We know that many people in the original audience of Hebrews were considering apostasy because of the many exhortations in the letter to persevere (for example, Heb. 3:1–4:13; 10:19–39; 12:1–2). However, the audience was not doing everything wrong. Proof for this is found in texts such as Hebrews 13:1, where the first readers of this epistle are told to “let brotherly love continue.” To command that love continue assumes that the audience was loving one another when the epistle was written.
Today’s passage exhorts readers to “remember those who are in prison” (Heb. 13:3), but the original audience seems to have been doing well in this area also. Hebrews 10:34, for instance, says that they had visited other believers in prison, at least in the days and months immediately after their conversion. The audience knew what to do; they just needed encouragement to continue doing so.
In any case, understanding life in ancient Roman prisons helps us see the importance of the command in Hebrews 13:3. In modern Western prisons, inmates for the most part receive food, clothing, and medical care from the government. It may not be the best food, clothing, and medical care, but by and large their basic needs do not go unmet. Ancient prisoners, however, did not receive such things from the government. They depended wholly on visiting family and friends to supply their physical needs. Prisoners who received no visitors went hungry in most cases. Ancient Christians in jail needed visits from fellow believers with food, drink, and other necessities.
Hebrews 13:3 speaks primarily of prisoners in jail because of their testimony to Jesus. Thus, believers cannot look the other way when Christians around the world are jailed simply for being believers. Yet, the instruction of Hebrews 13:3 applies more broadly to visiting Christians in prison no matter the reason they are behind bars. Some people commit crimes while unconverted but later become believers while they are in prison. Others were true Christians when they broke the law, for it is possible for believers to commit grievous sins that have been criminalized by the secular authorities (for example, see 2 Sam. 11). We cannot forget these brothers or sisters either, no matter the gravity of their crimes. They need the support and encouragement of Christ’s body to continue in repentance. Visiting Christian prisoners is one way to bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2).