Holy Kissing and Christian Love

“Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you” (Romans 16:16 ESV).

The kiss of greeting was cultural

To greet someone with a kiss was the culture of the Greco-Roman world at that time. That may seem weird to us, and if you haven’t traveled cross-culturally, you may not realize that not everybody expresses friendship the way that we do. Many today practice a cultural kiss. For instance, on a trip I once took to Egypt, our tour guide explained that there is an Upper Egypt form of friendship kissing and a Lower Egypt form of kissing. In one, you kiss three times: start on one cheek, do the other, then return to the first. But in the other region, you only do two kisses. He said it was offensive if you did the Upper Egypt kiss in Lower Egypt. For some, this kissing thing is pretty important, and culture matters and sets the rules.

To understand Romans 16:16, we have to understand the culture of the day. For example, In Jewish practice, a host was required to place his hand on any guest’s shoulder and give him the “kiss of peace.” We find this referred to in the New Testament when Jesus goes to the home of Simon the Pharisee. “You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet” (Luke 7:45). A kiss on the cheek was the socially accepted way of greeting one another and is to this day a part of the social fabric and expectation of many societies.

But there is a unique twist to the kiss of Romans 16:16. Notice the adjective, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (emphasis mine).

The Christian Kiss Must be “Holy”

I think we all realize the affectionate kisses between husband and wife are holy; Hebrews 13:4 makes that clear. But that is not the kind of holy kiss that Paul is addressing. These are commands to the members of the church in how they relate to one another. There is nothing sensual about this kiss. My understanding was that it was not done with the opposite sex.

So, what would transform the social custom of a greeting kiss into a sanctified and holy kiss?

A holy kiss symbolizes the mutual love for Christ and for one another

One commentator pointed out that there are three parties involved in a holy kiss[1]—God, and the two that are kissing. It is a mutual love for God that generates a love for one another which expresses itself in holy affection. This is why Peter calls it “the kiss of love.” It is a kiss of mutual loves. We mutually love God and we love each other. In this way, the gospel of Jesus amplifies the cultural kiss and infuses it with meaning.

He turns the cultural kiss into a Christian kiss

It is a theological and gospel kiss. In this, Christianity does with the kiss what it does with so many “normal” aspects of life and society. A family becomes a gospel family as Jesus is enthroned in the home. Work becomes an act of worship as the gospel allows me to do my labor for God’s glory. We are new creations in Christ, and everything we do is enriched with significance as we connect it with God’s glory. That is true for the kiss of greeting. These Roman Christians probably greeted many people in their life and family with a kiss. But when they greeted a brother or sister in Christ, the kiss became holy as the kiss expressed deep Christian truth about relationship with one another.

To Whom Should I Give a “Holy Kiss”?

The Christian kiss is reserved for Christian relationships. I can kiss anyone but only with a Christian does the kiss mean, we are brothers in Christ. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). Our affectional welcome is to be with anyone Christ has also affectionately welcomed. In the spirit of Romans 16:16, kiss anyone Christ has kissed. If Christ will kiss them, I don’t need to be more holy than the holy Son of God. Kiss those whom Christ has kissed.

So along with other famous “one anothers” in the New Testament—love one another, forgive one another—we add this one: greet and be warmly affectionate for one another. If you are God’s child, you’re my brother, let me kiss you now!

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2021 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] William Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 508.

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