(The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday morning, March 21, 2010)
As we head into turn number three in our study of Hebrews, we can see the finish line fast approaching. And like most track races, the finish line looks strangely familiar. In fact, the finish line is just the backside of the starting line. We are about to cross the same line, just from a different direction.
The book of Hebrews was written by an unnamed apostle to a group of Jews in Rome who had accepted Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. That’s why we call them Jewish Christians. They had repented of their sins and believed upon the name of Jesus and received the promised Holy Spirit (see Acts 2.38). But life had gotten hard for these Christians in Rome. Leaving Judaism and embracing the Christian gospel was a break from their community. A good parallel is to think of what a person who lives in the Middle East and who grew up in a Muslim family has to face when they embrace Christ. They are often ostracized from their family. Furthermore, in many Muslim nations, it is illegal to worship Christ publicly.
Much of the same kind of thing was happening in Rome. While Judaism was a legal religion in Rome, Christianity was not, and the persecution fires were getting hotter by the week. Some had already had their property confiscated (Hebrews 10.34), many had been publicly insulted (Hebrews 10.33), and some had been put into prison because of their faith in Christ (Hebrews 13.3). Surely, many Christians were aware that the loss of life couldn’t be too far away (Hebrews 12.4).
Added to the pressures of following a religion that was banned by the powerful Roman government while living in the capital city, the social pressure from the Jewish community to return to the fold must have been immense. As the gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean world through the missionary journeys of Paul and Barabbas and others, Jewish leaders would shadow their movements hoping to reclaim some of the Jews who had accepted the gospel message. In Thessalonica, the Jews started a riot in an effort to win back some of the Jews who were persuaded by the preaching of Paul and Silas. They succeeded in running the apostles out of town, but Paul and Silas continued their work in the nearby town of Berea. When the Jews of Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of god in Berea, they followed him to Berea to stir up the crowds against Paul. As a result, Paul and Silas were forced out of Berea, too (see Acts 17.1-15).
This same kind of dynamic must have been at play in Rome, too. When the gospel arrived in Rome and many Jews believed upon Jesus as the Messiah, the religious leaders among the Jews must have worked hard to counter their influence and keep a strong hold on their flock. The social pressure to remain in the Jewish fold, to uphold the Law and traditions, and to reject the new righteousness by faith offered by the gospel must have been enormous. To embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior often meant to abandon your family. Sometimes that pressure was just too great to bear.
The book of Hebrews was written to encourage the Christians in Rome to stay true to the gospel of grace, whatever the cost, and to not return to the Law. Jesus is superior to angels (Hebrews 1), Moses (Hebrews 3), the High Priest (Hebrews 5), and Melchizedek (Hebrews 7). The sacrifice of Christ was far superior to the sacrifices of the old covenant since it actually took away our sins once and for all (Hebrews 10.3-10). And the writer was not above using strong words to warn them of the dangers of turning away from the offer of salvation in Christ (Hebrews 10.26). The author wants for them to persevere to do the will of God despite the hardships and trials (Hebrews 10.36).
And as we round the turn towards the home stretch, we see the original theme that we first saw at the starting line: stay true to Christ and don’t be tempted to return to the Law. The text before us today is one of the most difficult in all of Hebrews to understand, and unfortunately, even hard to apply to our lives today. But with God’s grace, and our faith in the Living Word who continues to speak through the written Word, let us read from Hebrews 13,
7Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. 10We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. 17Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13.7-17 NIV)
What makes this paragraph of Scripture so hard to understand is that there are several phrases that are obviously connected in the mind of the writer because of the transitional connective words (for, therefore, then, etc.). On the other hand, it is hard to know how the phrases connect together. Furthermore, we have a hard enough time trying to discern what the phrases mean by themselves.
Notice that the entire section is “bookended” by the same idea. The writer tells them to remember their leaders in 13.7 and closes the section with a call to obey their leaders in 13.17. These leaders spoke the word of God to them (13.7) and had some kind of teaching authority (13.17). They lived out the gospel with their lives (13.7) as they kept watch over the flock as men who must give an account (13.17). In other words, these leaders spoke the word of God with authority to the Christians in Rome and were responsible for teaching truth and making sure the church remained in truth. The words that are contained by this instruction are to be read in light of submitting to their leaders who spoke the word of God to them and who watched over them so that they would remain in the truth.
With the context firmly set, we can wrestle with the details. There are three concepts that we will have to strive to understand. First, what were the “strange teachings” that were carrying some away? Second, what were the “ceremonial foods” and the “altar”? Finally, what does it mean for Christ, and us, to go “outside the camp”?
The “strange teaching” (Hebrews 13.9) seems to be the context for all that follows, and it seems to be related to the idea that our hearts could be strengthened by eating ceremonial foods (Hebrews 13.9). This could be a reference to the pagan sacrifices or eating the meat sacrificed to idols, a problem Paul speaks to in 1 Corinthians 8. But this would be a totally new topic in the book of Hebrews and would seem to be out of place. It could be speaking of a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper, but the idea that grace was imparted through by eating the bread and drinking the wine was an idea that would enter the church much later in time.
