"Lifting Up Holy Hands"

“Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (1 Timothy 2:8).

In many churches today it is common for people to lift their hands during worship. Does this verse command us to do that? What is it all about?

The subject of this passage, going back to verse 1, is prayer (probably in the assemblies of the church). “Lifting up holy hands” in verse 8 refers to the custom of lifting one’s hands in prayer, which appears to have been a common—though not exclusive—practice in New Testament times. Both Old and New Testaments describe several different postures in prayer, including standing (1 Samuel 1:26), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54), lying prostrate (Matthew 26:39), with uplifted eyes (John 17:1), with bowed head (Genesis 24:26), with lifted or outstretched hands (Ezra 9:5), etc. These are all acceptable, humble ways to pray.

The point in 1 Timothy 2:8 is not to prescribe lifting the hands as a requirement for prayer or any other part of worship. The hand-waving so popular in many churches is not in view here at all. Instead, the apostle’s point is to emphasize that prayer must be offered from one whose life and actions (often symbolized in Scripture by the hands) are holy, “without wrath and dissension.” The opposite side of this is seen in Isaiah’s day, when God said to the people of Judah, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood” (Isaiah 1:15). The important factor in prayer is not the position of my body, but the condition of my heart. A sinful, unrepentant life interferes with acceptable prayer. “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight…The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:8, 29).