Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

Greet One Another With A Holy Kiss

by Rev. Stephen 't Hart

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You may have heard it said, and you may have even said it yourself, that you don’t go to church for the people. There is something right about this statement, something we should always keep in mind. But there is also something that is not right.

It is right to remember that the Church is not some sort of a social gathering and we do not come to church because we necessarily feel naturally attracted to one another; rather, we go to church out of obedience to God to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the LORD, and to give Christian offerings to the poor.

But to say “You don’t go to church for the people” is not really true. We go to church to worship the Lord, but also go to be with one another. We do not worship God in isolation, but as we have fellowship with Him, we also have fellowship with one another. Indeed, there can be no other way. “No man is an island” many people have said. And if that is true for the world, it is so much more so for the church. “We are the body of Christ”, 1 Corinthians 12:27 says, “and individually members of it.” We are a body. We are a living organism, joined and knit together. And so as we grow in our love for our Lord Jesus Christ, we must also grow in our love for one another.

We can see this truth in the letter of Paul to the Romans. The first chapters of Romans teach us about the gospel, what it means to be saved by grace through faith in Christ and then the last chapters explain how we are to live now that we believe the gospel, both in fellowship with God and with one another. And then the last chapter, Romans 16 describes the apostle Paul’s close relationship with many in the church of Rome, giving them personal greetings and then ending with the words of our text,

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

This morning we will hear God’s Word concerning the loving relationship we have with one another on the basis of the loving relationship with we have in Christ. I preach to you the Word of God using the words of our text:

Greet one another with a holy kiss.

  1. A comprehensive greeting.
  2. An affectionate greeting.
  3. A holy greeting.

1. A comprehensive greeting.

Kissing can be rather awkward. It is one thing for a husband to kiss his wife and parents to kiss their children. But beyond that, we start heading into somewhat dangerous territory. How do you approach somebody at a birthday party or another social engagement? Do you simply shake hands? Do you give “high-fives” all around? Do you go for a hug, be-it a “man hug” or a fuller embrace? Or do you just put your arm around their shoulders and plant a kiss on their cheek? And what if someone is approaching you, ready to give the full hug and kiss but you don’t feel up to it, you feel it is a bit too much?

Kissing is a cultural thing. Where as traditionally the British did not kiss outside the family but stuck with a hearty handshake and perhaps a slap on the back, Europeans did – and still do. Men kiss women, women kiss men, women kiss women, and men kiss men. Except, not always and not everywhere. And some will hug while kissing whereas others will not. Some will plant a kiss firmly on the cheek while others will kiss the air. Some, such as in parts of Belgium, will simply give one kiss, on the right cheek, but for the Dutch there will be three. And for the French it can be four or even six. But for us in Australia, we don’t kiss much. If we do it is normally with people we know and love. And then we will just kiss once – on or beside the cheek.

But what about in church?

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” it says in Romans 16:16.

Really? You mean we have to kiss one another? In church? Aw-kward.

We don’t tend to kiss in church. In fact we haven’t done so for many years, not even in Europe. But in the Early Church they did. In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, some sort of a church order for the Early Church thought to have been put together at about 375 AD the deacon is commanded to say:

“Let no one have any quarrel against another; let no one come in hypocrisy.”

Then it goes on to say,

“Then let the men give the men, and the women give the women, the Lord’s kiss. But let no one do it with deceit, as Judas betrayed the Lord with a kiss.”

And so in the Early Church they did kiss in church. At first it appears that everybody kissed everyone else, but soon it was that men would kiss the men, and women would kiss the women. For the Church Father Tertullian the kiss was seen to be a sign of reconciliation and for Cyril of Jerusalem and Chrysostom it was a sign of the unity of the body of Christ. But as time went on the Kiss changed and became more formal and then began to be misused. There was kissing done at baptism and especially communion, but also kissing the threshold as one entered the church, kissing the communion cup and kissing the Bible. These other forms of kissing took over and the Kiss of Greeting of Romans 16, also called the Kiss of Peace or the Kiss of Love, more or less died out in the Western Church by about 1250 A.D.

But the Bible does command us to kiss. And this command is not simply an after-thought. We can not dismiss it as a generic “Hugs and kisses all round” statement that might easily be spoken or written. The Bible commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss not once but five times. In addition to Romans 16:16, we find this command in the following verses.

1 Corinthians 16:20.

“All the brethren greet you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

2 Corinthians 13:12.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

1 Thessalonians 5:26.

“Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss.”

And 1 Peter 5:14

“Greet one another with a kiss of love.”

This command, then, is not simply an after-thought. It was expected that the church would greet one another and would kiss one another.

And yet that does not mean that we need to physically start kissing. The command of Romans 16:16 is not to kiss as such, but to greet. The kissing part of the command is the cultural form that such a greeting took in Rome at that time. It has been rightly said that we need to distinguish the norm from the form. What that means is that we must distinguish between the command to greet from how we greet. That we greet one another is the command of Scripture. How we greet, whether by means of a kiss or in another culturally appropriate way can be discussed and done in different ways in different cultural contexts.

