Lifting Up Holy Hands in Prayer
“Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Tim. 2:8, NASB). Is the practice of “lifting up holy hands in prayer” merely a “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” phenomenon? Some people think so and are quick to dismiss it for this reason. Others reject it because it seems strange and is different from the traditional postures of prayer. Still, others view it as strictly a cultural practice confined to the first century. Whatever a person’s personal opinion might be, we must go to the Scriptures to find the truth and gain a proper understanding.
Examining the Context of 1 Timothy 2:8
The context reveals that prayer is the primary subject matter of the first part of chapter two of 1 Timothy: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Christians have a duty to pray for “all men.” Why Christians should pray for all men is explained in the following verses: “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time. And for this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-7). Then in the following verse, prayer is reintroduced: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Tim. 2:8).
Examining the Meaning of 1 Timothy 2:8
An Instruction for Men: The word “men” (from 1 Tim. 2:8) comes from the Greek word “ANER” which is specific to men only. Since all Christians must pray (1 Thes. 5:17), this must refer to men’s role to lead public prayer. Christian men have the responsibility to lead prayer in the public worship assembly (as they have the ability and opportunity to do so – Rom. 12:4-8). Men are to lead prayer because God has delegated this authority and leadership to men. “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12; See also 1 Cor. 14:34). Women are not inferior to men (Gal. 3:28), but simply have a different role than men according to the divine order of God (1 Cor. 11:2-3).
The Will of God That Men Should Pray: ”I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Tim. 2:8, KJV). It is the will (i.e., desire, want) of God for all men to pray. Therefore, His will should be respected and obeyed.
Pray with an Attitude of Holiness: “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Tim. 2:8). Wherever prayer is done, the right attitude of holiness must be evident to God. Christians are not restricted to worship or pray only in Jerusalem or at a temple. Instead, we must worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24) in “every place” or “every where” that we pray unto God.
“Lifting Up Holy Hands” (1 Tim. 2:8): The posture that a person uses in prayer may, at least in part, serve to express a person’s attitude toward God, which may involve the hands: “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:22). “But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God” (Ezra 9:5).
“Holy hands” – Holiness in Heart and Action: A study of the word holy is helpful to our understanding. Holy (from the Greek word hosios) is defined by the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon to mean: “Undefiled by sin, free from wickedness, religiously observing every moral obligation, pure holy, pious.” Our text (1 Tim. 2:8) gives us two examples of sinful attitudes that must not be present in our hearts when we pray: “Wrath” (i.e., anger, indignation, vengeance, violent emotion) or “doubting” (i.e., questioning hesitation, skeptical criticism).
“Without Wrath or Doubting”: Those who lead prayer must not pray angry words against a brother nor with ill will in his heart toward others (e.g., Mat. 5:22-24, 44; 6:14-15). Those who lack faith, who doubt God and His word in their hearts God, are unfit to lead prayer (James 1:6-8). All praying should be holy or set apart from wrath and doubting and all sinful thoughts, attitudes, and motives.
What Spiritual Value May “Lifting Up Holy Hands In Prayer” Have?
As we will address later on in our study, we are by no means restricted to one particular posture of prayer (e.g., lifting up holy hands). However, there is a history of the people of God lifting up hands in prayer that we should not overlook. Whatever possible value, if any, the lifting up of hands in prayer has is worth our consideration.
It Was an Outward Expression Used in the Praising or Blessing of God: “Lift up your hands to the sanctuary, And bless the LORD” (Ps. 134:2). “So I will bless Thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Thy name” (Ps. 63:4).
It Was an Expression of Their Approval of God and Reverence for Him: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:5-6).
It Was an Outward Expression of Their Desire That Their Prayers Would Be Accepted and Received by God: “May my prayer be counted as incense before Thee; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering” (Ps. 141:2; Compare to Eph. 5:2; 1 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 13:15-16).
It Was an Outward Expression of Their Acknowledgment of Their Dependency on God and the Serious Attitude They Brought in Making Requests of God: "Arise, cry aloud in the night at the beginning of the night watches; Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord; Lift up your hands to Him for the life of your little ones who are faint because of hunger at the head of every street” (Lam. 2:19).
It Was an Outward Expression of Devoted Hearts to God – A Symbol of Elevated Hearts Toward God: “We lift up our heart and hands toward God in heaven” (Lam. 3:41). It did not literally elevate the heart, but served as a possible aid in the concentration of their hearts toward God as they prayed.
In light of these Old Testament examples (Rom. 15:4), perhaps there is at least the possibility (for at least some people), that the lifting up of hands in prayer will help us maintain the right attitude of holiness as we pray (1 Tim. 2:8) which is critical to praying prayers that are acceptable to God. "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, And His ears attend to their prayer, But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Pet. 3:12).
Lifting Up the Hands Is Only One of the Methods of Expression in Praying Unto God.
Lest the impression has been given that we must lift up our hands every time we pray, we should recognize the fact that there are not just one, but many methods of expression found in the Scriptures that can be used when we pray unto God.
Prostration: This requires falling upon the knees, then gradually inclining the body, until the forehead touches the ground. This was an expression of reverence and humility before God. “And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him…” (Gen. 17:3). “And He [Jesus] went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.’” (Mat. 26:39). This was also done to show respect to a superior (1 Sam. 25:23; 2 Kings 4:37).
Kneeling: This was a very common posture to show respect in worship in Old and New Testament times. “And it came about that when Solomon had finished praying this entire prayer and supplication to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread toward heaven” (1 Ki. 8:54). “And He [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and began to pray” (Luke 22:41). Sitting was a possible form of kneeling (2 Sam. 7:18), yet not a common posture in biblical times.
Standing: The person praying stands erect with a slightly bowed head. This was the most common posture in prayer to show respect or pay homage to God. “Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the LORD” (Gen 18:22). "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer… But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:11, 13).
Kiss of Adoration: The practice of kissing one’s own hands toward the object of adoration (i.e., great affection) or even kissing the object itself. Psalm 2:12 (NKJV) Kiss the Son, (do homage – NASB) lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him. (See also 1 Sam. 10:1; 1 Kings 19:18).
Lifting Up Holy Hands: The posture in prayer in which one’s attitude is expressed by the hands (lifted up toward heaven - e.g., 1 Ki. 8:22 or outspread - e.g., Ezra 9:5).
What method a person chooses may depend on what is personally necessary and on his or her circumstances (e.g., praising or giving thanks to God, petitioning God, confessing sin, a crowded situation, condition of ground, physical ability, etc.). Yet, there is no single method that God requires that we must follow every time!
Whatever Posture In Prayer We Choose, Let Us Be Sure to Obey the Lord’s Command to Pray As We Should.
Christians are commanded to pray continually (1 Thes. 5:17; Col. 4:2).
We should not ever neglect our duty to pray to God (James 4:17; 2:10).
We should always pray according to God’s will (in harmony with the Word) (1 John 5:14).
Whatever posture (or method of expression) that a person chooses to use in prayer should always be done in sincerity and truth (John 4:23-24).
Christian men should step up to the duty of leading prayer in all holiness (1 Tim. 2:8).
No matter what posture we use in prayer, let us be certain to always offer prayers that are acceptable to God.