Instead, this is most likely a reference to the Jewish dietary laws that were such an essential part of the Jewish community. If the social pressure to return to the Jewish fold was as intense as the book of Hebrews makes us think, then it would not surprise us that the pressure upon these Jewish Christians to conform to the Jewish customs surrounding dietary restrictions and festival meals would be intense, too. This pressure would not be new to Jewish Christians because it was faced by Christians in the churches in Antioch and Colossae. In Galatians 2, Paul tells the story of confronting Peter over whether it was proper to eat with Gentiles or not (Galatians 2.11-21). Paul commanded the Christians in Colossae to refuse to allow anyone to judge what you eat or drink or with regard to religious festivals or Sabbath day regulations (Colossians 2.16). In Jewish life, what you ate and with whom you ate it was paramount to their faith, and the Jewish leaders who were luring the Christians back into Judaism must have been pushing the “strange teachings” about dietary restrictions and table fellowship.
But this particular teaching was regarding the value of ceremonial foods to strengthen the heart. This is most likely a reference to Psalm 104, a commonly used blessing for meals. The psalm reads,
He sends the springs into the valleys; They flow among the hills. 11They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12By them the birds of the heavens have their home; They sing among the branches. 13He waters the hills from His upper chambers; The earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works. 14He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, 15And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart. (Psalm 104.10-15 NKJV)
This was a common blessing of thanksgiving prayed at mealtimes, celebrating the gift of food which “strengthens our hearts.”
But the hope of the gospel is that our hearts are strengthened by something greater than mere food. Jesus said it best, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). Paul wrote that food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will destroy them both (1 Corinthians 6.13). And the writer of Hebrews tells us that our hearts are strengthened by grace, by the work of God in our lives doing only what He can do.
Verse 10 seems to be an odd and abrupt shift. The apostle proudly proclaims, “We have an altar.” Perhaps the Jews were mocking the Christians because they had left the sacrifices by which they were reconciled to God behind. The Christians were seen as pagans by the Jews since they were no longer seeking to be reconciled with God through the sacrificial system or through the ministry of the tabernacle. But the Christians do have an altar, but the nature of that altar is entirely different. Christians have the confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way (Hebrews 10.19-20) and the real bread is the body of Christ. Jesus said,
27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you….31”Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6.27, 31-33 NIV)
By eating the body of Christ and drinking His blood, a teaching tool that Jesus used to transfer their thought away from the ceremonial foods to His sacrificial death, receiving Him as the bread of life was the only way to find real life.
So far, the writer of Hebrews has been encouraging the Jewish Christians in Rome to submit to the teaching of their leaders who have been teaching them about the grace of God which really does strengthen their hearts and to resist the strange teachings of those who would lure them back to the Law and back to ceremonial foods. In verse 11, the writer adds another concept to this stream of thought.
The events of which the writer speaks of in Hebrews 13.11 is a clear reference to the events prescribed in Leviticus,
27The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and offal are to be burned up. 28The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. (Leviticus 16.27-28)
The context is the day of Atonement, that special day once a year when the High Priest enters the Most Holy Place to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation. After the blood of the bull and goat was brought to the Most Holy Place to make atonement, the fat of the offering was burned on the altar but the hide, flesh, and offal was to be taken outside the camp to be disposed of, to be burned up. Outside the camp was the place for waste to be taken, and it was considered to be an unclean place. That is why the one who goes outside the camp must wash his clothes and bathe with water before returning. Going outside the camp was to take something unclean to the place of the unclean. Outside the city gates was also the place where blasphemers (Leviticus 12.14) and Sabbath breakers (Numbers 15.35) were to be stoned.
The writer of Hebrews takes notice that Jesus suffered outside the city gates of Jerusalem. Obviously, he is drawing a parallel between the Day of Atonement offering and the atoning death of Jesus. Just like the bodies of the offerings were burned outside the camp, Jesus suffered outside the camp. But of course, unlike the Day of Atonement offering, the blood of Jesus actually made people holy (see Hebrews 9.13-14).
Everything up to this point seems to be clear enough. The writer is encouraging them to stay true to the teachings of their leaders and to avoid the strange teachings of the Jewish dietary laws. We don’t get righteousness by what we eat or don’t eat, and we are not renewed by observing regulations about what we eat. Our hearts are strengthened by God’s grace, and we have access to God through the new and living way of Jesus atoning sacrifice for our sins. This seems to be an interesting way of looking at our salvation, but is there any practical reason to think of it like this? In the mind of the writer, there is.
What gives us the most trouble in reading the paragraph is making sense of the admonition that follows in verses 13-14. In light of what we have just read, the apostle wants the Christians in Rome, and us as well, to take action. This is an exhortation. Knowing this, let us do this. Since our hearts are strengthened by grace and since Jesus suffered outside the camp, the writer says,
13Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13.13-14)
What exactly does the writer want us to do?
