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Category Archives: Beginning of the church

A Hospitality of Believers

How would you like to host a church in your home?  A number of women in the early years of the church opened their homes for prayer, study, and worship, even when it was not easy to follow Jesus Christ.  Because there were no official meeting places for Christians, they met in various homes to worship and share their faith in Jesus Christ.

Also, Christians met privately because Jewish and Roman authorities persecuted many of the faithful (Acts 8:3, Acts 12). Stephen was murdered for his bold declaration of truth. The apostle James was beheaded as a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Christians in the early years of the church “were unprotected by any civil power, and exposed, therefore, to the full blaze and rage of persecution. That the church was not destroyed, was owing to the protection of God.”[1]

Courage of hospitality in troubled times

 Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also…[and] put him in prison (Acts 12:1-4).

 Although it was at times dangerous for Christians in Jerusalem, Mary (the mother of John Mark) made her home a meeting place for believers. Mary’s house may have been where Jesus and the twelve disciples kept the Passover.[2] Tradition says the upper room of her home may have been where Jesus’ followers received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 1:5, 12-13). After the apostle Peter’s miraculous release from prison, he made his way to Mary’s house to inform the believers who prayed for him there (Acts 12:5-16).

St. Mark Syriac inscription

St. Mark Syriac inscription (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How long were Christians able to meet in Mary’s home? Was she among the believers “scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” because of persecution? (Acts 8:1) Scripture doesn’t say what happened to Mary. Tourists in Jerusalem today can visit what is thought to be the location of her house. The 800-year-old St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church is said “to be built over a much older structure.”[3] Visitors are told to “look for the ancient inscription carved into a stone wall, written in ancient Syriac language and said to date to the sixth century CE, the inscription states: This is the house of Mary, mother of John Mark.[4] 

Believers Hosting Churches

After Paul established congregations in Asia Minor, men and women converted to the faith, met in one another’s homes. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila hosted a church in their home in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19) and later in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). Paul mentioned facing a crisis in Ephesus and that Priscilla and Aquila saved his life. “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:3-4).

Lydia, a successful businesswoman in Philippi, opened her home, which became “perhaps the first Christian church being formed therein [in Philippi].”[5] When Paul was miraculously released from prison, he went to Lydia’s home to encourage the believers there (Acts 16:40).

It is not clear if the host of the church in Laodicea was Nympha, a woman, or Nymphas, a man. “Most scholars agree that this person was a woman, Nympha,”[6] though nothing more is said of the individual. Apphia was probably the wife of Philemon and co-host of a home church in Colossae. Archippus, thought to be Philemon’s son, was the pastor of the Christians who met in their home (Col. 4:17). Phoebe, a leading member of the church in Corinth, hosted believers in her home in Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1).

It is probable that Christians followed the pattern of home churches for at least 300 years until Constantine made Christianity his official religion. The hundreds of men and women who hosted small groups of Christians in their homes comprised a “hospitality of believers.” They played an important part in spreading the gospel and strengthening the church.—Mary Hendren

[1] Barnes’ Online Commentary, note on Acts 8:3

[2] NKJV Study Bible, Second edition, note on Acts 1:13

[4] Same source

[5] Herbert Lockyer, All the Women of the Bible, p. 85.

[6] Theresa M. Doyle-Nelson, in “House Churches in the New Testament,”

Won’t you come in?

My ninety-two-year-old mother is my living example of hospitality. She lives in a condo and manages to connect with all of her neighbors. A common query when we drop her off after an excursion of some kind is, “Won’t you come in?”  If we take her up on the invitation, she typically offers us a beverage of some kind, or possibly a meal.

Mom is also very aware of others’ needs and tries to address them in her endearing graceful way, which ranges from sharing coupons, to placing daily newspapers outside her neighbor’s door, to making phone calls, to taking snacks to church. She is, plain and simply, a people person.

Over the years I have met others, some of my mother’s generation but not all, who share stories of feeding the less fortunate who come to their doors—as they did especially during the depression years—and on some occasions letting strangers who have no place to go spend the night in their homes or on their property.

Today demonstrations or even requirements of being hospitable vary throughout the nations of the world. However, our topics for the next posts will concentrate on the common threads of hospitality woven throughout the Old and New Testaments.

In New Testament times

The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia  (Strong’s NT:5381), “love of strangers” (philos, “loving,” xenos, “a stranger”).  Adam Clarke comments with regard to Paul’s exhortation not to forget to entertain strangers found in Hebrews 13:2: “In those early times, when there were scarcely any public inns or houses of entertainment, it was an office of charity and mercy to receive, lodge, and entertain travelers; and this is what the apostle particularly recommends.”

