“Let brotherly love continue. Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
At last we come to the big finish. After twelve chapters and seven months, we are at long last on the final stretch of this incredible letter. With all of his main points now made rather thoroughly, the author closes things out with a kind of lightning round of miscellaneous advice and commands. There really isn’t a consistent theme to any of these, but there is deep wisdom in them all the same. He starts here with the rather appropriate exhortation to love, given how rooted in love is the new covenant. Let’s talk this morning about love in action.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this letter. Most of it has been about Jesus in some form or fashion. Okay, well, if you want to get really technical, all of it has been about Jesus, but some of the connections have been more direct than others. The real big idea that has been driving this whole letter, though, is this contrast between the old and new covenants. Jesus and the new covenant are better than the old. Period.
Given all the things we have talked about, as the author is coming into the final push before signing off, you would think he would start with a reminder of something that has been touched on in the letter so far. Instead, we get this: Let brotherly love continue. Now, just as a matter of clarification, this isn’t talking about some explicitly masculine virtue. He’s talking about love between and among followers of Jesus. Today we might call it a familial love, but culture then was different.
My point, though, is simply to make the observation. This seems at first glance like an unexpected place to start. A bit more thinking on it reveals a different picture. When someone has become part of the new covenant God made with us in Christ Jesus, that person has become a disciple of Jesus. I usually just use the phrase “Jesus follower.” And what is the one way Jesus said anyone will know we are one of His followers? That distinction comes when we love one another. Just as He loved us, we are to love one another.
If the point of this whole letter is to encourage people to be a part of the new covenant, and the way it is known that we are part of the new covenant is by our Christlike love for one another, then of course the author encourages us to love one another here. Keeping the Law and circumcision were the ways people knew you were a part of the old covenant. The new covenant’s indicator is love for one another.
With that clarified, he goes on to offer us some examples of what this love could and should look like. He starts with hospitality. Now, hospitality was a bigger deal in the Ancient Near East than it is today. Or, at least, a certain understanding of hospitality was a bigger deal. It was expected that someone traveling through a region would be welcomed into the home of a local to stay overnight if he could not get back to his home before nightfall. When you took in someone like this, you were obligating yourself to care for their every need until they were no longer in your care.
This was a basic cultural expectation the author didn’t want the people to stop practicing. The reasons for this could be many, but I wonder if part of it was that believers, because of their fear of persecution had stopped doing it as a matter of protection. The author wanted them to turn back from this, and the reason he gives for it is really interesting. In welcoming strangers and showing them hospitality, some folks have given shelter to angels without knowing it. We actually see this happen several times in the Old Testament. Abraham and Lot both did it. So did Samson’s mother. His point is that you wouldn’t want to miss out on this opportunity.
I wonder what this kind of thing might look like for us. Strangers are not traveling through town looking for shelter at night now like they were then. Perhaps this could look like working to build relationships with our neighbors (especially our unbelieving neighbors) so that we can be involved in their lives, helping to meet needs and give support when they need it. It could be intentionally loving and serving other members of our church families. It could also simply be looking for chances to welcome people into our homes. This could be to offer meals, friendly conversation, or even Bible study. The opportunities are numerous. We simply need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s lead in taking them when they come.
The author offers two more examples of love in action which are really one example in two forms. The example is this: have empathy for those who are hurting. That’s what both of these examples are all about. Remember those in prison as though you were in prison with them. Remember those who are being mistreated as though you were the ones being mistreated. This is what the love of Christ does. It enters into our suffering with us, suffers alongside of us, and helps us to bear the load.
This is what our love should do as well. If we have experienced the new covenant love of Jesus, this is the example for us to follow. It is consistent with what Jesus told the disciples about who will enter into His kingdom in the end. It’s not going to be from Law keeping. It will be from loving those who are the least, last, and lost, entering into their suffering with them—at least in spirit—and bringing Gospel relief by our actions toward them.
As it turns out, letting brotherly love continue is exactly the place this closing section of the letter needed to start. Everything about the new covenant flows from this point. So, let us let this same love flow in and through our own lives. Let it characterize our church communities. Let it be the thing driving us to do what we do. The advance of the kingdom requires it.