“Be Hospitable to One Another”
PHOEBE, a first-century Christian, had a problem. She was journeying from Cenchreae, in Greece, to Rome, but she was unacquainted with fellow believers in that city. (Romans 16:1, 2) “The Roman world [of those days] was a bad and brutal world,” says Bible translator Edgar Goodspeed, “and inns were notoriously likely to be no places for a decent woman, particularly a Christian woman.” So where was Phoebe to lodge?
People traveled extensively in Bible times. Jesus Christ and his disciples did so to preach the good news throughout Judea and Galilee. Soon thereafter, Christian missionaries like Paul were taking the message to various parts of the Mediterranean basin, including Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. When first-century Christians traveled, whether inside or outside Jewish territory, where did they stay? In finding accommodations, what difficulties did they face? What can we learn from them about extending hospitality?
“Today I Must Stay in Your House”
Hospitality is defined as the “generous and cordial reception of guests,” and it has long been a characteristic of Jehovah’s true worshipers. For instance, Abraham, Lot, and Rebekah practiced it. (Genesis 18:1-8; 19:1-3; 24:17-20) Recounting his attitude toward strangers, the patriarch Job stated: “Outside no alien resident would spend the night; my doors I kept open to the path.”—Job 31:32.
For travelers to receive hospitable treatment from their fellow Israelites, it was often sufficient to sit down in the public square of a city and await an invitation. (Judges 19:15-21) Hosts usually washed their guests’ feet and offered the visitors food and drink, also providing fodder for their animals. (Genesis 18:4, 5; 19:2; 24:32, 33) Travelers who did not wish to be a burden on their hosts carried with them the needed provisions—bread and wine for themselves and straw and fodder for their asses. They required only shelter for the night.
While the Bible rarely specifies how Jesus found lodging during his preaching tours, he and his disciples had to sleep somewhere. (Luke 9:58) When visiting Jericho, Jesus simply told Zacchaeus: “Today I must stay in your house.” Zacchaeus received his guest “with rejoicing.” (Luke 19:5, 6) Jesus was often the guest of his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany. (Luke 10:38; John 11:1, 5, 18) And it seems that in Capernaum, Jesus stayed with Simon Peter.—Mark 1:21, 29-35.
Jesus’ ministerial instruction to his 12 apostles reveals much about what kind of reception they could expect in Israel. Jesus told them: “Do not procure gold or silver or copper for your girdle purses, or a food pouch for the trip, or two undergarments, or sandals or a staff; for the worker deserves his food. Into whatever city or village you enter, search out who in it is deserving, and stay there until you leave.” (Matthew 10:9-11) He knew that righthearted individuals would take his disciples in, providing them with food, shelter, and other necessities.
The time was coming, however, when evangelizers on the move would have to provide for themselves and cover their own expenses. In view of future hostility toward his followers and the expansion of the preaching work into territories outside Israel, Jesus said: “Let the one that has a purse take it up, likewise also a food pouch.” (Luke 22:36) Travel and lodging would be indispensable to the spreading of the good news.
“Follow the Course of Hospitality”
Relative peace and a great network of paved roads throughout the Roman Empire in the first century resulted in a highly mobile society.* An abundance of travelers generated a great demand for lodging. That demand was met by inns a day’s journey apart along the main highways. However, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting states: “What is known of such facilities in the literature presents a rather unhappy picture. The available literary and archaeological sources generally witness to dilapidated and unclean facilities, virtually non-existent furnishings, bed-bugs, poor quality food and drink, untrustworthy proprietors and staff, shady clientele, and generally loose morals.” Understandably, a morally upright traveler would avoid staying at such inns whenever possible.
Not surprisingly, then, the Scriptures repeatedly exhort Christians to extend hospitality to others. Paul urged Christians in Rome: “Share with the holy ones according to their needs. Follow the course of hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) He reminded the Jewish Christians: “Do not forget hospitality, for through it some, unknown to themselves, entertained angels.” (Hebrews 13:2) Peter exhorted his fellow worshipers to “be hospitable to one another without grumbling.”—1 Peter 4:9.
Situations did exist, however, in which extending hospitality would be inappropriate. Regarding “everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ,” the apostle John said: “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.” (2 John 9-11) Concerning unrepentant sinners, Paul wrote: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.”—1 Corinthians 5:11.
Impostors and others must have tried to exploit the good nature of true Christians. A second-century C.E. extra-Biblical statement of Christian faith known as The Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, recommends that an itinerant preacher be entertained for “one day, or if need be a second as well.” After that, when he is sent on his way, “let him accept nothing but bread . . . If he ask[s] for money, he is a false prophet.” The document continues: “If he wishes to settle among you and has a craft, let him work for his bread. But if he has no craft provide for him according to your understanding, so that no man shall live among you in idleness because he is a Christian. But if he will not do so, he is making traffic of Christ; beware of such.”
The apostle Paul was careful not to impose an expensive burden upon his hosts during his long stays in certain cities. He worked as a tentmaker to support himself. (Acts 18:1-3; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12) To help deserving travelers among them, early Christians apparently used letters of recommendation, such as Paul’s introduction of Phoebe. “I recommend to you Phoebe our sister,” wrote Paul, “that you may welcome her in the Lord . . . and that you may assist her in any matter where she may need you.”—Romans 16:1, 2.
Blessings From Being Hospitable
First-century Christian missionaries trusted in Jehovah to provide for all their needs. But could they expect to enjoy the hospitality of fellow believers? Lydia opened up her house to Paul and others. The apostle stayed with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth. A jailer in Philippi set a table before Paul and Silas. Paul was received hospitably by Jason in Thessalonica, by Philip in Caesarea, and by Mnason on the road from Caesarea to Jerusalem. En route to Rome, Paul was entertained by brothers in Puteoli. What spiritually rewarding occasions these must have been for the hosts who received him!—Acts 16:33, 34; 17:7; 18:1-3; 21:8, 16; 28:13, 14.
Scholar Frederick F. Bruce observes: “These friends and co-workers, hosts and hostesses, had no other motive in being so helpful than love of Paul and love of the Master whom he served. They knew that in serving the one they were serving the other.” This is an excellent motive for being hospitable.
The need to extend hospitality still exists. Thousands of traveling representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses receive hospitality from fellow believers. Some Kingdom proclaimers travel at their own expense to preach in places seldom reached with the good news. Great benefits result from opening our homes, however humble, to such ones. Warmhearted hospitality that may include no more than a simple meal offers excellent opportunities for “an interchange of encouragement” and for showing love for our brothers and for our God. (Romans 1:11, 12) Such occasions are particularly rewarding for the hosts, for “there is more happiness in giving than there is in receiving.”—Acts 20:35.
It is estimated that by the year 100 C.E., there were some 50,000 miles [80,000 km] of paved Roman roads.
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Christians “follow the course of hospitality”