Editors’ note: This series analyzes perplexing passages of the Bible. Previously:
- Dan Doriani on Matthew 24:15–16
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 11:29–40
- Mark Gignilliant on Exodus 4:24–26
- William Ross on Psalm 19:7
- Jimmy Agan on Matthew 15:26
- Dennis Johnson on Revelation 21:1
- Greg Beale on Revelation 13:8
- Miles Van Pelt on Judges 16:1–3
- Jack Collins on Psalm 2:7
- Stephen Dempster on 1 Samuel 28
- Tremper Longman on Ecclesiastes
- Ardel Caneday on Hebrews 6:4–8
When wrestling with Hebrews 13:2 (“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”), it is easy to wonder, Have I ever talked to an angel without knowing it? Or, Maybe that lady who caught my baby buggy, keeping my child from rolling into the street, was—well, you know.
While the passage does refer to angels, the author wasn’t really interested in believers logging close encounters with heavenly messengers, as a closer look at the context reveals.
Culture of Hospitality
In both Jewish and broader Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was an important pattern for virtuous people. Staying at an inn was both costly and dangerous, since inns were known as hangouts for prostitutes and thieves. So people tended to depend on the kindness of normal folks when they traveled or found themselves in great need in a strange place.
For instance, a Roman citizen named Junia Theodora, who lived in Corinth around the time Hebrews was written (c. AD 64), was said to be “kind to all travelers, private individuals as well as ambassadors.” In the Jewish work Testament of Job, written about a century before, the hero writes: “I established in my house 30 tables spread at all hours, for strangers only.” When a stranger arrived asking for alms, Job had one requirement: the guest first had to sit down and eat.
Given this cultural backdrop, it isn’t surprising that showing hospitality was an important expression of Christian love in New Testament times (James 4:13; 1 Pet. 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:2), especially when it came to those traveling for the sake of ministry (Matt. 10:11; Acts 16:15; Phil. 22; Titus 3:13).
Literary Context Is Vital
Grasping the literary context of Hebrews 13 is vital. At the end of chapter 12, the author wraps up his final warning: “Let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Heb. 12:28–29 NET). Then, at the outset of chapter 13, he offers a series of practical exhortations for how to embody devotion in Christian community (Heb. 13:1–6).
Most of the exhortations listed—standing with those facing persecution, honoring marriage, upholding sexual purity, being free from the love of money—were common general instructions on how to live well for the Lord. Such sets of general instructions on Christian living are found throughout the New Testament.
The first two instructions in chapter 13 are directly related to one another, sharing similar language:
- Brotherly love (philadelphia) must continue.
- Do not neglect hospitality (philoxenias), because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13:1–2 NET).
Notice the two key words begin with “phil.” New Testament writers used the term transliterated philadelphia—“brotherly love”—to speak of the special affection binding brothers and sisters in Christ. (The Greek word philos refers to a friend or to having a special interest in someone, and adelphia is related to the words for brother and sister.)
Philoxenias, on the other hand, refers to friendship or special attention shown by hospitality (the Greek word xenos meant “stranger,” and the word xenia normally referred to hospitality). Thus hospitality was one way of expressing brotherly love (and others are mentioned in the verses that follow). In these two verses, then, the author exhorts his hearers to be characterized by love of fellow believers and to lead lives of hospitality—probably both with reference to fellow believers in the church (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9) and to “strangers,” especially believers, who are traveling. Hospitality is the clear focus of Hebrews 13:2.
Tethered to Genesis 18
This connection becomes even clearer with the addition of the phrase “through it some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Almost certainly the allusion is to the story of Abraham in Genesis 18:1–16, who among first-century Jews (e.g., the writers Philo and Josephus) was considered the premier model of hospitality. In that passage Abraham hosts Yahweh and two angels (18:12; cf. 19:1). He runs to greet them, paying them homage (18:2), providing water to wash their feet (18:4), giving them a place to rest (18:4), feeding them with a feast of quality bread, meat, and dairy (18:5–8), and escorting them down the road as they leave (18:16). These were considered exemplary acts of hospitality.
So what do these cultural and literary backdrops reveal about Hebrews 13:2? They suggest the author picked up the Abraham story, not primarily to focus on angelic beings but to highlight a great example of hospitality. So his main point is not, “A supernatural experience with an extraterrestrial being might be missed if you don’t listen to me!” Rather, he is exhorting his readers: “Be characterized by exemplary hospitality; be like Abraham.” In other words, cultivate an open home and life in regard to other people.
Following Father Abraham
I have found that hospitality not only allows me the privilege of blessing others, it is also God’s gift of blessing to me. My life has been immeasurably enriched by an “open home” policy.
So how might we show hospitality to others? Here are a few ways my wife and I have experienced hospitality, shared hospitality with others, or heard of wonderful examples of hospitality among believers:
- Regularly hosting groups of students for a meal and fellowship.
- Hosting ministers from other countries.
- Feeding and fellowshiping with missionaries on furlough.
- Helping a family adopt an orphan and maintaining a relationship with that family.
- Hosting an intern or a foreign exchange student.
- Having a student live with the family for a season.
- Hosting a community of refugees with others in a local church.
- “See You at the Inn,” a ministry to the homeless that uses the church as a temporary shelter during winter months.
- Allowing a family in need of housing to use a home when the host family is away for an extended period.
- Inviting unbelievers for a meal in the home.
- Hosting small group studies or fellowship events.
- Having friends in ministry, or friends in the broader body of Christ, stay in one’s home when passing through the area.
These are just a few of many possible applications of Hebrews 13:2. I don’t think our family has had an angel stay with us, but this verse encourages us to keep cultivating lives of open, generous hospitality—taking after father Abraham.