There is something we humans often do when we come together. It doesn’t matter much whether it is family, friends, associates, or brethren in the Lord Jesus Christ. We greet one another, with our hands to shake or our arms to hug or our lips to kiss.
When we do this, what is it exactly that we are doing? True, we might be passing on a little jam from breakfast, or a few random germs, but what are we really doing? We are touching. We are coming in contact with another human being, someone else like ourselves, a creation of God. We may not even realize how important touching is; we may take it for granted. But touching is as important to humans as the sense of smell is to many animals. We learn so much about one another by touch. Is she cold or hot? Is he happy or excited? Is she feeling strong, or frail? Without thinking, we are gathering information about all these things and more.
We might not think that touch is an important thing, but we would be wrong. Children need to bond with their caregivers in order to develop properly. Touch is by far the most important way of establishing contact with those caregivers. I read about a study in Romania after World War II, conducted in an overcrowded orphanage. One hundred infants were fed, clothed, and kept relatively safe. But they spent most of their time in oversized cribs, and actual human contact was severely limited because of a shortage of nurses. One third of the children died before their third birthdays; nearly all of the remaining children suffered some form of retardation or mental instability.
This does not just apply to children. Touching helps adults and young people to explore, to communicate, and to bond with one another, as well as to trust. Who among us has not felt the joy and comfort of a child or even a pet when we soothe him or her after a hurt, whether it be a skinned knee or a mashed tail?
“Touch” is one of those English words with so many indirect meanings or uses. We say, that someone is ‘in touch’ when he is well informed about a subject, or truly understands his own feelings or emotions. We say she is ‘out of touch’ when she isn’t paying attention, or doesn’t care about this or that. We say, ‘Keep in touch’ when we want to hear from someone. Every parent of two or more children has heard those not-so-welcome words, ‘He’s touching me!’ When I sometimes carry on imaginary conversations with one of our cats, my wife says, ‘You’re touched.’ And there are many more uses of the word.
What the Scriptures say
Now what do the Scriptures say about touch? In the Old Testament the most common Hebrew word for touch is “naga”: “to touch, that is to lay hands upon.” However, it implies so many things. It can mean to grip, strike, join, punish, defeat, throw, or simply to reach out and touch.
Here are some uses of “naga”:
- “Neither shall ye touch it [the fruit of the forbidden tree], lest ye die” (Gen 3:3). God was not saying, ‘If it falls off the tree and accidentally hits you, you will die.’ He was stating, ‘If you grasp it with the intention to eat it, then you will surely die.’ Adam and Eve plainly understood they were not to eat of the tree.
- In Job 1:11, the adversary says, “Touch all that Job hath and he will curse thee.” The adversary did not say, ‘Just lay your hand on him, God.’ He was saying, ‘Hurt him, and he will curse You.’ In one way or another, most believers will experience this kind of “touch” by God, a touch that causes us pain, and tests us. It is a wise, and faithful, brother who when so touched by God can say, “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).
- “None should touch the young man Absalom” (2Sa 18:12). Plainly, David was pleading, ‘Don’t kill him!’
- There are many verses in the cleanliness laws of Moses that do actually mean, ‘Don’t touch it; don’t even come close to it.’ The lesson is to keep that unclean thing far enough away so there is no real chance you’ll contact it even accidentally,
In the New Testament the most common Greek word for touch is “haptomai”. It often means, in the simplest sense, “come in contact with”:
- “If I may but touch the hem of his garment, I shall be healed” (Matt 9:21).
- “Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him”
(Mark 1:41). Of course, we realize that in these two examples the real point is faith, but this faith was coupled with the action of touching.
Touching the sacrifice
The words of Leviticus 4:15, given by God, provided for the removal of trespasses. The elders were to lay their hands on the head of the bull as it was being sacrificed. They were required to touch the animal as it died. What was God teaching them? That they should get close to, and associate with, the sacrificial animal, and recognize that it represented them, and that they should have been killed. Yet for their sakes and through God’s great mercy, another was slain instead. As the animal died, they could not help but feel, in touching it, the lifeblood of that animal slipping away. And God wanted them to see their own sins, and vow not to repeat them.
