The population of Jerusalem and its environs swelled by many thousands during the feast of Pentecost. It had been fifty days since Passover and the time had come for devout Jews to return to the city to offer their thanks for the harvest. Specially baked loaves of bread, representing the fruit of the crops, were waved before the Lord at the temple. As they did this, ancient Jews were told to repeat these words, “And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.’ (Deut 26:3ff)” The focus on the Exodus and the divinely provided harvest was very fitting considering what the Lord was about to do.
As the massive crowds, comprised of men and women from “every nation under heaven,” bustled about, they heard a commotion. One hundred and twenty individuals were loudly praising God for his mighty works. As the diverse crowds approached, straining to hear what language the men and women were speaking, it occurred to them that this gathering of uneducated Galileans was speaking a host of languages, which the speakers had never learned. The astonished crowd marveled, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” The Lord had gotten their attention.
With the rapt attention of the curious crowd, Peter began to preach. He preached about the life, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. He preached that the Jews had made a dire mistake in rejecting Jesus, and were now guilty of crucifying the one whom the Father had made both Lord and Christ.
Three thousand of Peter’s listeners, convicted by the Holy Spirit, repented of their sin, and were baptized in the name of Jesus. On this Pentecost, the Lord brought forth his own harvest. Three-thousand diverse Jews experienced a personal “second Exodus,” being delivered from the slavery of their sin, and ushered into genuine spiritual rest – through Jesus.
For the average Jewish household, observance of the three pilgrim festivals (Pentecost, Passover, and The Feast of Booths), was a welcomed obligation. The curious sight of the cosmopolitan crowd, the sounds of worshipful singing, the recitation of familiar scripture, and the smell of freshly baked bread, mixed to form powerfully sweet memories in the minds of children, and recalled the same in the minds of their parents. In this way, the mandatory festivals became joyfully anticipated family affairs.
Jerusalem, which had a relatively modest population during most of the year, could see her numbers swell tenfold during the pilgrim festivals. You can imagine how a city, built for 100,000, could feel the strain of a million or more visitors descending upon it all at once. Each would need lodging and provision. Inns were a place of last resort since their conditions were often filthy, and their reputations depraved. How then were the throngs of visiting worshippers appropriately accommodated during these mass events? In two ways – through open hearts, and through open homes. Or we could say, through hospitality.
Hospitality (literally, “love of strangers”) was a virtue woven into Jewish identity from the moment Israel was conceived as a nation. As early as Exodus 22, and then repeated in Leviticus, the Lord commanded his people:
Leviticus 19:33-34 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
There is no event in Old Testament history which has had a greater impact upon Jewish identity than the Exodus. For this reason, the Lord would have his people continually look back to this seminal event in order to be reminded about who they are, who He is, what He had done for them, and how these realities should forever shape their identity. Included in these lessons from the Exodus, is this focus upon the need for hospitality.
The Jews knew what it was to be strangers. They knew what it was to live among a strange culture, in a strange land, hearing strange languages and receiving strange looks. They knew what it was to be wholly dependent upon the help of merciful strangers, and susceptible to the abuse of the hostile. Whether it be to return some of the compassion they were shown when they settled in the Egyptian land, or to contradict the eventual hostility they would suffer from the same, the Jews were told to reflect upon their time as strangers in Egypt and to use that experience to drive them to love the sojourner. As they contemplated their deliverance from Egypt, they would also be reminded that the Lord himself brought them out because he has a compassion for the sojourner. He would remind them in Deuteronomy:
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
This love for strangers, or hospitality, became a chief virtue among the Jews, so that Job would defend himself by saying, “…the sojourner has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler (Job 31:32).” And Jesus could describe a righteous man in this way, “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… (Matt 25:35).”
Jerusalem and its surrounding areas could confidently welcome hundreds of thousands of pilgrims multiple times a year, because the Jewish people were a people given to hospitality. Remembering their collective history as sojourners, the Lord’s mercy toward them, and his subsequent commands to love strangers, they swung open their doors and happily welcomed travelers into their lives. The arrival of the multitudes was not an imposition, an inconvenience, or an unwelcomed invasion, but instead an opportunity to show hospitality befitting a people once strangers, but now welcomed into the family of God.
On the day of Pentecost, homes were filled with faithful travelers. Hosts would welcome guests, not just to occupy a spare room, but to participate in a shared life. A roof, a bed, provision, protection, and kind fellowship became tangible expressions of love. For a time, guests became friends, and friends were treated like family.
