1 Timothy 2:8 (NKJV)
8 I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting;
In the last few weeks we have explored various traditions that our elders have established to guide our corporate worship – singing the psalms, publicly reading Scripture, reciting the creeds, kneeling for confession, etc. Every church has such traditions and it is important that we regularly evaluate them to make sure that they reflect, not undermine, biblical principles.
Today I want us to consider the practice of raising hands in worship. I raise my hands to assure the congregation of forgiveness and to pronounce the blessing of the Lord; we all raise our hands to sing at the end of the service. Why do such things? Why raise hands at all?
The answer to this question is supplied by the Apostle Paul in our text today: Paul wants us to raise hands. Paul writes to Timothy, I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands… (1 Tim 2:8). If Paul wants holy hands to be lifted up in prayer, then we need to come up with ways to obey him.
So what are the circumstances in which Scripture records the raising of hands by the people of God? First, God’s leaders often raise their hands to bless the people of God. In Leviticus 9:22, Aaron “lifted his hand toward the people [and] blessed them….” Aaron’s action was later imitated by the priests as they blessed Israel. Most significantly, Luke records that after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, Jesus “led the [disciples] out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them” (24:50). The lifting of hands in blessing communicates visibly to God’s people the reality of the blessing that is being pronounced. In our service of worship, this action corresponds to the assurance of forgiveness following confession and to the benediction at the end of service.
Second, God’s people often raise hands to worship or bless God. The psalmist declares, “Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, My lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name” (Ps 63:3-4). In Nehemiah 8:6 we are told that “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands.” So as we prepare to leave the sanctuary each week, having renewed covenant with God, the entire congregation lifts up holy hands to praise the Lord. Indeed, at certain times of the year, we summon one another to raise hands as we sing in Psalm 134:2, “Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, And bless the Lord.”
Finally, God’s people, especially the men, often raise hands to lift their prayers into God’s presence. David prays in Psalm 28:2, “Hear the voice of my supplications When I cry to You, When I lift up my hands toward Your holy sanctuary.” Similarly, the psalmist prays in 141:2, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” One of the most memorable stories associated with the raising of hands and prayer is Israel’s battle against the Amalekites. So long as Moses’ hands were lifted in prayer the Israelites had success; but whenever his hands wavered, Israel began to be defeated. So Aaron and Hur got on either side of Moses and held up his hands until Israel achieved a complete victory (Ex 17:8-16).
It would appear, therefore, that lifting hands in worship is pleasing to God. However, while it is a good and lawful action, it is possible to do it wrongly; we can perform a faithful action unfaithfully. For example, our elders would argue that raising hands haphazardly in corporate worship rather than decently and in good order is problematic. And Paul, in our text today, wants men to lift up holy hands without wrath and doubting… He wants us to raise our hands in a particular way. So what does this mean? Consider that by lifting our hands to God we declare two things: first, we declare that our hands are clean, that they are holy, free from wrath; second, we declare that we trust Him, without doubting. “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…” (Ps 24:3-4a). If we lift up hands that are covered with filth, then this is not pleasing to God; likewise, if we lift up our hands but our hearts are far from the Lord, then this is not pleasing to God. We are to lift up holy hands without wrath or doubting.