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A Happy Habit

Acts  28:1-15

It is surprising how often Christians bring up the mistaken attitude that what they do in ordinary, daily life is not particularly important - only that which comes out in the crisis. It is not so; character is not made by crisis, it is shown by crisis. We see in here today one of the habits of character which ennobles a Christian - hospitality.

(Acts 28:1-15 NIV) Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. {2} The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. {3} Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. {4} When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." {5} But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. {6} The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. {7} There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and for three days entertained us hospitably. {8} His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. {9} When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. {10} They honored us in many ways and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed. {11} After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. {12} We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. {13} From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. {14} There we found some brothers who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. {15} The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged.

The Virtues of the Barbarians

The word for "islanders" here is actually "barbarians." The Greeks (like Luke, the author of this history, who was obviously present on this occasion) considered anyone who did not speak Greek to be one who babbled on and on ("bar-bar"). It is instructive to consider, then, that these people are neither Christian nor Jew, not given the instruction of God - and yet exhibit virtues worth emulating and exceeding. Indeed, God goes beyond that: sometimes the virtues of the pagans are the route by which the Gospel is displayed in power, as we shall see.


The pagans have a definite sense of justice. They agree with Job's friends: the reason that snake bit you is that you deserved it. There is justice in the world, and what goes around comes around (or ought to). It's obvious to them, in their superstitious way, that Paul must be a murderer. But note the reaction when the snake does no harm! Suffering in innocence proclaims the man of God, and here prepares the hearts of these people to hear the Word.

We often use this incident as a instance of the credentials of an Apostle.[1] But these islanders had not read that passage; they just understood justice. And justice here proclaims the man of God, suffering, but innocent.


One writer has suggested that the "unusual kindness" of the islanders is the work of the Spirit, preparing their hearts for these unusual guests. After all, when you have welcomed someone into your home, it's hard not hear what they have to say.

There is more. We see two other things in this example:

·         Those rich in the things of this world - in this instance Publius, the chief official of the island - have a particular duty to practice hospitality.

·         Hospitality is not just in the coming, but in the going. The islanders supplied their needs as they left.

Response of the Christian

Of course, hospitality is much easier if the guest is of a welcome character. We see some of that here in Paul; note that he is gathering sticks for the fire. Some of us get so "executive" in our thinking that after the shipwreck we want to organize and manage the rescue - but the Christian pitches in with the team.

Indeed, the Christian repays hospitality with the grace of God. It's not easy to spot in the English, but the words "heal" and "cure" in verses 7-8 are actually two different words. The first means an instantaneous healing; the second a gradual cure. It would seem that Paul applies the first and we may guess that Luke the second, as he was a doctor. The Christian guest should never neglect his host.

We do also see Christian hospitality in this passage, at the end. Paul is met by Christians when he lands - Christians he has never met. Interestingly, they come from Appius, which is 40 miles away, and Three Taverns, which is 30 miles away, on foot! (And we grumble at a trip to the airport). Hospitality is an effort.

The Nature of Hospitality

Hospitality gets little press in Christian writing, largely because it has declined only recently. With the rise of hotels we have lost much of the art - which is a pity. There is much to be learned from it.

Hospitality is a sacrifice

Did you ever have the thought that you'd like to make a sacrifice to God - but the occasion just never arises? Hospitality is just such an occasion:

·         You sacrifice the pleasant. I arrange my home to my liking. The furniture, the other items and indeed the normal schedule of my home is arranged for the benefit of me and my family. But when we entertain guests, we alter that. The furniture is rearranged and the meals changed; the schedule is different. I sacrifice the pleasant things for the pleasure of my guests.

·         You sacrifice the present. If I am at home, I tend to presume that my time is my own (or at least my wife's). But when I have a guest, I must give up some of that control of my time in favor of my guest's wishes. My schedule must now accommodate their doings.

·         You sacrifice the private. When you come into my home, you see my library - the books that influence my thought. You hear the comments that I'm too polite to make in public. You see me interacting with my children - and see how I've raised them. This might be embarrassing!

