The first time I held hands with my now-wife, Morgan, I felt like electricity was coursing through my body. As our fingers interlocked, my heart began roaring, my palms started to sweat, and all of my senses dialed up to a hundred. It was pure euphoria. For an event that was so unremarkable on the surface, it somehow proved to be one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
But that was not a unique-to-me experience; I imagine that most people would say similar things about their first hand-holding experience with their significant other. Such vivid experiences are enough to make one ask: why does something as seemingly mundane as linking hands with another human produce such a magical effect?
There are a myriad of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the most simple—and most profound—is that physical touch establishes a sense of communion with the other. Where there is touch, something more is happening than the mere collision of molecules. When we touch something (or someone), we feel connected to it (or them) in some mysterious way. So when we hold hands with our significant other, we’re participating in a form of intimacy that our soul craves. And if our romantic pursuits lead to marriage, the ultimate act of physical union is so profound that God says we become “one flesh” with our mate (Genesis 2:24). That’s the beautiful side of touch.
Of course, tragically, there’s also a dark side of touch. If you touched a Da Vinci painting, you might feel as if you were somehow enmeshed with centuries of history—at the cost of contaminating and quite possibly ruining the painting. We don’t allow people to touch priceless works of art for that very reason. How much more destructive, then, when harmful touch deals with human beings made in the image of God?
When touch occurs apart from mutual willingness, it is one of the most abhorrent forms of violation known to man. When touch occurs outside of the God-given limits, be it in premeditated assault or a casual disregard for the power of touch, we wreak disaster and ruin upon ourselves and others (2 Samuel 13:1-21, 1 Corinthians 6:15-16). In short: touch matters. It has mattered from the beginning. As far back as the garden of Eden, our mother Eve felt apprehensive about even touching the fruit of the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:3).
Do Not Touch the Holy Things
When God gave his law to Israel and established the rites of proper worship, he made very specific provisions related to touch. For instance, we read in Numbers 4:15:
“After Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy furnishings and all the holy articles, and when the camp is ready to move, only then are the Kohathites to come and do the carrying. But they must not touch the holy things or they will die. The Kohathites are to carry those things that are in the tent of meeting” (emphasis mine).
One of the holy things the Kohathites were responsible for carrying was the ark of the covenant. When the ark of the covenant was transported, it was not to be touched directly. Instead, poles were inserted through loops on the four corners of the ark, so that the Kohathites could carry it without making physical contact. When this statute was violated, it led to death (2 Samuel 6:1-7). But why? Why was God so adamant about this particular regulation?
The short answer is: because God cannot share intimate communion with what is unclean and sinful (2 Corinthians 6:14-18). There is no darkness in him, nor can there ever be (1 John 1:5, James 1:13). And we -- we are a dark and sinful people of unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5). Therefore, if it depends on our own merit, we will never have the communion with our Creator that we desperately hunger for. We cannot wash the crimson stains of sin out of our garments -- and so even God’s own people were forbidden from touching the holy objects, let alone from ever touching the perfect, sinless, immaterial God. So pure and holy is God, in fact, that even those with seemingly superficial skin diseases could not remain in the congregation of Israel while their flesh was afflicted (Leviticus 13:45-46).
But then, something miraculous happened.
The Holy Touched Us
God the Son came to us in the man Jesus Christ, and when he came into the neighborhoods of the unclean, the sinners, the lepers and the blind and all whom society deemed unworthy, he did not shy away from them. On the contrary, he drew near to them. Even more than that, after he had drawn near, he did the unthinkable:
“While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him” (Luke 5:12–13, emphasis mine).
Through the touch of Christ, the unclean were made clean, the sick were healed, the dead were raised, and communion with God was made possible for all who would turn and believe in Jesus (John 1:12-13). But Christ has returned to heaven; he is no longer physically with us. What then becomes of his cleansing touch?
For the present time, it is received by the hand of faith (John 20:29, Ephesians 2:8). But one day, in the new heavens and new earth, we will see him in the flesh again (Job 19:25). We will see him, as the poet John Updike once wrote, with:
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that-pierced-died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.
Perhaps, during a walk in the warm evening breeze, he will even wrap his arm around your shoulder and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And in that holiest of all touches, you will find that all mysteries and questions and longings at long last fade away into perfect intimacy—the kind that even your best dreams could not have prepared you for.