Hebrews concludes with a series of exhortations. The first is to love one another, philadelphia (Hebrews 13:1) and is followed by a directive to show hospitality, philoxenia (Hebrews 13:2).
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2 NASB)The text moves from loving inside of the community to demonstrating love outside its borders. The word rendered “hospitality” (philoxenia) literally means a love of strangers. The word is used only here (Hebrews 13:2) and in Romans 12:13 in the New Testament. Kathleen Norris (b. 1947) writes, “True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’ (Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 197).”
Hospitality was a primary virtue in the ancient world. Caring for strangers was a solemn responsibility in the Old Testament (Genesis 18:1-8, 19:1-3; Judges 19:19-21; Job 31:32) and practiced by the New Testament church (Acts 10:23, 21:16, 28:7). Hebrews’ mandate fits with Jesus’ teaching that hospitality extends to those who cannot possibly repay it (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 14:1-14).
The ancients placed special emphasis on providing lodging as inns were typically places of ill repute and travelers naturally preferred accommodation in private residences. Peter T. O’Brien (b. 1935) explains, “Among Jews and Gentiles alike, hospitality to strangers was highly regarded, and even considered a religious obligation. It usually involved lodging as well as food and drink (O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 506).”
How would you define hospitality? Who is the most hospitable person you know? Where would you rank hospitality among the virtues?
Hebrews adds an incentive to follow this mandate with a tantalizing potentiality - in demonstrating hospitality, one might be entertaining an angel in disguise (Hebrews 13:2)! Hebrews devotes a section to the cosmic pecking order and includes that humans rank slightly lower than their angelic counterparts (Hebrews 2:5-9). In claiming that a stranger may in actuality be an angel, the author is in effect advising to treat all strangers as if they were God’s direct emissaries because they might well be. The enticement serves the same function as the fable of the king who anonymously inserted his child into the community so that each child would be treated as though they were the prince. People tend to treat someone differently whom they feel is of a superior ilk.
There was precedent for unknowingly entertaining angels. While Gideon (Judges 6:11-21), Manoah (Judges 13:3-20) and Tobit (Tobit 3:17, 5:4-16) all encountered unrecognizable angels, the most notable case is that of Abraham (Genesis 18:2-15). George H. Guthrie (b. 1959) reminds, “The supreme paradigm for hospitality in early Jewish literature was the hospitality of Abraham, shown to his heavenly visitors (Genesis 18:2-15), which is probably alluded to in Hebrews 13:2 (Guthrie, NIV Application Commentary: Hebrews, 435-6).”
Despite the precedence, interacting with disguised angels is a rarity, even in the Bible. With this in mind, F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) comments that the author “is not necessarily encouraging his readers to expect that those whom they entertain will turn out to be supernatural beings traveling incognito; he is assuring them that some of their visitors will prove to be true messengers of God to them, bringing a greater blessing than they receive (Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 371).”
What is the purpose of disguised angelic visits? How common do you feel this experience is? When have you been unfamiliar with someone you have entertained? Do you feel you have ever interacted with an angel? If you did, how would you know?
“Insight is better than eyesight when it comes to seeing an angel.” - Eileen Elias Freeman (b. 1947), The Angels’ Little Instruction Book