Recapturing the Holy Kiss (Romans 16:1–16)

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Stuart Chase - 26 Aug 2018

Recapturing the Holy Kiss (Romans 16:1–16)

The concept of the holy kiss is one that has been largely lost on South African Christians in the 21st century. Yet it is a command of God, and therefore faithful Christians, and faithful churches, must wrestle with the meaning of this command and learn how to apply it in the day and age in which we live.

Scripture References: Romans 16:1-16

From Series: "One Anothers"

A sermon series on the one anothers of the New Testament from the pulpit of Brackenhurst Baptist Church.

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Some time ago, I was preaching from Proverbs 4:20–27, which speaks of the need for a Christian to guard his heart by guarding his mouth, eyes, ears, and feet. After the message, we went to the Communion Table. As the elements were being distributed, the pianist softly played the Cedarmont Kids song “O Be Careful Little Eyes.” I smiled to myself as I heard him playing.

Several weeks later, I was talking to a member of our church, who does not have quite the same personal church history as I do. He wondered aloud why the pianist would choose to play “If You’re Happy and You Know It” during a Communion service! I had never realised that the two songs share a tune.

I chuckled to myself as I realised that our personal church experiences gave us very different insights into that moment. For those of us with long-standing church background, particularly from childhood, hearing that tune immediately made us sing the Cedarmont song in our heads. Those without such history—at least some of them—perhaps wondered why our corporate worship that evening included a nod to Sesame Street or Barney.

Our personal church experience often colours our worship. This is certainly the case when it comes to the biblical commands to greet one another with a holy kiss.

If I were to take a brief survey of everyone reading this and ask who believes that Jesus was born of a virgin, and who believes that it is important for Christians to affirm that doctrine, I suspect that an overwhelming majority would affirm the biblical teaching. If I were to ask for a biblical defence of the doctrine, three particular Scriptural references would likely be noted: Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:26–38; and Isaiah 7:10–16.

The virgin birth was considered an important enough doctrine that it found its way into some of the earliest Christian creeds: the second-century Apostles’ Creed and the fourth-century Chalcedonian Definition. It is considered a foundational doctrine by virtually every branch of Christianity—yet it is mentioned only three times in Scripture (and some even debate whether Isaiah had Messiah in mind when he gave his prophecy).

Professing Christians who ignore, deny, or reject the virgin birth are generally considered heterodox at best and heretics at worst—over a doctrine mentioned explicitly only two or three times in the Bible.

Yet, when last did you think seriously about the New Testament injunction to greet one another with a holy kiss? This is a subject which is largely ignored by Western evangelicals today, and yet it is a command that is found five times in the New Testament. Can you see the disparity? There are two or three direct references to the virgin birth and it is considered crucial, and five references to a holy kiss but it is largely ignored.

In this study, I want to briefly consider the injunction to a holy kiss, with particular reference to its usage in Romans 16:16.

The Cultural Context

It will be helpful, as we seek to understand the command to greet one another with a holy kiss, to consider its cultural context. While this concept may seem foreign to us in South Africa, it was a common Christian greeting in ancient times (and it remains so in certain parts of the world today). It was often called the kiss of peace, because it signified a wish and blessing of peace upon the recipient.

In the ancient world, it was customary for men to greet one another with a kiss, and for women to do the same. There was nothing sensual about this kiss; it was simply a customary form of greeting. The church, however, took a common greeting and transformed it into something special: a holy kiss (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26) or a kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14). Augustine explained the holy kiss in an Easter sermon:

Then, after the consecration of the holy sacrifice of God, because he wished us also to be his sacrifice, a fact which was made clear when the holy sacrifice was first instituted, and because that sacrifice is a sign of what we are, behold, when the sacrifice is finished, we say the Lord’s Prayer which you have received and recited. After this, the “Peace be with you” is said, and the Christians embrace one another with the holy kiss. This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.

Another early Christian document, The Apostolic Constitutions, was written as a book of instruction for Christian worship. In a section dealing with the Communion Table, it stipulates that a deacon attending the Table should say to the congregation, “Let no one have any quarrel against another; let no one come in hypocrisy. Then, let the men give the men, and the women the women, the Lord’s kiss. But let no one do it with deceit as Judas betrayed the Lord with a kiss.”

It became customary for the holy kiss to be expressed at the Communion Table. Augustine said that the early Christians “demonstrated their inward peace by their outward kiss.” Cyril of Jerusalem described the kiss as “a sign that our souls are united and that we banish all remembrance of injury.” Ancient written works and works of art portray the holy kiss, as practised for the first few centuries of new covenant history, as a mouth-to-mouth, rather than a mouth-to-cheek, kiss. Early records also indicate that, to guard against abuse, men were separated from women during this part of the worship, so that the greeting was expressed only between members of the same sex.

