One of the distinguishing features of the Christian faith is the importance placed on love. The love of God the Father in sending His Son to die for us should promote within each believer a love for God. This in turn should be reflected in love towards each other, which is the fulfilment of our Lord’s commandment in John 13. 34. In his first Epistle John also emphasizes the fact that love towards God must be demonstrated in love towards our brothers, 4. 11,20.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews exemplifies this in chapter 13. 1-13, in which he gives a threefold exhortation as part of a series of social injunctions. The whole series may be summarized as a call to charity, w. 1-3, to chastity, v. 4, and to commitment, w. 5-6. The charity (note that the words used here are compounds of phileo, not agapao) is to be exhibited towards the brethren, v. 1, towards strangers, v. 2, and towards the suffering, v. 3. We shall consider these in order.
Love to Brethren, v. 1. The readers of the Epistle were Jewish Christians. They were not to provide any occasion of reproach from their kinsmen, and they should manifest an affection for them corresponding to their Christian beliefs; cf. Rom. 10. 1. As Christians, however, belonging to a new spiritual brotherhood, they are here exhorted to continue in their love for their brothers in Christ, a love which was already in existence, Heb. 6. 10; 10. 33, 34. Under the pressures of persecution, their weakening faith had possibly led to a weakening of the bonds that united them to their fellow Christians.
We must love all “brethren in Christ” irrespective of their virtues, status, wealth, etc. As the Psalmist wrote, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity”, 133. 1. Wherever we see the image of our Lord, there our affections should be drawn.
Love to Strangers, v. 2. The ancient world loved and honoured hospitality. The Greeks even called Zeus, their chief deity, the god of strangers and wayfarers. To us, hospitality often involves the liberal entertaining of friends, relations, or neighbours, based on a genuine kindness. The Christian is urged to greater things by the positive command to “entertain strangers" (i.e., show your love to strangers). To the recipients of this Epistle, these “strangers" could include refugees escaping persecution, slaves who had no homes, itinerant preachers such as Timothy, and Christian business people or travellers. Phoebe was probably in this latter category when the Roman Christians were told to “receive her in the Lord… assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you”, Rom. 16. 2.
If early Christians were aware of the large place into which they had entered through the One who is the Door, then their “pure religion” was to be marked by an open door. It is equally applicable today that we are to show hospitality to those who visit our assemblies. How frequently have “strangers" joined with us and have gone out again virtually unnoticed? Do we show any concern whether these visitors have any overnight accommodation? The Lord takes note of all such love for strangers, and will say, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”, Matt. 25. 40.
Love to the Suffering, v. 3. Christians were frequently imprisoned for their faith, for debt (for many were poor) and other reasons. The early church was renowned for its practical help, for its efforts to release those in custody and to provide materially and financially for those in need. Consequently it had a reputation of never neglecting those of their fellow Christians who were in trouble. They were prompted to act in this way out of a real sympathy for those who were suffering, “feeling along with them" as though they were themselves “in bonds" and suffering adversity.
There are many today who are literally in bonds, but all too frequently we forget those “in bonds" metaphorically. Confinement to a room or a home by reason of age, infirmity, or through commitment in caring for others, can be as effective an imprisonment as custody in a penal institution. There is ample opportunity for each believer to “remember them" by visiting such people and providing for them when they are in need.
Are we afraid of acknowledging the social content of the Gospel in case it becomes a social Gospel? It is well to consider that each Epistle which teaches the faith and deals with doctrinal problems, invariably concludes with a practical application. If we are to succeed both in our personal and collective witness, then it must be on the basis of an applied Christianity: “actions speak louder than words”. Our faith can be seen to be alive when evidenced by good works, for “faith without works is dead”. As Hebrews 13. 16 puts it, “to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased”; cf. Rom. 12. 13.
Therefore, let love of the brethren, actively demonstrated and irrespective of social class or race, continue.