“Have I ever talked to an angel without knowing it? Or, Maybe that lady who caught my baby buggy, keeping my child from rolling into the street, was—well, you know.”
When wrestling with Hebrews 13:2 (“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”), it is easy to wonder, Have I ever talked to an angel without knowing it? Or, Maybe that lady who caught my baby buggy, keeping my child from rolling into the street, was—well, you know.
While the passage does refer to angels, the author wasn’t really interested in believers logging close encounters with heavenly messengers, as a closer look at the context reveals.
Culture of Hospitality
In both Jewish and broader Greco-Roman culture, hospitality was an important pattern for virtuous people. Staying at an inn was both costly and dangerous, since inns were known as hangouts for prostitutes and thieves. So people tended to depend on the kindness of normal folks when they traveled or found themselves in great need in a strange place.
For instance, a Roman citizen named Junia Theodora, who lived in Corinth around the time Hebrews was written (c. AD 64), was said to be “kind to all travelers, private individuals as well as ambassadors.” In the Jewish work Testament of Job, written about a century before, the hero writes: “I established in my house 30 tables spread at all hours, for strangers only.” When a stranger arrived asking for alms, Job had one requirement: the guest first had to sit down and eat.
Given this cultural backdrop, it isn’t surprising that showing hospitality was an important expression of Christian love in New Testament times (James 4:13; 1 Pet. 4:9; 1 Tim. 3:2), especially when it came to those traveling for the sake of ministry (Matt. 10:11; Acts 16:15; Phil. 22; Titus 3:13).
Literary Context Is Vital
Grasping the literary context of Hebrews 13 is vital. At the end of chapter 12, the author wraps up his final warning: “Let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire” (Heb. 12:28–29 NET). Then, at the outset of chapter 13, he offers a series of practical exhortations for how to embody devotion in Christian community (Heb. 13:1–6).
Most of the exhortations listed—standing with those facing persecution, honoring marriage, upholding sexual purity, being free from the love of money—were common general instructions on how to live well for the Lord. Such sets of general instructions on Christian living are found throughout the New Testament.
The first two instructions in chapter 13 are directly related to one another, sharing similar language:
- Brotherly love (philadelphia) must continue.
- Do not neglect hospitality (philoxenias), because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13:1–2 NET).
Notice the two key words begin with “phil.” New Testament writers used the term transliterated philadelphia—“brotherly love”—to speak of the special affection binding brothers and sisters in Christ. (The Greek word philos refers to a friend or to having a special interest in someone, and adelphia is related to the words for brother and sister.)
Philoxenias, on the other hand, refers to friendship or special attention shown by hospitality (the Greek word xenos meant “stranger,” and the word xenia normally referred to hospitality). Thus hospitality was one way of expressing brotherly love (and others are mentioned in the verses that follow). In these two verses, then, the author exhorts his hearers to be characterized by love of fellow believers and to lead lives of hospitality—probably both with reference to fellow believers in the church (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9) and to “strangers,” especially believers, who are traveling. Hospitality is the clear focus of Hebrews 13:2.