What does Jesus’ hospitality tell us about God’s character?

Hospitality is a huge topic in the Bible so I’ve broken it up into two parts. Today I’m going to focus on God’s hospitality, particularly in Jesus, and next week I’m going to focus on imitating that hospitality. Before we can figure out the significance of His hospitality, we need to look at what hospitality is.

Broadly speaking hospitality can be defined as:

Google's definition of hospitality

It’s a nice concept. I think we all like friendly and generous receptions, and to be entertained by hospitable hosts.

It’s also worth looking at the word in the New Testament’s original language (Greek) that gets translated as “hospitality” in English:

philoxenos
philo (love) + xenos (stranger)
love of strangers

It is similar to:

philanthropy, which is the love of humanity

It is the opposite of:

xenophobia
xeno (stranger) + phobia (fear)
fear of strangers

Throughout the Bible there are countless passages that describe and command us to love others, even strangers—frequently this is done by showing hospitality, and hospitality usually involves meals. As Mike Breen says:

If you take the mountains and meals out of the Bible, it’s a very short book. In a world of competing church models and strategies … Jesus employed one practice over all others: sharing a meal with people. … grace, mission and community are never enacted best through programmes and propaganda, but rather through the equality and acceptance experienced at the common table. May our lives never be too busy to live this out.

Mike Breen, 3DM leader and author

This quote is part of Mike’s review of Tim Chester’s book, A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community & mission around the table (AMWJ). I’ve drawn extensively from this book for this post, in some ways this is an appetiser for the book, as I highly recommend reading it.

Chester starts his book by pointing out an interesting connection between the three, “The Son of Man has come to” passages:

The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.

Luke 19:10, HCSB

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.

Mark 10:45, HCSB

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking

Luke 7:34a, HCSB

Part of the way Jesus seeked and served was by eating and drinking—that is by either showing hospitality or participating in it as a guest. And we know Jesus did frequently eat and drink, as He was criticised for doing it.

Then they said to Him, “John’s disciples fast often and say prayers, and those of the Pharisees do the same, but Yours eat and drink.”

Luke 5:33, HCSB

“Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

Luke 7:34b, HCSB

And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

Luke 15:2, HCSB

So the first observation I want to make about Jesus’ hospitality is that it shows us that He is down-to-earth. That God values all creation, even common things, like food and drink, indeed hospitality plays an important part in His rescue mission.

Most of the Jews wanted and expected the Son of Man to come with a mighty army to seek and destroy their enemies, not to seek and save them! They were only expecting hospitality for themselves, not sinners and certainly not their enemies.

Jesus’ evangelism and discipleship often involved meals (Chester gives a list from Luke’s Gospel, AMWJ, p14). Jesus:

  • eats with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Levi.
  • is at a meal when He is anointed by the weeping woman.
  • feeds the five thousand in the wilderness.
  • eats at the home of Martha and Mary.
  • is at a meal when He condemns the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
  • is at a meal when He urges people to invite the poor to their meals.
  • invites Himself to dinner with Zacchaeus.
  • eats the Last Supper.
  • has a meal with two disciples in Emmaus after the Resurrection.
  • appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and eats fish with them.

In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.

Robert Karris, Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel, p14

But hospitality is more than just a meal. It is welcoming someone into your home or space, listening and sharing—a sign of friendship. It was one of the reasons the religious elite complained that Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the table fellowship for cultures of the Mediterranean basin in the first century … Mealtimes were far more than occasions for individuals to consume nourishment. Being welcomed at a table for the purpose of eating food with another person had become a ceremony richly symbolic of friendship, intimacy and unity … [So much so that] when persons were estranged, a meal invitation opened the way to reconciliation.

Tim Chester’s quote of Scott Bartchy, A Meal with Jesus, p19

It’s also worth remembering that a significant part of the Jewish Law revolved around food, what you could and couldn’t eat.

[In] all cultures meals represent ‘boundary markers’ between different levels of intimacy and acceptance. [An] analysis of the laws in Leviticus about food … [showed that] … they concerned boundary maintenance. … Policing the human body was a way of policing the social body by maintaining a common identity. Jewish food laws not only symbolized cultural boundaries; they also created them. It wasn’t easy for Jews to eat with Gentiles … You couldn’t be sure you were being offered kosher food prepared in a kosher way. … Scholars believe that Jews rarely ate with Gentiles in Jesus’ day.

Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, p20

So you can see why the Pharisees were so angry at Jesus for breaking their rules and becoming unclean, from their perspective.

It’s not surprising that Jesus’ teaching also often included meals.

