“We have an altar from which those who worship at the tabernacle do not have a right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the most holy place by the high priest as a sin offering are burned outside the camp. Therefore, Jesus also suffered outside the gate, so that he might sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing his disgrace.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
The first sermon series I ever preached was through the letter of Hebrews. I don’t honestly remember why now. It was probably because I was fresh out of seminary and feeling ready to take on the world with my preaching. I still have all those manuscripts on a hard drive somewhere. I don’t particularly want to go back and read them as they were probably all pretty bad. My congregation was gracious to remember I was fresh out of seminary and had never pastored a church before and endured them patiently. I do remember that I labeled all my sections and made sure my big idea was in bold. They would have gotten at least Bs on manuscript form alone were I still in class. I think I wound up doing the series in something like eight weeks, which after this journey of nearly eight months, I can’t even imagine. Were I to preach through Hebrews again, it would be a much longer and very different series. In those eight weeks, do you know what I didn’t cover? Chapter 13. I didn’t touch it at all. We got to chapter 12, and then went on to the next series. These four verses are a big part of why. I’m still not totally sure what to do with them. This morning is going to be a bit of an exercise in figuring it out, and you get to join me in that.
When I run into a brick wall with the Scriptures, the first place I turn is prayer. The Scriptures are God’s word above all else. If there is any understanding to be had in them, it will come from Him through His Spirit. He does not, however, always (or often) simply dump the knowledge into our brains. Diligent and faithful reading is good and important, but sometimes we have to be prepared to do some work. The next place I will turn is to other translations. Sometimes, seeing a verse in a different wording can be the spark that helps you finally get your mind and heart around it. The Message translation has often been fruitful for me in this regard.
Another good source of help is other people. Having conversations with other believers about a particular passage to find out what they have understood about it can be very helpful. At some point, though, if a lack of understanding persists, it’s wise to go and find out what the experts have thought about. That’s where commentaries come into play. By God’s grace, I have a few commentaries on the shelves around my office. So, I pulled down a couple of Hebrews commentaries and started reading. The first one I opened was from one of the most highly respected New Testament scholars in the world. Imagine my surprise and relief, then, when his chapter on this particular passage acknowledged that he really wasn’t sure what to do with this passage. I’m going to keep working through some thoughts this morning, but after reading that, I am not going to even begin to pretend that I understand exactly what’s going on here.
The author here seems to be doing a few different things. I think both the historical context of the letter and the context of the letter itself can give us some insight. On the historical context side of things, most scholars put the authorship of Hebrews sometime in the 60s AD. This was just a few years before Rome came and conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple completely to punish the Jews for their persistent attempts at rebellion. This happened in 70 AD. At about this point in history and almost certainly with Jesus’ warnings from Matthew’s Olivet Discourse in mind, followers of Jesus in Jerusalem started to leave the city. They were watching the signs and heeding Jesus’ warnings. Things would not have gone well for those who remained.
Given that, it could be that the author here is offering up a kind of coded call to leave the city to the believers who were still living there. It is entirely possible that his audience understood him in ways we don’t because of a lack of precise knowledge of the current cultural context, but which they had. We do well not to forget that no one writes a letter that is intentionally opaque to its intended recipients. The whole point of communication is to be understood. Just because we don’t understand something as completely as we would like to does not at all mean its original recipients did not either.
From the standpoint of the context of the letter itself, the author has been arguing for twelve chapters that the new covenant is greater than the old. In v. 9, he reminded his audience that they needed to not be led astray by strange new teachings. As an example of these, he cited Jewish dietary restrictions. At first read, this seems a little odd, but going back to the historical context, the call, invitation, and demand for Jews to more fully embrace their Jewishness in the final years before Rome’s conquest in 70 AD was surely reaching a fever pitch. There were likely Jewish apologists making the case to anyone who would listen that leaning back into the Law was going to be the means by which they would secure God’s favor and help in finally defeating their Roman oppressors. The efforts to intentionally exclude Jews who had embraced Jesus as Messiah would have been vigorous.
It could be, then, that there is an element of making a counter-apology here. The Jews were telling the Jesus followers that they couldn’t participate in the altar and its sacrifices and thus the blessings that were thought to come from them. Well, neither could they participate in the altar of the followers of Jesus. He sets up a kind of parallel comparison between the two with the Day of Atonement as his point of contact. When sin offerings were brought into the temple, the animals were killed on the altar, the blood was collected there, but the bodies of the animals were taken outside the camp or the city to be destroyed. This is all laid out in Leviticus 16.
In a similar way, when Jesus suffered and died as a sacrifice for our sins, that all happened outside the city. If we are going to benefit from His sacrifice, though, we can’t wait for Him to come back in to get us. We have to go to Him, to embrace the disgrace He bore, and to receive the covering of His blood. And, because this all happens outside the gates, there are no restrictions as to who can participate in it. For the Jews, only other Jews could be covered by the atonement because you had to be in the temple to receive the blessing. Not so with Jesus’ sacrifice. Anyone can go to Him and enjoy the blessing of His altar.
But the author says those who worship at the tabernacle don’t have a right to eat at this altar. How is it for everyone if they are excluded? It is for everyone, but you have to be willing to go to Jesus in order to receive it. The Jews who were seeking their righteousness in the Law were going to have to leave behind the temple and all that it represented if they were going to be able to receive the real righteousness of God through Christ.
As long as a person isn’t willing to leave behind his past attempts to be right with God through a variety of other means, the sacrificial offering of Jesus will remain inaccessible to him. This, I think, is the connection point for us here. If we are seeking righteousness in other places, we have to give that up entirely if we are going to receive the righteousness that comes through Christ Jesus. You cannot be right with God by two different means. Jesus is the only way. Holding onto some other means as a backup necessarily means you are not entrusting your whole self into His hands. Until you are willing to do that, to forsake all others in order to give yourself wholly to Him, you won’t be able to have Him.
Thinking about the marriage series we have been in on Sunday mornings, this is why the marriage relationship is such a good point of comparison for the relationship we have with Christ. You cannot give yourself to your spouse if you are simultaneously maintaining romantic, intimate relationships with other people. Until you are willing to forsake all other relationships and reform them through the lens of this new one, you won’t be able to enjoy marriage. Until you are willing to forsake all other sources of righteousness (acknowledging that all of the others can offer nothing more than a false righteousness), you cannot have the righteousness of Christ. You cannot eat at His altar.
“Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing his disgrace.” Go to Jesus. It looks messy and ugly at first glance. The pathway is completely counterintuitive to how you would pursue Him if you were doing so on your own. But it is the one that will lead you there. In fact, it is the only one that will accomplish that task. Jesus’ altar and the life it offers is exclusive, but only in terms of its accessibility. It is open to everyone. I hope you will approach it and find the life it offers.