What is the meaning of 1 Tim. 5: 22: “Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others’ sins. Keep thyself pure.”?
From a child, Timothy had known the OT Scriptures (2 Tim. 3: 15), from which he would be familiar with the meaning of the action of laying on of hands. It was one of a number of features of Judaism listed by the writer of the Hebrew epistle in Heb. 6: 1, 2, some of which were carried through into Christianity. To grasp its meaning one must turn back to its usage in the OT.
The essential idea in the laying on of hands is identification. This is clear from the offerings of Leviticus. There the offerer laid his hand upon the offering, thereby identifying himself with it. Thus in the sin offering a man was to bring a “bullock to the entrance of the tent of meeting before Jehovah; and shall lay his hand on the bullock’s head, and slaughter the bullock before Jehovah.” (Lev. 4: 4). In the laying on of hands the offerer and the offering became one before God. In the sin offering the sin of the offerer was transferred to the head of the offering and the sacrifice treated according to what was due to the offerer. Hence in the NT we read of the great antitype Christ “who knew not sin”, God “has made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21), and “Christ indeed has once suffered for sins, [the] just for [the] unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3: 18). In the burnt offering, while the bearing is different, the essential concept of the laying on of hands is still identification: “he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt–offering; and it shall be accepted for him” (Lev. 1: 4). When the offerer laid his hand on the burnt offering; it ceased to be a question of what the offerer was or what he deserved, and became entirely a question of what the offering was in God’s sight. The acceptance of the offerer was determined by the suitability of the offering. Thus in the NT antitype we read “wherein he has taken us into favour in the Beloved” (Eph. 1: 6). The basic truth in both cases is clearly identification.
However, the laying on of hands is not always in view of blessing. When a certain man blasphemed Jehovah (Lev. 24: 10–14) the word was “Lead the reviler outside the camp; and all that heard [him] shall lay their hands upon his head, and the whole assembly shall stone him”. Those who actually witnessed the blasphemy identified themselves with the righteous action of the assembly in stoning him by laying their hands on his head. Another relevant Scripture is Jer. 2: 37. “Thou shalt indeed go forth from her with thy hands upon thy head; for Jehovah hath rejected those thou confidest in, and thou shalt not prosper by them”. The straying hands that had previously been laid with confidence on Egypt and Assyria (v36) were now to be held firmly on Israel’s own head.
So Timothy was in effect exhorted not to identify himself quickly with anyone because by doing so he might partake in their sins. He was to keep himself pure. But how, by identifying himself with another would he partake in that person’s sins? Again the answer is in the OT. A man called Achan sinned by taking for himself a mantle, silver and gold from the spoils of Jericho. Yet how does the Spirit of God describe the incident? “But the children of Israel committed unfaithfulness in that which had been brought under the curse” (Jos. 7: 8). What does Jehovah say to Joshua? “Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them, and they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it among their stuff.” (v11, my emphasis). Israel is so identified with Achan that the sin is actually attributed to them. One man’s sin affected a whole nation! The principle is that those I may identify myself with in fellowship are those whose actions God identifies as mine and vice versa. So in the NT Paul says “Be not diversely yoked with unbelievers; … Wherefore come out from the midst of them, and be separated, saith [the] Lord, and touch not [what is] unclean, and I will receive you” (2 Cor. 6: 14, 17, my emphasis). Elsewhere, the same OT quotation (Is. 52: 11) is used to urge souls to leave Babylon: “Come out of her, my people, that ye have not fellowship in her sins, and that ye do not receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18: 4).
In a day of departure, fellowship is severely restricted. Timothy is not to be in isolation but is to be cautious as to whom he commits himself to. The word is not “lay hands on no man …” but “Lay hands quickly on no man …”. Haste is to be absent in the matter. While he cannot change the mass of those who claim the name of Christ, he is to keep himself pure.