Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Heb 13:2)
This verse takes us outside our comfortable places. When we talk about angels, we move from speaking about world-view analysis, philosophical frameworks and cultural paradigms. We stand clearly on the ground of revelation. God shows himself as person and spirit; and his revelation includes creatures beyond the animal kingdom, including powers and principalities.
The idea of hospitality also pushes us beyond the normal discourse about taught doctrine and gathered worship. True religion is not confined to a church or synagogue, but it is a matter of the dinner table, and perhaps the fold-out bed.
Hebrews puts these two ideas together: angels and hospitality. Its emphasis is on hospitality and therefore is very practical, but he roots his command on the Old Testament examples of those who have entertained angels. Learning from these examples might push us even further out of the safety of treating our houses as a private fortresses where only a few are welcome.
Surprising hospitality: entertaining angels unaware: Abram and Lot
An uncle and his nephew lived separate lives. Abram wandered in his tent, and Lot in the city of Sodom, among people paradigmatically depraved. Abram had three visitors who brought him the promise of offspring and warned him of the destruction of nearby Sodom (Gen. 18:1-33 and 19:1-29). One man remained with Abram, and the other two left to lead Lot and his family safely out of the city of destruction. While it is unclear whether the one with Abram was actually a theophany of the Lord Almighty himself, the other two men are clearly described as angels in 19:1. There are so many bigger themes, questions and problematic behaviour, especially of Lot’s treatment of his daughters, but what is clear is the way that both men of Terah’s family treated their visitors, not plumbing the depths of who stood at their gates.
And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Gen. 18:1-8)
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth 2 and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” 3 But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. (Gen. 19:1-3)
There are a few similarities and lessons we can draw:
1. Reverential and warm greeting. It is unclear how much they were aware about the identity of their guests, but something must have struck them. Both Abram and Lot prostrated themselves before these strangers and declared themselves servants to them. Abram clearly hoped that he had found favour with them (18:3).
This may not be programmatic example for all our interactions with people at our doors. There may be something unique here, but perhaps there is a something behind the way they treated their guest. In the New Covenant, Christ calls us to be the servants of the others. The path of greatness is to stoop low (Mark 10:43-45).
There is also a strong warning to treat God’s people whom we may or may not know well. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)
Diotrephes, in 3 John, is lifted up as an example of behaviour exactly opposite Abram. He ‘likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority … And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.’ (3 John 9-10)
2. Insistence on staying. There is a dance when it comes to hospitality. One that seems right. It has to do with the right person pressing and the other not presuming. If the guest pushes or overstays there is a coldness or resentment only matched by a host who doesn’t really want to share.
Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you. (Prov. 25:17)
Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you. (Prov. 23:6-7)
Abram pushes hard. He makes his plea on the basis of whether he has favour with God. The honour would be his if these men stayed and rested. Lot and the two men took the dance even further. At first they declined and said they’d sleep in the city square. But Lot ‘pressed them strongly’ and prevailed. Lot took the protection of his guests to an extreme level, especially when faced with a hostile crowd trying to smash his door down.
There is something to this kind of hospitality. The host does not have to wait to be asked, but can offer, even press their offer to someone who needs a bed or meal. The writer of Hebrews must have this in mind when he commands hospitality. Likewise Peter when he warns, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9)
This insistence on staying is also seen in the New Testament in two unusual places. First, Jesus insists that he must stay at home of Zacchaeus who was favoured by grace and was indeed a child of Abraham (Luke 19:5-10). This is reverse hospitality, akin to Lydia in Acts . “[S]he urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:15). Both Jesus and Paul who were seeking the lost, used reverse-hospitality as a way of proclaiming their acceptance of a new believer. One was intentional, the other reactive. Could it be that when someone turns to Christ, we should be quick to take up their invite to have table-fellowship?
3. Foot-washing offered. The men who had travelled to Abram and Lot were both offered water to drink and to clean their feet. This was a custom in the ancient world and was seen as important as providing the basic needs (Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; Jud. 19:21; 2 King 11:8; cf. Ex. 30:19,21; 40:31).
While referred to many times, only once in the Old Testament did the host actually wash the feet of the guests. The shrewd Abigail welcomed David’s men with even more humility than Abram did the three men. She saw herself in a lowly position. “And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (1 Sam. 25:41) Neither Abram or Lot washed the feet of their angelic visitors.
Jesus was the one whom Abram rejoiced at seeing (John 8:56). He was far greater than Abraham. And yet his hospitality was more like Abigail’s lowly service. He washed his disciples feet (John 13:5) and commanded this for his followers. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
The godly widow in 1 Timothy is commended for good works evidenced in the fact that she “has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” (1 Tim. 5:10)
Foot-washing itself may not be only way of expressing this lowly practical service, there must be some practical ways of serving one another in self-giving and demeaning ways. Could this include, but not be limited to, doing someone’s laundry, cleaning up after them or giving them the master bedroom? There is a lot of room for discussion here.
4. A feast and bread. Abram not only brings water and a small amount of bread, but he also has Sarah and his servant make more bread and, like the father of the prodigal son, he doesn’t spare the choice calf. He does not withhold anything for his guests. Lot likewise gave the angels a feast. The unleavened bread, probably had to do with unexpected nature of the guests, but is a sure echo of the later passover. Lot and his family had to leave in haste.
Food is an obvious part of hospitality. Christ opened a banquet for his people as he fed the 5000. He was the bread of life (John 6:41). When the early church gathered, they extended the ‘breaking of bread’ to all who would join them. “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46) The Lord’s supper became an expression of God’s hospitality. “We all partake of one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17)
But Paul was insistent that he would not abuse the food.
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 These 3:7)
There is so much we can learn about hospitality from Abram and Lot. But what about the surprise? What about the fact that they were doing this for angels? Both were blessed. Abram with the news that Sarah would give birth to a child. Lot, was spared the fire and brimstone.
Other Old Testament examples of surprising hospitality
It was not just uncle and nephew who showed hospitality to someone surprising. Here are but a few others:
* Samson’s father, Manoah, tried to detain the angel of the LORD and give him a goat to eat. He refused, but encouraged an offering to be made (Jud. 13:15-16)
* Rahab gave ‘a friendly welcome to the spies’ and was saved by faith (Heb. 11:31)
* The widow of Zarephath gave “a morsel of bread” and water to Elijah and received the prophets reward (1 Kings 17:10-16)
* The wealthy woman of Shunem always “urged [Elisha] to eat some food” and she was greatly blessed (2 Kings 4:8).
The greatest surprising hospitality of all
There are examples in the Old Testament of people showing great hospitality, even to angelic visitors. They greeted them, insisted that they remain, gave them water for their feet and fed them. In the New Testament we have Christ doing all that for us! And yet we also have his commandment to do this for others.
The greatest surprise of all comes in the parable of the Sheep and Goats at the last judgment.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
What we did for the least fellow-Christian believer we did to Christ. When you consider giving someone your bed, or lasagna or a lend of your jacket or a visit in hospital, remember that others had entertained angels in the past, but for us, it could be that we are welcoming Christ. This gives us even more reason to welcome people properly, insist they stay, wash their feet (or equivalent) and give them food.
And in case we think that this is an optional extra, Jesus gives the warning of judgment.
‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ (Matt. 25:41-43)