We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. (Hebrews 13:10-13)
This is a passage that has been perplexing to me for some time. I’ve always liked it; something in my heart would get really excited when I read it, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what it actually meant. I couldn’t follow how we got from eating at an altar to Jesus’ crucifixion to looking for the New Jerusalem — and what does it even mean to go to Jesus outside of the camp when he’s not still hanging there on a cross?
Yesterday, though, as I was looking at this long and hard for our commentary, it began to open up to me in a new way — and now I love it more than ever.
What’s happening is that the author is building a brilliant and complex metaphor, with each phrase building upon the last. To begin with, it’s important to note that one of the author’s foremost reasons of writing was to prevent the Hebrew believers from converting to Judaism. This is why he says in verse 10, “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.” A new order was initiated at the Cross, a new, living way by which to draw near to God and have fellowship with Him. This was not attainable through the old sacrifical system, which actually served to point to Christ as the only Way to the Father (see Hebrews 9 & 10 for the author’s extensive argument on this subject).
Continuing to look at the Old Covenant, the author of Hebrews briefly explained the sacrifice of atonement (13:10). In the ritual, the animals of sacrifice were taken outside of the camp, away from the people and the holy precincts, and burned. The animals being offered were not glorified and esteemed in the midst of the people, but rather removed and destroyed.
In this way, Jesus’ crucifixion fulfilled the prophetic picture set in the Old Covenant (13:12). When He was making atonement for the sins of His people, He was led outside of the city and slain. Yet not only did this fulfill the Levitical foreshadow, but it also symbolized the Jewish religious leaders’ rejection of Christ. He was sent out of Jerusalem, considered accursed and worthy to die.
This is where it gets personal for the Hebrews. The author exhorts them to go forth to Jesus outside the camp (13:13) — out of the Mosaic Law, the tradition of the elders, and the accepted religious system. To follow Christ would be a journey of reproach, drawing much criticism, mockery, and even persecution from the people who already hated Christ (see John 15:18-19). Following Jesus meant following Him “outside the camp,” away from what was safe and acceptable and established. There were no two ways about it.
So why would the Hebrews be motivated to leave? Why go out under scrutiny and scorn to follow Jesus rather than sit comfortably within the camp, secretly liking Jesus, but not making waves amongst their neighbors? The author gives them a very clear reason. Their destiny and identity was not in the camp. They did not need to try and fit in with a fallen culture in which they had no inheritance. The goal was not to be well received in the earthly Jerusalem, but to live for the heavenly city to come.
Although most of us have never been tempted to convert to Judaism, these verses are still tremendously applicable to us. All of us have been saved out of a society that is not in line with God, and choosing to live radically for Christ will undoubtedly draw every response from raised eyebrows to blatant rage. There is a standard cultural norm we are expected to meet—at times even within religious circles—that runs contrary to how we are instructed to live in the Word.
Especially here in the West, we run up against both the “we’re all okay” agnostic-athiesm that wants to tolerate every ideology under the sun, as well as the “sloppy agape” false grace message that allows believers to remain comfortable in compromise, offering them no higher call than the American Dream. Both groups are prone to get offended when they meet someone who is bent on radical devotion. A person who lives with uncompromising righteousness is apt to be labeled as having a “holier-than-thou” attitude. Someone who embraces the rigors of spiritual disciplines is often misperceived as elitist. Spending hours a day in prayer and the Word is seen as unbalanced, over-zealous and too extreme. Pursuit of intimacy with God runs directly against the grain of everything our society has been raised to believe in and value. Let’s face it: a lifestyle of devotion is out of the camp. WAY out of the camp.
Yet when (not if) we encounter such conflict, we can have courage to press on, knowing that our destiny and identity is in a different Kingdom. Once we have the right perspective, it does not matter so much to us whether or not we “fit in” in our present temporal state. Winning popularity contests in this age will mean nothing to us when we’re truly reaching for greatness in the age to come. When we clearly see that this world and its passions are passing away (1Jo 2:17), we will have the boldness to live for eternity, seeking a better, heavenly country (Heb 11:16).