Let’s Bring Back the Holy Kiss: Rediscovering Real Love in the Family of God

Romans 16:1-16

September 7, 2007 | Ray Pritchard

“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16).

In some ways Romans 16 appears to be one of the least-interesting chapters of the New Testament. It consists mostly of Paul’s greetings to a long list of people in Rome. At first glance that doesn’t seem to offer much that would interest us today inasmuch as the names are hard to pronounce and even harder to spell. Paul sends greetings to people with strange names like Ampliatus, Urbanus, Tryphaena, Asyncritus, Stachys, Epaenetus and Phlegon. To make matters worse, we don’t know who most of these people are because most of them are never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament.

Everyone who has ever written a letter understands what Paul is doing in chapter 16. He’s basically finished everything he wants to say to the Romans, but since he has lots of friends in the church, he scribbles off a few lines of greetings to as many people as he can fit onto the parchment. We do the same thing when we write letters. As you come to the bottom of the final page, you start writing smaller letters and shorter sentences. Finally, you come to the last tiny bit of white space and then the words come out in staccato: “Tell Aunt June I loved her dress. Billy says hello. Frank tried to call you last Friday but no one was home. Give Neil a hug and tell him that this time he better stay on that diet. Gotta run. Love to all. Jane.”

Seen in that light, this chapter offers us a rare snapshot of early Christianity. 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.

I. A Personal Glimpse Into Paul’s Heart

If I were to ask what words you would use to describe the Apostle Paul, you might say things like serious, brilliant, logical, reverent, studious, thoughtful, dedicated, driven, committed, no-nonsense and determined. All those words fit the usual picture we have of the man from Tarsus. If you read his letters, he doesn’t seem to be the kind of man you would want to take with you to watch a football game. You would probably think twice before inviting him over for supper, or at least you would brush up on your Old Testament theology while you were getting the rolls out of the oven. If he had a sense of humor, it seems to be well-hidden. You certainly didn’t want to get into an argument with him. That was definitely not a good idea.

But Romans 16 reveals a different side to the great apostle. Here we discover his heart for people. In this chapter he mentions 33 people by name, including 26 people in the church at Rome. He also mentions two others in Rome, but does not name them. This fact is amazing when you realize that Paul had never been to Rome! Writing to a church he had never visited, he sends greetings to 28 different people.

The Sweetest Sound

We all know how important it is for someone to remember our name. Can you imagine how exciting it was for these first-century Roman Christians to come to the end of this incredible letter and find out that Paul remembered them personally? A number of years ago our family toured the Mark Twain Cave in Hannibal, Missouri. As we walked through, we saw that the walls were covered with names of earlier visitors, including many from the 19th century. Our guide told us that there are over 250,000 names in the cave. Someone has said that nothing is sweeter to a person than the sound of his name. The same is true of a written letter. If I get a letter addressed to “occupant,” I know it’s not personal, and I’ll probably toss it without reading it. Occasionally I’ll get a letter addressed to “Roy” Pritchard. I know it’s some sort of form letter because my name is “Ray,” not “Roy.” Names matter. It’s a wonderful feeling to enter a large room where you feel like a stranger and suddenly hear someone call your name. When you turn and see a friendly face, you don’t feel like a stranger anymore. Paul understood that principle and followed it in Romans 16.

I’ve already mentioned that we don’t know details on many of these people. But here’s a brief digest of what we do know. Phoebe (vv. 1-2) was evidently a rich Christian businesswoman who carried the letter Paul wrote from Corinth to Rome. Paul calls her a “servant,” a word that could also be translated as “deaconess.”

Bible students will recognize Priscilla and Aqulla (vv. 3-4) from the book of Acts. Though originally from Rome, they pop up in Corinth and later in Ephesus. Early on, they taught Apollos the true doctrine of Jesus (Acts 18:24-28). They also established house churches wherever they went. At one point, they risked their lives for Paul, a fact well-known to the Gentile churches.

Slaves and Aristocrats

Epaenetus (v. 4) was Paul’s first convert in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Evidently he later moved to Rome. Mary (v. 5) was a hard-working Christian woman. Andronicus and Junia (v. 7) are either a brother and sister or a husband and wife missionary team. Paul calls them kinsmen because they are also Jewish. They came to Christ before he did. The next four names (vv. 8-10)–Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys and Apelles–were all common slave names–some Roman, some Greek. The next three names (vv. 10-11)–Aristobulus, Herodion, Narcissus–seem to have some connection to the imperial household in Rome. Most commentators think that Tryphaena and Tryphosa (v. 12) were sisters, possibly twins. Their names come from a root that means “dainty” or “delicate,” perhaps suggesting an aristocratic background. But Paul calls them hard workers in the Lord. Persis (v. 12) means “woman of Persia.”

Rufus (v. 13) is interesting because Mark mentions that Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, had two sons, Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Since Mark’s gospel seems to have been written to Rome, it is possible that this Rufus is Simon’s son. His mother had become like a mother to Paul, in some way showing him kindness and perhaps giving him home-cooked meals while on his missionary journeys. Then Paul mentions two groups of names in verses 14-16. The first group (Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas) is all men and perhaps was a first-century Promise Keepers group. The second (Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas) was probably another house church in Rome.

