The Jolly Sandboys was a small road-side inn of pretty ancient date . . . A mighty fire was blazing on the hearth and roaring up the wide chimney with a cheerful sound . . . It is not very difficult to forget rain and mud by the side of a cheerful fire, and in a bright room.
— Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
A far cry from today’s coldly commercial business hotel, the British inn of Dickens’s day was more in keeping with Bible times, when a wayfarer would take lodging in the home of a local resident. In fact, the notion of paying for a night’s room and board was almost unknown under the code of hospitality in the ancient Near East, where private citizens welcomed passers-by to sleep and sup. The picture of the open door offering shelter, comfort, and companionship runs throughout Scripture as testimony to God’s gracious provision and protection.
The first Bible story that jumps to mind in this Christmas season is the narrative of the Nativity: A road-weary couple, turned away from an establishment already full with others travelling to Bethlehem for the census, finds shelter in the cave-stable behind the innkeeper’s house (Luke 2:1-7). But the motif of the inn begins long before the New Testament record.
God created Adam and Eve and set eternity in their hearts, with no plan to bar them from the Tree of Life (Eccl. 3:11; Gen. 2:15; 3:23-24). But ever since we left the Garden of Eden, this world has not been our home (Heb. 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11). We are all in need of a roof and a welcoming host, as many early Bible stories attest:
- Noah’s Ark was God’s temporary refuge for family and animals needing shelter from His storm of judgment (Gen. 6:11-14; 7:15-16).
- Lot offered supper and a bed to two angels, who rescued him from a malicious mob by shutting the door of his house against them (Gen. 19:1-11).
- Abraham’s servant, in search of a wife for Isaac, was invited overnight into the household of Rebekah’s father (Gen. 24:23-27).
- Jacob fled to stay with Uncle Laban in Haran until his brother’s fury abated (Gen. 27:43-44).
- Ruth took refuge “under the wings” of her kinsman-redeemer (Ruth 2:8-12; 3:9).
- Moses met with God at a lodging house on the road to Egypt, but soon the Lord would welcome His people into a more suitable meeting place—the Tabernacle, God’s own “inn on earth” (Exod. 4:24; Ps. 65:4; 84:10; 122:1).
More than just isolated biblical examples speak of the inn. The Israelites had a habit of housing within their gates foreigners whom they were to treat as their own; they had themselves once been strangers in a strange land and knew the heart of the sojourner (Exod. 23:9; Lev. 19:34; see also 1 Pet. 2:10-11). Israel celebrated the fact of God’s ownership and her tenancy under Him by passing along to those living among them the hospitality, forgiveness, provision, and justice they themselves enjoyed (Lev. 25:23, 35-38; Deut. 10:18-19). Six towns in ancient Israel served as cities of refuge for anyone committing unintentional manslaughter (Num. 35:9-15; Josh. 20:9). But God Himself is our refuge, our safe “inn,” as the Psalmist reiterated time and again (Ps. 7:1; 18:2; 34:8; 46:1; 57:1; 61:3-4; 118:8):
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers (Ps. 39:12).
Someday in the future, the prophets declared, as God had shown Himself through cloud and fire to His desert-wandering people, He would again show His glory like a tent for Israel, sheltering them in safety and peace (Isa. 4:5-6).
The OT God, who shut the gates of Eden against Adam and Eve, in the NT reopened the way to Heaven through His Son (John 10:7; 14:6). The sin that crouched at the door of Cain’s heart, a tyrannical guest waiting to devour him, was now expiated by the substitutionary atonement of the One who was refused hospitality Himself by the people He came to save (Gen. 4:6-7; John 1:29-31; Mark 6:3-4).
During His ministry on earth, Jesus and his disciples stayed in the homes of welcoming friends (even “sinners”!) as they travelled about the countryside (Luke 10:38; 19:7; John 4:39-40; Acts 18:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:5-7; Philem. 1:22). Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, who cared for a beat-up, half-dead stranger, who paid out-of-pocket for a bed and medical care at a local inn—as the outcast Jesus Himself was willing to seek out and save perishing wayfarers (Luke 10:33-35). The NT teaches about this attitude of hospitality that should typify believers (Matt. 25:35-40; see also 1 Pet. 4:9).
Jesus Christ is the very Door to the sheltering sanctuary of God (John 10:9).
The risen Christ desires intimate fellowship with His children; He stands outside the door of our hearts, knocking and waiting to be let in (Rev. 3:20). And our Heavenly Father hears us knocking on His door through prayer (Luke 11:5-10):
And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:9).
Jesus often had this idea on His mind, illustrating divine hospitality with pictures of guests and of doors opened and closed:
- The story of the wedding feast criticizes the religious leaders of Israel for rejecting God’s invitation into His kingdom; only guests properly dressed for the banquet will be received (Matt. 22:1ff).
- We must be ready for Jesus’ return, waiting in welcome for Him as guests anticipating the procession of the groom (Matt. 25:1-13).
- We are to be on guard—house servants actively awaiting the arrival of the owner, doorkeepers controlling access to His home—for when He returns, Jesus will “come in” and recline at the table with us and serve us as His guests (Mark 13:32-37; Luke 12:35-40).
- Despite God’s receiving us into the hospitality of His presence through Christ, a time is coming when entrance to the Master’s kingdom will be complete (Luke 13:22-30; see also Heb. 4:6-9). We are invited to enter today.
Two millennia ago the Bethlehem homeowner closed his door against the laboring mother who bore Christ in her womb, yet Jesus was delivered to us so that He could in turn deliver us to the doorway of Heaven, our eternal destination.
At night we win to the ancient inn / Where the child in the frost is furled, / We follow the feet where all souls meet / At the inn at the end of the world . . .
— G.K. Chesterton, A Child of the Snows