As the festivities of this particular Pentecost in AD 33 came to a close, it became apparent that something was different from prior feasts. While the flood of visitors began to recede as usual, there was a sizeable remnant which lingered behind. Thousands who normally would have returned home, stayed in the city. These were the Diaspora Jews who were part of the thousands who received Jesus as their messiah, in response to Peter’s preaching. They had come to the city to observe Pentecost, but then found their lives unexpectedly upended. What should have been a stay of just few days was now extended indefinitely. These new believers joined the 120 disciples and the other local Jews who had received Jesus, and they all continued together as one new community.
Perhaps in some situations, hosts and guests alike came to receive Jesus as their saviour and Lord, and continued together with the other disciples. In other situations, however, some of these Jesus followers would have quickly worn out the welcome of their Jewish hosts, and would have to seek other accommodations in Jerusalem. As it turns out, this was not as big a problem as one might think. Why? Because these newly Spirit-filled disciples embodied the Lord’s prized virtue of hospitality. Luke describes the scene for us:
Acts 2:42-47 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The early church stands as the model of Spirit-driven hospitality. These men and women opened their hearts and their homes to one another. They worshiped together, prayed together, fellowshipped together, ate together, and otherwise shared life together. They even sold possessions in order to provide for one another. They behaved more like one extended family than a collection of diverse strangers.
This willingness to open one’s heart and home to others would become even more essential when persecution descended upon the church. When the believers in Jerusalem were finally scattered due to the persecution led by Saul, they were driven as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 11:19). These fleeing believers would become dependent upon the network of Jesus followers who were peppered throughout the region. From town to town, they would seek out believers, knowing that their fellow Christians, though strangers, would open their homes and welcome them in as family. It is this same hospitality which travelling preachers, missionaries, and even the apostles depended upon as they carried the gospel, and sometimes fled from persecution. We see a glimpse of this in Paul’s letter to Timothy as he commended the widow who “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).”
It is in these ways that loving hospitality has been essential in facilitating the spread, and vitality of Christianity from the first century to this very day. Like Israel before it, hospitality became a virtue woven into the fabric of the church, and remains today as an expected characteristic of every healthy local church
Hospitality Put to The Test
As impressive as the early church’s hospitality was, we must concede that these believers had a distinct advantage over the church to come. Namely, all these believers were Jews. A shared culture, shared ethnicity, and common religious background all worked together to make showing hospitality a bit easier. However, all of this would soon be challenged as God started adding Gentiles to the church.
The animosity between Jews and Gentiles was infamous. Jews would prefer not to set foot on Gentile land, let alone inside a Gentile home. There was no love lost from the Gentile toward the Jew either. So, when the Lord opened salvation up to the Gentiles some seven years after the birth of the church, the loving hospitality which had come to define the church would be put to the test. The church would be challenged to prove that the hospitality they exercised was genuinely a “love of strangers.”
Thankfully, once it became abundantly clear that the Lord had opened salvation to the Gentiles, the church quickly proved the sincerity of its spirit of hospitality. The Lord made short work of any lingering hostility, and made it clear that all believers, whether Jew or Gentile were to be welcomed into the family of God. As Paul reminded the Gentile church in Ephesus:
Ephesians 2:11-22 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The Gentiles didn’t have the same collective history as the Jews. It would not do much good to point them back to the Exodus in order to encourage them to treat strangers as family, as the Lord did repeatedly for Israel. Instead, the Gentiles would have to remember how they were transformed from strangers, to members of the family of believers, through a much greater Exodus. They had been delivered from the slavery of sin, by Jesus, so that they who were once “strangers and aliens” became “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Through salvation, Gentiles were made one with the Jews, and together they were part of God’s one spiritual family.
As the diversity of the church exploded, the early Christians would become an awesome example of what it meant to pull down walls of prejudice. Despite their prior hostilities, and in defiance of cultural norms, they embraced one another as family. As the Jews remembered that the Lord loved them while they were strangers in Egypt, and the Gentiles remembered that the Lord loved them while they were strangers to the covenants, they both extended loving hospitality toward one another, so that none were strangers any longer. In this way, the church destroyed prejudice through hospitality.
Elders, and the churches they lead, are called to love strangers. Fellowship and dinner parties with people of the same social class, ethnicity, or demographic won’t cut it, because that’s not biblical hospitality. Real hospitality extends love to the stranger, makes them a friend, and treats them like family.
Although it may be obvious at this point, biblical hospitality is much different than what we might consider hospitality in our day. Biblical hospitality went far beyond hosting someone for a fine meal and social entertainment. Biblical hospitality looked more like inviting others into one’s home, to share resources, receive relief, enjoy relationship, and to be restocked for the next leg of their journey. It was showing love, by sharing life.