Taken as a whole, this passage shows the breadth of the Christian message. The church at Rome included the rich and the poor, slaves and freedmen, Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Romans, forgotten house churches and members of the imperial household. And Paul knew them all by name.

How could that be since he had never been to Rome? Evidently he met them in his travels and he remembered them in his prayers. 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. It’s also a window into Paul’s soul. Despite his serious exterior, deep in his heart Paul was a consummate people person.

II. A Fresh Look at the Holy Kiss

The passage ends with a command– “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (v. 16). The holy kiss is mentioned five times in the New Testament (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; Peter calls it the “kiss of love” in 1 Peter 5:14) . We have several problems with this today. Foremost is that we don’t take it seriously. Notwithstanding the fact that we say we believe that every verse in the Bible is God’s word, we don’t think the holy kiss particularly applies to us. Most of us probably put this in the category of “things they used to do back then that we don’t have to do today.”

The usual interpretation is that the holy kiss itself is not important. The greeting is the thing, we’re told. It doesn’t really matter how you do it. Back then it was a holy kiss. Today it’s a handshake. Same thing.

Now that seems right until you think about it. A kiss is not the same thing as a handshake. Just ask any teenager.

In the Bible the holy kiss was a sign of love, respect, friendship and honor. It was a mark of innocent affection. We can see numerous examples of this sort of kiss in the Bible:

* Jacob kissed his father (Genesis 27:27).

* Laban kissed Joseph (Genesis 29:13).

* Esau kissed Jacob (Genesis 33:4).

* Joseph kissed his brethren (Genesis 45:15).

* Aaron kissed Moses (Exodus 4:27).

* Moses kissed Jethro (Exodus 18:7).

* Naomi kissed Ruth and Orpah (Ruth 1:9).

* David kissed Jonathan (I Samuel 20:41).

* The father kissed the prodigal son (Luke 15:20).

It’s interesting to read the history of the holy kiss. Evidently it was widely practiced in the first few centuries of the Christian church. We’re told that during the worship service there would a time of greeting in which the men would kiss the men and the women the women–on the cheek or the forehead or in the case of the men, on the beard. It was a sign of the intense family relationship in the early church. They didn’t just talk about being a family, they were a family and the holy kiss served as a symbol of their love for each other. It was a holy kiss because it was exchanged between holy people. It was a holy kiss because they truly felt they were brothers and sisters in one big, happy family. The holy kiss was the normal greeting between Christians. One document from the early church gives this instruction:

“Let the deacon say to the people, ’let no one have any quarrel against another; let no one come in hypocrisy. Then, let the men give the men, and women the women, the Lord’s kiss. But let no one do it with deceit as Judas betrayed the Lord with a kiss.’”

Augustine said of the early Christians, “They demonstrated their inward peace by their outward kiss.” Cyril of Jerusalem said, “This kiss is a sign that our souls are united and that we banish all remembrance of injury.” Bishop Cyprian went so far as to say Christians should be “love doves” who exchange the kiss as a mark of innocent affection.

Over time the kiss became a regular part of the worship service. Then it was joined with the Lord’s Supper. Eventually voices were raised in warning about possible abuse. By the fourth century, it was no longer a spontaneous practice. A few centuries later, it disappeared from the Christian church except as part of the formal liturgy. Today it is still practiced in the Orthodox Church and in other churches also.

The early Christians felt that the holy kiss signified innocent affection. There was no hint of sensuality or impropriety about it. It was common cultural greeting in those days that the early Christians adopted and gave a deeper meaning as a sign of their unity in Christ.

Russian Kisses!

There are still cultures where the holy kiss is practiced today. I’ll never forget my first trip to St. Petersburg, Russia with John and Helen Sergey. When the men of the Temple of the Gospel greeted John, one after another they hugged him and warmly kissed him on the cheek. The women did the same for Helen. And so it was in every church we visited. I even got kissed a few times. Let me tell you, it’s a very strange experience for an uptight American to have a Russian brother give you a bear hug and then smack you on the cheek. But after awhile, I liked it!

It was real and genuine and a mark of Christian love. Not only did it not seem strange, once I got used to it, it seemed profoundly biblical. I didn’t feel like a stranger any more; I felt like a brother in Christ.

That’s why I say a handshake is different from a kiss. A handshake is safe, secure. You can keep your distance that way. If people get too close, you can always try to twist their arm behind their back! A holy handshake–as good as it might be–just isn’t the same as a holy kiss. It simply doesn’t mean the same thing.

So here we are in the 21st-century and Paul says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” When was the last time you received a holy kiss? When was the last time you gave one?

III. A New Perspective on Jesus

Let’s hold that radical thought for a moment and ask why the holy kiss was so important in the early church. The answer leads us to a new perspective on Jesus. In the time of Christ, many of the gods of Greece and Rome were philosophic concepts, deities so far removed from mankind that no one could ever come close. They were like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover–more an abstract concept than a personal God. The Gnostics taught that God could never come in contact with human flesh. He was too high, too pure, too holy.

