• Mark Ledbetter

The Gift of Hospitality

There Was No Room for Them in the Inn, Luke 2:7

Christmas at my house as a child was a special time, but not only because of the lights and presents, but it was the only time of the year when my Grandfather would let my Grandmother drag him away from their home in Pensacola, Florida.

It was a delightful time because I enjoyed the preparations that were made. My Dad always prepared the oranges for ambrosia, and ground the graham crackers for fruit cake. My Mon’s kitchen was filled with an array of pleasant smells driffing throughout the house while the stereo played Christmas music.

Then there was the day Granny and Granddaddy arrived. Besides the preparation of special food for the occasion, special sleeping arrangements had to be made. My sister and I gave up our beds for quilt pallets on the floor, where on Christmas eve we feigned sleep as we anticipated the crack of down and scurried down the hall to see what Santa had brought.

There was one downside to this. As I got older, any sleep that I might have wanted to enjoy was almost impossible. I remember lying in bed and listening to the constant rhythm of snoring. First up was my Dad, then my Grandfather. And there was a third snoring that joined the chorus, one that was perhaps louder than the others – our Chinese Pug dog, which I named Pug (a truly original name).

My memories obviously focus upon family gathering and preparation for my Grandparents’ visit. It is delightful memory, snores and all.

A Perilous Journey

God’s timing is impeccable. It is the Apostle Paul who reveals that it was “when the fullness of time” that “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…” (Galatians 4:4). The time was ripe! And Mary? She was “great with child” (Luke 2:5, KJV).

It is apparent that Joseph’s family had left the lush agrarian countryside of Ephrathah and relocated to Nazareth, a small, insignificant village located on a ridge overlooking the Jezreel Valley. It was not known for any illustrious reason; in fact it was the subject of a proverb indicating it’s worthlessness, and certainly didn’t figure in any Messianic hopes: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Yet, it was in Nazareth that Joseph’s family had relocated and developed the well-respected trade as carpenters.

On the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the mode of travel, most likely walking, possibly by animal (we like to think Mary at least had a donkey to ride upon), or cart, and always in groups as a safety precaution against robbers and thieves, would cover 70 to 90 miles and under normal circumstances take four to five days.

What would prompt Joseph to take Mary, great with child, to make such an arduous trip?

A Census

Like all governments, Rome needed revenue and taxation was the means of extracting funds from its citizens. Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census be made in order to determine the taxes to be levied. The first of these censuses taken in Judea was taken under the Syrian governor, Quirinius who had jurisdiction over Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. It is not likely, due to the vast area of Syria-Palestine, that a census could be taken in all regions simultaneously.[1] Evidently, although Joseph lived in Nazareth, he and his family owned property in Judea. So, he loaded up his pregnant wife and made way towards Bethlehem.

No Room in the Inn

Hospitality, which included food and lodging, was noted since the days of Abraham, who entertained three men (who proved to be angels unaware) who brought the good news that the aged couple would become parents (Genesis 18:1f). His nephew, Lot, was also noted for providing hospitality to two strangers (also angels, Genesis 19:1f). From this tradition grew something more than social etiquette but a more binding, legal tradition[2] and refusal was regarded “as ungracious behavior…vile and forbidden.”[3]

Arriving in Bethlehem, Joseph found accommodations sparse. He had no cell phone, couldn’t text, couldn’t book reservations through Expedia, or send an email to relatives saying he and Mary were needing lodging. He, like most others traveling, just showed up.

When we consider the expression, “there was no room for them in the inn,” perhaps our minds envision a “No Vacancy” message lit up on a hotel sign, but this is not what the expression means. The word “inn” is taken from a word meaning “guest chamber,” an upper room reserved for guest. Typical homes in this period consisted of a “family” room, a room where families cooked, ate, slept and lived.[4]

The upper chamber served as a guest room, much like the woman and her husband provided Elisha with a room when he passed through (1 Kings 17:19). Also attached was an area referred to as a “stable,” a place where animals were brought in for the night.[5]

No doubt Joseph had counted upon the hospitality of family remaining in the Bethlehem area, or even a stranger’s home, but the place he hoped for already had guest staying in the guest room; therefore, perhaps recognizing Mary’s condition, their host could offer only what was available.

