Showing Hospitality

Dr. Brian Allison

When you think about showing hospitality to someone, what do you think about? Many people think primarily about providing someone with a meal or a snack, and that is not totally wrong. Yet, when we turn to the New Testament, we find a broader understanding of this Christian duty. The image or metaphor of showing hospitality that the New Testament presents is not the set table of the dining room, but rather the open door of the house.

Romans 12:13b reads, "Contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality." In considering the context in which these injunctions are found, we discover that these injunctions are particular expressions of brotherly love. We 'contribute to the needs of the saints' when we share with needy fellow believers out of the abundance of our material goods and financial increase. Needy believers should be able to participate in the wealth of those who are well off. Now needy believers should be able not only to participate in a fellow Christian's wealth, but also to have access to the comforts and conveniences of fellow Christian's homes. Hospitality, in the Biblical sense, is one of the most concrete ways in which the outworking of love may be clearly demonstrated. So, for instance, 1 Peter 4:8, 9a reads, "Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another..." So, the apostle Peter exhorts us to love fervently, and having given that exhortation, he enjoins upon us the particular duty of mutual hospitality.

The nature of true hospitality

In the original Greek, the term translated hospitality basically means 'giving love to the stranger or foreigner.' Hence, the act of hospitality is simply providing for the physical needs of someone who has left his home or native land and requires shelter, clothing, food, or the various amenities of life. A number of years ago, I was traveling by train throughout Great Britain, with no particular destinations in view. One place that I visited was Edinburgh. I had no idea where I was going stay. With twilight upon me, I asked a young man, who was a student at the University of Edinburgh, to provide me with information about accommodations in the city. He was a Christian, and he realized that I was one too. He subsequently invited me to his university residence and provided me with shelter and food. Being a stranger in a strange land, this Christian ministered to me true hospitality.

The necessity of showing true hospitality

Showing hospitality was imperative in the early Church because of the fervent missionary activity. Various missionaries and preachers traveled throughout the Roman Empire preaching the Gospel, with no certainty of accommodations. For instance, the apostle Paul was dependent upon the assistance of other Christians, even recent converts. On his second missionary journey, he traveled to Europe. He ministered to a woman called Lydia, a resident of the city of Thyatira. We read, "[She was] a worshipper of God, [and] was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us [Paul and his company], saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.' And she prevailed upon us" (Acts 16:14,15). Lydia, immediately after her conversion, demonstrated very concretely the reality of love, which is the true fruit of conversion.

Later on, the apostle Paul found himself in prison with his coworker Silas. At midnight, they were singing hymns and praising the Lord. Through their Christian testimony and a divinely ordered earthquake, the jailer of the prison asked them how he could be saved. So we read, "And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.' And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household" (Acts 16:31-34). The Philippian jailer ministered the 'open door.'

The apostle Paul makes reference to this Christian ministry in writing to Philemon. He urges "And at the same time also prepare me a lodging; for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you" (Philem. 22). As long as we have traveling church workers, missionaries, and preachers, the ministry of hospitality will be vital.

The character of true hospitality

How are we to actually carry out true hospitality? First, we are to show hospitality diligently – "practicing hospitality." In the original Greek, the word translated 'practicing' basically means 'pursuing or following hard after.' It is a very intense term. This term is found in Hebrews 12:14, which reads, "Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one shall see the Lord." That is, we are to follow hard after peace; similarly, we are to follow hard after showing hospitality. Do you see the showing of hospitality as something necessary and very important? Simply put, Christians should willingly and eagerly show hospitality when opportunity presents itself. When I left Edinburgh, I traveled to York, and from York to London. When I was in York, I phoned ahead to a Christian couple whom I knew lived in London at the time. When I eventually arrived there, they detained me; I stayed there for two days. They insisted on showing me hospitality. They provided me with a private room, bed, and food. They made sure my needs were met. They showed me hospitality diligently.

