Sermon preached on Romans 16:1-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/16/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Greet One Another
Today’s passage has a lot of greetings in it! It follows nicely after our passage from last week that emphasized the fellowship we have with our fellow saints — even those outside the local church. These greetings here in chapter 16 further reflect that reality. And as we look at these greetings today, realize that this isn’t just a nice example of the goodness of greetings. Yes, greetings are good, and it’s good to be greeted. But this is more than just Paul and the early church setting a good example for us. This also comes to us as a command. Verse 16 commands us to greet one another. We have a call to greet our fellow believers. That will be our study for today.
In the first half of our message for today, I’d like us to specifically study the details of Paul’s greetings here in chapter 16. I will also include discussion on the holy kiss mentioned in verse 16. Then, in the second half of our message, we’ll survey how we see greetings and kisses discussed in the rest of Scripture. And so let’s begin first with working through this passage on greetings. Let’s begin with a definition of the Greek word here for greetings. Basically, this is a word of welcome. It’s about engaging in hospitable recognition of one another, through either word, gesture, or both. This is what Paul is doing here in his letter, and what he is calling them to do.
Well, as we study all his greetings, there are a lot of observations we can make and learn from. I’m going to mention several now of a general character. The first general observation of these greetings is that he has a lot of them. It’s a long section on greetings. 21 of the total 60 occurrences of this word for greeting in the New Testament appears here. In Paul’s other letters, he often does list a number of greetings, but none of his letters contain nearly this many. Paul obviously knows quite a number of Christians in Rome. This is pretty exciting if you remember that he’s never visited Rome. But it shows the connectedness of Christ’s church. Even though he’s not visited the church in Rome yet, he’s already come to know many of them. I think of people like Priscilla and Aquila, mentioned in verse 3. From Acts 18 we know they were from Italy originally and Paul had gotten to know them and serve with them in Corinth. Evidently, they had moved back to Rome again. But it shows the growing network of Christians throughout the world already at that time. And for Paul to greet so many Christians that he already knew at Rome, even though he hadn’t been there yet — this would have surely had the practical benefit of further commending his letter to the rest of the church at Rome too.
A second general observation here is that we see greetings can be done both in person and from afar. They will be different depending on if they are done in person or not, but either way, there is a value of them. Obviously, Paul’s greetings in writing here are from a far. They are written down in this letter. He’s not personally there at Rome to greet them face to face. The same is true when Paul says in verse 16 that all the churches of Christ also send their greetings. But there are also references here to the goodness of in-person greetings. In verse 16, Paul tells them to greet each other with a holy kiss — obviously that is something you have to do in person. Or take verses 1-2 when it mentions Phoebe. It’s believed that Phoebe was the one who hand delivered this letter to the Romans for Paul. That seems to be why Paul commends her to them here. He’s explaining who Phoebe is and saying that she should be well received. Paul doesn’t explicitly use the language of greeting for her, but that’s what he’s basically talking about when he talks of how they should receive her. He tells them to receive her in a manner worthy of the saints, and to support her in every way. This is good to observe because it reminds us that our in-person greetings have to be more than just some stock words or the gesture of a kiss or hug or handshake.
By the way, I’ll make a quick note here that some have used this Phoebe reference in the debate over whether woman should be ordained as deaconesses. Our denomination, does not ordain women to the ordained offices of pastor, elder, or deacon. Some churches that do ordain women deacons will claim Phoebe is an example in Scripture of a woman deacon. They make this argument because in verse 1, when it says she’s a servant of the church in Cenchrea, the word in the Greek is diakonon — same word where we get the word deacon. The quick response is that in the New Testament that Greek word of diakonon is an common word that is the general word for servant. That’s how it’s translated in our passage. In some places, that word for servant get’s used in a technical way to clearly refer to some special office in the church — such as in 1 Timothy 3. But, the vast majority of the time it’s used in the basic sense of servant. It’s a general word that sometimes got used in a technical sense to refer to what we now call a deacon. But it’s such a general word, and should understood in the simple sense of servant unless the context dictates otherwise. For example, Paul refers to himself as a servant in Ephesians 3:7 with this same Greek word of diakonon and he clearly doesn’t have in mind the ordained office of deacon. As for Phoebe, this passage does not demand that we see here as someone ordained to the office of deacon — she’s presumably just another fellow Christian servant in the church — her standing is put along with all the rest of saints when Paul calls her a sister and says to receive here in a way as worthy of the saints. But, that’s just a quick aside.
