Biblical Hospitality


Christmas provides many opportunities for turning hearts and minds to God.  One opportunity that is especially noteworthy during the holidays is the practice of hospitality.  Think about it:  when else are people more likely to open their homes for dinners, parties and other get-togethers?  When are people more likely to accept an invitation to enter your home?  Hospitality is an accepted part of our cultural landscape at Christmastime and it provides the followers of Jesus with a powerful – and natural – opportunity to bear witness to the lavish love of God.

Hospitality is more than merely letting people into your home and making them feel welcome.  When understood in its proper biblical context and practiced according to the principles Scripture outlines, it becomes a powerful evangelistic tool.

 In English, the term “hospitality” is used to refer to the practice of a host caring for his/her guests by providing for their needs.  In the modern sense, the nature of the relationship between guest and host is irrelevant.  They might be friends, neighbors, family, co-workers or complete strangers.  To be hospitable is simply to make anyone feel welcome in your home.

However, the biblical terms for hospitality are a bit more specific. The primary biblical term for hospitality is the Greek word philoxenos, apparently built up from philos[1] which means “friend” and xenos which refers to strangers.[2],[3]  While we cannot always assume that the root parts of a word give you relevant insight into the meaning of that composite word (e.g. butterfly), in this case they do:  philoxenos refers specifically to the way that we express friendship towards those we do not know.  Of course, “strangers” is a relative term, so we may also think of it as the way we express friendship towards those that we do not know well. This is a significant difference from the idea of the English notion of hospitality as the way we serve anyone who enters into our home, whether we know them well or not.  In the biblical context, the notion of hospitality was specifically focused on the way strangers were to be treated.

There are at least two reasons for this specific focus.  First, in the biblical world, the notion of caring for friends and family was pre-woven into the very fabric of their society. The idea that you needed to admonish people to care for their family and friends would have been difficult for the ancients to comprehend; this was simply what everyone expected in those days.  This idea of actively loving your family and friends is expressed in the Greek verb phileōPhiloxenos, however, extends this idea saying, in essence, that we are to treat strangers with the same kind of love with which we are expected to treat family and friends. In the New Testament, philoxenos occurs in Rom 12:13, 1Ti 3:2, Tit 1:8 and Heb 13:2[4] with this notion of extending friendship to strangers.  The term also occurs in 1Pe 4:9 where Peter says to “be hospitable to one another” which does not seem on the surface to involve strangers, but “one another” is Peter’s customary way of speaking of fellow believers, so the command here is likely to be hospitable to other believers whom you do not know.

Interestingly, there is no Hebrew term that parallels the Greek philoxenos and, consequently, terms for “hospitality” are not found in most English translations of the Old Testament. However, this does not mean that the concept is absent.  On the contrary, the New Testament expectations of caring for strangers as friends is likely rooted in Old Testament commandments to treat strangers[5] with justice and mercy:

  • You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exo 22:21)[6]
  • Nor shall you glean your vineyard…you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger.  I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:10)
  • The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself… (Lev 19:33)

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  There are dozens of places in the Old Testament where caring for strangers is mandated by God. So, while there is no Hebrew term for hospitality per se, the concept is clearly present in both testaments.

In short then, whereas the modern Western notion of hospitality is broadly concerned with caring for guests in our home regardless of our familiarity with them, the biblical notion of hospitality is specifically related to extending care and compassion beyond our circle of family and friends

It should be noted that the same language of strangers is applied to those who were once outside of God’s covenant:  so then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and are of God’s household (Eph 2:19). Notice also that those who were once strangers are now of the same household.  Since, as Paul has already pointed out in Ephesians, God’s love was extended towards us when we were still strangers (Eph 2:4-8), it seems that it was God’s act of “hospitality” – i.e. treating strangers as friends – that resulted in our salvation. As such, it seems quite likely that our hospitality is intended to be a means of witness and evangelism by which God draws people to Himself.  The call to be hospitable is really a call to pay forward the love with which God first loved us, even though we were at that time strangers to Him and to His ways.

How Then Shall We Live?

At least two practical applications flow from understanding hospitality in its biblical context:

 First, because biblical hospitality is caring for strangers as though they were friends, God’s requirement to be hospitable is not met simply by hosting the occasional dinner for friends.  It can only be met when we invite those we do not know well into our homes and care for them in the same way we would care for those we already know and love. Because “strangers” is a relative term, this might include co-workers, neighbors, or children’s friends (and their friends’ friends) or even people from church that we haven’t gotten to know well yet.  However, we must re-orient our thinking from the Martha Stewart version of hospitality (creating a welcoming environment for our family and friends) to the biblical one.  Making our family and friends feel welcome and loved is right and good, but it is not hospitality in the biblical sense of the word.

Second, because hospitality is essentially a way of paying forward the love God lavished upon us while we were still strangers to Him, we must think of hospitality as it was intended:  as an act of evangelism. When we see it in this light, the command to be hospitable is part of the larger command to be light shining in the darkness (Mat 5:14).

And what better time is there to shine for Jesus in this way than right now in the midst of a holiday season when people expect the doors of our homes to be open wider than at any other time?  Rather than seeing an invitation to come over for a meal or a small party as an unusual and suspicious gesture, at Christmastime people are far more likely to see it as a normal and expected part of the holiday season.

So throw a party for Jesus and invite some strangers over to share in the love!   





[1] Or possibly phileō, the verb which means to “love someone as a friend”.

[2] The only other Greek term traditionally translated with a word like “hospitality” is xenodocheō  (cf. 1Ti 5:10), a composite of xenos and docheō which appears to be a verb related to receiving someone into your home. I’m not aware of any instances, biblical or otherwise of docheō occurring as a stand-alone verb, but the noun dochē, which appears to be built upon the same root, occurs in Lk 5:29 and 14:13 where it clearly refers to a reception provided for guests.  The verb xenodocheō is therefore understood to refer to the practice of receiving strangers and providing for them.

[3] There is one anomalous use in Rom. 16:23 where Paul refers to Gaius as his xenos, by which he presumably means his “host” as most translations render it.

[4] Here it is the feminine form:  philoxenia.

[5] The Hebrew term for stranger is ger and is often translated sojourner or traveler.

[6] Interestingly, this commandment occurs in association with the command not to afflict widows and orphans which James identifies as the essence of true religion (Jam 1:27), strongly suggesting that the notion of care for strangers is of great significance to God.