  • The parable of the narrow door warns that God may withhold hospitality to those who are apathetic.
  • The parable of the great banquet.
  • The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin both end with the finder calling their friends and neighbours into their home to celebrate, presumably with a feast.
  • Similarly, the parable of the prodigal (lost) son ends with a feast to celebrate. Significantly, the turning point for the son was when he realised his father’s hospitality, even to the servants, was far better than the pig food that he was coveting.
  • The failure to show hospitality is condemned in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

But there’s more…

In the Old Testament, God revealed that:

In [the New] Jerusalem [when Jesus returns], the Lord Almighty will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.

Isaiah 25:6-8a, NLT/NIV

It’s a wonderful promise and would’ve come to mind when Jesus described His Kingdom as participating in a feast:

People will come from east and west and north and south [i.e. everywhere], and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.

Luke 13:28, NIV

And just as my Father has granted me a Kingdom, I now grant you the right to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom

Luke 22:29-30a, NLT

Peter Leithart explains the significance of this.

For Jesus ‘feast’ was not just a ‘metaphor’ for the kingdom. As Jesus announced the feast of the kingdom, He also brought it into reality through His own feasting. Unlike many theologians, He did not come [simply] preaching an ideology, promoting ideas, or teaching moral maxims. He came teaching about the feast of the kingdom, and He came feasting in the kingdom.

Tim Chester’s quote of Peter Leithart, A Meal with Jesus, p15

As does Chester:

The meals of Jesus represent something bigger. They represent a new world, a new kingdom, a new outlook. But they give that new reality substance. Jesus’ meals are not just symbols; they’re also applications. They’re not just pictures; they’re the real thing in miniature. Food is stuff. It’s not ideas. It’s not theories. It’s, well, it’s food, and you put it in your mouth, taste it and eat it. And meals are more than food. They’re social occasions. They represent friendship, community and welcome.

Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus, p15

One of the crucial points I want to convey is that God’s hospitality gives us an insight into His character and shows us what He values. It is both practical and profound. It helps people now and points them to God and His future feast.

God’s hospitality also shows us how amazing and inclusive His grace is. As Isaiah said, this is “a wonderful feast for all the people of the world” and Jesus alludes to this when He says people will come to the feast from everywhere. Furthermore, He taught and demonstrated in His hospitality that our earthly categories didn’t matter—the invitation extended to everyone, even people the Jews elite rejected, like Roman centurions, Samaritan women, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the blind, the crippled, and the Gentiles—which is most of us!

Finally we will look at how Jesus’ hospitality fulfilled the Old Testament and confirmed Jesus’ identity as God.

Luke 9:7-9: Herod asked if Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah, or another ancient prophet returning (e.g. Moses).

Luke 9:18-19: Jesus asks who do people say I am? Again the options are: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another prophet.

The feeding of the 5000, which is placed between the repeated question, sheds light on why the answer given in the next verse is none of the above but actually “God’s Messiah!”—God come down to rescue. The feeding of the 5000 wasn’t just Jesus providing some fast-food to get the disciples out of an awkward situation! No, it’s far more than that!

In verse 11 Jesus welcomed them, and had them sit down, the Greek word there is literally recline, as they would’ve done at a feast. The location is significant too, they were out in the wilderness, just like the Israelites in the OT had been. And again, they complained about the lack of food! Last time God answered Moses with manna from heaven, this time Jesus looked up to heaven and was miraculously answered with an abundant feast—everyone was satisfied and there was plenty leftover. So we see Jesus was a bit like Moses but even better. And Jesus will lead a new exodus, saving people not just from the Egyptians but all earthly and spiritual oppressors—even sin and death itself! (this is reinforced at the Transfiguration, v31, where Jesus discusses His exodus)

That’s very exciting but the feeding of the 5000 would’ve also reminded the people of the feeding of the 100 in the Old Testament. Guess who did that? It was it was Elisha, the prophet who Elijah handed the batten too—he literally gave him his cloak—to show that Elisha was the new Elijah. Elisha told his servant to feed 100 men with 20 loaves. Jesus told the disciples to feed 5000 men (plus their families!) with 5 loaves and 2 fish. God miraculously provided for Elisha’s 100 men, and there were leftovers. God miraculously provided for Jesus’ 5000 men, and surprise-surprise, there were leftovers. So we see Jesus was a bit like a new Elijah but again, Jesus is even better.

Not only would the feeding of the 5000 remind them of Moses and Elijah, it would’ve reminded them about Isaiah’s prophecy of the great feast, which I mentioned earlier. Isaiah goes on to say:

Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money!

Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free!

Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?

Why pay for food that does you no good?

Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.

Isaiah 55:1-2, NLT

And this scene is alluded to again, right at the end of the Bible, where God and Christians are united in extending hospitality to everyone who is thirsty.