Okay, so getting back to the general observations about the greetings here — a third general observation is that Paul attaches personal notes with his greetings. For example, he mentions many by name. For many he adds some detail about them, such as their standing in Christ. Or Paul’s own love for them. Or he describes his past experiences or connection with them. Now true, he doesn’t do this for all of them. But he does do it for many of them. And so it’s a nice balance in the greetings. The fact that he doesn’t mention such personal notes on some, shows it’s not a hard requirement. But the fact that he does for many, shows us what we know — it’s a blessing to be personally recognized, and it’s a blessing to hear from someone more than just “hello.” To express something extra about the person, especially points of personal contact or praise, is a blessing. And given Paul’s emphasis especially on someone’s relationship to Christ, or their common service together for Christ, we are reminded of the Christian context to all these greetings. These personal notes aren’t just in order to teach us “how to win friends and influence people.” Actually, these kinds of things, would help in that regard. But this list is more than that. It’s about Christians expressing the communion they have with one another in Christ. As you get to know your fellow Christians better and serve with them more, their fellowship becomes personal — and your greetings to them can reflect that.
A fourth general observance of these greetings is that there are both men and women in the list. We had mentioned earlier that the Bible restricts the ordained offices of pastor, elder, and deacon to qualified men. Paul’s own teachings in places like 1 Timothy and Titus lay that out. It has caused some to speak down on Paul’s writings, as if he had hurt the cause of women’s standings in the church. Some have so mischaracterized Paul so as to make it sound like women have very little role to serve in the church. But that is not the case. This passage of greetings shows Paul’s appreciation for Christians of both genders. It shows that both men and women can serve in various ways to greatly help the work of the church. Phoebe is certainly one example — just look at how many she helped in the church, including Paul, per verse 2. The reference to husband and wife Aquila and Priscilla in verse 3 reminds us of how they helped Apollos learn more fully the way of God. And notice how here and elsewhere he most often lists the wife Priscilla first, especially highlighting her role as his fellow worker. Many other women are mentioned here by name in this list as well. Look especially at how Paul describes Rufus’ mother in verse 13 — as one who had been like a mother to Paul himself too. And so this observation not only vindicates Paul’s treatment of women; it reminds us that women in the church have a vital role and that there are many ways for them to use their God-given gifts for the work of the church.
A last general observation is simply to note the several references to either house churches or groups. We see such references in verses 5, 14, and 15. This is a helpful reminder that even how we talked last week that the church of Rome was just a single church among many fellow churches already forming throughout the world. So too, even inside Rome, there were multiple smaller congregations — some meeting in homes, some likely meeting in public places. The body of Christ is made up of these various pockets of believers here and there. And yet Paul could write a single letter to all the church at Rome and know that it would circulate to all of them there. Because of the fellowship these believers had together in Christ.
Well, this now brings us to the holy kiss reference in verse 16. Greet one another with a holy kiss. That’s what Paul told them to do. Back then kissing was a common gesture of greeting. It still is in many parts of the world, and even to some degree still today in our area. Back then, it was a deeply tangible expression of your affection and welcome — but not in a romantic sense. This is not to say that there weren’t romantic kisses too, but that’s different and not what’s described here. This was not a romantic kiss, but it was a kiss of greeting and welcome and brotherly love — but this personal gesture of the kiss physically involved you in the greeting in a positive way. Paul mentions these kisses at the end of 1 and 2 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians as well. Peter also mentions a similar call to greet one another with a kiss of love in 1 Peter 5:14. In all these instances, the kisses are connected with a greeting. They are a visible gesture to act out the greeting. Hugs, handshakes, and waves, today are also examples of gestures of greeting, and surely more culturally normal gestures between friends, though arguably not as personal as the kiss.
At some point early on, it seems that the church actually turned this into an element in the official worship services. That at some point during the service, the people would turn and great one another with a holy kiss.
