Entertaining Angels Unawares1
One of the more intriguing exhortations in the book of Hebrews is found in chapter thirteen, verse four. Continue reading . . .
One of the more intriguing exhortations in the book of Hebrews is found in chapter thirteen, verse four. Actually, it isn’t the exhortation itself that I find fascinating but instead the reason or ground our author provides for obeying it:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:4).
This exhortation carried a lot more force back in the first century than it does for us today. In the first century world there weren’t dozens if not hundreds of hotels scattered throughout their large cities. People then were far more dependent on the generosity and hospitality of others than they are now. So he’s not really talking about whether or not in our day we should consistently invite people over for dinner. That is still an important issue, but it would more likely fall under the heading of the exhortation regarding brotherly love in Hebrews 13:1.
What’s of real interest, though, is the reason given why you should be hospitable, when you can, to strangers who might cross your path. He mentions that in times past certain people opened their homes (tents!) and were generous with their food and never knew that the so-called “people” whom they served were in fact angels.
He is probably referring to the incident in Genesis 18 where Abraham received three strangers into his tent and gave them water and bread and washed their feet. He had no idea that two of them were angels in human form and the third was probably a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Son of God (what theologians often refer to as “Christophanies”). The two angels later visited the city of Sodom and were received by Lot. You may recall that the homosexual community in Sodom found out about these two visitors and demanded that Lot turn them over so that they could have sexual relations with them! These two angels, posing as men, in turn afflicted the homosexual mob with blindness and later led Lot and his family out of the city just before God destroyed it with fire and brimstone.
Some try to dismiss the possibility that this might occur in our day. They argue that the point of the passage is simply to say that you can never know how important and far-reaching an act of kindness might be. In other words, they insist that the point of the text is that we should exercise hospitality because those whom we receive and bless may well turn out to be men and women of such honor and spiritual stature that they will more than compensate for their external accommodations by the spiritual blessings that they confer upon us.
I see no reason for embracing this sort of evasive interpretation. The fact of the matter is, we see angels appearing among humans as humans all through Scripture. They talk and can be seen and engage in normal human activities to such a degree that people are unable to discern the fact that they are angels. This doesn’t mean that angels become incarnate, as God the Son did when he became the man Christ Jesus. Somehow God empowers angels with temporary bodies so that they might interact with humans.
If you ask me why God would do this, I can only answer by pointing to the many biblical texts which speak of angels being sent to communicate God’s will to his people or being sent to serve, protect, and minister to the elect (see Hebrews 1:14) or being dispatched to accomplish some other aspect of God’s purposes on the earth. We may never know for certain why they appear, but I see no reason to dismiss the possibility that they can. So be hospitable!
By the way, if you are wondering why people would interpret a passage such as this in a way that either reduces or rules out the possibility that angels might still visit us today, it usually goes hand in hand with the doctrine of cessationism. That is to say, some who reject the contemporary validity of the more overtly supernatural spiritual gifts are equally uncomfortable with the idea that angels might actually interact with humans. They typically are people who, while not denying altogether the possibility of such encounters, minimize the miraculous and are more inclined to supply a natural or material explanation for much of what occurs in the life of God’s people.
Whereas some fall into the extreme of finding a demon behind every bush, others are no less inclined to find an angel around every corner! The fact is, such angelic visitations are miraculous and for that reason rare. So, let’s be careful lest we drift into a super-supernaturalism (as J. I. Packer describes it) at one end of the spectrum or an overly cynical naturalism at the other.