Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
I don’t see any beneath-the-surface agenda in verses 5-16. There is no evidence that Paul is working his audience to attain some advantage. I think we will make a mistake if we try to find something beneath the obvious here in what Paul is doing. And I feel no need to, because what is plain and on the surface of this text is beautiful and profound and deeply rooted in the gospel of chapters 1-11—and very needed in the church today.
What is plain and on the surface is that Paul says Greet thirteen times in twelve verses. Let this sink in. Whenever we talk like this, there are at least three people involved. In this case, there is Paul, and there are those he is writing to, and there is the person or group he wants them to greet. What’s happening in this three-part connection (Paul, the one greeting, and the one greeted)?
Love Conveyed Through Greetings
The answer is that something is being carried by the middle person from Paul to the third person. What is being carried? Yes, a greeting. But what’s the point of a greeting? The greeting is just words. We know that is not the main thing being carried from Paul to these people. What is being carried is love. Four times he says it explicitly. Verse 5: “my beloved.” Verse 8: “my beloved.” Verse 9: “my beloved.” Verse 12: “the beloved.” Paul loves these people, and that is what this text expresses. The point of this text is: I love these people, and I want my love to be carried from my heart to their heart by you. So would you please take these words from me and make them the bottle from which you pour my love into their lives?
Whatever else we may learn or experience in reading these verses, let us not miss this most obvious and important experience: The preciousness of Christians in the hearts of Christians.
So let’s do three things with this truth that Christians are precious to Christians. First, let’s consider one expression of it in the holy kiss. Second, let’s remember the foundation of it in the death of Christ and our union with him. Third, let’s consider the intensification of it—the kind of things that more deeply endear one Christian to another.
A Holy Kiss of Affection
First, then, consider the holy kiss in verse 16. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” After saying Greet thirteen times, he now gives them one urging for how to do it. Kiss my precious friends for me. If I were there, I would kiss them. What should we think about the “holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14)? Five observations may be helpful.
1. It Was a Common Custom
It was a widespread custom outside the church to kiss friends and guests. When Jesus was invited to dinner by Simon the Pharisee, Simon didn’t kiss him, but a woman anointed his feet and kissed him. Jesus said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet” (Luke 7:45). It was a gracious custom. That’s why it wasn’t strange when Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss (Luke 22:48). It was a common greeting.
2. It Was Holy
Paul said that the kiss Christians should use is holy. He called it a holy kiss. There are many ways for a kiss to be unholy. Judas’ kiss of betrayal certainly was unholy. The kiss of adultery is unholy. The kiss of fornication is unholy. The kiss of homosexuality is unholy. The kiss of seduction is unholy. I’m sure Paul would say, “If that’s the only way you can kiss, don’t kiss.” But there is another way to kiss. Pure, holy, deep, blood-bought affection.
3. It Was Family Affection
This affection is a family affection, not a romantic one. It’s the affection I felt when I kissed my father goodbye five hundred times as a boy sending him off to preach the gospel, and then welcoming him home again
4. It Was a Physical Demonstration
The holy kiss is physically demonstrative, not just words. Healthy families are not afraid to touch each other. It’s the mark of unselfconscious security and love and warmth. A visiting woman came up to me at the all-campus outdoor service last August and said, “I love to watch the men of your church. They seem natural and manly in the way they embrace each other.” I felt very happy about that.
5. It Was Culturally Conditioned
I doubt that we should say that this “kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) is a universally binding requirement for all believers in all times and all places. Paul didn’t describe it as an obligation rooted in creation or in the gospel. He took what was there in the culture and said, “Make it holy.” There may be cultures and situations where a kiss would not communicate what Paul desires. Hugging might. Handshaking might. But it may be that Paul would say, “The cultural basis that gives rise to the holy kiss is a better cultural basis than one that leaves us with no meaningful physical expressions of family affection among Christians.” In other words, if we don’t have better cultural expressions of family affection, we probably should go back to this one.
So that’s our first consideration. Paul wants the believers in Rome—and us—not just to greet each other with words but with more demonstrative expressions that say: You, as fellow believer in Christ, are precious to me.
The Foundation of Affection
Second, let’s remember that the foundation of this affection is in the death of Christ and our union with him. The reason I make this one of my points is that Paul draws attention to it eight times. Eight times he refers to these precious friends as being in Christ or in the Lord. Verse 7: “in Christ.” Verse 8: “in the Lord.” Verse 9: “in Christ.” Verse 10: “in Christ.” Verse 11: “in the Lord.” Verse 12 (two times): “in the Lord . . . in the Lord.” Verse 13: “in the Lord.”
What is the point of referring so often to very precious friends as being in Christ or in the Lord? It comes from a very intense feeling of being rescued from infinitely long suffering at infinitely great cost and then placed together into an infinitely safe and happy place. Listen to Romans 5:9. “Since . . . we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” And Romans 8:1. “There is . . . now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We have been rescued from infinitely long suffering, namely, the wrath of God. We have been rescued at infinitely great cost, namely, his blood—the blood of Christ. And then, put together into an infinitely safe and happy place, namely, in Christ Jesus.
Have you ever watched on television as trapped miners are rescued after being hundreds of feet underground for days with their families keeping vigil on the ground above? When they come out, they are not the only ones hugging and kissing. Everybody is hugging. There is something deeply bonding about a family defined by imminent loss and glorious rescue, safe on solid ground, surrounded by people they wouldn’t trade for all the gold in the world.
