A Command to Love and Be Loved

Twice in one day — I heard “I love you.” Two pastors in one work day spoke those words to me as we finished our conversations. The exchange didn’t startle me or produce any discomfort. I’m secure enough in my masculinity and in Christ to give and receive such affection. I serve as the pastoral ministry director for a state convention of churches, and my job is to build relationships with pastors to help them flourish in ministry. This often involves listening to the hardships of ministry, helping them process their responses, and pointing them to the finished work of Jesus. It was in that context that these brothers closed our conversations with “I love you.”

What stood out to me was how soon such affection appeared in our relationships — I’d known these brothers for only four months. I suspect they said it because it was clear that I love them and am devoted to their good. Hearing it highlighted for me the meaningful bond Christ formed between us in a short time. And it reminded me how important it is in life and in ministry to know that we are loved.

As Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonians, he commands them, “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss” (5:26). Commentators will quickly point out what a “holy kiss” isn’t: It is not erotic or romantic, likely not on the lips (to the chagrin of the youth group boys). In the ancient world, a kiss could be a common greeting for those who shared a close bond, usually family or friends. To be sure, we must apply this in culturally appropriate ways. A literal kiss would be inappropriate in some contexts. Likewise, there’s no directive to extend a “holy kiss” to abusers, wolves, or false teachers. Our love for enemies differs from the affection shared among fellow saints — but that’s not the focus here.

Yet in our rush to caution against what a holy kiss is not, we should be careful not to miss what a holy kiss is: a warm, genuine expression of love, unity, and loyalty among believers. More than that, it is a commanded expression of love. Paul exhorts us to greet fellow believers in a way that clearly conveys our holy love for each other.

What’s it mean for a kiss to be “holy”? Holiness surpasses the mere absence of sin; it signifies complete devotion to a covenant. In the Old Covenant, “holy” designated exclusive devotion to the covenant with God as defined by the parameters of the Law. Holy implements in the temple we reserved solely for temple use — you couldn’t use them in your home. Israel, as a “holy” nation, devoted itself solely to the Lord and not to any other god. “Holy, holy, holy,” underscores the Lord’s unwavering commitment to his covenant promises, be they blessings or curses. 

A Command to Love

As Christians, we relate to God through the New Covenant, the solemn relationship secured through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Holiness now entails exclusive devotion to this relationship as defined by the law of Christ: 

This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12)

A holy kiss, then, is much more than a kiss free of inappropriate desire. It’s a kiss devoted to and controlled by Christ’s love; it is affection shaped and controlled by the gospel. A kiss, then, isn’t holy unless our hearts are believing, resting in, and shaped by the good news that Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is rescuing those who trust in him; a holy kiss seeks to communicate as much.

A holy kiss overflows from a heart that loves Jesus and therefore loves like Jesus. Jesus’ love is genuine, accomplished by sacrificing himself for us, resulting in reconciliation, and eternal loyalty. A holy kiss genuinely communicates: I care about you with Christ’s love. I’ll suffer with you and for you. I’m on your side, I’m for you, and I’m here to stay.

To whom are we to give such expressions of gospel love? Paul says, “all the brothers and sisters.” Our brothers and sisters are other Christians. “All” means none are excluded — neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. The world, the flesh, and the devil exploit differences to use, abuse, manipulate, and control people, exploiting advantages to serve self at the cost of others. The gospel does the opposite — and the holy kiss, given to all the brothers and sisters, forces us to grapple with and embrace the implications of Christ and his kingdom.

When should we express such affection? “Greet” is not a one-off thing; it’s an on-going command. Nor is it a liturgical practice restricted to some portion of our weekly worship gathering. It’s to be an ever-present practice to assure each other of our love in Christ.

Why is this commanded? Because our expressions of love communicate God’s grace to us. Paul opens and closes this letter with prayers for grace and peace. The shift from “Grace to you” to “Grace be with you” underscores that what transpires between these phrases constitutes how grace arrives and how grace persists. Paul recognizes that his letter conveys God’s grace, grace that will remain with his readers if they receive and apply his words in faith. And that includes commands like this: “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.”

A Regular Reminder of Grace

A “holy kiss” (or its cultural equivalent today) is a reminder of God’s grace in the gospel. When we exchange expressions of holy love — especially in ways foreign to the world — we’re prompted to recall its source. We remember Jesus our Brother, who died for us, lives for us, and stands with us. 

What happens when we’re unloved? Hell is a realm with no love, the eternal experience of God’s wrath, without hope of mercy or grace. To live or minister or work in a context without love is to live (or minister) in a hell-like context. It’s death. It kills hope and shrivels the soul.

What happens when we’re loved? In Romans 8:31–39, Paul says we become “more than conquerors” in the face of hardship by knowing of God’s love on Christ’s cross. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Communicated love fuels perseverance and produces endurance.

There’s a lesson in this for Christian leaders, whether we lead a Christian company, ministry team, a family, or a church. It’s especially true when our leadership involves authority. Those under us are conscious that they report to us. They may turn in reports, give accounts of their time and spending, and aim to hit benchmarks. We must be communicating our holy affection for other believers.

Accountability and performance reviews are good things. Nonetheless, they can make us question if we’re loved for more than what we do, leading us to feel uncertain and unstable. Wondering if a relationship rests on our performance is disorienting, demotivating, and life-sapping. In such contexts, knowing we are loved in Christ is paramount. What difference would it have on our motivation, energy, and perseverance if we were mindful to tangibly express our love and affection for one another?

Those in Christian leadership are called to communicate at least two things to those we lead. First, we do well to remind ourselves and our people that Jesus Christ loves us and gave himself for us. He’s promised never to leave us or forsake us. The Father is not reassessing the future of his relationship with us based on our performance. His love for and acceptance of us was sealed with the death and resurrection of his Son.

Second, it should be made plain that because of Christ’s love, we love them. We stand with them, ready to support them through the hardships of being ambassadors of Christ. We’re them, always devoted to their good, because we love them as Christ loves us. How that looks differs according to relationships and contexts. But what remains is that we greet one another with love.

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