The other New Testament references to being hospitable are: Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; and 1 Peter 4:9.

What was the cultural backdrop to these comments? How did New Testament Christians understand Paul’s words? Following are some interesting tidbits I uncovered in my research.

You’re staying for how long?

Joseph Gift, in his Life and Customs in Jesus’ Time offers an interesting perspective. He says that three days were considered the normal extent to which one could presume on the hospitality of others. He goes on the cite H. Clay Turnbull: “In case a guest seems disposed to prolong his stay beyond the ‘three days of grace,’ his host will suggest to him, on the morning of the fourth day, that as he is now one of the family, there is such and such household work to be done, in which he can bear his part; and so he is set at work for his living” (pages 61-62).

Français : Biskra - Tente de Bédoins

Français : Biskra – Tente de Bédoins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lion Encyclopedia of the Bible agrees: “Among the nomadic, tent-dwelling people, a traveler was always welcome to stay—for three days and four hours!—the length of time the hosts believed their food sustained their guest. Flat loaves of bread and milk were basic to the menu. For the time of his stay the traveler became one of the clan” (“Meals,” page 187).


Gift continues that simple hospitality meant the host should provide rest and food for a guest. As meals were often taken in the open, “strangers could come and go during the progress of a meal” (page 62). Offering a stranger a cup of water (or requesting a cup of water) was a gesture of peace, trust and good will.

An invited guest could expect a welcoming kiss, and the act of having one’s feet washed. An enlightening verse with regard to the latter is found in 1 Timothy 5:9-10: “Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.”


Women customarily served meals to the guests, and according to at least one source ate elsewhere. Guests would either kneel on cushions or mats around a low table (possibly a meal tub turned upside down), or, if in a wealthier home, recline on couches (which may be alluded to in John 13:23-25).

Personal services

Fred Wight comments that the custom of anointing guests with oil “is an ancient one among nations of the East (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, 1953, page 75), and cites Luke 7:46 where Jesus reminds Simon the Pharisee that he, Simon, had not performed traditional acts of hospitality. The Woman’s Study Bible in its note “Sinner at Simon’s House” says Jesus “reminded them [Simon the Pharisee’s guests] that this woman had performed the common courtesies due any invited guest.”

Français : Lavement des pieds de Saint Pierre ...

Français : Lavement des pieds de Saint Pierre par Jésus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Public accommodations

I found an entry in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia filled in some blanks. People were not always housed in private homes as is explained by the following: “…in New Testament times, if not earlier, and even at present, a room was set apart in each village for the use of strangers, whose expenses were borne by the entire community.” It mentions some feel the manger where Jesus was born (Luke 2:7) could fall into that category.

Ramifications in the New Testament church

Additionally, with regard to the growth of New Testament churches, the encyclopedia further comments: “As the first Christian churches were founded, the exercise of hospitality took on a new aspect, especially after the break with the Jews had begun. Not only did the traveling Christian look naturally to his brethren for hospitality, but the individual church looked to the traveler for fostering the sense of unity of the church throughout the world. Hospitality became a virtue indispensable to the well-being of the church….”

Reading through new lenses

Though mine has been a very brief exploration of New Testament hospitality, I find I read the following scriptures with a new understanding of the subtleties  they contain:  Mark 6:8-10; Mark 9:41; Matthew 10:11, 41, 42; Matthew 25:43; Matthew 25:35; and Luke 10:7.


The next post or two will explore hospitality in the Old Testament.

Meet Dorcas

Acts 9:36-43

36 At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha , which is translated Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds which she did. 37 But it happened in those days that she became sick and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 And since Lydda was near Joppa, and the disciples had heard that Peter was there, they sent two men to him, imploring him not to delay in coming to them. 39 Then Peter arose and went with them. When he had come, they brought him to the upper room. And all the widows stood by him weeping, showing the tunics and garments which Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all out, and knelt down and prayed. And turning to the body he said, “Tabitha , arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 Then he gave her his hand and lifted her up; and when he had called the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord. 43 So it was that he stayed many days in Joppa with Simon, a tanner. NKJV


The Church of God was in its infancy, growing daily as the apostles preached and members spread the word in their own communities. It also faced great persecution from threatened Jewish authorities, often at the direction of a man named Saul (Paul).

When the astonishing word of Paul’s conversion spread, those who had fled for their lives reacted first with fear and disbelief, and then pure relief. It was the mid 30s AD, and “… the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9:31).