In the Fullness of Time

Having made some sort of accommodations for the wearied travelers and very pregnant woman, “the days were completed for her to give birth.” How often the expected birth comes at the most inconvenient times – far from home, no midwife available, or in the cramped quarters of a cattle stall – and in the middle of the night.

Regardless of the circumstances, Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son…wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger” – a food trough, either a wooden structure or dug outs in a rock floor. [6] There He lay in the most primitive of settings the new born King of the Jews.

The Gift of Hospitality

While hospitality was not only a social etiquette and a binding expectation by the Galileans and Judeans, it also was expected among the Christian Community.

Hospitality provided the setting for Jesus’ teaching providing a backdrop for some of His parables (Luke 10:34-35; 11:5f; 14:16f, etc.). Hospitality was the hallmark of early church gatherings and providing opportunity for fellowship, teaching, worship and prayer (Acts 2:42, 46). The Apostle Paul wrote to Philemon encouraging him to “prepare me a lodging,” believing as an answer to prayers he would have an occasion to visit (Philemon 22). While Simon Peter lodged with Simon the Tanner, when Cornelius’ messengers came and found Peter, the strangers were lodged over night before returning to Cornelius’ house.

The Apostle Paul also taught that as followers of Jesus, we should contribute to the needs of others while “practicing hospitality” (Romans 12:13). One of the qualifications for a bishop is that he must be hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2), and among other characteristics, a widow must has have shown hospitality to strangers (1 Timothy 5:10).

Recognizing hospitality may impose difficult circumstance and inconveniences, the Apostle Peter admonishes believers to be “hospitable to one another without complaint” (1 Peter 4:9).

Another admonishment to be hospitable is found in Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” First, we have an allusion to Abraham and Lot, but there is also a form of wordplay employed. “Angel” comes from the word that means “messenger,” and while angels do indeed serve as messengers, this expression also alludes to entertaining, or lodging other messengers such as an apostle, prophet, or evangelist, much like the provisions the Shumanite woman and her husband prepared for Elisha (2 Kings 4:8f).

At one church where I served as pastor, there was a woman who always wanted guest speakers to stay with her and her husband because her mother taught there was a special blessing by lodging a visiting preacher or evangelist. Indeed, Jesus instructed His disciples when He sent them out proclaiming the message of the Kingdom of Heaven to enter a city or village, find someone who is “worthy” and “stay at that house until you leave.” As they entered their host’s house they were to “give them” their “greeting,” or “blessing of peace.” (Matthew 10:11-13).

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock”

Standing at the door of the Church at Laodicea we find Jesus knocking and seeking entrance for a time of fellowship, a time of dining together (Revelation 3:20). God has long sought to regain the fellowship lost with the fall of man.

You know the story. God created man and woman, placed them in His Garden to “dress and keep it” and for them to enjoy the fruits of their labor while all creatures lived in harmony – you know, Paradise. We are told that in the “cool of the day” God took strolls through the Garden and we can imagine that in discourse recorded in Genesis 3, He and the custodians of Paradise communicated.

Unfortunately, the Eden residents were convinced they weren’t happy with the arrangements and, in an act of disobedience, took matters in their own hands. Tragically, they were expelled from their home and because God put a “cherubim and a flaming sword” to guard the Garden, returning to Eden wasn’t an option and they became refugees in a hostile land.

The fellowship was broken by Adam’s sin and ever since that day, God began working on a way to remedy the sin issue and to reconcile with His Creation, especially men and women, who, created in God’s image and likeness, were created so in order to fellowship with their Creator. Dr. Doolittle may talk to the animals, but God wants fellowship with humanity.