Second, we are to show hospitality conscientiously. The Scriptures teach, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hb. 13:2). There is a natural tendency to become slack in this area. The original Greek literally reads, "Do not continue to neglect showing hospitality to strangers." Showing hospitality, in the Biblical sense of the word, is an essential Christian responsibility. As a Christian, you should welcome every opportunity to minister to God's people in this beneficent way. Showing hospitality is an honourable service, worthy of commendation, because no one knows the full impact and blessing of such service – people have unknowingly ministered to heavenly beings.

The apostle John's third epistle provides us with helpful instruction: "Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they bear witness to your lovebefore the church; and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men [and women], that we may be fellow workers with the truth" (vss. 5-8). As Christians, we are to bear one another's burdens.

Third, we are to show hospitality cheerfully. Showing hospitality is really a good thing, a worthwhile ministry. The apostle Peter's words are interesting: "Be hospitable to one another without complaint." With a duty, there is a tendency to murmur. We may begrudgingly say, "I have to provide hospitality, I have to open up my home, I have to provide a meal, I have to do this, I have to do that." We may feel like we are being inconvenienced, and we may do service simply because we think that is what a Christian ought to do. How many times do you do service simply because you believe that you ought to? We can do the 'Christian thing,' and yet not have the 'Christian feeling.' God is concerned not only with our doing, but also with our being; He is concerned not only with our acting, but also with our attitude. God's Word addresses not only our conduct, but also our condition. So, we are to show hospitality without complaint. It should be a joyful experience.

Hindrances to true hospitality

We live in an age of suspicion. With an increase in crime and violence, we have developed into a very mistrusting people. We had little concern about locking the doors of our homes 30 or 35 years ago. Yet, now, perhaps the last thing that we do before going to bed is to check whether the doors of our homes are locked. We have become a 'generation of locked doors.' We feel that we cannot trust anyone, and, as a result, we have become very cynical so that we are reluctant to reach out to help someone in need. Now, admittedly, with showing hospitality (in the Biblical sense of the word), we may be opening ourselves up to abuse; but even though that is a possibility, we are not to neglect this particular Christian duty. The needs of the brethren are to become the common burden of the Church. We are to zealously minister to the physical needs of God's people, particularly those who have been sent out for the sake of the Gospel. Let us indeed be careful to whom we minister, but let not our suspicion prevent us from doing ministry.

There are indeed various tricksters, hucksters, and charlatans who prey on God's people and badly exploit them, and yet there are many of God's people who sincerely require physical and material assistance as they labour for Christ.

Further, living in an affluent society, we have become negatively conditioned to respond in selfish and impersonal ways. We have become products of our 'selfistic' age. Thus we are offended when people intrude into our space; we are upset when people invade our privacy. Accordingly, opening up our homes is viewed as a bother and a risk. We must remind ourselves that all that we possess belongs to the Lord. We are simply stewards of His bounty. Again, the needs of the brethren should become the common burden of the Church.

If we are to faithfully fulfil this Christian duty, which is a concrete expression of love, then, as with every expression of love, humility must characterize our demeanor. Humility entails a willingness to sacrifice your own comfort and convenience for the sake of another. Humility is the willingness to wash the feet of another. A number of years ago, I was invited to preach in a Church in London. I stayed in a very lovely home. The couple insisted that I stay in the master bedroom. I said to them, "I cannot stay in your bedroom." They responded, "O, yes you can, and you will, or you are not staying here." They said that in love. This couple 'bent over backwards' to make my stay pleasant. I was treated like a king. Their home temporarily became my home.

Have we fallen sadly behind in this most vital expression of Christian love? Perhaps the words of John Charles Thomas, who wrote to syndicated columnist Abigail Van Buren, may serve as a wake up call to us. He wrote, "I am presently completing the second year of a three-year survey on the hospitality or lack of it in churches. To date, of the 195 churches I have visited, I was spoken to only in one by someone other than an official greeter – and that was to ask me to move my feet." If John Charles Thomas came to your church, would he find the 'open door'?