An Elder Must Be Hospitable
It should come as no surprise then that a man who is qualified to oversee a local church is a man given to hospitality. Paul says in his letters to Timothy and Titus:
Titus 1:7-8 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
1 Timothy 3:2-3 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
Elders, though called to focus on teaching the word, are not ivory-tower academics, cut off from their people and friends of their books more than their congregants. Instead, elders are men who love people. They are shepherds who labour among the sheep. They are men who know the names, faces, personalities, joys and struggles of their people. They know these things because they have opened their hearts to real relationships, and have opened their homes to facilitate the same. This is what it means for an elder to be a man given to hospitality.
An Open Home and an Open Heart
A man’s home is his castle? When you think of a castle, you envision a perimeter of curtain walls, a protective moat, and an unwelcoming drawbridge. Walls are up, to keep people out. The inhospitable man sees his home in just this way. If he is an elder (God forbid), he sees a sharp delineation between his ministry world, and his personal world. He ascends to the pulpit, delivers his message, and then returns to his study, being sure never to take his work home with him! His home is his castle and strangers are unwelcomed invaders.
The qualified elder on the other hand, sees no such sharp division. To him, his home is a tool which the Lord has given him for the purpose of ministering to others. He recognizes that the kingdom is advanced, in part, through fellowship, the breaking of bread and through prayers, and that his home, along with the homes of every other believer, are the perfect arenas for these things. In this way, he continues the pattern established by the Spirit-filled believers at Pentecost, and uses hospitality to fulfill the great commission.
Discipling at Home
One of the reasons that an elder must have an exemplary homelife, is that the Lord expects his home to be used for discipleship. Whereas a sermon is a one-way conversation from the elder to the congregation, fellowship around a dining room table, facilitates real relationships and personal connection. It’s often informal times like these, when a pastor is willing to open his home to fellowship, that strides are made in personal discipleship. The opportunity for church members to share personal struggles, ask pressing questions, hear the pastor’s heart, and witness his exemplary homelife, becomes a powerful combination which both unites the pastor to his people, and encourages their spiritual growth.
A church ought to be able to witness a pastor’s relationship with his wife and children, not only when they are on their best behaviour at church, but as they navigate the day-to-day at home. The hospitable elder will welcome such scrutiny because he views his home as a model for others to imitate. He understands that his people need example just as much as they need instruction. In this way, hospitality becomes as much a matter of discipleship as his preaching.
Welcoming as Family
In addition to opening up his home as an arena for discipleship, the faithful elder will also use his home to help support the familial culture of the church. Consider the family metaphors which the Bible uses to describe the church. Believers are members of a household of adopted children who share a heavenly Father and view one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. New believers are called children, while mature believers are mothers and fathers in the faith. The church is routinely compared to a family, and it is expected to behave as such.
The hospitable elder does not remain at arms-length from his people, but instead lives among them as family. He views older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers and younger women as sisters (1 Tim 5:1-2; Matt 23:8). He understands that God has designed the church to be a spiritual household and so endeavours to maintain a familial culture within the community of the church by leading the way through loving hospitality.
This type of family-building hospitality is essential to the church because adopting the Christian faith often leads individuals to experience rejection, ostracization or even persecution from their physical families. Jesus indicated that following him meant a willingness to endure the possibility of such rifts (Mark 10:35-36; Luke 14:26). With these warnings however, Jesus also gave tremendous promises. Mark records:
Mark 10:29-30 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
Jesus promised that although one might pay a price for following him, following him also results in incredible gain. Any who has seen the loss of family due to their faith in Jesus can be assured that with their faith comes brothers, sisters, mothers, and children aplenty. How can this be? Jesus fulfills this promise through the community of the church. The childless receives children; the orphan receives mothers and fathers; the estranged sibling receives countless brothers and sisters; and the stranger receives a home. This is all accomplished when the church, following God’s design, opens its arms in loving hospitality.
Elders are to lead the way in modelling for the church what it means to open one’s heart and home to others. Others, no matter their background, ethnicity, personality, or status are to be welcomed with open arms into his home, and treated like family. When the entire church operates with this kind of hospitality, the spiritual bond of believers becomes even stronger than the bond between physical family. In this way, the obedient church is used by Jesus to fulfill his promise to give every believer a new family. On the other hand, if an elder fails to model hospitality, or the culture of the church is not shaped by it, Jesus’ promise is left unfulfilled in this life.
The Cost of Hospitality
Hospitality can be hard, because hospitality costs. Unlike the superficial church whose talk of love and brotherhood are merely cheap platitudes spoken on Sundays, the healthy church is made up of men and women who continually pay the price of love by opening their lives up to one another. They are willing to sacrifice in order to show loving hospitality to their fellow believers, with their elders leading the way. Consider some of the ways in which hospitality is costly, and ask yourself if you are willing to pay such a price.
