Hospitality in the New Testament

man holding open bible

As important as hospitality was in the Old Testament, it was equally so in the New Testament. In the New Testament, the word hospitality comes from the Greek word “philoxenos”, and reflects two Greek words: philos (love – for a friend) and xenos (foreign or alien), and literally means: “love of strangers.”

The command in the Old Testament to treat the alien properly was based on the character of God the Father—Yahweh–and the Israelites’ love relationship with Him. In the New Testament, the command to treat a stranger properly was also based on the character of God, in this case, God the Son—Jesus Christ—and the Christian’s love relationship with Him. The principle is the same, but the authority behind the command shifted from God the Father in the Old Testament to God the Son in the NEw Testament.

The Jewish Shema

Let me explain the significance of that transition. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Jewish authorities repeatedly tried to trap Him in His words. Their attempts revolved around what the Israelites call the “Shema”. The Shema was considered the “greatest commandment” in the Law. The Jewish nation understood the Shema to come from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which said,

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Jesus the Son of God

The Israelites believed their God had no son. Yet Jesus repeatedly claimed He was God’s Son. As such, He was claiming, in His essence, to be God. So in John Chapter 15 Jesus was saying the Jews were to love and obey Him (John 15).

In Matthew 22:34-39, the Pharisees had gathered together, and an expert in the law came to “test” Jesus, asking Him what the “greatest” commandment in the Law was.

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

It was obvious from the way the question was asked, that the Pharisees were anticipating an answer from Jesus that would have contradicted the Shema. But He did not contradict it, and actually quoted it correctly from Deuteronomy 6:5. He went on to add the commonly accepted second greatest commandment by quoting Leviticus 19:18.

Whose Son Is the Messiah?

Then in Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus turned to the Pharisees and questioned them. He asked them whose son the Messiah was. They responded that the Messiah was the son of David. Finally, Jesus asked them how it was possible for the Messiah to be the son of a human being?

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Jesus knew that in Psalm 110:1 David was referring to Him prophetically.

The Lord says to my lord:

“Sit at my right hand
    until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”

Because the Messiah would be the human descendant of David, David could call Him his son. And, because the Messiah would be fully divine, David could call Him “Lord.” So prophetically, David was saying that the coming Messiah would be fully human and fully divine. Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees then became how is this possible?

In this counter-challenge to the Pharisees, Jesus was applying Psalm 110:1 to Himself. He was asserting that He was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He was both the fully human son of David, and the fully divine Son of God. Jesus was claiming to be God, and was asserting that He was the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures as the Messiah Who would sit on David’s throne.

Jesus and the Jewish Shema

Thus, in this exchange with the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus was saying that the Jewish Shema applied to Himself—as God. They were to love Him, Jesus, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love was to be directed vertically toward Him. Then out of that divine love relationship, their love was to flow horizontally toward their fellow man. In Luke’s account of this exchange (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus added the parable of the Good Samaritan, illustrating what this love for a “neighbor” was supposed to look like when it was actually put into practice.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites’ treatment of the stranger was to be based on the character of God the Father and their love relationship with Him. In the New Testament, the Christian’s treatment of the stranger is to be based on the character of God the Son (Jesus) and their love relationship with Him.

Hospitality and Judgment

In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus taught about His second coming. He talked about the signs of His return to earth. And He told of sitting on His throne in judgment of the people then living on the earth. In Matthew 25:31-43, He said,

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats….

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”

The criteria or basis for Jesus’ judgment will be whether or not we saw the needs of those around us and ministered to them. God came to earth, became a human being, modeled servanthood for us, and suffered and died a horrible death on the cross for our sins. Then He rose from the dead. He did all of this so we might be reconciled to God. In the passage I just quoted in Matthew, God set the criteria for divine judgment as ministering to the needs of others.

But does that mean salvation can be ‘earned’ by works of kindness to our neighbor, rather than simple faith in Jesus Christ alone? The answer to that question is emphatically ‘No, not at all!’

Faith Demonstrated By Works

In James 2:14 God (through James) asks Christians,

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

The answer follows in verses 15-17, through an illustration:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Jesus’ judgment of the people who did not minister to the needs of those around them in Matthew 25 was, in actuality, a judgment of their lack of faith. Jesus’ judgment was pronounced on them because their faith was demonstrated to be DEAD. When we practice hospitality and minister to the needs of those around us, we are actually ministering to Christ Himself. The action of ministering to the needs of others demonstrates a faith that is alive!

Dr. John Wagner, CHC, USN (Ret.)

Dr. John Wagner, CHC, USN (Ret.)

Retired Navy chaplain. Pastor of the Lighthouse Military Ministry. Author of "You Invited Me In...The Story of a Pentecostal Hospitality House Military Ministry".