Vince writes in: “Hello, Pastor John. I’m a farmer here in Indiana and I have greatly enjoyed your app while I put in long hours in bringing in the harvest. Would you comment on Paul’s encouragement that New Testament churches greet one another with a holy kiss? (see Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; and 1 Thessalonians 5:26). It may have been a cultural practice of the day, but even if the practice has passed away, is there any contemporary relevance for us today?”
Paul tells the church four times — the Romans, the Corinthians, the Thessalonians — to greet one another with “a holy kiss”. And Peter says to greet one another with “a kiss of love” (5:14). And I would say that has at least three implications for us.
Let Your Expressions Expand
First, let’s do it. I mean, even if the hug and the handshake today in my culture are more common among Christians in the West, it still seems to me that we don’t have to resist learning something from other cultures and places and times. In fact, we might do well to broaden our possible expression of affection.
It doesn’t seem to me that when Paul and Peter tell the church to greet one another with a holy kiss, they mean that we dare not even see one another without kissing one another. It is not that kind of rule. For instance, if you walk out of this room while we are having tea, and you walk back into the room, it’s not like I need to greet you with a kiss. Or if I see you between classes at 9:00, I need to kiss you, and if I see you after that class as we are walking down the hall, I need to kiss you again. Paul and Peter were not prescribing that kind of precision.
They were saying to take the physical, familial expression of endearment, and use it in a way that is holy to express your love for one another. And he didn’t prescribe that it had to be done every single time you see one another fresh for the first time. They just said to use it and do it. And I think that we would do well to think of ways that we might include a holy kiss in our greetings, especially perhaps for very dear friends after very long absences. And I am mainly thinking of people of the same sex here because I think you have to be so careful with kissing people of the opposite sex.
There are two men in my life who kiss me when I see them. I don’t see them but once or twice a year sometimes, and they kiss me on the cheek after these months of separation. There used to be three, and now my father is in heaven, so there are only two. And frankly, it means a great deal to me that these brothers put a kiss on my cheek. Both of them are manly, thoughtful, self-controlled guys. It means one thing: “You, John Piper, are precious to me. I value our friendship very highly, though we don’t see each other very often.” That is what it means.
So that’s the first implication: let’s do it in appropriate ways.
Let Your Greetings Be Genuine
Second, what Paul and Peter are making plain here is to stress that the ordinary kiss — and it is just an ordinary kiss — should be made holy by the Christian church, rather than being abandoned. So there is a lesson here for us. They say “a holy kiss.” Kissing is not uniquely Christian. It is not a uniquely Christian affection. And what the apostles do is say: Take it from the world and sanctify it. Make it holy. Devote it to God. Make it say something about the Holy One. Include God in your hearts and in your thoughts when you greet one another with this ordinary, culturally common greeting.
It seems similar to 1 Timothy 2:8, where Paul says that he wants the men to pray, “lifting holy hands.” I think the main point there is not that everywhere and at all times in the church where there is prayer, the men must have their hands in the air. Surely there are times when other postures would also be appropriate. The point is: when you lift your hands, they should be holy hands in prayer. So when the kiss of affection is given to a brother in Christ it should not be sensual or manipulative or offensive or hypocritical or in any way pretending to express affection that is not really there. It shouldn’t hide any sin in our lives. It should be a holy kiss.
So the lesson we can learn here is: Whatever means of expressing greetings we use, let them be genuine. Right now, what do you do? Ball up your fist and hit somebody’s knuckles. So I think what the apostles want to do is encourage us to use various culturally appropriate symbols of greeting, and sanctify them and make them holy. What do we do? We ball up our fists and we do fist bumps with each other. I hardly ever know what to do. Somebody makes a fist at me and I think: Oh yeah, I am supposed to punch you on the fist. What is that? I don’t know where that comes from or what that is, but I do it.
And I think Paul would look at that and he would say, “I encourage all of you guys to fist bump with a holy fist bump.” That this what he is getting at: take the culturally appropriate means of showing brotherhood or camaraderie or affection and make them holy.
Let Your Affection Overflow
Third, I suspect (and this is the main point) that Christians should feel genuine affection for one another. I have been reading 1 Peter a lot lately because I am teaching it to the seminary guys. And it seems to me that Peter is writing to a persecuted, beleaguered church trying to encourage them how to live as exiles in a vast sea of unbelievers who are being very hostile to them. And he is laboring to help them not just show dutiful, sacrificial love to each other, but rather to feel earnest, heartfelt affection to one another. I think that is why he says at the end, “Greet one another with the kiss of love.”
So 1 Peter 1:22 says, “Having purified your souls by obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Those words are so beyond “treat each other nice” — way beyond that. He is calling for Christians to really have changes of heart, so that when we approach another Christian, our hearts are drawn out in words like this.
This is 1 Peter 3:8: “Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” I mean, three of those — sympathy, brotherly love, tender heart — imply how warm and tender and gentle and kind and affectionate we should be toward brothers and sisters in Christ. Those are amazing words. And that is what Peter wants to see happen.
And I think that is really what is behind both Peter and Paul saying that we should use a holy kiss. He wants us to be demonstrative in real affections, and that is what we should seek to grow in.