Hospitality in the New Testament Letters: Epilogue to Acts

Hospitality in the New Testament Letters: Epilogue to Acts

In the book of Acts, the Spirit led and moved the congregation to take care of each other. That was the mission of the earliest church, and in Acts this care was immediate, material, and practical. In the Letters, “love one another” takes many forms. Hospitality is just one of them, but today I’ll focus on hospitality. Hospitality overlaps with the way the early Jerusalem converts helped each other, and we find it often in the Letters.

In James 2 the Lord’s brother writes, “suppose a brother or sisters needs food and clothes, and you claim to have faith but don’t help that person.” That’s a dead faith, says James, no better than the faith of demons. 1 John 3 says much the same thing. If we have possessions and see a brother or sister in need but do not help, we cannot possibly love God. In the Letters, as in Acts, hospitality was immediate, material, and practical.

Jesus actually began New Testament hospitality when he sent out the Twelve. His instructions to them included these: (1) do not take along extra sandals or coat or money; (2) when you enter a home, stay there and receive what they give you; and (3) laborers have earned their wages (Matt 10, Mark 6, Luke 9, 10).

Jesus told them not to take travelling supplies because they would find hosts to provide for them. The disciples should be confident that by preaching and healing, they had earned their keep. This arrangement assumed that if their coats or sandals wore out, their hosting community would provide replacements, because that is how the early churches practiced this. The Lord’s traveling instructions might surprise us, but they probably seemed normal to the twelve. The Lord himself lived like that, and they lived like that with him. The ancient eastern world prized hospitality, so this was not really new.

Now let’s see how other churches put this into practise. We’ll look at five main texts in the Letters: Romans 16, Titus 3, 3 John, Hebrews 13, and 1 Corinthians 11. Some other texts too. This sermon is like a photo album, a slide show of hospitality pictures in the Letters.

Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to the Romans from Corinth to Rome, and was probably the one who read it in Rome and gave further explanations. Paul told those believers, “Welcome her in the Lord as is worthy of the saints, and provide for her in whatever need she might have.”

A welcome in the Lord, worthy of the saints, is not a warm handshake and congregational applause. It means, “take good care of her, make sure she has everything she needs.” He adds a commendation: she herself had done this for many others, including Paul himself. Phoebe was a stranger to the church at Rome, so Paul gave her a warm recommendation, and urged their practical help.

Paul wrote to Titus, “Eagerly send forward Zenas the lawyer, and Apollos, making sure they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so they will not be unproductive.” Zenas and Apollos were probably the ones who took the letter from Paul to Titus.

Titus was himself an itinerant minister on Crete, and did not himself have resources to give Zenas and Apollos what they needed to travel to their next stop. That’s what “sending them forward” means. The second sentence, about believers learning to devote themselves to good works and live productively, will show itself first in the Cretan believers sending forward Zenas and Apollos and making sure they have what they need for the next stage of their journey.

3 John was written to Gaius, a man in the church that John loved. Verse 5 begins, “Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They witness to your love before the church. You would do well to send them forward in a way that is worthy of God. They went out because of the Name, and received nothing from the pagans. We ought to be helping people like this, so we can be co-workers in the truth.”

3 John gives us more detail than these other texts, so let’s pay close attention. Gaius had welcomed John’s messengers even though he had never seen them before, and John had heard about this. Gaius was hosting them in his home. But hospitality was not yet complete; John wanted him also to send these people forward in a way that was “worthy of God,” that is, with generosity that honoured God, making sure they had enough for the journey home. By such hospitality we are co-workers for the truth.

Hebrews 13 begins with three instructions: “(1) Continue to love brothers and sisters. (2) Don’t forget hospitality to strangers, for some without knowing have been hospitable to angels. (3) Remember those in prison as if co-prisoners, those mistreated as those who also have bodies.”

Earlier, Hebrews 10:32–34 described troubles that the believers had previously endured, including prison. So the third instruction, about those in prison and those mistreated, refers to believers.

We sometimes take second Hebrews instruction, encouraging hospitality to strangers, as urging hospitality toward unbelievers. But since the first and third instructions address life among the faithful, the strangers who need hospitality are more likely the kind of strangers that John encouraged Gaius about in 3 John, travelling believers, people like Phoebe and Zenas and Apollos, people not known to the church.

