration, authority and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. From here we really don’t see it used again in this manner until the New Testament. Throughout the Gospels and Acts it is used primarily in the sense of the investment of the Holy Spirit and of healing (see Matthew 9:18; 19:13; Mark 5:23; 7:32; 8:23,25; 10:16; 16:18; Luke 4:40; 13:13; Acts 6:6; 8:17,19; 9:12,17; 28:8).
In Paul’s epistles to Timothy, however, we have a few examples of this phrase which are somewhat ambiguous. In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he tells him,
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. (1 Timothy 4:14)
Then we read of Paul cautioning him not to be hasty laying his hands on others:
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:20–22)
From this we can gather that this was either an act of communal acceptance or investment of a spiritual office. In his second epistle to Timonthy, we read Paul encouraging him:
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1:6–7)
This is very similar to the laying on of hands used by the Apostles on those who received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. How the author of Hebrews uses this expression, however, is even more unclear due to a seeming lack of context. The ESV Study Bible wrestles with the meaning of this phrase in this passage as well, saying,
“laying on of hands… could refer to an initiatory rite at the time of baptism (cf. Acts 8:14–17; 9:12, 17–19; 19:5–6) or to other hand-laying practices during prayers for healing and during commissioning of individuals for ministry” (see notes on Luke 4:40; Acts 6:6; 9:17; 13:3).1
Based on our exploration, the meaning of this phrase which seems to fit this instance in particular is that of an initiatory rite for the new Believer. It makes more sense with the logical progression of the various topics the author has introduced. Why are these six subjects grouped together and called, “the elementary doctrine of Christ,” or as the KJV renders it, “the principles of the doctrine of Christ”? Because these six things would have comprised the teachings given to a potential convert prior to his acceptance into the community of Believers. It’s a progression of teachings which we have to assume would have been taught to would-be candidates before their immersion into the Body of Messiah. The author walks us through these subject which would be taught to a potential candidate for entrance into the faith. They cover the various stages in the spiritual life of a Believer. Our spiritual life in Messiah begins with repentance (i.e. “repentance from dead works”). One must turn from his sins and turn toward God and His standard of righteousness. No longer does he measure his actions according to his relative morality, but he puts away the deeds of the flesh and lives in the newness of life he has been given.
From there the candidate is instructed about a life of faith (and faithfulness) toward God. He is instructed to faithfully live the new life the Father has given him according to the instructions found in the written Word. The life of faith is not one which can be chosen one day and disregarded another. It is a life of both trust and faithfulness, i.e. a life of faith.
Next, the candidate is instructed in regard to baptism. As we have said, the Didache spells out the instructions for a candidate’s baptism. This includes instructing the candidate to fast a few days prior to his immersion, as well as instructions regarding the type of water into which one must (preferably) be immersed. It was to be living (or “running”) water, which symbolizes the washing away and removal of the previous life and being “born anew” and the penitent becoming one as “a little child just born.”23
Now the author speaks of “the laying on of hands.” After immersion, the penitent is considered a full member of the community. Just as Paul tells Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands,” the author of Hebrews hints back at the instructions given to those entering into the Believing Assembly and the spiritual investment others would have poured into these new Believers. He, therefore, cautions his audience not to remain at the starting gate and focus on these, the most elementary teachings given to those who were coming into the household of faith, but to mature in their spiritual understanding and application. May it also be so for us.