So, God devised a plan where He could remove the barrier of sin and establish fellowship by sending His Son to the earth. When the angel gave Joseph insight into the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, the angel also said that not only will the name of His Son to be born be Jesus – God’s Saves!, He will also be referred to as Immanuel, i.e., God with us. God sent His Son in order to save us and restore relationship with us.

John’s Gospel captures this thought in another way. He opens with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…” John 1:1, 14.

The language suggests the expression “dwelt among us” means the Word, God in the Person of His only Begotten, “pitched His tent” and lived among us.

There was another time when God “pitched His tent” among His people – the 40-year trek through the Wilderness: “I will consecrate the tent of meeting…I will dwell among the sons of Israel and be their God.” (Exodus 29:44-45)

The tabernacle God instructed the Israelites to construct was composed of two layers of cloth and two layers of skins stretched over a wooden framework (Ex 26:7, 14–15),[7] and was referred to as the “tent of meeting” (Exodus 33:7) and as Moses entered the tent, “the pillar of cloud” stood at the entrance (Exodus 33:9).

Tragically, when Jesus came to his own they failed to show Him any hospitality, i.e., the “did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Yet, for those who did receive Him, “He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believed in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” By receiving Jesus, they received the “born-again” experience Jesus reveals to Nicodemus was necessary to “see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). This “born from above” experience is effected by the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. Becoming “new creatures” we must then prepare our hearts, our lives for the holy habitation of the Father and the Son.

Preparing a Holy Habitation

God was very particular about how to construct the Tent of Meeting – viz., the metal, fabric, and colors. He also gave Moses the plans for the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:1-9). And so it is in preparing our hearts and lives for God’s habitation. Jesus taught His disciples, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with Him” (John 14:23). To prepare our lives for His indwelling He requires two things.

“If anyone loves Me…”

Many are well acquainted with John 3:16 which begins with, “For God so loved the world…” All that God did through His Son was an expression of His love for us. The greatest expression is His “giving” of His Son on the cross for our salvation. Many who believe in Him and come to Jesus Christ embracing Him as Savior are genially thankful. Yet, there is a burning issue: “Do we love Him?”

Many reading the Old Testament view God as an austere, demanding God, one who insists that we adhere to His commandments or else. Out of fear they obey His commandments, fear of retribution for disobedience. Yet, God did not seek obedience out of fear but from our hearts – because we love Him.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and will all your soul and with all your might. These words which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6)

Love for God is not an abstract sentimentality but is an attitude that values Him and expresses itself through obedience to His Word. Would it surprise you to know that Jesus expects the same? He told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep My commandments,” which is better read, “Because you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15).

Love for Jesus implies an ethical responsibility towards God and our Neighbor, as He explicitly expresses when asked, “…which is the great commandment of the Law?”, to which He response is famous:

And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

How many of the world’s problems would be resolved if we observed these two “commandments.”

Second, we must “keep” His Word.

To “keep” His word continues that which is implied by loving Him. While it can mean to “watch over” or “preserve,” in this context it means an active “keeping,” i.e., “observing” His commandments, and this love-obedience expresses relationship with Jesus and the Father.

It can be said that failing to understand the true meaning of relationship with God has led to some perilous and abusive attitudes that fail to exemplify our relationship with Him. Skye Jethani describes four inappropriate applications, or as he describes it postures, in our relationship with God. Following are adaptations of his insights.[8]

Life From God: wanting God’s blessings and gifts without any particular interest in God Himself.

Life Over God: relationship is wanting because God is “abandoned in favor of proven formulas with controllable outcomes – accommodate worldly principles to accomplish godly goals.”

Life For God: finding significance and fulfillment by accomplishing great things in God’s service, and unfortunately if we fail to perceive God’s affirmation, we will look to others to affirm our efforts, and if we receive neither we become despondent.

