May 16, 2017
Dorothy was right: there really is no place like home.
Home is the place we long to retreat to after facing all the daily demands of adulthood; a place of refuge where we can finally rest, relax, and be restored. Having our homes be a place of refuge for ourselves and our families is an extraordinary blessing – and one we should never take for granted – however, as Christians there is far greater potential for our homes than mere personal refuge. When we open our homes and our lives to the people around us through biblically motivated hospitality, the potential for kingdom growth and personal sanctification is incredible.
I know that at times I have tended to view practicing hospitality more like an extra credit assignment alongside the requirements of church, family and work. If we get to it, great. If not, life goes on. I suspect I’m not alone.
When we look to scripture however, the hospitality-as-extra-credit way of thinking is deeply deficient. Biblical thinking about hospitality, on the other hand, is not only theologically rich but should also serve as strong encouragement and motivation for us to grow in our practice of hospitality.
First things first: Hospitality ≠ Entertaining
When we begin to think about hospitality, often we envision opening our homes to feed and entertain friends and family. This is indeed a good practice, especially among those within the church, as we are called to “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1). And if we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we will naturally want to invite them into our homes.
However, the Greek word for “hospitality” used in Hebrews 13:2a “Do not neglect to show hospitality…” has a very different guest in mind. The word used here, philoxenia, combines the general term for love or affection (phileo), and the word for stranger (xenos). Hospitality has its origin, literally, in love for outsiders. In fact, some English translations take the less literal translation and include the phrase “to strangers” after the command to more fully capture the spirit of this instruction.
This is not just a New Testament concept either. In fact, care for the stranger, the sojourner, the foreigner has always been a hallmark of God’s people.
Hebrews 13:2 goes on to remind the reader that in practicing hospitality to strangers “…some have entertained angels unawares.” This statement is referring to one of the earliest accounts of God’s people practicing hospitality to strangers we have in scripture (Abraham, Sarah and the guests in Genesis 18). While the kind of hospitality demonstrated in this account was certainly far more common in the days before hotels and restaurants, this reference back to it in Hebrews begins to show that for God’s people hospitality can be so much more than merely providing food and shelter.
As we see the nation of Israel continue to develop in the Old Testament, God explicitly instructs them to provide for the poor and the sojourner among them (See Lev. 23:22). Again, in Leviticus 19:34 we see additional instruction regarding the treatment of strangers; however we also see at least part of God’s purpose in requiring hospitality of his people:
“You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” [Emphasis added] (Lev. 19:34)
In this verse God not only instructs His people to adopt a loving, generous posture towards those around them, but he roots their motivation to do so in the centuries of enslavement in Egypt, a time where their very survival depended on the hospitality of others.
God’s hospitality towards us
By invoking the Exodus, not only did Israel’s hospitality towards their neighbors serve to remind them of their time of great need in Egypt, but ultimately to God rescuing them and meeting their every need for protection and provision. In this way the hospitality commands to Israel also pointed forward to the cross of Christ: when a Holy God moved towards a rebellious people with grace and mercy, to rescue them out of sin. Christ’s atoning work on the cross was the single greatest demonstration of hospitality in human history.
The New Testament makes clear that as Christians, practicing hospitality ought to be a way of life (Rom. 12:13a, 1 Pet 4:9, Heb. 32:2a, 3 John 8, 1 Tim. 5:10c) so much so that being hospitable is a qualification for local church elders (1 Tim 3:2). One reason for this emphasis is that in practicing hospitality, moving towards those around us in love and generosity, Christians have an opportunity to both reflect on and model God’s love for us through Christ and the gospel.
Where to start?
A deeper biblical understanding of hospitality has broad implications for local churches as we seek to serve our communities and reach them with the Gospel – which can frankly seem overwhelming – so, where to start? I’d like to propose two places where we can all begin practicing biblically motivated hospitality immediately:
- At home - Where we live
- At church - Where we gather to worship as a body
Regarding hospitality and our neighbors, a very helpful read is ‘The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life’ by Dustin Willis and Brandon Clements. In the book, the authors do a great job of presenting the potential of Christian hospitality, addressing common obstacles as well as offering genuinely helpfully ideas for connecting with neighbors and most importantly, infusing those interactions with the gospel (without pulling the ‘ol bait-and-switch).
Simpler still is practicing hospitality on Sunday morning, when we gather for worship. Make a conscious effort to be ‘others focused’ this Sunday. Worry less about finding your preferred seat before service or even reconnecting with friends after. Instead, try to be aware of the ‘strangers’ among you – people you don’t know – and seek to be attentive to their needs. “Don’t talk to strangers” might be helpful advice for our kids at a park but it’s terrible advice on Sunday morning.
For Further Study
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl. – An in-depth look the history of Christian hospitality and its role in the church today.
- The Hospitality Commands by Alexander Strauch. – A succinct but thorough treatment of the specific New Testament commands to practice hospitality.