“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:1-2)
Whenever I read this verse, I picture it being read out loud with an east coast accent. The word “unawares” just simply sounds like something one of the Jersey Shore characters might use. I mean, who uses that word? Apparently this is one of those words that the ESV translators decided to keep from the KJV legacy. The NET, NIV, NLT, and NAU all translate it much better (e.g., “without knowing it”).
Anyway, after the author commands his readers to continue (menet?) having brotherly love (philadelphia), he moves on towards providing what I’d call somewhat of a motivating factor towards nuancing the command to avoid neglecting to be hospitable. He writes that some of those who have shown hospitality have actually entertained angels!
Quick Greek lesson: here, the Greek word for “angel” is angelous. Sometimes this word is also translated as “messenger,” so the context helps determine the lexical range. So one question I had when I was growing up was , Are we talking about angels or messengers?
You see, we find evidence in early canonical and non-canonical writings that there were traveling evangelists and traveling prophets (cf. the Didache). In fact, in 3 John 1:5-7 the apostle John encouraged believers to make effort towards receiving, taking care of, and sending certain “strangers” who were serving the name of Christ. This is contrasted with 2 John, where John warns Christians from being welcoming of false teachers. Both epistles emphasize the need for truth and love.
So there’s good reason to ask whether or not the “angels” of Heb. 13:2 are heavenly beings or human messengers. It’s not just because some people want to deny supernatural elements of the NT.
But, I think the angels here in Hebrews 13:2 are, in fact, heavenly beings. Here’s why:
(1) The “shock value” would be absolutely missed if these were human messengers. The verse would have been understood as saying, “do not neglect to show hospitality to people you don’t know because they may be human messengers even though you don’t know it.” It simply makes no sense. The readers would have thought, “Duh! We knew they were human messengers. We’re not that stupid.” And yes, you can picture that conversation happening with whatever accent you’d like. But to find out that entertaining strangers may have actually turned out to be entertaining heavenly beings w0uld certainly motivate one’s lack of hospitality to become more hospitable. Last I checked, angels are in heaven and probably talk to God, so we want a good report, right?
Now it’s possible that the author of our text could be utilizing “shock value” to support the idea that these angels were human messengers. I suppose that in the 1st century there may have been a lot of excitement about how quickly the gospel was spreading and that when people found out that the small group of people that they hosted in their house were missionaries, they might have been shocked and excited and motivated to continue showing hospitality. It’s certainly a possibility. I just don’t think it makes the best sense of the text. And here’s why…
(2) Hebrews 13:2 seems to be an allusion to Genesis 18, where Abraham has a visit with several heavenly beings. Paul Ellingworth notes this by writing,
“The exhortation is supported by an allusion to Abraham’s welcome to three “men” (Gn. 18:2, 16), one of whom promises that Sarah will have a son; these visitors are apparently identified with the “two angels” (19:1, cf. 15f.) who visit Lot in Sodom, but decline his offer of hospitality (v. 2). The Testament of Abraham emphasizes Abraham’s hospitality to all (Recension A, 1:2; cf. 2:2), and describes at length his welcome of the archangel Michael, “not knowing who he was” (Recension B, 2:2).” (Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews : A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 695)
While the Testament of Abraham is a pseudepigraphic text and not part of the Bible, it helps us understand one way in which Genesis was understood by Jews. And it gives us insight into what appears to be an allusion in Hebrews 13 pointing back to Genesis 18.
These two reasons convince me that early Christians were showing hospitality to angels, heavenly beings.
One question remains: Do Christians who show hospitality today sometimes entertain heavenly beings too?
What do you think?