Life Under God: seeing our relationship and the things we expect from Him – blessing for our lives, families, nation, work, etc., should be accomplished by determining what He approves or disapproves and “work vigilantly to remain within those boundaries” (sometimes expressed in terms of “legalism,” strict adherence to ridged “do’s and don’ts”, “worldliness vs. holiness,” etc.

How does this express a true relationship? Where’s the love? Where’s the fellowship? We may know about God, but do we know God? Jethani observes, “Language about having a ‘personal relationship with Christ’ has become cliché in many evangelical communities, including the Christian colleges…” He asserts, “Admiration and respect” may be evident, as well as dedication to service, “but personal knowledge of God” is “largely absent.” He concludes, “…the call to a life of intimate communion with God is largely absent today.”[9]

While there can be no basis that by following Jesus we are free from moral obligations, what is often overlooked in the “love-obedience” aspect is this: Our love and obedience for Christ expresses a relationship, a fellowship with Him, and our relationship with Jesus opens the door for a relationship with the Father

We Will Come and Make Our Abode…

When our love for Jesus is expressed by our commitment to obey His commandments, Jesus says that the Father will love the believer. It is the same love the Father expresses towards His Son because Jesus expressed His love for His Father through His obedience to the Father: “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:9-10).

Make Our Abode

When Jesus gives His disciples the promise that in His Father’s house there are many “dwelling places” (John 14:2, KJV, “mansions”), He uses the same word as we find in verse 23 meaning “abode.” In verses 2-3, however, Jesus is speaking of a future dwelling place prepared for us and we will “move in” when He comes again.

In verse 23 Jesus isn’t speaking of a future dwelling for believers in the New Jerusalem descending to a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1f), but a “real-time” abiding of both the Father and the Son!

  • “If a man truly loves Jesus Christ he will keep Christ’s word…This leads to the further thoughts that the Father will love that man and that both the Father and the Son will come to make their dwelling with him. ‘Abode’ will have its full force. Jesus is not speaking of a temporary lodgment, but of a permanent dwelling…John is not thinking of the second coming, nor of the post-resurrection appearances, but of that state of the believer by which he experiences the immediate presence of the Deity.”[10]

The issue in hosting God’s presence is relationship, something He had with Adam and Eve in the Garden before the fall, something that He desires of us, for we are made in His image and likeness in order to establish a relationship.

To restore that relationship, Jesus, just as the angel revealed to Joseph, became Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 2:21-23). All other so-called gods expect men to ascend to them, it is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who descended to man, took up His abode with man, lived as a man, was tempted as a man, but overcame sin as a man, and gave His life so that others can overcome the power and penalty of sin.

He did this so He could establish what sin had broken – relationship.

This Christmas, is Jesus standing and knocking at your door? He desires fellowship with you. He desires a relationship with you?

Show Him some hospitality. Open the door. Make room for Him in your life. Once in your life, nurture that relationship through feeding upon His Word, drinking in His presence through prayer.

Relationship is the gift He desires from you and He desires to give to you.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

Merry Christmas!

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois (2014), 184. [2] “…in Jewish traditions, hospitality to guests and strangers (in Hebrew, hachnasat orchim) has been elevated to one of the essential religious obligations…This mitzvah [commandment] has developed into a means of showing personal and community concern for travelers and other guests.” Ronald H. Isaacs, The Bible: Where Do You Find It and What Does It Say, Jason Aronson Inc.: Northvale, New Jersey (2000), 90. [3] Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, William Morrow and Company, Inc: New York (1991), 534. [4] Kenneth E Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, IVP Academic An imprint of InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois (2008), 28. See also Keener, 185. [5] Ibid. [6] One popular tradition based upon a stable separated from a house, or inn, is that of a nearby cave serving as a stable. [Keener, 185]. [7] Lewis, J. P. (1999). 32 אָהַל. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament(electronic ed., p. 15). Chicago: Moody Press. [8] Skye Jethani, Reimaging the Way You Relate to God: With, Thomas Nelson: Nashville (2011), 6-7. [9] Ibid., 12, 16. [10] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, Michigan (1971), 654.

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