Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels. (Hebrews 13:2, N.K.J.V.)
Parents tell their young children, “Don’t talk to strangers.” If a stranger knocks on the door of your home, you instinctively act as a shield to keep him or her from entering. And what about picking up a hitchhiker? In this day and age? C’mon, get real. And yet here we have a Bible verse that incentivizes talking to strangers, letting them in our homes, and picking them up on the road. What’s the incentive? Oh, it’s just the fact that some of those strangers we chose to entertain just might actually be angels in disguise.
The Greek noun used in our text verse is philoxenia, and it combines the two Greek words philos (which means “loving”) and xenos (which means “a stranger”). Naturally, this gets into the idea of hospitality. It isn’t surprising, then, that philoxenia and its adjective form (philoxenos) are the Greek behind the New Testament’s various verses about hospitality. For example, Romans 12:13 says that Christians should be “given to hospitality” (N.K.J.V.). Likewise, 1 Peter 4:9 says: “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling” (N.K.J.V.). And would you believe that both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8 list “hospitable” as being a qualification for the ministry? When was the last time a pulpit committee or an ordination council asked a prospective pastor, “Would you call yourself hospitable?”
Perhaps the New Testament rates hospitality so high because Christians showing hospitality to one another was incredibly important in the days of the early church. Persecuted Christians of that era were oftentimes forced to leave their homes and their cities and relocate to other areas. But where could a Christian who just hit a new town find lodging? Even though there were a few inns scattered here and there, many Christians were too poor to afford them. Therefore, typically, the best place a Christian could stay was with another Christian.
The traveling evangelists and teachers, men such as the apostles, also needed places to stay whenever they came to an area. This explains why John, in verses 5-8 of his epistle of 3 John, encourages a Christian named Gaius to receive such men into his home whenever they came to town. John wanted Gaius to give them a place to rest and something to eat. He describes this ministry as sending those men on their journey “in a manner worthy of God.” Of course, discernment needed to be practiced in regards to differentiating between God-called men and false prophets. Along those lines, in verses 7-11 of the epistle of 2 John, John warns a kindhearted but naive Christian woman about receiving into her home anyone who did not abide in the doctrine of Christ.
But are there really angels out there, in human form, who are just waiting for someone to show them hospitality? A man by the name of Abraham would answer, “Yes.” Genesis chapter 18 gives us the story of how Abraham was sitting in his tent one day to avoid the heat. He peered out of his tent and saw that three men, strangers, had entered his encampment. Even though the three men looked like human beings, somehow Abraham recognized that there was something special, even divine, about them. That prompted him to bolt from his tent, run out to meet them, and bow himself to the ground before them. He begged them to let him provide them with a place to rest, water to wash their feet, and a meal. When the three men took him up on his offer, he had a young calf killed and prepared as the centerpiece of a feast.
And who were those three men? One of them was Jesus (making an Old Testament pre-incarnate appearance) and the other two were angels. Following the meal with Abraham, the two angels started making their way to nearby Sodom while Jesus engaged in an extended conversation with Abraham about Sodom’s imminent destruction.
In the following chapter, Genesis chapter 19, those two angels show up at Lot’s door the evening of that same day. They spend the night with Lot — that’s more hospitality on display — and in the end rescue Lot and some of his family from the destruction that is about to fall upon Sodom. Then the angels rain fire and brimstone down upon not only Sodom but also Gomorrah and the other cities that were located on that plain.
I should point out, though, that there is another possible interpretation to our text passage. Some commentators note that the Greek word angelos that gets translated as “angel” throughout the New Testament literally means “messenger.” In the King James translation, the word is even translated as “messenger” (or “messengers”) in: Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24, 27; Luke 9:52; 2 Corinthians 12:7; and James 2:25. Also, angelos is used each time in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 in reference to the “angel” of each of the seven churches to which Christ speaks. Many commentators understand the word as it is used in those instances to refer to the pastors of those churches rather than to literal angels.
By bringing this alternative translation of angelos to bear upon Hebrews 13:2, we find that it’s at least possible that the strangers in question aren’t literal angels in human disguise but rather regular humans who have some message from God for the person who shows them hospitality. Perhaps the stranger won’t even realize that he or she has this message. In such cases, it could be that something the person says in the normal flow of conversation with the one showing the hospitality might be God’s way of imparting helpful information and insight to that hospitable person. Ironically, if this interpretation does hold water, it would be the stranger himself or herself, rather than the person showing the hospitality, who would be doing something unwittingly that resulted in unforeseen but pleasant consequences.