Biblical Hospitality (Part 1)

“Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality” (Romans 12:13).

“And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.  Use hospitality one to another without grudging.  As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:8-10).

Both of these New Testament passages address the principle of Biblical hospitality.  Today’s culture has a misconstrued concept of hospitality.  This is true even among some Bible believers.  Some act as if it is compromise to be nice to someone in the world by going out to eat with him to share the gospel or befriending him to show the love of Christ.  In other words, they relate hospitality to a lack of separation in the life of a believer.  At the other extreme are those who utilize their hospitality as a “social gospel.”  Certain churches are very active in feeding the poor and caring for the needy in the community, yet they make no effort to fulfill the Great Commission of “preaching the gospel.” 

Neither extreme is correct.  Biblical hospitality is not the Christian’s way to get the gospel out, nor is it somehow “worldly” for a believer to be hospitable.  My purposes in this article are:  (1) to show that hospitality is required of all believers and (2) to prevent the compromise of our Christian testimony while fulfilling this Biblical duty.

A couple of Old Testament passages help formulate our understanding of hospitality.  Let’s first consider the account of Abraham in Genesis 18.

“And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant.  And they said, So do, as thou hast said.  And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.  And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it.  And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat” (Genesis 18:1-8).

Notice what Matthew Henry says about the following passage:

“How Abraham entertained those strangers, and how kindly his entertainment was accepted. The Holy Ghost takes particular notice of the very free and affectionate welcome Abraham gave to the strangers. 1. He was very complaisant and respectful to them. Forgetting his age and gravity, he ran to meet them in the most obliging manner, and with all due courtesy bowed himself towards the ground, though as yet he knew nothing of them but that they appeared graceful respectable men. Note, Religion does not destroy, but improve, good manners, and teaches us to honor all men. 2. He was very earnest and importunate for their stay, and took it as a great favor. It becomes those whom God has blessed with plenty to be liberal and open-hearted in their entertainments, according to their ability, and (not in compliment, but cordially) to bid their friends welcome.” [Matthew Henry]

You will notice that Abraham was anticipating the opportunity to “entertain strangers.”  He sacrificed to host them.  Hospitality always requires a special effort on our part, often including monetary expense.  This does not mean that we should go broke to entertain someone, but we should not let the fact that effort and sacrifice are involved stop us from being hospitable.  Abraham’s conduct toward strangers is a challenge to us.

Hebrews 13:2 refers to this account from the life of Abraham.  One of the truths gleaned from this passage is the duty of believers to extend hospitality to strangers.  American culture has a misguided belief that giving is only worthwhile with a guarantee of reciprocation.  This can be seen in the charitable giving by businesses and large corporations.  CEOs and financial bosses usually want the “public relations” aspect benefited through their charitable giving endeavors.  The word stranger indicates someone unknown–even unexpected.  This scenario makes it difficult to line up a “photo-op” or send out a press release.  Christ was always looking for someone to help, whether that person was poor, halt, or blind.  Because he is a representative of Christ, a Christian should make it a habit to extend a helping hand to any stranger in need. 

The second part of Hebrews 13:2 is interesting because it describes a situation where angels are entertained.  While there is much theological argument on this point, we are sure that in the case of Abraham, he did unknowingly serve angels.  God sees and knows what we do.  The Lord recognized Abraham when he served strangers out of a pure heart and intentions.  He sees and knows what we do also.  The Bible teaches that what is given in secret, including hospitality, will be rewarded openly. 

“If I have withheld the poor from their desire, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail; Or have eaten my morsel myself alone, and the fatherless hath not eaten thereof; The stranger did not lodge in the street: but I opened my doors to the traveller” (Job 31:16-17, 32).

In this passage, Job is defending himself to his three “friends.”  They had sat for some time with him in mourning, but now they are bringing to Job a scathing rebuke.  Job is later rebuked by Elihu who points out Job’s pride against God.  In the midst of this exchange, various truths are nonetheless given.  One of those truths is stated in the passage above.  Job is appealing to God for defense because, as a practice, he was hospitable to those in need.  Most believe that Job’s life predated Abraham, so it is amazing to realize how much knowledge Job already had about the universe.  Not only that, but Job understood how to maintain a right relationship with his fellow man. 

This passage deals specifically with those less fortunate–the poor, the widow, and the fatherless–and the believer’s duty to help them.  A good church will not adopt the social gospel model–substituting giving to the needy for soulwinning; however, providing help for those in need should not be ignored.  Helping the poor, widows, and the fatherless is one way that Christ’s love is shown to this world.

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