The Bible commands us to greet one another, and there is a lot of greeting happening in Romans 16. The word “greet” is used 22 times in this one chapter and even more people are mentioned by name. In fact, in Romans 16:3-15 the apostle Paul greets or mentions no less than 28 different people, from all walks of life, and almost all of them by name. It is not my intention to go through all the names that we find in this chapter, and there are some of which we know very little or nothing at all. But allow me to make a number of comments.

First of all, there is a surprising number of women mentioned. Paul was not only concerned about the men of the church, the leaders, the preachers, the elders, but about 9, a third of the people whom he mentioned or referred to were women. The first woman is mentioned already in Romans 16:1.

“I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant (literally a deaconess) of the church in Cenchrea.”

It appears that Phoebe was coming to Rome and so these verses were something like an attestation given by Paul concerning her, asking the church to receive her in the Lord and to help her. Then there is Priscilla, the wife of Aquila, also Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, the mother of Rufus (Rufus’ father, by the way, was Simon of Cyrene, the man who was called to carry Christ’s cross on his way to Golgotha. See Mark 15:21). Then there was also Julia in verse 15 and the sister of Nereus. Another woman may indeed be Junia in verse 7, although there is some debate about this. What is important to note in all of this is that the apostle Paul did not think of the church at Rome with his focus only on the ordained leaders but on all those in the church, both men and women.

Second, what we can also see is that the church at Rome was made up of people who worked hard for the gospel. The church at Rome was a body of people devoted to the Lord and to one another. Priscilla and Aquila were among those who risked their necks for the sake of the gospel. Mary was commended in verse 6 for laboring much for the sake of Paul and the gospel. In verse 9 Urbanus was a fellow worker with Paul and in verse 12 both Tryphena and Tryphosa labored in the Lord. The Church at Rome, therefore, was full of those who worked hard for the sake of the gospel.

And then third, the names of those greeted also indicate that the church had people of all walks of life. Looking at the name alone, Urbanus of verse 9 was most likely born and bred in the city. Stachys, on the other hand, also in verse 9, had a name that means “ear of corn” and it is assumed that he had close ties to the country, to agriculture. Hermes, verse 14, is a slave name, but Herodian of verse 11 was likely to have been a member of the household of king Herod.

Now on the one hand, we can not make too much of these names, particularly of those whom we know so little about. But what we can conclude was that this list of greetings was both broad and comprehensive. And in like manner the command in Romans 16:16 is both broad and comprehensive.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”

Greet the church, the whole church, every member of the church. The rich should not only greet the rich, the poor not only greet the poor, and the slave should not only greet the slave but also the free. And then in church it was not just that the slave was to kiss the master, but the master was to kiss his slave! Since they were all one in Christ Jesus, brothers and sisters together, the whole church was commanded to greet one another.

So what does that mean for us? First of all it means that there are to be no divisions in this church either. The words that the deacon were to give prior to calling the people in the Early Church to greet one another with a holy kiss, that is, “Let no one have any quarrel against another; let no one come in hypocrisy” should still be well understood today. We must receive all God’s people in Christ and be eager to greet them all in the name of the Lord when we have the opportunity to do so. Our greeting of one another should be comprehensive, spanning the entire congregation.

The Bible does, however, give one clarification here, for there are some that we should not be greeting. Romans 16:17 goes on to say,

“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.

We are not to enjoy close fellowship with those who show themselves to be enemies of Christ’s church, let alone greet them with a kiss. But within the household of faith, let your greeting be a comprehensive one where no one is excluded.

2. An intimate greeting.

For that, of course, we need to know one another. To know one another intimately in the Early Church was not so difficult in some respects. In the early years, such as when the letter to the Romans was written, there were no purpose-built church buildings, but Christians met in the homes of different church members. We can see this, for example, in Romans 16:5 where it says concerning those who met with Priscilla and Aquila, “Greet the church that is in their house.” Meeting in houses automatically kept the size of each church community quite small – although the Christians also met with and greeted Christians who met in other houses. But there was another reason also why the early Christians were able to know each other well and that is because they regularly met together – more regularly than we do. In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles that I quoted from earlier, the bishops or ministers were told:

“When you instruct the people . . . command and exhort them to come constantly to church morning and evening every day, and by no means to forsake it on any account, but to assemble together continually; neither to diminish the Church by withdrawing themselves, and causing the body of Christ to be without its member.”

And further in the same paragraph,

“Be not careless of yourselves, neither deprive your Saviour of His own members, neither divide His body nor disperse His members, neither prefer the occasions of this life to the word of God; but assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house . . .”

What these churches were doing and were called to do was to orientate themselves towards God and the church. Yes they were busy with their everyday affairs, and they too had family commitments. But service of the Lord was to take first place in their lives, and the family of Christ was to be the family with which they regularly met together. And the consequence of this was that as they grew in the Lord these church members also grew together. And in that context, to grow together in Christ, they were commanded to greet one another, intimately, with a holy kiss.