Her city

While the Bible doesn’t refer to a specific church at Joppa, it does mention disciples and saints who lived there (Acts 9:38, 41). It is an ancient city with a history. Joppa was part of the territory assigned to Dan; it was the delivery port for wood floated down from Lebanon for Solomon’s palace and temple (II Chron. 2:16); and it was the ancient seaport from which Jonah tried to run from God (Jonah 1:3).

Even pirates roamed its waters from time to time. Josephus mentions Joppa’s rough shores contributing to shipwrecks and death (The Wars of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 9:3)—a likely cause of widowhood for some in Joppa.

Her story

To the eye of a casual observer, Joppa probably looked and functioned like any other city of its size. But within its hustle and bustle, a disciple named Tabitha* (Dorcas in the Greek) earned a reputation for doing good works and charitable deeds. Was she a philanthropist who supported local widows out of her own resources, or did she belong to a community of widows that was active among the disciples at Joppa? Whichever the case, the Scriptures record that she made tunics and garments as at least part of her charitable deeds.

Then “it came to pass in those days that she was sick and died” (Acts 9:37). The disciples in Joppa knew Peter was in nearby Lydda, some ten miles away. Knowing of the miracles that often accompanied his preaching, they sent two men to the Apostle imploring him to come to Joppa quickly.

Arriving a few hours later, grief-stricken widows greeted Peter, mourning the loss of their beloved friend. Clearing the room where she lay, Peter prayed and said, “Tabitha, arise.” She opened her eyes, her life restored! Word of the miracle quickly spread throughout the environs, and “many believed in the Lord” (verse 42).


Peter remained in Joppa for a time and another miracle occurred—the vision that led to the opening of salvation to the Gentiles (Acts 10). And though the church at large continued to grow, rumblings of discontent and fears of sedition troubled the land. Jewish unrest grew under the tightening control of the Romans, making confrontations inevitable and frequent. Military forces moved down the coast of Palestine, burning and destroying cities as they went. In the fall of 66 AD, an army was ordered to take the walled city of Joppa by surprise, and keep it, if possible.

Meeting with no resistance, Josephus records that “soldiers fell on them, and slew them all, with their families [some 8,400 residents by his account], and then plundered and burned the city” (Wars of the Jews, Book 2.Ch.18,10). And so the place that had witnessed the mighty works of God a few decades earlier was no more.

The Bible is silent as to the fate of Dorcas and the rest of the saints in Joppa. But her story continues to bear witness, to any who might care to read, of the miraculous power of God and, of a woman who ministered, not with words, but with charitable deeds.

*Referred to as Dorcas throughout.

Dorcas: The Historical Backdrop

The birth of the church

Fifty days after Jesus’ last Passover, a tremendous miracle occurred. On the day of Pentecost His disciples gathered together, waiting as instructed for “the promise of the Father.” First they heard a sound from heaven as of a “rushing mighty wind,” and then tongues of fire sat upon each of them filling them with the Holy Spirit. Devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem were drawn to the source of the commotion, astounded to hear the disciples proclaiming the wonderful works on God in the listener’s own language.

This event marked the beginning of the New Testament church and the spreading of the Gospel message . It also marked the beginning of a concerted effort by Jewish authorities to stamp out this movement before it gained traction.

Reactions to Peter’s powerful sermon recorded in Acts 2 didn’t help matters.  Three thousand were baptized (verse 41). Jewish authorities watched and fretted as the apostles continued preaching and 5000 more believed (Acts 4:4). Multitudes in Jerusalem became disciples, including priests (Acts 6:7). And eventually converts became churches that spread throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9:31). Something had to be done!

Futile efforts

To start with, the Sadducees, angered by what Peter and John were preaching, had them arrested. This only served to galvanize the believing multitude and fueled its determination to stay together and care for one another’s needs (Acts 4:32-37).

The Sadducees and the high priest, indignant at the signs and wonders done by the apostles and at the continuing increase of converts, again had the apostles put in prison. God responded by miraculously setting them free (5:19-25).

The Jews’ frustration and outrage grew murderous, and human lives were on the line.

The first martyr

Stephen, one of seven men selected to administer the care of poor widows, was full of faith and power, and did great wonders and signs among the people (6:8). He also was a powerful speaker and apologist, which ultimately led to his stoning and death. His martyrdom signaled the beginning of great persecution on the church, often at the hands of a man named Saul (Paul). Relentlessly he wreaked “havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (8:3).

A change in direction

God had other plans for Saul. Acts 9 contains the account of God’s intervention and Paul’s conversion. His misguided, hurtful zeal quenched, Paul himself began to further the spread of the Gospel, giving welcome relief to the persecuted fledgling church. The Bible says, “Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (9:31).

And Dorcas?

It is possible that Dorcas was among those converted during this time. The Bible doesn’t say.

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