The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Pet 4:7-9).
“Today’s host is tomorrow’s guest,” says a Bedouin proverb, reflecting the importance they place on showing hospitality to strangers. In desert cultures, where people must travel across many miles of hostile and unpredictable terrain, life would be impossible without help from people you meet along the way. There’s no telling when you’ll be the stranger in need of help. “Do unto others” resulted in a culture of reciprocal hospitality. As Clinton Bailey summarizes:
“One side of a Bedouin tent is always wide open, to signify that all guests are welcome. Screening a guest by asking him about his tribal affiliation is frowned upon as uncouth. Bedouin law even stipulates that a guest has the right to remain for three and a third days.”[i]
Hospitality is central to the Bedouin way of life and little has changed in thousands of years. You see the same hospitality in Genesis 18, when Abraham received three travelers into his tent: two angels and the Lord. And then, in Genesis 19, Lot was willing to protect two of the travelers at the cost of his own family.
Clearly, the ancient world—the Biblical world—had a strong social expectation for showing hospitality to strangers.
That concern continued among the early Christians. In fact, hospitality became central to the Christian way of life.
Hospitality made it possible for Christians to gather together. Instead of meeting in synagogues or “churches,” early Christians met in homes (Acts 2:46). That’s where they ate together, worshiped, and ministered to one another. To understand that context, I highly recommend Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. As he explains:
“On one point nearly all NT scholars presently agree: early Christians met almost exclusively in the homes of individual members of the congregation. For nearly three hundred years—until the fourth century, when Constantine began building the first basilicas throughout the Roman Empire—Christians gathered in private houses built initially for domestic use, not in church buildings originally constructed for the sole purpose of public worship.”[ii]
Naturally, you can’t have a house church without someone showing hospitality.
Showing hospitality was also central to evangelism and missions. Preachers and missionaries were “sent out ones” who traveled from city to city (cf. Matt 10:5-15; 3 John 5-8). Although traveling was relatively safe in Roman times, there were still plenty of dangers, especially in public inns, and hospitality remained important. Jesus sent out the disciples and told them to stay in the first house that welcomed them. Paul followed the same practice. In Acts 17:1-9, we see an example of how Paul’s missionary journeys depended on being given hospitality, such as when he was welcomed into Jason’s home. As John Elliott claimed, “Hospitality was…a conditio sine qua non of the mission and expansion of the early church.”[iii]
Given the house-centered ministry of the early church, it’s no wonder that Peter urged believers to offer hospitality to one another. Hospitality is a concrete example of loving your neighbor. And like any act of sacrificial love, it isn’t easy. Hospitality will cost you. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to share. And it can be inconvenient. Hosting someone for a night or three may be relatively easy enough, but doing it for weeks on end can become a source of tension within your household.No doubt, Peter knew those concerns and how people could offer hospitality with the wrong motives, so he clarified that you should show it without grumbling. There’s a natural temptation to be resentful. But instead of considering that service to be a burden, the believer should expect God’s provision and His blessing (cf. 2 Cor 9:6-8; Heb 13:2).
Although we don’t live in a desert culture where sheltering strangers is considered a moral expectation, and even though Christians have mostly abandoned the New Testament model of meeting in homes for the Constantinian model of meeting in sacred spaces, hospitality should be a central part of your everyday practice today. We still recognize the need for face-to-face fellowship, as seen in the growth of small groups, cell groups, and home fellowships. The home is again becoming a center of ministry (all the more true in the global south). Even if you don’t host a church meeting in your home, you can still welcome other Christians into your home.
To give only one example, I once visited a conservative Mennonite church south of Dallas. Although I stood out from the black suits and old-timey dresses, they immediately invited me to lunch at one of their homes after the service. It was their practice for one family in the church to be in charge of providing lunch for visitors every week. That was an easy way of using hospitality to make visitors feel welcomed and encouraged, and to build fellowship with other members of the church.
Normal Christian church life involves hospitality, so why not invite someone from church for tea, lunch, or dinner? Look for the lonely person. The single mom or dad. The widow or widower. The newcomer. Or the person you don’t know well but have always thought you should reach out to. Abraham ended up hosting the Lord. Who will end up in your home?
[i] Clinton Bailey, Abraham and Lot’s Bedouin-Style Hospitality. See https://www.thetorah.com/article/abraham-and-lots-bedouin-style-hospitality
[ii] Gehring, House Church and Mission, 1.
[iii] Elliott, A Home for the Homeless, 146.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.