The cordial and generous reception and entertainment of guests or strangers. “Hospitality” is translated from the Greek phi·lo·xe·niʹa, literally meaning “love of (fondness for, or kindness to) strangers.”
In Ancient Times. In patriarchal times, though Egyptians and others practiced hospitality, the Semites were most notable for this quality. Care for the traveler was viewed as an integral part of living, and great was the courtesy extended the visitor, whether a stranger, a friend, a relative, or an invited guest.
From the Bible accounts we learn that hospitality was customarily extended to a traveler. He was greeted by a kiss, particularly if a relative. (Ge 29:13, 14) His feet were washed by a member of the household, usually a servant (Ge 18:4), and his animals were fed and cared for. (Ge 24:15-25, 29-33) He was often asked to stay for the night and sometimes even for several days. (Ge 24:54; 19:2, 3) The visitor was regarded as under the householder’s protection during his stay. (Ge 19:6-8; Jg 19:22-24) On departure, he might be escorted partway on his journey.
The importance with which the extending of hospitality was viewed is seen in Reuel’s remarks when his daughters spoke of the “Egyptian” traveler (actually Moses) who had helped them in watering their flock. Reuel exclaimed: “But where is he? Why is it that you have left the man behind? Call him, that he may eat bread.”
In the cities. It is evident from the Bible accounts that, particularly in the cities, non-Israelites might not always be hospitable toward Israelites. (Jg 19:11, 12) Also, in the cities hospitality was probably not offered as readily as in more isolated areas. However, a Levite man with his attendant and his concubine sat down after sunset in the public square of Gibeah, seemingly expecting to be offered a place to stay overnight. This indicates that hospitality, even in the cities, was quite common. (Jg 19:15) In this instance, the Levite man remarked that he had provisions for his party as well as for his animals. (Jg 19:19) He required shelter only. But the bad attitude of the Benjamites inhabiting this city made it inhospitable, as was verified by what later occurred.
To servants of God. While hospitality was generally practiced, the fine hospitality depicted in the Bible accounts was undoubtedly because, in most instances, the ones showing hospitality were servants of Jehovah. Especially noticeable were the hospitality and respect shown to those who were prophets or special servants of God. Abraham stood by the three angels for whom he provided a meal, while they ate. This seems to have been a token of respect for the men whom Abraham recognized to be angelic representatives of Jehovah. (Ge 18:3, 7, 8) And just as Abraham “ran” to prepare for his guests, Manoah showed eagerness in preparing food for the man whom he thought to be a man of God, but who was actually an angel. (Jg 13:15-18, 21) A prominent woman of Shunem showed hospitality to Elisha because, as she said: “Here, now, I well know that it is a holy man of God that is passing by us constantly.”
Inhospitality condemned. Because the Ammonites and Moabites refused to extend hospitality to the nation of Israel when they were traveling toward the Promised Land, and the Moabites even hired Balaam to call down evil on them, Jehovah decreed that no Ammonite or Moabite man could be admitted to the congregation of Israel. (De 23:3, 4) In this instance it was, not a mere failure to display humanitarian hospitality, but a hatred of God and his people that moved the Ammonites and Moabites to inhospitality and hostility.
Jehovah, through the prophet Isaiah, condemned the people of Israel for their lack of hospitality, telling them that their fasting and bowing before Him was of no value when at the same time they were letting their brothers suffer lack of food, clothing, and shelter.
In the First Century C.E. The practice of hospitality in the first century of the Common Era continued much as it had been carried on in earlier times, although conditions had somewhat altered the extent of its practice. The Samaritans and Jews were not on good terms, so hospitality between them was often lacking. (Joh 4:7-9; 8:48) Also, domination by foreign nations had increased enmities, and the country roads were beset by robbers. Even some inns were run by dishonest, inhospitable men.
Nevertheless, among the Jews, the same amenities as in times past were generally observed toward the guest. He was welcomed with a kiss, his head was anointed or greased with oil, and his feet were washed. At banquets the guests were usually seated according to rank and honor.