The touch of healing
“And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (Matt 8:2,3).
There are other such passages, e.g., Matthew 8:15; 9:29; Mark 7:33; Luke 22:51. There were other lepers, other blind, other deaf and deformed whom Jesus healed. And there were yet others who were healed without being touched. Why did Jesus touch some and not others? I believe it was because our Lord knew which ones not only needed to be healed, but also needed the comfort and compassion of a human touch.
The touch of comfort
Who here has not felt burdened with pain, sadness, loss, or trial? I could say to you, ‘I am sorry for your trial,’ and, hopefully, that would console you. But if I touched your hand or your arm, or hugged you, while expressing sympathy, would you not feel considerably more comforted? Look at Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration:
“And when the disciples heard the voice, ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,’ they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.”
What does Jesus do?
“Jesus came and touched them, and said, ‘Arise and be not afraid’ ” (Matt 17:6,7).
He could have simply commanded them, ‘Stand up’, but he did more. The disciples were afraid, just as we too can be afraid. We can only imagine how reassuring it was to the disciples when Jesus touched them. But we all have experienced that kind of comfort and reassurance when we were frightened or upset, and someone gave us a caring touch.
Sadly, we live in a world where touching is often mistaken for something else, or — sadder yet — some may take advantage of the privilege of touching for wrong motives. But such considerations cannot change the need we have to touch others, and be touched by others. It has been demonstrated that many people experience lower blood pressure, less stress, and better overall health by having a pet around. Convalescence homes use the help of friendly, trained dogs and cats to provide such benefits. Do pets possess magic powers to heal us? Of course not. However, petting or touching an animal is not only comforting to the animal, but it is also comforting to the person doing the petting.
The father’s touch
One of my most favorite parables is the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). I have been that lost son, and at one time or another you have been, or will be, that lost son too.
“When he came to himself ” (v 17a).
When he was touched by the reality of his situation — when he realized that he was lost and only the love of his father could help him, and could make him whole again — then he said:
“I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.’ And he arose, and came to his father” (vv 17b-20a).
Here is one of the best lines in this parable. No matter how many times I read it, it still chokes me up:
“But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (v 20b).
He touched him, his lost son who had returned, who was now found. Why did the father touch him? He loved him, he had compassion on him, and he wanted to show this son that he loved him.
This is exactly what God did for us. In whatever way He did it, God touched each of us. Each of us in our own way, said, ‘I must turn — or return — to God in the hope that He will make me His servant.’
God guided us with that touch all the way to the waters of baptism.
We are servants now of the Most High God. Through God’s guiding touch, through our touch of His Son in the fellowship of his sufferings and death, we who were lost are now found; we who were dead in trespasses and sins now have hope of life everlasting.
The touch of cleansing
As his disciples assembled for the last supper, Jesus knew of course what was about to befall him. Yet his concern was not for himself, but for his disciples. He girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of the disciples (John 13:4,5). He knelt before each of his disciples, took their feet in his hands, and washed them. He humbled himself before the disciples, setting the example for them to humble themselves and help each other.
Jesus’ example worked with the disciples, with the tragic exception of Judas. Judas left the meal, but those who remained were faithful to that example. They were touched by Jesus, not just a physical touch, but especially a spiritual touch. Did he remember, at this time, the woman who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair?
Touching his body and his blood
On the table before us are bread and wine, symbols of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We might say that in partaking of these we are touching our Lord, our great High Priest. We might say that, like priests, we are partaking of the altar of which we only have the right to eat (Heb 13:10).
How can we touch others with the great goodness with which we have been touched? We can do so by giving them something of the precious Word of God. By showing them hope and love. By offering them real tangible help. And, perhaps, along the way, simply by touching them. Touch is such a simple thing, but touch is also a powerful thing and a precious thing.
Especially, let us never lose touch with our Father, or His precious Son, or our own beloved brothers and sisters.