I (Dustin) recently sat with a group of church leaders to discuss what’s working and not working in the local church in terms of mission and reaching local communities. As I talked about biblical hospitality and the vital role it plays in mission, one pastor looked at me and said, “I just don’t think it works. I’m not sure how much it really matters.” To which another leader added, “Is hospitality really that big of a deal?”
I was stunned. And in case you’re thinking the same thing: for the record, yes, it works, and yes, it is a big deal.
Clearly the New Testament commands believers to practice hospitality:
- Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Rom. 12:13)
- Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Heb. 13:2)
- Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:9)
These are obviously important (as commands tend to be) and we will discuss them later, but we’d also like to zoom out and show that hospitality is a big deal to God throughout the Bible. It may seem strange to think of it this way, but the entire Bible is a story about God’s hospitality.
In the first chapters of Genesis we see God’s hospitality on display in full, creative force. He creates the heavens and the earth, and by doing so fashions the perfect home for Adam and Eve. He provides everything they need to thrive in created joy.
Pick up the story in Genesis 1:28–30 and pay attention to the repetition:
God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (emphasis added)
The word every or everything appears repeatedly in these verses. Genesis 1 reads like the most gracious host in the world is welcoming you into His castle, and He says, “Look! It’s all yours. Everything! I’ve made it all meticulously for you.” It’s like a parent who beams with delight as the children open gifts on Christmas morning.
Then in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve betrayed God by willfully rebelling against His authority, and in so doing, they neglected the gracious hospitality He offered. Yet God responded with grace by seeking them out. They did not die on the day they sinned, as God’s earlier command seemed to imply (Gen. 2:16–17). Instead God sewed clothes for them to cover their nakedness and shame, and He foreshadowed how He not only would provide for them through working the ground, but promised a Redeemer to come who would crush the enemy who seduced them into sin (Gen. 3:15).1
In this story, the biblical writer introduced a central tension that plays throughout all of Scripture: how is God going to continue to be hospitable to humanity if He is also holy and cannot dwell with evil? Even though Adam and Eve are put outside the garden of Eden because of their heinous challenge to their Creator and His holiness, God initiated a way that He could continue to be hospitable to His now-fallen creation.
In Genesis 12, God told Abraham (then called Abram) that God was going to form a special people from his descendants, a people who would be God’s and put Him on display throughout the earth: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (v. 2). Then He continued: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (v. 3). This pronouncement shows that God’s purpose for picking Abraham’s family to represent Him was so that He could use them to be hospitable to every other nation.
This choice of a people is ironic in many ways, because this “great nation,” Israel, was known to be the smallest and most alienated of all nations—the runt of the litter, if you will. Yet God lavished His mercy and love on them for a purpose that extended far beyond them.
The entire Old Testament is the story of God’s hospitality to a special people, the Israelites. He invited them into relationship with Him and taught them what community with the God of creation looks like. Even though they continually sinned and turned to false gods, just as Adam and Eve had, time and time again God pursued them, putting out the welcome mat when they finally decided to return to Him.
This story culminates in the ultimate act of hospitality: God sent His Son through the lineage of Israel to make a way once and for all for repentant men, women, and children to be reconnected to God. In Christ, God satisfied His own demand for holiness; He substituted His holiness for our wickedness and His death for ours, so that He could invite us back into relationship with Him and continue to care for us (Rom. 5:6–11).
Jesus left the comfort of His home in heaven to live a hard-working carpenter’s life, become a traveling, homeless evangelist, and then be crucified by the very people He had come to save. And as the Son of God rose to life on the third day after His crucifixion, the door of His tomb rolled open a way for men, women, and children to finally be in right relationship with the Father whom our first parents declared independence from in the garden. God did this so that ultimately we can live with Him forever in harmony in His eternal home.
The apostle John received a vision of this coming, heavenly home:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:1–4)
The Bible begins with God making a home for humanity to dwell with Him in a garden and the Bible ends with God making a home for believers to dwell with Him in a city. These beautiful bookends to Scripture mean that not only did God do what He set out to do in the beginning, but somehow through all the mess of humanity, He actually made a home to share with us that is much bigger and better than the first one.
The story of creation ends with a vibrant city, coming down from the clouds in great spectacle, resting on the new heavens and new earth that God remakes out of the debris of the first one. God makes a home for us to dwell with Him, and we will be His people and He will be our God (Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27; Rev. 21:3). God finished what He started in the garden, and this last grand act of hospitality is made possible only by His continual hospitality. His grace is made evident through His hospitality toward sinners like us.
Throughout the saga of history, God consistently initiates relationship. He is a gracious host, constantly welcoming in wayward sinners who deserve His wrath—a people whose only hope is that He would show them undeserved hospitality.
If ever there has been a stranger in need, someone completely excluded and hopeless, fully dependent on the grace of another—that is us. We were out in the cold, victims of our own folly, freezing to death from the coldness in our own hearts. And all throughout history, God opens the door, rescues us, and welcomes us back into relationship through sheer, inexplicable grace.
For those of us in Christ, we have been grafted into the same rescue mission. According to 2 Corinthians 5:18, God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation,” proclaiming the good news that He’s made a way for our sins to be forgiven, for traitors to sit at His table again. He invites us into the welcoming mission that He has proclaimed since the beginning of time.
THE GOSPEL WITH FLESH ON
Any time we practice hospitality, we put human flesh on this gospel story. The apostle Paul made this idea clear when he wrote, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.
This hospitality applies both to other believers and those who are far from Jesus. We welcome other believers into our lives as Christ has welcomed us, and as we do so, God uses the relationships that are created to model the heart of a hospitable God and draw us closer to Him.
As we welcome other believers into our lives and homes, we create a beautiful model for what life under God looks like. We become a living, breathing demonstration of the gospel and look like salt and light as Jesus said we would (Matt. 5:13–16).
We also welcome into our lives and homes those who are far from Jesus, because this is one of the most effective ways we can put the gospel on display for them. By doing so, we physically communicate the entire story of God to them: that our sin caused the sense of estrangement and disconnection we all feel (toward God and other people), but God loves us so much that He made a way for us to return to Him.
When we invite into our homes and lives those who are far from God, essentially we say to them, God loves you and He hasn’t given up on you. We present that message with our actions before we even get a chance to share the gospel with our words. If we are truly God’s ambassadors, as Paul called us in 2 Corinthians 5:20,2 then when we open our doors to a non-Christian, it is as if God Himself is opening His door. When Christians practice this simple action repeatedly, it changes the world.
Hospitality is not some stuffy, outdated practice. It is clearly a biblical idea of utmost importance, because it is the primary way we tell the astounding story that God hasn’t given up on us. Any time we practice hospitality we follow in the steps of our lavishly hospitable God. Here’s the potentially scary part: because of our role in representing God to the world, when we don’t walk in hospitality, we do not tell the truth about God. When we are cold, separated, and distant from those around us, we communicate that God is cold, separated, and distant. When we are warm, loving, and gracious, we put the gospel on display. This type of hospitality, which testifies to the character of our God, has always been a hallmark of God’s people.
Dustin Willis, Brandon Clements, and J. D. Greear, The Simplest Way to Change the World: Biblical Hospitality as a Way of Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2017).