Toward Jesus’ disciples. The Lord Jesus Christ said, when sending out the 12 and later the 70 to preach in Israel, that they would be received hospitably into the homes of those who appreciated the good news they preached. (Mt 10:5, 6, 11-13; Lu 10:1, 5-9) Though Jesus himself had “nowhere to lay down his head,” he was entertained in homes of persons who recognized him as sent from God.
Paul took it as an accepted fact that his Christian brother Philemon would provide hospitality for him upon his visit after being released from prison. This was not presuming upon Philemon, for Paul knew from past association with Philemon that he would be more than anxious to provide what he could. (Phm 21, 22) The apostle John, in his letter written about 98 C.E., pointed out that members of the Christian congregation were under obligation to assist the traveling representatives sent forth, “that we may become fellow workers in the truth.” John also commended Gaius for his hospitality, saying that he had shown this spirit to those sent forth who were “strangers at that.” That is, these were not previously personally known to Gaius but were, nevertheless, warmly treated because of the service they were rendering to the congregation.
A Mark of True Christianity. Genuine hospitality, from the heart, is a mark of true Christianity. After the outpouring of the holy spirit on the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E., many newly converted Christians remained in Jerusalem to learn more about the good news of the Kingdom before leaving for their homes in various parts of the earth. Hospitality was shown them by the Christians living in Jerusalem, who entertained them in their homes and even sold their possessions and considered all things to be held in common. (Ac 2:42-46) An organized arrangement was later set up by the apostles for distributing food to the needy widows among them.
Hospitality is a requirement for Christians. Although many had undergone severe persecution and some had experienced the plundering of their belongings, Paul commanded: “Do not forget hospitality.” (Heb 13:2; 10:34) Peter showed that it should be willingly extended, saying: “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.” (1Pe 4:9; compare 2Co 9:7.) Emphasizing their prior obligation to fellow believers, Paul wrote that fellow Christians were to “work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.”
Hospitality was one of the important qualities requisite for those who would be appointed as overseers in the Christian congregations. (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:7, 8) Also, Paul instructed Timothy, an overseer in Ephesus, that Christian widows put on the list for receiving material assistance from the congregation should be those who had “entertained strangers.” (1Ti 5:9, 10) Evidently these women had made their homes open and available to Christian ministers or missionaries who visited or served the congregation, even though prior to this many of these visitors would naturally have been “strangers” to them. Lydia was such a woman. She was unusually hospitable, Luke reporting: “She just made us come.”
A proof of faith. The disciple James points out that hospitality is essential as a work demonstrating one’s faith. He says: “If a brother or a sister is in a naked state and lacking the food sufficient for the day, yet a certain one of you says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,’ but you do not give them the necessities for their body, of what benefit is it? Thus, too, faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself.”
Blessings. The Scriptures, in recommending hospitality, point out that great are the spiritual blessings received by the hospitable one. Paul says: “Do not forget hospitality, for through it some, unknown to themselves, entertained angels.” (Heb 13:2; Ge 19:1-3, 6, 7; Jg 6:11-14, 22; 13:2, 3, 8, 11, 15-18, 20-22) Jesus himself stated the principle: “There is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”
Out of appreciation for Jesus’ work, Matthew Levi spread a big reception feast for him and, in turn, was blessed by hearing Jesus answer the critical questions of the Pharisees and additionally relate one of his fine illustrations. Matthew’s use of his house in this hospitable way provided the tax collectors and others with whom Matthew was acquainted an opportunity to receive a witness.
After Zacchaeus had shown hospitality to Jesus because of his faith, he was immeasurably blessed by hearing Jesus say: “This day salvation has come to this house.”
In a prophecy concerning the time of his return in Kingdom glory, Jesus said that the people would be separated, just as sheep are separated from goats by a shepherd. This would be done on the basis of the treatment they would accord his “brothers,” even though they did not see Jesus with their physical eyes. Those showing hospitality and kindness to Christ’s “brothers” would be doing it because they recognized them to be brothers of Christ and sons of God. (Mt 25:31-46) In another statement he showed that not mere humanitarian hospitality would bring lasting reward from God but hospitality rendered to God’s prophets because they are recognized as God’s representatives, disciples belonging to Christ.