Experiencing the Gospel Again and Again
The foundation of Paul’s profound affection for these people is that he knows that he stood with them on the precipice of the wrath of God called hell, where he and they deserve to be today, and that he and they were snatched to safety by the Son of God as he went over that precipice. And they stand trembling, happy, hugging on solid ground, namely, in Christ. That’s why he says in Christ and in the Lord eight times. That’s where Paul lives with them.
We were in as much danger as we could possibly be in—together. And now, we are as safe in Christ as we can possibly be—together. This was so real for Paul he could still smell the flames. He could feel still feel the ice in this thighs as he looked over the edge of the abyss into the wrath of God. And now, rescued by Christ, and living in Christ, nobody looks the same anymore. Everybody here in Christ is blood-bought and safe.
If we don’t feel a kind of trembling, deep affection for each other in Christ, it’s probably because we don’t feel very deserving of hell and we don’t feel amazed at our rescue. And, therefore, the safety we enjoy together doesn’t feel very precious. It’s as though nobody was ever buried in the mine. And there were no all-night vigils, and no heart-rending prayers. And, therefore, no brothers or fathers or husbands emerging from the elevator shaft. And so no hugging. If we want to understand and experience the warmth and preciousness of Paul’s relationships in this chapter, we have to experience again what it means to be rescued from wrath by the blood of Christ and to be eternally safe in Christ—together.
Intensifiers of Affection
Finally, let’s consider the kinds of things that intensify our affections for each other and endear one Christian to another. I pose this question because I think that is what Paul is doing as he moves from one loved one to another in these verses. He is saying things about them not mainly to commend them to the folks in Rome. They’re already in Rome and well known. What Paul seems to be doing is simply letting his heart bring up things he knows about these people which intensify his affection for them. I’ll mention four.
1. Chosen in Christ
He is moved at times in his affection for a brother because he simply remembers that the brother is chosen by God. Verse 13: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord.” Someone might say, “Why does he call Rufus chosen when all believers are chosen?” Perhaps the same reason he calls four people beloved when all twenty-six are beloved. Paul is not chopping these people up into separate groups. He’s loving them from a distance with what comes to his mind that is precious about them. And for whatever reason when he gets to Rufus, he thinks: God chose him! God chose him!
Maybe Paul and Rufus had a long conversation about election, and Rufus came to love the truth that God had chosen him unconditionally before the foundation of the world and could not stop singing the praises of God’s sovereign grace. Or maybe Rufus was the worst sinner Paul ever knew besides himself, and so the fact that God chose him was one of the greatest evidences of the freedom of God’s grace. And he loves to draw attention to it. We don’t know. What we know is: When Paul wanted to love Rufus, he thought of him as chosen by God.
Let that be one of the things that endears other believers to you. God chose them. God chose them! Look around. God chose her and her and him and him—before they were born or had done anything good or evil. How can the chosen of God not be precious to you?
2. Length of Time in Christ
Some Christians are endeared to Paul because of how long they have walked with the Lord. Two instances of this. First, first verse 5b: “Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia.” Then verse 7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”
Epaenetus’ conversion to Christ goes all the way back to the beginning of the mission into Asia (meaning western Turkey), and Andronicus and Junia were converted to Christ before Paul was. When being in Christ matters more to you than anything else, then the details surrounding how people got there and how long they’ve been there are sweet to think about. It’s part of what knits our hearts together in Christ. Epaenetus was the first one Christ rescued in Asia. I’ll never forget it. Andronicus and Junia have walked in Christ longer than I have. Christ rescued them while I was still breathing out curses against Jesus. O how I love to think about the mercies of God in my friends Epaenetus and Andronicus and Junia.
3. Partnership in Christ
Paul’s affections for his friends are intensified as he thinks about their partnership in the labors of the gospel. Verse 6: “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.” Verse 9: “Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ.” Verse 12 (two times): “Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.”
I watch my fellow pastors at Bethlehem pour their lives out for you and your children, and I feel something of what Paul felt. I look at the late nights and the unplanned crises and the difficult conflicts and the family stresses and the never ending preparations and the patient pursuit of the wayward and I see myself writing a letter—or sermon—saying: Tom and David and David and Sally and Chuck and Sam and Kenny and Brad and Erik and Jack and Mary and Tom and Ken and Craig and Dan and Gill and Joyce and Ben and Rick and Jon, you have worked side by side with me in the Lord, and I love you the more for your labor.
Working hard together for a long time in a common cause with a unified vision has a way of weaving lives together in very deep affection. Paul was stirred in his love for these friends when he though about how hard they worked in Christ.
4. Sharing Suffering in Christ
Finally, Paul’s affections for his friends were intensified by shared suffering. Andronicus and Junia get the most attention in these verses. One of the reasons is that they suffered with Paul. Verse 7: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners.” Can you imagine the affections that those memories brought up. “My fellow prisoners.”
And so it is with all of us: The hardest times forge the deepest friendships.
The white hot point of the welder’s flame
Makes the strongest joint in the welded frame.
The Wonder of the Gospel—Together
The sum of the matter is this: Because God has rescued us from his own wrath at the cost of his Son, and has gathered us together into Christ where we are eternally safe with him, we stand trembling with joy and look into each other’s eyes, and say: Can you believe it? W are here! We are here! In Christ! We’re not at the bottom of the mine shaft! We are not falling in the flames of the bottomless pit. And that’s what we deserve. And we are here! Chosen. Loved. Forgiven. Forever. Together.
O Lord is it any wonder that John wrote, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” (1 John 3:14). Lord, make us feel the wonder of passing from death to life.