First, hospitality costs authenticity. That is, when we decide to break free from a “Sunday-only” approach to church and relationships and dare to welcome people into our lives, we are welcoming them to see us for who we truly are. This type of hospitality goes far beyond our traditional ideas of a sort of best-foot-forward, special-occasion type of hospitality. That type of formality, though certainly appropriate at times, is generally reserved for guests, not family. Biblical hospitality would see us invite others into our lives so that they can get a glimpse of how our faith has transformed how we respond in the normal ebb and flow of life. It is an invitation to see us in our roles as parent, spouse, citizen, church member, and elder. It is an invitation for others to get to know us as we truly are, so that they could truly “consider the outcome of [our] way of life, and imitate [our] faith. (Heb 13:7)”
Next, hospitality costs comfort. Biblical hospitality features the building of real relationships, with a diversity of people. Such relationships require vulnerability and openness. These things are often out of the comfort zone of many men, but necessary for the elder who wishes to disciple others. The hospitable elder does not hide safely behind his title, or office, as if he is above developing relationships with church members, or unbelievers. Instead, he is accessible, affable, and real. He loves people, and has learned how to minister to them in ways which are especially meaningful to them.
Because hospitality specifically addresses loving strangers, it requires us to come out of our comfort zones in another way. It can be easy to show hospitality to others with whom we share the same cultural expectations and traditions. It’s an entirely different thing to try to love as family those with whom we have little in common. However, the church is a body of believers that the Lord has drawn from all sorts of ethnic, social, and cultural backgrounds. Christian hospitality means learning to love, in meaningful ways, those who are very different from ourselves. The hospitable elder will show no partiality and will equally love people “from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 5:9)”
Lastly, hospitality costs resources. Real love sacrifices. This might include sacrificing time, money, or any number of other resources. Paul encouraged us to, “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (Rom 12:13).” This was the testimony of the early church who, “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:45)” And, according to John, is a definition of love. He says, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)”
Hospitality is a love for people which is willing to open up one’s home, one’s heart, and one’s resources to others. It’s because hospitality costs, that some might refuse to show it, or do so grudgingly. This is why Peter reminds us to, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9),” and the writer of Hebrews exhorts, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Hospitality is for All
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome that they should “seek to show hospitality,” he used a word which meant to pursue (Rom 12:13). Hospitality is not passive. Instead, it actively pursues others, looking for opportunities to welcome them as family. Significantly, Paul’s instructions regarding hospitality were not given exclusively to elders, but to the entire church (see also, 1 Pet 4:9; Heb 13:2). This type of watchful, proactive hospitality is not only a characteristic of every qualified elder, but a mark of every healthy church.
Practically speaking, hospitable believers will use the Sunday morning gathering as an opportunity to not only meet new people, but to arrange real-world connections from which they can begin to develop redemptive relationships. They, with their elders, will look across the faces of strangers and acquaintances and actively pursue opportunities to make them family, through hospitality.
The qualified elder is not a man who lives apart from his people. He is not an ivory-tower academic, or a spiritual hermit. He does not shield his personal life, from ministry life as if they are two worlds which are never to collide. Instead, he is a man given to hospitality.
Preaching the gospel, and teaching others to observe all that Christ commanded is not a job for him, but a lifestyle. Out of a love for people and care for their spiritual development, he opens up his life. He does not view his home, his time, and his money and stuff, selfishly, but as resources to be used in fulfillment of the great commission.
Further, a qualified elder understands that the Lord has called him to live an exemplary life so that the people have a living, breathing example of how the faith is to be lived out practically. He understands that in order for his example to have an impact, he must engage in meaningful relationships which require openness and vulnerability.
His hospitality is a genuine “love for strangers.” That is, he is impartial and free from prejudices. He ministers to others across the cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic strata, regardless of societal expectations or pressures. He knows that the Lord is forming his church from men and women from every tribe and nation, and that he has a responsibility to show hospitality to them all.
Lastly, the qualified elder, in obedience to the Lord’s command, actively pursues hospitality, despite its cost. He is always on the lookout for opportunities to have a meaningful impact in the lives of others, by giving them access to his own.
The church, in obedience to the Lord’s design, follows his example and continually practices hospitality toward one another, and toward the stranger. Members of the church, new believers, curious visitors, and travelling missionaries, should all benefit from the church’s hospitality. It’s in this way that the familial culture of the church is built and maintained, and that the future growth of the church, even in the face of increasing hostility, will be sustained.
Are you given to hospitality? If you aspire to be an elder, you must be.