When Not to Be Extended. The Bible tells Christians that there are some to whom they should not extend hospitality. “Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For he that says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works.” (2Jo 9-11) To keep such a one in the home or to fraternize with him would be dangerous to one’s own spirituality and, in effect, would be condoning his course. It would be misleading to others and a reproach to the congregation. This principle is expressed also at Romans 16:17, 18; Matthew 7:15; 1 Corinthians 5:11-13.
Inns and Lodging Places. The ancient inn was apparently little more than a place of shelter for the traveler, providing also a place for his animals, similar to what has been termed a “caravansary.” Such may have been the lodging place where Joseph’s half brothers stayed on their journey back from Egypt to Canaan (Ge 42:27; 43:21) and where the angel appeared before Moses’ wife Zipporah.
It seems that prostitutes sometimes operated lodging places. Rahab the prostitute of Jericho lodged the two spies sent out by Joshua, and she showed kindness and hospitality to them by hiding them from their pursuers. (Jos 2:1-13) Samson lodged at the house of a prostitute woman in Gaza until midnight, waiting to humiliate the Philistines by carrying off the city gates.
Some of the inns in Palestine during the first century C.E. were evidently more elaborate, perhaps providing not only shelter but also food and other services, at a designated charge. The hospitable Samaritan of Jesus’ parable paid out of his own funds for the injured man’s care at an inn.
The Guest. In ancient times the guest, while treated with the utmost courtesy and honor, was expected to observe certain amenities and requirements. For example, it was considered among the vilest of acts to partake of another man’s food and then betray him or bring harm to him. (Ps 41:9; Joh 13:18) The guest was not to presume upon his host or on the group gathered together by taking the seat of honor, or the place of prominence, but was to leave this for the host to determine. (Lu 14:7-11) Neither should he ‘wear out his welcome,’ by being at the home of his host too long or by going there too often. (Pr 25:17) It may be noted that Jesus always imparted spiritual blessings when enjoying the hospitality of his host. (Lu 5:27-39; 19:1-8) For a similar reason he told his disciples whom he sent out that when they reached a town, they should stay in the home where hospitality was extended them and not be “transferring from house to house.” They should not be thus seeking a place where the householder could provide them with more comfort, entertainment, or material things.
The apostle Paul, who did much traveling and who received hospitality from many of his Christian brothers, nevertheless, did not make himself a financial burden on any of them. Much of the time he worked at a secular occupation, and he set forth the law: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” (2Th 3:7-12; 1Th 2:6) By reason of this, Paul had an answer to the charges of the so-called superfine apostles in Corinth, who accused Paul of taking advantage of the Christians in the congregation there. (2Co 11:5, 7-10) He could boast in the fact that he provided the good news to them absolutely without cost, not even taking the things he had the right to as an apostle and a minister of God.
Avoid Hypocritical Hospitality. A warning about accepting a hypocritical display of hospitality is given at Proverbs 23:6-8: “Do not feed yourself with the food of anyone of ungenerous eye [literally, “evil as to eye”], nor show yourself craving his tasty dishes. For as one that has calculated within his soul, so he is. ‘Eat and drink,’ he says to you, but his heart itself is not with you. Your morsel that you have eaten, you will vomit it out, and you will have wasted your pleasant words.” Not being the kind that gives something freeheartedly, but expecting something back for what he gives, such a person calculates against you, inviting you in a hearty manner, but with some ulterior motive. By partaking of his food, and particularly if you crave his tasty dishes so as to desire to enjoy them again, you place yourself to some extent under his power. You may find it hard to refuse some request of his, and you may possibly get involved in difficulty. Then you will feel sick at ever having eaten with him, and the pleasant words that you expressed, hoping that they would promote spirituality and upbuilding friendship, will certainly have been wasted.