The holy kiss is still practised in many Eastern churches, even if it is largely foreign to South African churches.

The Biblical Context

Examining a cultural context is one thing, but when considering a biblical instruction, it is always more important to consider how a word or custom was practiced in the Bible itself. There are a number of references in the Bible itself to the practice of greeting one another with a kiss.

Isaac greeted his father with a kiss (Genesis 27:27–28). Jacob greeted his cousin, Rachel, with a kiss long before he fell in love with her (Genesis 29:11), and Laban greeted Jacob with a kiss when he went to meet him (Genesis 29:13). Laban lamented that Jacob had not given him opportunity to kiss his children goodbye (Genesis 31:28) and later greeted them in this way before returning home (Genesis 31:44). Esau greeted his brother with a kiss after their long separation (Genesis 45:15), and Jacob greeted his grandsons with a kiss when he first met them after learning that Joseph was still alive (Genesis 48:10). Joseph kissed his father after he died (Genesis 50:1).

Aaron greeted Moses with a kiss (Exodus 4:27) and Moses greeted his father-in-law in the same manner (Exodus 18:7). Naomi bid farewell to her daughters-in-law with a kiss (Ruth 1:9), which Orpah reciprocated before leaving her (Ruth 1:14). Samuel anointed Saul as king with a kiss (1 Samuel 10:1), and David and Jonathan bid farewell to each other with a kiss (1 Samuel 20:41).

Absalom greeted his father with a kiss (2 Samuel 14:33), and then used a kiss to steal the hearts of the men of Israel when he conspired against David (2 Samuel 15:5–6). David greeted Barzillai with a kiss before sending him home (2 Samuel 19:39). A kiss of greeting was customary enough that Amasa thought nothing of it when Joab greeted him with a kiss, and did not notice the sword that Joab carried, with which he murdered Amasa as he greeted him with a kiss (2 Samuel 20:9–10). Elisha sought permission to greet his parents with a kiss before following Elijah (1 Kings 19:20).

In the New Testament, the prodigal’s father greeted him with a kiss when he finally came home (Luke 15:20) and the Ephesian elders kissed Paul before they bid him farewell (Acts 20:37).

Outside of references to marriage (Song of Songs 1:2–4a; 8:1–4) and sexual sin (Proverbs 7:13), kissing in the Bible is overwhelmingly an expression of greeting between members of the same sex—and particularly between family members of the same sex. When members of the opposite sex are involved in kiss, it is always within the family (Jacob and his cousin Rachel; fathers kissing mixed-sex children; grandparents kissing mixed-sex grandchildren; etc.). The single exception to this pattern is the woman in Luke 7:36–39 who anointed Jesus with oil and kissed his feet, which is hardly a sensual picture.

It shouldn’t need to be said, though sadly it does need to be said, that there is not a hint of sensuality in any of the accounts of same sex kissing in the Bible. Proponents of same sex marriage today sometimes try to portray the relationship between David and Jonathan as an erotic one, but there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that that was the case. Greetings in biblical times were customarily expressed between people of the same sex with a kiss.

The Romans Context

This brings us to our present text. What can we learn from Romans (and similar New Testament texts) about the holy kiss? How does the biblical picture of kissing help us understand this command?

Romans 16 is hardly the most exciting chapter in the book. Romans has for a long time been a favourite epistle of Christians—particularly good, Reformed Christians. But it seems to end on something of an anti-climax. Here, Paul sends greeting to a long list of people, most of whom we don’t know and who are not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. But, in fact, this list of names offers us fascinating insight into early church life. As Ray Pritchard has said, “Behind this list of unpronounceable names stands a bedrock truth about the nature of the budding Christian movement and why it had the power to change the ancient world.”

We know nothing of the majority of the names mentioned here. Phoebe (vv. 1–2) was a prominent member of the church in Cenchreae, possibly a deacon. Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, and Phoebe was with him there at the time, but was soon travelling to Rome and agreed to take Paul’s letter to the church with her. Because she travelled so much, some have conjectured that she was a businesswoman.

We are quite familiar with Priscilla and Aquila (vv. 3–4), whom Paul first encountered in Corinth, and who faithfully served alongside him in missionary exploits.

The only other name in this list for whom we have any biographical knowledge is Rufus (v. 13), whose father was Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross to Golgotha (Mark 15:21). His mother had also proven to be a mother figure to Paul.

There is much conjecture and guesswork as to the identity of the remaining individuals in this text, but we will not enter into such conjecture. Two things are significant about this list of names.