Believers in New Testament churches were also hospitable to unbelievers needing food and a place, even their enemies. The parable of the Good Samaritan leads us toward that, as do the calls to “do good to all” in Galatians 6, and “pursue love to one another and to everyone” in 1 Thessalonians 5. Still, the examples in the Letters always describe hospitality between believers.

In Romans 12:3 Paul wrote, “Share with the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality.” Given what we have seen, these two phrases belong together. Pursing hospitality means sharing with the needs of the saints, as he would ask them to do with Phoebe. In Romans 15:24, Paul hopes that he himself, returning from Jerusalem and arriving in Rome, will be “sent forward” by the Roman church into Spain. In Romans 16 he asks them to meet Phoebe’s needs in a way that is “worthy of the saints,” and he hopes that when he arrives in Rome himself, they will do that for him as he leaves for Spain.

Here are a few more examples. In Romans 16:23, we learn that Gaius in Corinth hosted Paul while Paul wrote Romans (probably not the Gaius that received 3 John). In Philemon 22, Paul asked Philemon to have his guest room ready for Paul, because Paul hoped to be there shortly. Luke was probably getting bed and meals with Theophilus when Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts.

In Colossians 4:10 Paul wrote: if Mark comes, “welcome him.” That means the same welcome he urged on the Romans concerning Phoebe, “welcome her in the Lord as is worthy of the saints, and provide whatever is needed.” In 1 Peter 4:9 Peter writes, “be hospitable toward one another,” and he adds proactively, “without grumbling.” Being hospitable has always been inconvenient, my brothers and sisters, it was already so when Peter wrote. Nevertheless, without grumbling.

In his final imprisonment in Rome, Paul experienced remarkable help from a certain Onesiphorus. Paul tells Timothy about Onesiphorus: “He often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.” In Matthew 25, Jesus said to the righteous, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Onesiphorus, who we meet only here, was a model of this.

At the end of Acts 2, we read that the 3,000 regularly ate together in their homes. This was not only because they enjoyed table fellowship. Some of those believers did not have enough food, so those with food invited those without food to eat with them, so that those without could have a good meal and perhaps take home leftovers.

This should have been happening in Corinth as well, but sharing food had completely fallen apart. The problem in Corinth was that the wealthier people, those who could supply the food, were eating it all before the poorer people and slaves even got there.

The Roman world did not have a seven day week, or any week at all. But the early evangelists were all Jews, and the gospel included teaching a seven day week so that believers could meet on the first day. The first day of the week was always an ordinary working day, but believers gathered after work on the first day to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection on the first day.

This gathering always involved a church meal, what we call potluck, and it always included the Lord’s Supper. This was normal in New Testament churches. If someone did not have enough food to eat, one plentiful meal a week plus some leftovers to take home would make a big difference. These meals were not just for fellowship and the Lord’s Supper, they were also to help all those in the church with meagre food supply.

But in Corinth, the wealthier people, those who could supply the food, were eating it all before the poorer people and slaves even got there. The poor and slaves had to work longer days than the rich people, so they arrived later. Paul describes the problem at the beginning of this section:

So then, when you [Corinthians] come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? Those who can bring nothing are left humiliated by their poverty, and hungry. That, my brothers and sisters, is eating and drinking unworthily.

The ending comes back to the same topic: So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. (1 Cor 11:20–22; 33–34).

The poorer people who arrived later did not have food to bring. They have nothing, says Paul. Their only hope for food was what the richer brothers and sisters provided. The poor should have had a good meal and been able to take home leftovers, but instead they went home humiliated and hungry because the rich began before the poor got there, and ate it all. That was their unworthiness, and it was serious enough to bring the Lord’s judgment, the only one of many Corinthian problems to bring judgement. Many were sick because of this, and some had died. This problem is one of the big reasons that Paul makes love the better way in 1 Corinthians 13.

Unbelievers saw the early church’s generous hospitality and took advantage of it. All they had to do was claim to be a servant of Jesus Christ, and then they would get free room and board, and new clothes when they needed them. Many scoundrels were willing to take advantage of that and did so, and that’s as true now as then.