It is also true that even as early as Clement of Alexandria in the late second century was already writing about abuses attached with this. Some parts of Christendom still practice this holy kiss as part of the worship service, such as in the Eastern Orthodox church. The western church largely stopped doing it after the 13th century. Again, this was not a romantic kiss. In fact, in church history this generally was practiced in the between males to males and females to females as a precaution against abuses. It is not clear if that’s what Peter and Paul envisioned or not. At any rate, such has largely disappeared completely from protestant churches. Though some protestant churches do have a time of greeting during the service, sometimes exchanging handshakes or hugs. Our church doesn’t have this as an element during the worship service, but you will note that I do try to immediately follow the closing of our service with a formal call to greet one another. That’s at an effort to at least express some of the heart of this command. It’s an open debate in Christianity today if we should extend an actual holy kiss, or if we can seek a cultural equivalent like a hug. But even more fundamental is to recognize that far deeper than the gesture of greeting used is that actual welcoming in love of the brothers and the treatment of them in that welcome with all holiness and purity. And it’s to recognize in that greeting and welcome and reception that we are fellow Christians, part of the same family, through our common faith in Jesus Christ.
Well, I’m going to quickly move on now. I want to in our remaining time turn to consider greetings and such kisses in the lens of the rest of Scripture. Let me make a few general observations again, and then I want to particularly think about this in connection with Jesus Christ. A first observation is that throughout Scripture, we see a lot of greetings and a lot of kisses, particularly kisses as a gesture of greeting. Jacob kissed his father, Laban and Esau kissed Jacob, Naomi kissed Ruth, David kissed Jonathan, etc, etc. Or, I think of Prince Absalom in 2 Samuel 15, how he’d sit at the city gate and would greet and kiss the peoples as they came into the city. His warm reception, it says, resulted in him stealing the people’s hearts. Just grab a concordance and you will find lots references throughout the Bible. A second observation is that greetings are not constrained to God’s people. In other words, it’s not just Christians who greet each other, for example. Acts 25:13 records King Agrippa greeting Festus. This should be an obvious point, but I just want to make sure we understand that the kind of greetings we are talking about today are in one part just about basic kindness to people. And yet for Christians, we see that the kind of greetings talked here are even more special. They are holy greetings in that they are expressing the unity we have in Christ. A third observation in Scripture is that we see that these greetings and kisses can be fraudulent. There are multiple examples of this in the Bible — like 2 Samuel 20 where Joab kills Amasa after first distracting him with a kiss of greeting. Proverbs 27:6 warns against the deceitful kiss of an enemy. As Christians of course, we must have genuineness in our greetings for our brothers.
So, all that to be said, let’s hone in further on all of this as it relates to Jesus Christ. I believe it’s important for us in applying all this greeting and kissing ideas in order to relate it all to Christ. A good starting place is Psalm 2. We read it earlier. It tells us very plainly, that the world must kiss the son, lest he be angry. This Son is the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed; in other words, Jesus! This is a kiss, of greeting, but specifically a kiss of greeting to a superior. This is the kiss by which you pay him homage at the same time; saying you will submit to him as king. That is what the Bible says we should do for Jesus. This is surely true physically and metaphorically. Let us all be prepared to kiss the feet of Jesus and at the same time submit ourselves to him as our king. If we don’t, then Psalm 2 threatens wrath; that the man who will not kiss the son will perish because of it!
Of course, we saw a very literal example of this kissing of the Messiah in Luke 7. There we saw a sinful women repeatedly kissing the feet of Jesus while he was having dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. We know this was a good gesture because when Jesus’ host Simon starts thinking to himself that Jesus should not accept such a woman’s gesture, Jesus rebuked him. Jesus pointed out to Simon how had not yet given Jesus any kiss since he came into his home. Jesus was saying that the woman had done far better than him in that regard. And yet as commendable as this sinful woman’s actions were that night, don’t forget that she was still a sinner. Though that night she “kissed the Son,” how many nights before had she not? How many nights before had she not paid homage to the Lord and to his Anointed One? How many days before had she lived in rebellion to the kingdom of heaven? That was her problem. And that of course is what led her to tears. And yet in grace upon grace, Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven.
