Hospitality – What Is It?

I have been asked to write an article which provides a definition of hospitality. While it is not good to begin on a negative note, perhaps it is best to start with what it is not. Contrary to what someone once thought, it does not mean visiting the hospital. That having been said, I am faced with a formidable challenge: I am assigned a 1,000-word article. Since Mr. Vine defines hospitality with three words, “love of strangers,” and Mr. Webster employs only a few more words in his definition, “the activity or business of providing services to guests,” I still have over 900 words to add to the article.

The Meaning

Let’s start, however, with Mr. Vine’s definition, which is derived from the Greek words philoxenos or philoxenia, used in at least five instances in the NT (Rom 12:13; 1Ti 3:2; Titus 1:8; Heb 13:2; 1Pe 4:9) and embedded in the truth of 1 Timothy 5:10. Combining the literal meaning of the word, the contexts in which they are found, and the conditions of the times in which the letters were written, we can arrive at a contextually appropriate understanding.

“Love of strangers” means something other than inviting the believers from the assembly to your home for a meal or for an informal gathering after meeting. Please, by all means continue this valuable activity. But we are considering a love of “strangers.” This form of “hospitality” would not involve reciprocal visits to each other’s homes for socializing or meals. The practice of social fellowship is invaluable and, if conversation is controlled, can be a great spiritual help to those in attendance.

We need, however, to transfer ourselves into first-century society. Christianity was making great strides through Asia Minor and parts of Europe. As a result of the gospel, families were being divided. The gods and idols of the heathen were being discarded. The synagogue was being exchanged for simple gatherings of believers in each other’s homes. Seismic changes were occurring throughout the world. 1 Corinthians 7 even hints at people leaving spouses who had received Christ, refusing to continue in a marriage with someone who no longer worshiped the gods.

The Hebrews epistle recounts the reality that some had known the “spoiling of their goods” (Heb 10:34). In all likelihood, for many believing Jews, it meant being disinherited. They were left without home or possessions. Others, like Paul, “suffered the loss of all things” (Php 3:8). Persecuted believers would be driven out of their homes and even from their cities, consigned to wandering from city to city, looking for friendly believers. When the writer of Hebrews 13 enjoined the saints to “be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” he had in mind those who were previously unknown, who would appear on the doorstep and claim that they needed a place to live and food to eat.

The Motive

Whatever this “hospitality” is, the meaning of the word establishes that it is motivated by love. While it is love for the stranger that is emphasized, it is ultimately love for the Lord Jesus that is the bedrock upon which all rests. We love the “brethren” because we love the Lord Jesus Christ (1Jn 3:14,16). As always, true love is going to be costly, as we shall see. Aside from its motivation, what else does this love entail?

The Manner

Hospitality of this nature would be far different from our current concept. It would entail risk. “Strangers” would not necessarily come with letters of introduction or letters of commendation. You would be faced with someone who “claimed” to be a brother or sister undergoing persecution. You would have no way to verify the story and would be left to decide to show kindness on the basis of an individual’s word. No doubt, some believers were taken advantage of in their zeal to show “hospitality.” It is a stark reminder that when believers desire to be used by the Lord, they run the danger of being abused by evil men. That aspect continues to be true today for those who seek to help the homeless, conduct ESL classes, or engage in similar outreach works.

The hospitality extended to strangers would preclude the likelihood of its being reciprocated. Here were individuals with very little of earthly goods. They possessed no home to which to invite you. They had no storehouse of food from which they could quickly provide an after-meeting snack. Your hospitality would be a unidirectional act of love for the sake of the Name.

Giving without receiving is contrary to the natural man. Peter had to remind believers that they were to show hospitality “without grudging” or murmuring (1Pe 4:9). This Christian virtue of love-motivated service toward another believer was to be accomplished with the purest of motives and the sincerest of attitudes.

The Measure

The mention of hospitality in Romans 12:13 is linked with distributing to the needs of believers. So, it suggests that hospitality would embrace seeing to all the needs of these persecuted saints. The citations in Timothy and Titus remind us that those in leadership must set an example in displaying this love of strangers. Its link with the distribution of gifts and the manifold grace of God in 1 Peter suggests that this is something which rises above normal human charity and kindness. Finally, Hebrews 13 holds out the fact that in showing hospitality in entertaining strangers, we will accomplish far more than we will ever know. The simplest act of hospitality in a coming day of tribulation and persecution for saints will receive a worthy recompense from the Lord Himself (Mat 25:35-40). Should we expect less?

In light of the scriptural concept of hospitality, is it possible for us to show “love of strangers” today? As mentioned earlier, those involved in outreach works certainly are showing that kind of “hospitality.” But each of us can embrace the principles involved by having the love as our motivating force, showing a unidirectional manner of caring for others, and having an open hand, an open heart and an open home.