Jesus spoke of this in the Sermon on the Mount. He warned them about false prophets. “They will come to you” Jesus said. They will pretend to be sheep, but they are vicious wolves. You can tell them by their fruit, said Jesus. Don’t listen to what they say about themselves, but watch how they live. They have bad fruit, they don’t live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This is why, when Paul wants churches to be good to strangers, Paul always gives the unknown believer a strong recommendation in the letter. The churches know Paul, so if Paul says that Pheobe is a faithful servant of Christ, then she’s a faithful servant of Christ. The church did not quickly give hospitality to someone just because they said they were servants of Christ.

In 1 Timothy 5, we read about the care of widows. Widows who should not have been receiving care from the church were draining church resources, human and financial. This misuse of church care arose from two problems. One, some in the church were forbidding marriage completely (1 Tim 4:3). So younger widows who otherwise would have pursued remarriage were choosing to stay single and getting into all kinds of trouble. Paul urged them to marry.

Two, some widows were depending on church resources when they had children and other relatives in the church. Paul was indignant: if you don’t take care of your own relatives, especially immediate family, if you leave widows in your family to the church, you are worse than an unbeliever! Take care of your own family.

On a different note, sometimes cultural beliefs caused problems in Christian hospitality. In Greek society, if someone took you in and was a good host, you repaid them by giving them public honour, by telling everyone what a noble person your host was.

This got Paul in trouble with Gentile churches, not only Corinth but particularly Corinth. In that society, if the church was hosting Paul, he should not ever challenge or correct them. But Paul knew he needed to correct and challenge sometimes. They thought this was bad manners.

How did Paul resolve this? He stopped taking any money or help from the church he was staying with. He decided to fall back on his tentmaking trade. Paul always defended what Jesus said, that a labourer had earned his wages. In the New Testament, and the Old Testament as well, spiritual resources for material resources is a fair trade, a legitimate and necessary exchange in God’s economy. Paul always defended this. But it complicated his life in different ways, so he stopped doing it. He would take money from other churches, but not the one he was with.

Corinth was plagued by a group of false ministers, “super apostles” Paul called them, in reality “ministers of Satan” (2 Cor. 10–12). One reason Paul served for free in Corinth was because the false ministers said they could do everything Paul did, but Paul knew the one thing they would never do was serve the Corinthians for free. They could not say they did everything Paul did (2 Cor 11:12). By not taking money from Corinth Paul separated himself from the super apostles, and showed himself to be a true servant of Christ.

In our early years, our church was too generous with people we didn’t know. As we became more aware of the ways the New Testament churches were careful, we also became more careful who we helped. We have enough different stories about this in the New Testament to have our eyes open. We have reasons to show some discrimination and not give money just anywhere.

The basic call of the Letters is to be generous with one another. Paul says, Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Peter says, Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

This is how the churches who got the Letters lived out the one another stories that we read in Acts, particularly this line in Acts 4: God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.

In some Christian circles now, the mark of a truly Christ-like church is a group that helps unbelievers in their neighbourhood. This is a good thing to do, but based our instructions, a better mark of a Christ-like church would be exceptional care for the neglected little ones within our church body.

In Romans 12, Paul quotes Proverbs: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.”  Apart from this, we are never told in the Letters to care for needy unbelievers, and Acts and the Letters give us no examples of caring for needy unbelievers. No church is ever corrected for not caring for needy unbelievers, nor is any church commended for doing so. I know this must sound terribly hard-hearted. It sounds like that to me. But don’t look at me. You all read the same Bible I read. We might not like it, but you know it’s true.

I began this series by telling you about the man named McWhirr, a ship’s captain in the novel Typhoon written by Joseph Conrad. McWhirr’s bosses prized him because he never found it necessary to improve on his instructions. Jesus would like that. At the end of Matthew, Jesus told the apostles: teach them, teach us, to obey everything he commanded.

Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, you were rich but you became poor for our sakes, so that we who were poor could become rich. And it’s true, Lord. By your poverty for our sakes, you did make us rich. Together we ask that your kind of generosity would also grow in us. May your deep desire to serve others shape us. May we be to each other what you have been to us. Amen.

BENEDICTION: May the Lord direct our hearts into God’s love and into Christ’s perseverance. May the Lord of peace give us peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you. Amen. Go in God’s peace to love and serve the Lord.