Let’s admit, kissing is not what it used to be.
With the passage of time, the act has been romanticized and its applications narrowed. Once its associations were far more generally familial and brotherly; now they are more specifically marital, even sexual. Once kissing was a frequently exchanged sign of affection, particularly among close friends and extended family, and especially among the people of the one true God, both first covenant Jews and the new covenant Christians of the early church. Being a kissing people had something to say about their God. His people not only thought rigorously; they felt deeply. They not only spoke of familial allegiance, but showed familial affection. They not only confessed their love; they kissed.
That may sound well and good looking back at the past, but, closer to home, what do we do with the apostles’ repeated charge to Christians like us, “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16)? Paul ends four of his letters with the command, and Peter adds his own: “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). So, do you? And if not, why not?
Previously, we surveyed a brief theology of kissing by tracing the Old Testament backdrop, and identifying a key takeaway for the church age. Now we turn to the two signature instances of kissing in the New Testament, both in the life of Jesus.
Before reviewing the two sets of lips that kissed Jesus, let’s first marvel at the very reality of the incarnation, that the eternal second person of the unkissable Godhead became man, and dwelled among us — and could be kissed. Doubtless his mother showered his newborn cheeks with countless kisses as she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Surely Joseph too. And Jesus’s relatives and younger siblings, in those frequent moments when they appreciated his holiness (rather than being unnerved by it).
For thousands of years, the Creator God, existing above and outside his created world, though ever present and watchful and near, could not be physically kissed by human lips. Lips and tongue could kiss him with expressions of worship and praise, but he had no human forehead, cheeks, or feet to literally kiss — that is, until the Son came, to be heard with human ears, seen with physical eyes, looked upon and touched (1 John 1:1), with both hands and lips.
“The unkissable God became man — and kissable.”
So, the unkissable God became man — and kissable. And in a striking contrast, the Gospels’ two reported touchings of human lips to the flesh of God himself come from the most unlikely of persons: “a woman of the city” kissing his feet in humble worship, and one of his own disciples kissing his face in awful betrayal.
First is the kiss of worship and glad submission in Luke 7 — a holy kiss, however difficult it was for his fellow dinner guests to stomach. Jesus was eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon when,
behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37–38)
Unsettling for the pious in the moment, the event is rich with significance, in retrospect, through Christian eyes. Anointing has royal connotations, as she consecrates the one she now believes to be the kingly Anointed One, the long-promised Messiah. And she kisses his feet. Aware of her unworthiness, she dares kiss only his lowly feet. As she weeps, Jesus sees both her sorrow for sin and hope of rescue in him. With her tears and kisses, she mingles grief for her own depravity and love for her anointed deliverer.
Here, to use the later words of 1 Peter 5:14, is the quintessential “kiss of love,” from a sinner to her Lord and Savior. The one “forgiven little, loves little,” Jesus tells the stunned Pharisees; however, “her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much” (Luke 7:47). This “woman of the city” is no fellow dignitary, like the kings and rulers addressed in Psalm 2; yet, as they were commanded, she takes refuge in God’s Anointed, obeying, with joy, the charge of verse 12: “Kiss the Son.” And so, such a woman as this goes before them into the kingdom.
Second is the infamous kiss of betrayal in the garden. Unlike the first, this is a manifestly “unholy kiss” — and more than that, the archetypical unholy kiss, a literal kiss of death.
“Betrayal is awful. Betrayal with a kiss? Even worse.”
We may have heard the story so many times that it’s easy to miss the gall of it all. The traitor approaches with, “Greetings, Rabbi!” (Matthew 26:49) and draws near to apply a kiss of greeting. Under the pretense of discipleship, even familial familiarity, Judas desecrates God’s Anointed with the atonement’s first blow to the face — his unholy kiss.
Like the unholy kisses of old — whether of idolatry (1 Kings 19:18; Hosea 13:2) or flattery (2 Samuel 15:5; Proverbs 27:6) or adultery (Proverbs 7:13) — this kiss of betrayal prostitutes an otherwise admirable act. Yet, this kiss of betrayal takes on a deeply sinister meaning, maybe the unholiest of all. Betrayal is awful. Betrayal with a kiss? Even worse. Where conquered kings and slaves bow, dearly loved friends and family are entrusted with kissing proximity. Then, like Joab calling Amasa his “brother” and taking him by the beard to kiss him, while concealing his deadly sword in the other hand (2 Samuel 20:9–10), Judas comes near, within striking distance, to his “Rabbi,” for this peculiarly depraved peck.
Knowing the intent full well, and carrying himself with messianic grace and restraint, Jesus allows the traitor such access. He permits his insincere and exploitative kiss (Luke 22:47), but not without asking, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48). This is not what kisses are for. This is a deceptive, conniving, evil kiss, a kiss of hatred rather than love, of death rather than life. And given the Old Testament background of the kiss, and the specific duplicity and depravity of this kiss, we might ask whether this, under the pretense of a greeting, is actually an act of good riddance. At least it would prove to be such.
For both the traitor and his rabbi, the unholy kiss led quickly to death — Judas in devastating regret and suicide, Jesus in sacrificially offering himself to the depths of horror and shame. Within 24 hours, the bodies of both would be dead, suspended between heaven and earth, one from a noose, another nailed to a cross. Might one tormented soul in hades have lifted up his eyes, seen his rabbi far off, with Abraham at his side, and called out for mercy? Alas, none would have known better than this disciple that now the great chasm had been fixed. Now none could cross.
For Jesus, that unholy kiss soon gave way to the holy love of the nations, anticipated by the worship of that nameless “woman of the city” who knew her sin and need. Sunday came. His dead heart beat again. The same body that lay dead, sown perishable, was raised, glorified and imperishable. And then, at his ascension, raised again, from earth to heaven, and exalted to the very throne of the universe, where the Father himself fulfilled the words of Psalm 2, declaring at his coronation for the ears of all, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). Then, at long last, commanding the hosts of heaven, and the greatest of men, he issued anew history’s most terrifying and marvelous ultimatum:
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:12)
And so, we gladly obey. We kiss him now, from afar, by faith — in our worship, and praises, and glad confessions that he is Lord. And we remember that one day soon we will stand before him, in glorified flesh and blood. He will appear, says 1 John 3:2, and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” — that is, our brother, our friend, the God we can kiss.