Good Friday, everyone. On this podcast we regularly take questions about how the early church did things. And then we ask what practices that we read about in our Bibles are directly transferable to our local churches today. Within that category would fit today’s email from a listener named Robbie in Kentucky. “Pastor John, hello to you! In 1 Timothy 2:8, we read that Paul exhorted men to pray in church while ‘lifting holy hands.’ What’s the connection between lifted hands and holiness? And what about lifted hands and prayer? Is this practice culturally dated, or is it a relevant one we should adopt today in our corporate church gatherings?”
The text — namely, 1 Timothy 2:8 — says, “I desire then that in every place the men” — and the word is men, not just persons; it’s males — “should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” Then Paul continues, interestingly, in 1 Timothy 2:9, without a break, and shifts from men to women and says, “likewise also, that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” I think it’s relevant for understanding the word to men to realize that it’s paired with a word to women. It’s relevant because it relates to the question of whether Paul is addressing a merely peculiar problem at Ephesus or whether he’s speaking more generally, in a way that all of us should sit up and take notice, even in the twenty-first century, because it relates to our situation as well, male and female.
Our Typical Temptations
Now, we might be tempted to think that Paul is focused here mainly on the situation at Ephesus, because when he says that “anger and quarreling” should be put away, that triggers in our minds another text, in 1 Timothy 6:4, where he says that there’s a group of people in the church who have “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce . . . dissension.” So we might think, “Well, that’s why, here in 1 Timothy 2:8, men are told to pray without anger and quarreling. It’s a peculiar problem at Ephesus. And that may be why Paul put the emphasis here on anger and quarreling.
But I don’t think he means for us to hear his words as limited to the application for Ephesus. I say that mainly because he says, “I desire that in every place men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The words “in every place” show that he’s giving general instructions to men. That carries over to the instructions to women as well. In every place, “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty.”
It seems to me that Paul is putting his finger here on a typical male temptation and a typical female temptation. In general, men are more given to the temptation of angry verbal jousting and outbursts of combative quarreling. And in general, women are more inclined than men to give attention to their appearance when they go out in public. Now, of course, those are generalizations, and there are exceptions for both of them. But Paul seems to be putting his finger on a problem that is more peculiar to men and a problem that is more peculiar to women. He’s addressing them both in general, not just because of a peculiar problem at Ephesus.
Our question here is about what he says to men as they gather to pray. What he says is that he wants men in every place to pray, “lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The question is this: Is Paul saying that in all our praying, we should be lifting our hands? I think that’s the basic question that I’m being asked.
I think the first thing to say, because we’ve seen it already, is that the emphasis does not fall on the lifting of hands, but on holiness and the renunciation of anger and quarreling. It’s significant that when he says he wants men to lift holy hands, he goes on to underline the holiness, not the hands. Namely, get rid of anger. Get rid of quarreling as you come to pray. That’s where the emphasis falls. It’s as if the lifting of hands is a given. That’s just a given. That’s what you do in worship. And so, what he’s telling them is not so much to do what they always do, and lift your hands; he’s saying, “Lift holy hands. Lift pure hands. Do it with peace and without quarreling.”
“The command is not to always lift your hands. It’s to lift them with holiness.”
Now, all of us, from time to time, speak this way. A teacher in grammar school might say to her students, “Now, young people, I want you to always come to class asking questions respectfully.” Or a coach might say, “I want us to get out on the field and throw completed passes.” Now, those are not statements about how often the student should ask questions, or how often the quarterback should throw passes. Those are statements about doing it respectfully and completing passes. That’s the way I think Paul is speaking here. The command is not to always lift your hands. “Be sure to always lift your hands.” It’s to lift them with holiness. “Be free from anger and quarreling.”
Body and Soul in Worship
But let me add two other questions. First, why did Paul take for granted that it was so common in worship that men should lift their hands? He was just assuming it. Surely, part of the answer is that the Old Testament refers to this practice often. Nehemiah 8:6: “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, amen,’ lifting up their hands.” Psalm 28:2: “Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands.” Psalm 63:4: “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.” Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”
“If the heart is exulting before God over some great reality of grace, it seems natural that the body would join.”
Probably, Paul simply assumed it because that’s the way the churches worshiped, following the tradition of the Psalms. It seems natural. I think that’s why it happens in the Psalms, and that’s why it happens today. It seems natural. If the heart is exulting before God over some great reality of grace, it seems natural that the body would join the spirit in the exultation. I mean, why wouldn’t it? We are body and we are soul, and we exult in this glorious reality.
Why Not Lift Hands?
Here’s my last question. Why wouldn’t we lift our hands today? Now, I’m arguing that it’s not a command here, but that we lift our hands in holiness when we lift our hands. But I’m asking this question: Why wouldn’t we lift our hands in worship? Of course, the answers are many: “It’s not the way I was raised.” “It’s not my personality.” “It’s not my culture or my ethnicity.” “It’s not the way our church worships.” “It would be misunderstood as identifying with a group whose theology is defective.”
I remember talking with a leader in another country. I said, “I spoke at one group in this city, and everybody was raising their hands. I spoke in your group, with five thousand people, and not a hand was raised. What’s that about?” He just said flat out, “Because if we did it, we’d be aligned with the people with the defective theology.” Or “It would be phony; I don’t want to just be carried along by my emotions.” There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do what the psalmist says is natural to do.
I would just end with the question, Given Paul’s assumption that it was so common in the early church, and given the Old Testament exhortation and examples, and given the natural union between body and spirit in true exultation, is the reason that you don’t lift your hands a good reason?