First, while we have no way of writing biographies for each individual, the diversity of their names is significant. There are names that were common among aristocracy and names that were common of slaves. There are Greek names, Latin names, and Hebrew names. There are male names and female names. To quote Pritchard again, “This is a picture of the church the way it ought to be—diverse, multicultural, spanning the human barriers of race, wealth, social class and national background.” As Jamie Dunlop has laboured to show in The Compelling Community, the New Testament vision of the church is not a community that is bound together by human commonality, but one in which people who otherwise have nothing in common are bound together by the gospel. Romans 16 is a good picture of that truth. As Joe Thorn adds, “Intimate, gospel-centered relationships are critical to the task of discipleship because this is the context in which the church fulfills the ‘one another’ commands in Scripture.”

Second, Paul fondly greeted this wide range of Christians in Rome even though he had never been to the city (Romans 1:8–15)! And these were not passing acquaintances—like 90% of your Facebook “friends”—but were those whom Paul longed to greet with a holy kiss.

The Principled Context

What principles do we learn from this consideration of the holy kiss?

First, the command to greet one another with a holy kiss is something we must recapture. Whatever it looks like in our context, it is clearly commanded in Scripture and must therefore be obeyed. We are not free to simply ignore this command because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Second, it is probably fair to argue that, while the practice may differ from situation to situation, the principle remains inviolable. Therefore, what we really want to do is understand the principle behind the command. Three things may be said about the principle.

The first thing to be said is that a kiss was a cultural greeting in the biblical world, which is not quite the same in our South African culture today. Paul did not invent the idea of a holy kiss and make it binding on all people in all ages. He took a customary greeting and transformed it into a holy greeting—holy in the sense that it was to be practiced by those whom God had set apart as holy. The command, in other words, was to take a common greeting and transform it into a holy greeting. The form of greeting is less important that the fact of greeting.

The big question before us is, do we greet each other? And when we do so, do we do so in a way that is holy? To greet one another with a holy kiss means that, when we greet others, we do not do so in a way that is manipulative, or offensive, or hypocritical, or fake. Our greetings should communicate genuine affection for one another. This brings us to the second matter to be said.

The second thing to be said is that, while the kiss was a cultural greeting in first century Rome, it was a greeting that communicated something. Even if you are accustomed to it, a kiss communicates a certain degree of intimacy in the way that, say, a holy handshake or a holy fist-bump might not. Handshakes and fist-bumps are safe, because you can keep your distance. You can shake hands or bump fists with someone with no sense of vulnerability or intimacy. You can’t do so with a kiss. Even an innocent kiss on the cheek communicates a certain closeness. The command to love one another lies behind this command.

We often say things like, “The Bible doesn’t command us to like one another; it does command us to love one another.” While it is certainly understandable that you will not feel or express the same closeness to everyone in the congregation, a kiss is undeniably a symbol of affection, and since Paul tells us to greet “one another,” and not only those with whom we share a particularly strong bond, with a holy kiss, we can assume that there is an expectation of affection.

Affection grows over time. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, the church secretary at that time kept talking about this overwhelming love that is felt the moment the child is born. I must admit, I didn’t have that instant sense of bonding. The little pink alien felt strange to me, at least for a few days. But I quickly grew to love her, to feel strong affection for her.

My point is, it is possible to grow in affection for someone you don’t feel affection for now. It takes time. It takes deliberate effort. It takes going out of yourself to reach out to them. But it is possible.

The third thing to be said is that, at least as it is used in the Bible, a kiss was most frequently a familial greeting. That is, it was a way to express greeting to someone of the same family—a brother or sister or cousin or parent or child or grandparent or grandchild. As it is used biblically, then, it communicates something about family.

That’s really the point of this command. We should greet one another in a way that is appropriate to greet family, because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. This command points to the New Testament reality of the family of God.

But let’s be honest, we don’t always feel like greeting one another with a holy kiss—or a holy handshake, or a holy fist bump, or a holy high five, or a holy side hug. What will motivate us to obey this command when it does not come naturally? The answer, as always, is the gospel.

You were born into a particular family. You had no control over it. You are related to people, whom you have learned to love, by birth. Similarly, you were born into the family of God. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).

The church member sitting on the other side of the room on Sunday, with whom you are not getting along particularly well right now, is your brother or sister. He was saved by the death and resurrection of Christ as you were. She was born of God in the same way that you were. You can—you must—learn to love him or her.

Perhaps there is something between you—and perhaps you were not even the cause of the something that is between you. Reach out, and make right with your brother, with your sister. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24).

The point is this: We are commanded to greet one another in a way that displays genuine affection for each other. “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46–47).

Will you, disciple of Christ, obey this command to feel and display genuine affection toward your brothers and sisters in Christ, in your local church, in a way that honours the gospel by which you were saved?