But for us this is more challenging. On a practical level, we can not meet twice a day every day. The need for that has changed too, however, since we have our own Bibles and are able to do our family devotions in our homes. Further, once a church community goes much over 100 members it is not really possible to know everybody equally well. And then what you will always find is that within the church community you will find yourselves more attracted to some than others. Men tend to spend more time with men and women with women, youth with youth and older members with others of a similar age and station in life. That is OK and the Bible does not speak against this. Nevertheless our greeting is to be both comprehensive and intimate. And for that we must both know and be engaged with one another. That means spending time with one another and looking out for one another. And in that sense we do go to church for the people; we go to church to be with one another, to encourage one another and to greet one another in the name of the Lord.

There are some things we are doing as a church to foster our unity in Christ and to encourage the greeting of one another, that it might be an important part of our gathering together. When we come to church, for example, as we enter the building we are greeted by ushers and there are also one or two elders standing by to greet us. It is their task to see to it that everyone, particularly those visiting, is welcomed, has a Bible, a Book of Praise, knows what to expect in the service and is given a place to sit. But the ushers are not the only ones who are there to greet and care for the members: where you are in the position to do so, this is the responsibility of each one of us.

And then, when the elders and deacons walk into church and take their place, the minister or the one making the announcements prior to the service formally beginning, will often begin with a word of greeting, of welcome to all those who have come. While kissing may not be the culturally appropriate way for a greeting to be extended in church, here in Australia to say a word of welcome is. Welcoming the congregation as well as visitors in this way is a reminder to us all that we come together as we hear from God’s Word.

And then there is after church where we have a cup of tea or coffee so that we might further engage with the congregation, greeting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. And during the week we have our regular church activities as well as special events to encourage a sense of intimacy between church members, between brothers and sisters in Christ.

But such greeting and deep brotherly fellowship does not always come naturally. Just as the Bible commands us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” in order to give a physical expression to our love, so we also must ensure that our love for one another is not just words, not just theory. It is in that context that you have been given a few suggestions during our Tuesday evening study sessions. Suggestions such as to pray about these things; to sit in a different place in church and to speak with different people; to talk to others and not just those in your own little group; to engage in spiritually up-building conversation where we speak about more than the weather and holidays; to find out who is new in church and welcome them into your homes; and to take note of who is missing and to send them a card, give them a call, pay them a visit to encourage them to belong, to be a part of the body, to grow in Christ and with each other.

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” the Bible commands us. To greet one another in such a manner can not be done at a distance. It requires closeness. It requires communication. It requires love. It requires affection.

3. A holy greeting.

It was not just any kiss that Paul instructed those reading his letter to give, but a holy kiss. Holiness has the concept of separation, of being set apart from sin, of being pure, undefiled and set apart for service to God.

But the thing that makes such a kiss holy is this: the greeting that God’s people are to give to one another must be a greeting in the Lord, an expression our unity in Christ.

There is a difference between the affectionate greeting one gives to a brother or sister in Christ as opposed to the greeting an unbeliever might give to his golfing partners, his fishing buddies, her university friends or the blokes a man might regularly see down at the local pub. And the difference is this: as Christians we are one in Christ and we greet one another in His Name.

That is what the apostle Paul did. Romans 16:1,2

“I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receiver her in the Lord.”

Verse 3,

“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.”

Verse 8,

“Greet Amplias, my beloved in the Lord.”

Verse 9,

“Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ.

And I could also refer to verse 7,10,11,12 and 13. In this passage Paul uses the expressions “in Christ” and “in the Lord” ten times. What this means is that these brothers and sisters were to be greeted as those who belonged to Christ and who were living for Christ’s sake, as those living for Him.

And in verse 16, to greet one another with a holy kiss, then means to greet one another in the Lord. This greeting, then, has everything to do with our shared relationship in Christ. We are His and all that we do is for Him and in Him and through Him. He is the head and we are the body. And so both our lives as individuals and as the body of Christ, the church, revolves around Him. He is our first love. It is our love for Christ that flows through a love for one another.

In John 13:34,35 our Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples,

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

And on the other hand, 1 John 2:9

“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now.”

A love for Christ must turn in to a love for the body of Christ, the church.

How then can we grow in such love? By turning back to the Word, back to the gospel of salvation. The more we embrace our salvation in Christ, the more our love will grow. And as our love for Christ grows, it must also grow for one another. In the first place this will be seen is here, in the local church, the church of which you, people of Baldivis, are called to be. Yes it is true: on the one hand you don’t go to church for the people. But on the other hand, when we do come to church we must also be there for the people, for the congregation, for the body of Christ. And so greet one another. Greet all of them, greet them comprehensively. Greet them affectionately. And greet them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Greet them with a holy kiss. Amen.

Stephen 't Hart has been chairman of the Synod Baldivis. He is currently minister at the Free Reformed Church of Baldivis, Western Australia. He has previously served as missionary in Papua New Guinea, where he was involved in church planting and theological training.

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