And into that world came the touchable God–a little baby. See his little hands, his tiny feet, his wrinkled forehead, his chubby cheeks. See him feed at Mary’s breast. She carries him in her arms. He is the touchable God. As Martin Luther said, “He whom the worlds could not enwrap, yonder lies in Mary’s lap.”

Our Touchable God

As he walks the dusty roads of Galilee, he touches the blind and they see. He touches the lame and they walk. Parents bring their children and he takes them in his arms. A woman with a discharge of blood touches his garment and he knows it. A prostitute kisses his feet and he is honored.

He is the touchable God. Not some abstract concept, not a theological proposition. But the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. When he died, he died as all men must die. And was buried as all men are buried. He was God incarnate walking among us.

We are his people. The church is his body. We do him no justice when we put up a sign that says, “Stay away. Do not touch. I want my space.” Strange as it may seem, when we greet one another with a holy kiss or holy hug, we are reenacting the very heart of our Christian faith. We are a touchable people because we are children of a touchable God.

IV. A Practical Challenge to the Family of God

Let me wrap up this message with a challenge to you. It seems to me that we desperately need to recapture the dynamic of the early church. Even the pagans said of them, “Behold, how they love one another.”

Why is touching so important? We talk and talk but the message doesn’t come through. Almost all of us can say it better with a hug. That’s the whole point of the holy kiss. It always involves physical contact. If you don’t touch, it’s not kissing. Again, ask any teenager.

When you hug someone or when you put a friendly arm around a shoulder or when you greet someone with a holy kiss, you are sending a message that can’t be missed–”I care about you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together.” And if we can’t say that in church, where can we say it? And if we’re embarrassed to say that in church, why are we here in the first place?

Nowadays we tend to substitute technology for personal contact. We email each other or we send a text message. Because we live in a “flat world,” technology allows us to have a “virtual home office” with a sales office in South Africa, a plant in Germany, a shipping hub in Korea, a distribution center in San Francisco, and a customer service department in India. We routinely exchange electronic greetings with people thousands of miles away, most of whom we will never meet in person. And there is nothing wrong with sending electronic greetings. It’s a good way to stay in touch with people.

But there is nothing like being there, in person, face to face, up close and personal. That’s why the Internet can never truly take the place of the local church. You can’t give a “holy kiss” over the Internet. It’s just not the same thing. Some things can only happen in person.

V. Where Should we Go from Here?

I am not advocating the literal practice of the holy kiss since we have no custom today that perfectly parallels what they did in the early church. In some situations it is quite appropriate. In other cases it would only make someone uncomfortable. We need sensitivity from the Lord to know how best to truly “greet one another” in the Lord. We need to find ways to express our holy, innocent affection for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Different people will express themselves in different ways. But we’re not free to ignore this command as if it doesn’t apply to us. The early Christians (who were hated and often persecuted) loved each other fervently and weren’t afraid to show it.

Before I wrap things up, let me call attention to one of the most touching passages in the Bible. Acts 20 tells about Paul’s final visit with the elders of the church at Ephesus. He is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. The elders go out to the island of Miletus to meet him. They and he know it will be the last time they ever see each other. In a marvelous final message, the great apostle lays before them a charge to be faithful shepherds of God’s flock. Then it is time for him to leave. Here is how the Bible puts it, “When he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all; they embraced Paul and kissed him” (Acts 20:36-37). The King James Version says, “They fell on his neck.” These are grown men, godly men, spiritual leaders who are overcome with sadness, expressing their love and devotion the only way they know how.

Let me say frankly that if we are embarrassed by all this, that fact tells us more about ourselves than it does about the Bible.

I’m going to end my message with that thought. For most of us, our greatest need is the courage to do what the Bible says. To reach out and touch a brother or a sister and say, “I love you.” We need more hugs in the body of Christ, more open emotion, more expressions of caring, more daring to tear down the walls and get close to each other. I know I need it. I think most of us do.

Two Practical Steps

I want to encourage you to do two things as a response to this message: First, ask yourself, “Is there a Christian friend I don’t want to greet with a holy kiss?” That probably means there is something between the two of you that needs to be settled. You don’t have to kiss each other, but you do have to get it settled.

Second, take a step toward greeting a brother or sister this week. It might mean a phone call or a lunch or opening your home or a letter or a surprise gift or a hug or yes, it could even mean a holy kiss. There are lots of ways to apply this message if only we are willing.

Most of us are far too glib in the way we greet each other. We’re too quick, too casual, and too prone to say “Hi” and then look the other way. No wonder so many lonely people fill our pews. No wonder folks come to church looking, hoping, praying that someone, anyone will look their way. No wonder they leave feeling empty.

The encouragement is that we don’t have to stay that way. We are the children of a touchable God. Jesus entered our world and he touched the untouchable. In the first century, you couldn’t come to church without a hug or a kiss. We need to recapture the view that all true Christians belong to one large family. When we do, the holy kiss will once again become appropriate and the world will once again say of us, “Behold, how they love one another.”


O God, help us to become people who deeply care for one another. Teach us to love each other deeply and profoundly. May the lonely people all around us see our love, and so be drawn to the light of Christ. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?