Hospitality is a habit

The phrase in the English language - taken from the King James - is that we "practice" hospitality. The word[2] in the Greek literally means "to pursue." We are to perform our hospitality diligently, not haphazardly. There are two specific implications of this:

·         First, we are to practice hospitality "without grumbling."[3] Have you ever been the guest in a home that did not want you there? Consider that you are a child of God, and this is how others will see God - just like others see me reflected in my children, in my home.

·         It is the particular duty of those who are rich in this world to give hospitality - like Publius in this story. To this day, many churches have members who set aside "Elisha's room"[4] for visiting missionaries and workers.

Not just for the "known," but also the unknown

One of the most difficult aspects of Christian hospitality is that it must be given to the unknown guest - the stranger - as well as to those known. We are often uncomfortable with this. But consider:

·         It is by this method that God often blesses us. Publius did not know Paul, but his father was healed by Paul. Elisha is welcomed by the Shunemite[5] who rewards her with a long desired son - and raises him from the dead. Indeed, the Scripture enjoins us to hospitality by telling us that in so doing we may entertain "angels unaware."[6] God rewards those who are faithful.

·         It is by this method that the Gospel is spread. First, we can see that giving hospitality to the poor (in Jesus name) is a powerful witness for the Gospel. We also see that it is specially commended that we give hospitality to traveling evangelists, even those we don't know. John the Apostle commends one Gaius for this[7] - the same Gaius commended by Paul for his hospitality.[8] Imagine the privilege of having both Paul and John in your house! Imagine the spread of the Gospel in your community!

Hospitality to the Spirit

There is one guest to whom all Christians, by the grace of God, give hospitality: the Holy Spirit.

(1 Cor 3:16 NIV) Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?

We need to consider, then, how well we do at giving hospitality to the most important guest anyone could have.


·         Do you sacrifice the pleasant? This can be done in many ways. We often think of giving up a pleasure so that our brother might not stumble, in the spirit of Romans 14. But there are deeper meanings than that. For example, are you willing to give up the pleasure of anger - particularly anger which is chewed like a cow's cud - so that the Spirit will not be grieved? Will you give up drunkenness so that you might listen to the Spirit's voice?

·         Do you sacrifice the present? We often say, "my time is my own!" But is it really? C. S. Lewis gives us a great example of this. Suppose that Jesus came to you, in the flesh, and asked you for the next 24 hours of your time. You would not have the courage to plead your schedule with Him! How disappointed you would be if He had you spend the first half hour listening to a lonely old woman chatter, and then told you to go and enjoy yourself. But if you name Him as Lord, does not your time belong to Him now?

·         Do you sacrifice the private? It is foolish to think you cannot - he knows your every thought. But how many of us put our lives into little compartments, marking this one "God" and another one "Me." Are there pleasures in your life which are "off limits" to the Holy Spirit? How would a guest feel if you told him to stay out of the kitchen?


Habit, too, plays its part in hospitality. We need to examine ourselves in this area as well:

·         Do we practice hospitality to the Spirit? Or is He only welcome in times of crisis?

·         Is our hospitality without grumbling? Or do we wish that God would please leave us alone, and stop bringing to mind the evils we do? We must remember that the Spirit is there to prompt us to holiness and perfection in Christ.

·         Indeed, this is the special "duty" of the rich. But note how the rich in Spirit love it! Those whose devotional life - the life in the Spirit - is rich are much more inclined to accept the Spirit in all aspects of their lives.

Not just the known, but also the unknown

Here indeed are some fruitful questions:

·         Will I be so filled with the Spirit that God's grace flows out of me, not just to those I know, but also to those I do not?

·         Will I be so open to the leading of the Spirit that I will hear and heed the call of the unknown? Whether that is the call of unknown place, unknown person, or indeed the sin in my life which the Spirit is trying to make known, will I listen?

·         And when our Lord returns in glory, will He find the Holy Spirit at home? I do not know the time of His return. Will I rejoice at His return, or will I be scurrying around trying to clean house before he arrives? The Shunemite woman was prepared for Elisha's return; will we be prepared for our Lord's return? Repentance is then too late.

[1] Mark 16:17-18

[2] from Romans 12:13

[3] 1 Peter 4:9

[4] 2 Kings 4:8-10

[5] 2 Kings r

[6] Hebrews 13:2

[7] 3 John 1:1-8

[8] Romans 16:23

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