Hospitality: The Theological Meaning
Hospitality—the welcome and provision of guests and strangers—was important in the ancient world. It remains an important aspect of honor-shame cultures. The previous post explained what hospitality accomplishes at a social level. This post introduces the NT teaching on hospitality.
The NT instructs believers to be hospitable. The action is commanded by three different authors. Believers are to be people who extend welcome to others.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Rom 12:13)
- Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb 13:2)
- Be hospitable to one another without complaining. (1 Pet 4:9)
The ethical exhortations of hospitality are familiar to many. However, the NT authors do more than command hospitality; they link it to salvation itself. This teaching occurs across a spectrum of NT authors and genres. First the verses, then some explanation.
- Matthew 25:34–35: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Jesus invites people who welcomed his representatives to inherit the kingdom of God. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) makes a similar point. The legal expert asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Then Jesus tells the famous story about hospitality extended to an injured traveler.
- Throughout Luke, hospitality toward Jesus manifests one’s receptivity to the gospel and experience of salvation (Luke 7:36–50; 9:51–10:24; 24:13–35). In the book of Acts, hospitality toward the apostles represents acceptance of the apostolic message and inclusion into the people of God (Acts 10:1–11:18; 16:11–18:17; 28:1–10). The contrast is people who reject and persecute God’s people.
- James 2:25: “Like Abraham, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers?” James says that Abraham was justified by his works (plural), which would include his willingness to sacrifice Isaac and his hospitality to strangers (Gen 18:1–18). Likewise, Rahab was vindicated by the same action. Note that the verb is not “saved” (which could be used in a general manner, as in “rescue” from danger or famine”) but, instead, the more theological “justified.”
- Gal 2:11–20: Paul said that Peter was “not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel” as though “a person is justified by works of Law and not faith.” The prompt for Paul’s lengthy explanation of “justification by faith” (Gal 2:15–21) was his failure to eat alongside Gentiles (Gal 2:13–14). The apostle had excluded certain people from the table based on ethnicity, which was a direct contradiction of justification by faith.
- 1 Clement 10–12: “Because of their faith/piety and hospitality,” Abraham, Lot, and Rahab were saved. This early non-canonical Christian letter from Rome dates to the AD 90s. To exhort the Christians in Corinth, the author elaborates on the hospitality of OT figures. They were saved and reckoned as righteousness because of their “faith and hospitality,” or “hospitality and piety.”
How might we explain these matters? We should first recognize that the teaching is clear and widespread in early Christian texts. Many NT-era leaders—i.e., Matthew, Luke, James, Paul, Clement of Rome—made the same point.
The point is that biblical faith includes a redefinition of honor, and generous hospitality toward other people is a concrete expression of that new honor code. If you cannot welcome certain people to a meal, that is a red flag indicating that you do not understand the nature of God’s gracious welcome toward us. True faith requires hospitality. As explained in the previous post, hospitality proves one’s true character and creates new relationships. The NT teaches that this happens before and with God.