Louise suffers from muscular dystrophy. While trying to exit a train station one day, she found herself facing a large flight of stairs without an elevator or escalator. On the verge of tears, Louise saw a man suddenly appear, pick up her bag, and gently help her up the stairs. When she turned to thank him, he was gone.
Michael was late for a meeting. Already stressed from a relationship breakdown, he started battling London’s traffic only to get a flat tire. As he stood helplessly in the rain, a man stepped out of the crowd, opened the boot (trunk), jacked up the car, and changed the wheel. When Michael turned to thank him, he was gone.
Who were these mysterious helpers? Kind strangers, or something more?
The popular image we have of angels as radiant or winged creatures is only half true. While some appear this way (Isaiah 6:2; Matthew 28:3), others come with dusty feet, ready for a meal (Genesis 18:1–5) and are easily mistaken for everyday people (Judges 13:16). The writer of Hebrews says that by showing hospitality to strangers, we can entertain angels without realizing it (13:2).
We don’t know if Louise and Michael’s helpers were angels. But according to Scripture, they could have been. Angels are at work right now, helping God’s people (Hebrews 1:14). And they can appear as ordinary as a person on the street.
At the time Jesus spoke these words, most homes used small oil lamps for lighting, which were most effective placed on a lampstand. Scholars are uncertain of the author, date, and audience of the book of Hebrews, but it appears to be written for Jews (Hebrews) who are evaluating the claims of Jesus or struggling with their faith. Chapters 1–10 point to the superiority of Christ to the angels, Moses, and the high priests.
In chapter 13, the author concludes his letter with final exhortations. Verse 1 begins with a call to maintain brotherly love and then verse 2 encourages readers to go further by extending love to strangers (those outside the community) by offering meals and lodging. This command is reinforced by the observation that some people “have shown hospitality to angels” without knowing it, and points to Abraham, Gideon, and Manoah and his wife’s encounters (Genesis 18:2, 16; Judges 6:11; 13:2–11). Verse 3 calls readers to remember (and extend empathy) to prisoners and the mistreated.