Well, on what basis, on what authority, can this just King, forgive this sinful woman’s sins? We must ask that question, because we are all like that sinful woman in one way or another. All of us have not submit to God in all areas throughout our entire life. Each of us have committed so many sins for which we need forgiveness. We need to ask the question how she can be forgiven so we know how we can be forgiven. Well, of course, the Christian knows the answer. We can be forgiven because Jesus died on the cross for our sins. But don’t miss the irony in how Jesus allowed that to happen. All the ways in which we have not kissed the son, so to speak, and so how did Jesus allow his death to proceed? Well, we read of the awful irony in Luke 22:47. After the awful act of irony happened, it caused Jesus to say, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” Yes, Jesus, in control the whole time, allowed himself to be captured and put to death through the betrayal of a kiss. That gesture which should have been of love, and reception, and homage, was instead a gesture of rebellion and deceit. It was a kiss in vain, as the gesture sealed the opposite of what it should have represented.
And so how awfully ironic and yet at the same time wonderfully good news. In so many ways, we had not kissed the son as we should have. And yet our failure to kiss the son like that was saved by Jesus allowing Judas to kiss him in vanity and betrayal. That caused his arrest and ultimately his death on the cross — to pay for our sins. The result is that Christ does have the authority to forgive sins. For all who come in repentance unto him — much like how we saw that woman in Acts 7, he tell us that our sins have been forgiven. As God graciously draws us back to himself in faith and repentance, we are forgiven and received because of what Christ did on the cross.
And oh the reception! We can think of our repentance is us coming back to kiss the feet of Jesus. And yet more so, it’s about how Jesus ultimately greets us. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. When the wayward son finally gets enough sense to return home, what does the father do? Luke 15:20, “When he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.” That is a picture of how God receives us, and greets us, and welcomes us with kisses. God greets us, so that we can be in relationship with him. That is what we see as well, not just in parable, but in person, when Jesus rose from the dead. On that first resurrection Sunday, that evening he appeared to his disciples who were assembled. And he said to them in John 20:19, “Peace be with you.” And then he said again to them, “Peace to you.” Commentators like to point out that this phrase is especially fitting given that he just secured their peace on the cross. But they also point out that these are actually words of a typical greeting at that time. Did you catch that? Jesus showed up after his death and resurrection and appears to his disciples. His disciples that basically had ditched him when he got arrested, Peter himself denying Jesus three times. And yet since at the cross he secured their forgiveness, his first and second words to them, are words of greeting. If you are in Christ, he greets you. He welcomes you. He extends love and peace to you. He receives you.
This then is why we start the worship service the way we do. The Directory for Public Worship of our denomination wisely describes how fitting it is for our worship services to begin with a salutation. What’s a salutation in our worship service? The Directory for Worship defines it as this: “A salutation is the greeting from God to his people who have gathered to worship him.” And so I as a minister of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on his behalf, open our service saying God’s people, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is God’s welcome, his greetings, to all who belong to Christ.
And so brothers and sisters, I wanted to paint a picture from Scripture of why we should do what Paul commands us here to do. Why should we greet one another like this? Because God in Christ has greeted us. Even though we’ve not deserved that greeting. Even though in our own ways we’ve not in the past greeted and welcomed God in our life, in various expressions of sin. But God in Christ greets and welcomes his saints who have found new life in his Son. Let us continually kiss the son’s feet, so to speak. Keep going to him for forgiveness and grace. He freely gives it by faith. And in turn may it be our delight to look to welcome and receive him into our hearts and lives all the more. And as we do that, we also welcome and receive and greet our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord.
May such greetings be holy as we recognize that we are talking about how we greet those who have the same Christian hope as ourselves. May such greetings be genuine and from the heart — not given in vain or deceptively or in pretense. And may such greetings be extended with those things that naturally flow from it — hospitality, and love, and peace, and things such as these. And may such greetings mean that we look how to serve one another in love. Serving together in the church to labor together as family in Christ. And to serve together in helping one another with whatever needs and trials might arise. Strive to be able to have lots of personal notes about how you’ve labored together with one another. And so may this need to greet one another, then spur us one to make sure we are actually connected in the church. That we aren’t a Christian “loner” so to speak — someone who doesn’t make many connections with others in the church. But instead get to know one another and build relationships. And that starts with a greeting. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.