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Acts

On Hospitality

Acts  16:6-15

It is a rare thing in our day to hear a sermon or lesson on the subject of hospitality. It is not mentioned too frequently in the Scriptures - largely because all took it for granted that righteousness included hospitality. We see such an instance here, and it gives us a chance to examine the virtue of hospitality.

(Acts 16:6-15 NIV) Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. {7} When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. {8} So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. {9} During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." {10} After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. {11} From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. {12} From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. {13} On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. {14} One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. {15} When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us.

God's Will

One of the most frequent of questions for the new Christian is this: "How do I really know God's will in my life?" There are a number of answers to this:

·         One predominant way is in the doctrine commonly held by Christians. It must be noted that among those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the basic doctrines are almost always the same.

·         A second method is by obedience to teaching and preaching. Notice that I said "obedience" - not dispute. By attempting to obey, you will quickly run into God's correction of your teacher's errors. (It would be wise, when you do, to point them out).

·         Sometimes God simply opens doors. Note the phrase here, "sailed straight to Samothrace." No one, in the ancient world, would do this unless the wind was absolutely set in that direction. Otherwise, you would hug the coastline for navigational purposes. This is God's confirmation of the vision.

·         Rarely, but not never, does God speak in visions. If you are constantly visited by visions I would question their source. But the Macedonian call is genuine enough. When God whispers in the darkness, shout it from the housetops.

·         Another, and neglected, way is this: by our care for others. This is simply another form of obedience. Recall that Abraham[1] entertained guests who brought him the word of the Lord. What's really interesting is that he was sitting by the opening of his tent, as if waiting for them. He expected visitors, and welcomed them gladly, and by so doing learned God's will.

That form of hospitality we shall study in this lesson.

Philippi

To understand the story correctly, we must know a few things about the ancient world, and in particular the city of Philippi.

·         Philippi is a Roman Colony. That means that it was founded and populated by the invading Romans. The settlers would usually be retired soldiers and their families. Hence, this was not really a Greek city at all. It was, however, a key connection point in the Empire (see the map below, with particular attention to the topography.

Map

·         Paul and Silas went down by the river to meet with those who would be praying. This tells us that there was no synagogue in that city, for the rabbinical law commanded a prayer meeting on the Sabbath where there was no synagogue. This also tells us that the number of Jews was very small, for it takes only ten adult male Jews to form a synagogue.

Lydia, the "seller of purple"

It is interesting to see the difference of view between ancient and modern scholars concerning this woman. Barclay, writing in the 20th century, considers her to be of high estate. She sells this rare cloth to the nobility (the process for making this cloth was very tedious, and the cloth very expensive). So she would be a rich woman, and thus in Barclay's view a prominent member of society. Not so Chrysostom. He sees her (living in the 5th century) as being a tradeswoman, one who must work with her hands, and therefore (while rich) not socially accepted in upper society.

One thing is certain: her heart has been prepared for this coming. We often forget that God is at work. In any group there are those whom God has prepared for his message. Lydia is one such, here.

Lydia persuades them

There is a curious fact here. Lydia goes to the trouble of persuading Paul and his companions to stay at her house. Today we might think that it would be the other way around; the invitation would be sufficient. Indeed, when our Lord encounters Zachaeus he announces that he will be going to his house. It's as if the guest is doing the host a favor! Lydia might have seen it that way. Her argument - "if you consider me a believer" - points to two very noble attitudes which we would do well to emulate today:

·         First, it is an honor to host a guest. This is particularly true if that guest is one whom God has appointed to the ministry.

·         Next, we are "saved to serve." So many Christians kick back and relax after their salvation! We could take a lesson from this one.

Why did they need persuasion?

If Lydia's persuasion is odd to our ears, how much more difficult is it to understand why Paul and his companions would need it! We must remember that there are no hotels or inns in these days, other than those that would be associated in most minds with prostitution. It was not uncommon for a traveler to "camp out" in the city - much like our homeless today. This makes it even more difficult to understand. Why did they need persuasion?

·         Our Lord instructs his travelers to "see who is worthy."[2] She's convincing them of that.

·         It may simply that they wanted to be sure that she was sincere, not just muttering polite mumblings.

Hospitality

It is interesting to note that the ancient laws of the church[3] absolutely forbade a priest from conducting a feast in a church building. (It's the equivalent of forbidding pot luck suppers in the fellowship hall today). The reason, I suspect, is that some priests were abusing the practice to fatten their bellies at the expense of the devout. But there is an exception: hospitality to strangers and travelers. If a visiting speaker or wandering monk arrived, such a feast could be celebrated in the church itself. This speaks much for the virtue of hospitality.

Ancient Jewish Law

The Law of Moses was quite explicit. Hospitality was a sacred obligation, and there are many examples of it. Perhaps the greatest was King David, on the run from Absalom. Ittai, the Gittite, is with him as a stranger - so David suggest that he might find better hospitality with Absalom. So seriously did David take his obligation to hospitality that he would add strength to his rebellious son's cause with it. Why was this so strong a command?

·         The ancient Jew was reminded that he was "a stranger in a strange land" as he was in Egypt. This memory - call it a family tradition, if you will - was very strong with them.[4]

·         There is also a sense of family involved here. If you do something for my family, you do it for me. As the children of God, the Jew would recognize that God rewarded those who were good to his children.[5]

Hospitality the mark of a mature Christian

Hospitality is one of the marks of the mature Christian. We can see this in a couple of places:

·         One of the qualifications for an elder was that he would be given to hospitality.[6]

·         A more frequent example would be given by widows. Only those who were known to be good Christians were to be supported by the church - and one test of such was hospitality.[7]

The character of hospitality

It is important for us to remember that hospitality must be cheerfully given. It is not something to be forced upon someone, nor offered in the hope that the invitation will be declined. Peter tells us[8] that we are to offer hospitality "without grumbling." It's an interesting passage in two respects:

·         First, the word he uses for hospitality is unusual. It literally means, "love of strangers."

·         The warning is given in the context of the end times and the swift return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps he is warning us that in the last days persecution will come, and Christians will need such hospitality. Or perhaps it is just a warning that when our Lord returns, our hospitality will be brought to light.

More than this, we are specifically cautioned to welcome those who are engaged in God's work.[9] Those who labor full time for the Lord are to be welcomed as a sign of favor upon the house.

The warnings of Christ

It is interesting that Peter places his warning in the context of end times. It brings us to the idea that hospitality has another side - the spiritual side.

·         We are explicitly taught that by providing hospitality we may entertain the angels themselves without being aware of it.[10]

·         More than that, we should learn the lesson of the Old Testament. As the ancient Jew was a "stranger in a strange land," we walk a similar path. "This world is not my home, I'm just passing through." Hospitality eases that passage for many. By providing hospitality we proclaim, in a very practical sense, that we are pilgrims, not permanent residents.

·         Finally, there is the explicit warning of Jesus himself. In Matthew 25:31-46 our Lord explicitly declares that our hospitality is one of the aspects of our Christian walk which will be judged on the last day.

Consider it well, Christian. When the Son of Man returns, what will you tell him about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the down and out? Your doctrine may be sound, but if it has no effect upon your life, He will know it. "By their fruits you will know them," says our Lord. What does your hospitality say about you?


[1] Genesis 18:1-15

[2] Luke 10:8

[3] The Canons of Carthage, also Canons of Hippo.

[4] Exodus 23:9

[5] Proverbs 19:17

[6] 1 Timothy 3:2

[7] 1 Timothy 5:10

[8] 1 Peter 4:9

[9] 3 John 1:8

[10] Hebrews 13:2

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