Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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“Keep out!” I stood there with my hands on my hips staring at the signs on my brothers’ fort. “Boys only!”  I yelled into the curtained doorway, “I don’t want to go in your fort – it should say ‘Stupid boys only!’”  But the truth is I did. I wanted to go in just because they said I couldn’t. I wanted to go in to show them they were not better than me and they couldn’t shut me out.  But mama said “No. Give the boys their space.” Fine. It was probably full of stupid boy stuff anyway. 

In the center of the people of Israel stood an elaborate tent – a tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord God. Not just anyone could enter the tabernacle. Only “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry” (Heb 9:6). Within the tabernacle was another space, and it was even more exclusive than the outer space. “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year” (v. 7a). There might as well have been signs saying, “Keep out!” “High Priest only!” Why so particular about who entered and when? Because this was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord God dwelt. Admittance was strictly limited and access carried great responsibility. The writer of Hebrews noted that when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement he was “never without blood which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (v. 7b). It was a ritual that had to be followed to the letter with the high priest bathing and putting on his holy garments, presenting the blood of animals first for himself and then again for the sins of the community (see Leviticus 16). The people were declared clean for another year, but they were still kept out of God’s presence. Why? Because, while the sins were atoned for by the blood of the sacrifices, the guilt of their sin remained.  They would never have “a clear conscience.” The memory of their sin would always be with them, like a stain that could never be washed away and no one can enter God’s presence with stains. Something more was needed, something that could do what the blood of goats and bulls could not – make men clean enough for God.

Hebrews: Jesus is Enough

I have great respect and appreciation for my pastor. He preaches the Word of God without compromise. He serves his church wholeheartedly. He has been a blessing to my family in times of need. He encourages me and cares about me. But he can’t save me. He can’t take on my sin and declare me righteous. He can’t bear my burdens and weaknesses. He can be my pastor, but he can’t be my high priest. But Jesus can. 

The author of Hebrews said, “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . .” (4:14). That probably doesn’t mean much to us as twenty-first century Protestants, but context is important. The Jewish people, like all people, were a sinful bunch. God made provision for them through the high priest, who, once a year, entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the place where God dwelled and presented a sacrifice for the atonement for them. This was repeated every year because, as we’ll see later, the blood of animals was a temporary solution to an eternal problem.

Jesus is our “great high priest” who didn’t just enter the earthly dwelling place of God, but He went right into heaven, into God’s very presence to present Himself as our sacrifice of atonement. Once. But once was enough. He alone could do that for us because He is the Son of God. Remember that the original readers were Jews who depended on the yearly sacrifice and atonement. They needed to hold firmly to their confidence that what Jesus did for them once was enough to make them righteous – and keep them righteous before God.

What does that mean for you and me? The same thing. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, which He presented personally to His Father, we are righteous. We have to hold firmly to that as our defining truth. Not just in an ethereal way, but in practical ways every day. When we face choices we remember that we have been declared righteous, and we choose accordingly. When the flesh craves something ungodly, we remember that we have been declared righteous and we deny our flesh. When we would react out of anger or fear or discouragement we remember that we have been declared righteous and we respond as a child of God – with peace and trust and hope. Jesus did it all for you, Beloved. Now hold firmly to Him. He is enough.

Once and For All

Picture of a wooden Christian cross on St. Cuthbert’s Isle, Holy Island, Northumberland. St Cuthbert’s Isle is a small island used as a retreat by both Aidan and Cuthbert.

Picture of a wooden Christian cross on St. Cuthbert’s Isle, Holy Island, Northumberland. St Cuthbert’s Isle is a small island used as a retreat by both Aidan and Cuthbert.

Read Leviticus 16

“He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself.” Hebrews 7:27

In a dusty, desert wasteland, a man slowly unties a rope from the goat’s neck. His fingers trace the dried blood on the goat’s forehead, where a few hours before the priest had laid his hands. The transfer of sin is complete. All that remains is for it to be removed from the camp.

The man slaps the animal’s rump and it jumps. It runs a few paces, then stops and looks back. “Go on,” the man yells. “Run. Run away!” He claps his hands. He chases the goat. And it runs. But it keeps looking back, hesitating, waiting and wondering if the man will change his mind.

But the man doesn’t change his mind—he can’t. When he is sure the goat has gone far enough, he turns to leave. He makes the dusty journey back alone, without the sound of trotting hooves or bleating to keep him company. The sin of the Israelites has been temporarily atoned for, sent away on the head of the goat that was left in the desert.

The Day of Atonement was Israel’s most solemn holy day. On that day, God made a way for his sinful people to set things right with him, the Holy One of Israel. But like the scapegoat that kept looking back, sin and guilt always returned. Year after year, goat after goat, the ritual was repeated: One goat slaughtered to atone for sin, the other sent far into the wilderness to remove the presence of guilt. But it wasn’t enough. It merely symbolized what was to come.

When Jesus died on the cross and was banished to the tomb, he fulfilled the requirement for the two goats on the Day of Atonement. His sacrificial death on the cross atoned for our sin, finally making us one with God for all time. His journey to death removed our guilt for all time. He took our sins with him to the pit of hell, just as the scapegoat was banished into the solitary wasteland.

It was a high price to pay. The scapegoat didn’t have a choice, but Jesus did. He chose to die because of his unfathomable love for us. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.[1]

[1] American Folk Hymn