The Spirit and the bride [Christians] say, “Come!” Everyone who hears this should say, “Come!” If you are thirsty, come! If you want life-giving water, come and drink it. It’s free!

Rev 22:17, CEV/NLT

Jesus provided for the 5000 without charge but we anticipate an even greater feast, one that will satisfy every physical and spiritual hunger and thirst. The feast in the New Creation is one we are unable to pay for but thankfully Jesus has paid for it so it’s free for everyone!

So to summarise:

What does Jesus’ hospitality tell us about God’s character?

  1. Hospitality is loving and welcoming people, particularly strangers or outsiders, into your home or space and usually involves eating and drinking.
  2. Tim Chester wrote a great book about hospitality called, A Meal with Jesus.
  3. The Son of Man has come eating and drinking to seek and save, to serve and give.
  4. Jesus spent most of time showing, receiving, and teaching hospitality.
  5. His hospitality displayed His:
    1. Friendship and grace
    2. Inclusivity/welcoming of everyone
    3. Invitation to reconciliation
    4. Valuing of creation, even common things, like food and drink
  6. Hospitality practically helped people, pointed people to God’s kingdom and feast, and indeed started God’s kingdom and feast.
  7. Jesus is a bit like Moses and Elijah but His provision of food/salvation is far greater and open to everyone because He has completely paid for it!

Do we need Hell as a motivation?

The question of whether we need Hell as a motivation often comes up. As I think it’s an important and difficult question, I’m going to try to sketch out a response.

On the one hand, I think there are people who don’t believe in Hell at all, yet are still motivated to love God and each other. I think this is partly because, being made in God’s image, love, truth, beauty, life, light, joy, goodness, mercy, justice, hope, forgiveness, peace, and wisdom, are attractive and motivating things. Likewise, in the New Creation I believe we will remain motivated forever without the fear of anything1. Afterall, God identifies Himself as our loving Father, a relationship that should be taken into account. Because Hell can come across as the opposite of all these good things, for some people the idea that God would even consider Hell is repulsive, something that hinders them from loving God.

However it is hard, at least for Christians, to avoid noticing that Jesus did warn of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, etc. While they do appear in symbolic literature, surely they indicate unpleasant experiences of some description. To some degree we are already experiencing the consequences of humanity’s selfish and destructive behavior. Most of us do desire for things to be put right but that probably involves correction, pruning and deconstructing some things first. Change usually isn’t easy.

When I talk about reforming hell, in particular that I believe one day everyone will be reconciled to God, there is a risk that people will use that as an excuse to postpone coming to Jesus. As I long to see as many people saved as soon as possible, this issue is a real concern. Indeed some who share my beliefs don’t even discuss them in public for fear that hearers will use it as an excuse to continue living in rebellion against God.

I should point out that this problem isn’t uniquely a universalist one. Anyone who is gracious, or tells people about God’s grace, risks people taking advantage of it. Sometimes people will use it as an excuse to be lazy and put off action—“I’ll convert when I retire or when I’m on my death bed”. Nor is the problem new. I think the Apostle Paul discusses this, “Shall I go on sinning so that grace might increase?” and “Do you spurn God’s grace?”. He emphatically says we shouldn’t, but that God’s grace should “lead us to repentance”.

And they're off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind (Photo: Gordon T)
And they’re off! The last plane for the season departs and winter begins for those left behind
(Photo: Gordon T)

Imagine you’re visiting Antarctica and become sick. A plane is sent to pick you up but you refuse to leave and so it departs without you. You will experience the unpleasant consequences until another opportunity to go home arrives. Both in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ parables, there are plenty of examples2 of God giving people opportunities that are rejected. After a period of consequences, thankfully God offers further opportunities.

Consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son3. When the son realises he is mistaken he doesn’t instantly appear at home, he still has to walk all the way home from the pigpen. Likewise, the further we run from God, the longer it takes to walk back. Or to put it another way, it’s easier to tear down than to build up. I suspect the longer you leave a disease, the more work the doctors will have to do and the longer the rehab and recovery will be. I assume the longer you’ve been addicted to a drug, the more severe the withdrawal.

I think the Apostle Paul captures the current tension between taking things seriously and being encouraged that God is working towards His good purpose4:

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.PHILIPPIANS 2:12-13 (HCSB)

In summary, I think we shouldn’t need Hell as a motivation but it is important to consider the consequences (which may include time in Hell) of wrong thoughts and actions.


1. Reminds me of “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18 (ESV)
2. Robin Parry gives some examples on p206 of “The Evangelical Universalist”
3. Luke 15:11-32
4. Hopefully wholeheartedly enjoying and praising and Him—together, forever! See Everyone Repents & Rejoices.