In the New Testament, this robust understanding of hospitality remains important to the identity of God’s people. Just as the Israelites were strangers who welcomed strangers, Christ himself was an outsider who welcomed outsiders. As a child, Jesus and his parents became refugees, fleeing for their lives from Bethlehem to Egypt. Doubtless their survival was dependent upon the kindness of many strangers. Later, as an adult, Jesus often appeared to people in the towns and villages of Palestine as a homeless stranger. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he said, describing his own life (matthew 8:20).
Though a sojourner himself, Christ welcomed others. He was willing to receive hospitality and willing to extend it, even to those who were widely despised or avoided: tax collectors, Samaritans,
and women. Ultimately, even Jesus’s death was a gesture of hospitality. He gave his life so that his followers could be welcomed into God’s kingdom. His death linked hospitality, grace, and sacrifice, centering these virtues as integral to our faith. Paul urges Christians to follow Christ’s example: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (romans 15:7). The foundation for our hospitality is the hospitality Christ has shown us.
Hospitality is not optional for Christ-followers. One of the Greek words used for hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia, which comes from phileo, a word that describes familial love, and xenos, the word for stranger. Over and over again, the writers of the New Testament call for Christians to demonstrate this stranger-love. “Seek to show hospitality,” Paul writes, and the author of 1 Peter agrees: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (romans 12:13; 1 peter 4:9). The author of Hebrews reminds readers of Abraham’s experience: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (hebrews 13:2).
What did this kind of welcome look like? In the early church, hospitality took many forms. Historical documents show that Christians in the first five centuries after Christ became known for their willingness to welcome anyone and to provide practical care for the poor, the stranger, and the sick. Most churches met in households, so Christians were accustomed to opening their homes to each other for worship and shared meals. As Paul and other missionaries traveled, spreading the gospel, they relied upon the hospitality of locals in each place.
Jesus’s last recorded prayer for his disciples was a prayer for unity (john 17), and his followers—members of different social groups and ethnicities themselves—would have understood that to achieve unity would require learning to welcome those who were different. Of course, the process was not always smooth.