Here is where the interpretations get fast and loose. I have read commentaries and articles with all sorts of ideas about what it means to “go outside the camp.” Some say that to go outside the camp means to leave the treasures of this world behind and to seek the treasures of heaven. While I think that is true, I don’t think that is what the text is saying to us. Some see in this a missionary calling, to leave the camp where the people of God are gathered and to go to those people who have not heard the gospel. Again, this is a very biblical idea, but not the point of the apostle in this text. One writer suggested that outside the camp is the place of uncleanliness, and since those who went outside had to clean up before returning to the camp, this is an exhortation for us to repent and to clean up our lives. Again, biblical, but I don’t think it is the point.
Whatever it means to “go outside the camp” must be connected to the “strange teachings” of verse 9. I think the writer is saying that just like Jesus left behind the camp of Judaism to make his people holy through his blood, we are to leave behind the old covenant and embrace the new covenant of his blood.
But I think the key phrase in all of this, and the phrase where we might find God speaking to us today, is in verse 13, “Let us then, go to Him outside the camp…” During the exodus experience, outside the camp was the place where blasphemers were stoned, where Sabbath law breakers were stoned, where the bodies of sacrificial animals were burned up, where trash was disposed of, etc. But, it was also a very special place in one significant way.
We can read about this in Exodus 33,
7Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 8And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. 9As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. 10Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. 11The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. (Exodus 33.7-11 NIV)
Outside the camp was also a very special place. It was the place where Moses went outside of the camp to speak to the Lord face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. In the old covenant, that opportunity was only available for Moses and Joshua. Everyone else stood around and watched it from afar. They saw they cloud, and they might have gotten an answer from God through Moses regarding their inquiry, but they were not able to go inside the tent. That gives a whole new meaning to the admonition in verse 13.
Outside the camp is where Jesus suffered. It was the place where blasphemers and Sabbath breakers were stoned. It was the place where the Passover sacrifice was burned up. It was the place where Jesus suffered and died to make us holy. But why should we go out there? Because it is the place to meet God face to face, as speaking to a friend. We go outside the camp “to Him.”
Let me ask you, is this part of your faith experience? Do you go to Him outside the camp very often? Do you go outside the camp to speak with God face to face, as speaking to a friend? That is the essence of the new covenant. This is the essence of the new covenant. A new and living way has been opened to the Most Holy Place. We have been invited into the very presence of God through the new and living way of Christ’s atoning death. Since the offer has been made, we need to take advantage of it. As the writer of Hebrews has already said,
Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God…(Hebrews 10.19-22).
If your religious experience does not include “going to Him outside the camp” where God speaks to you face to face, as a man speaks to his friend, then you have embrace a “strange teaching.” Your strange teaching may include things like you ought to attend worship services every week, or keep the ten commandments, or something like that. But if you are not speaking to Him face to face, then you are missing the essential call of the new covenant.
This is the driving force behind people who live by faith. What motivates a person to “bear the disgrace he bore”? What motivates a person to do something that would cause his whole family to turn their backs on them? Why would you continue to engage in an activity that is considered illegal by the government and where you could risk having your property confiscated or going to prison? Why does a person take courageous steps of obedience in light of great suffering and hardship? Because they have gone to him outside the camp, and they have spoken to God face to face as a man speaks to his friend, and it is life changing.
And while we are speaking about life changing, don’t miss the few verses that follow. The person whose life has been changed by the regular face to face meeting with God will look different. They will continually offer a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess His name. Why is it that when the gospel comes to a place, the natural result is that the believers gather together and worship? Is this just the Western church imposing our model upon the rest of the world? No, it goes back to the book of Acts. When you have been outside the camp and spoken to God face to face, the natural result is to gather with other people who have been outside the camp and spoken to Him face to face and to worship Him through praise.
And that is the heart of church. “I’ve been talking to Jesus. You have too? Well let’s sing about it.” Sometimes it happens as an individual driving in the car. Sometimes it happens in a group. Sometimes it includes musical instruments and sometimes it is just the spoken testimony. But it is the overflow of having been with Jesus.
As is the next two sacrifices that the writer mentions: to do good and to share with others. This is not the first time to see this in the book of Hebrews. Earlier, the author wrote,
24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10.23-25)
Why do we do good? Why do we share with others? Why do we sing about Jesus? Because we have gone to Him outside the camp, spoken with Him face to face, and our lives have been radically changed.
I want to challenge you this morning to accept the invitation to go to Him outside the camp. You many not know how to do this, so let me encourage you with a few principles of how to do this.
First, make a decision to set aside thirty minutes, three days a week, for one month. That is one TV show. Go ahead and put it on your calendar and schedule that appointment just like you would to meet with a doctor. Tell people, I have an appointment that I must go to and don’t allow it to be interrupted.
Second, choose a place to have the meeting. Moses set up a tent outside the camp. He didn’t just randomly fall on his knees when the mood hit him. He had a place reserved that was free of distractions where he was planning on speaking with the Lord. So, choose a place. If you home cannot be that place because you have kids, then go outside the camp.
Third, find a Bible reading plan. There are many ways to read the Bible on a regular basis. You can read through the Bible in one year, you can follow the lectionary, you can read from beginning to end, you can read one book at a time. You can follow Open Windows. The important thing is to have a plan, know what it is, and follow it.
Fourth, get a journal. Get something to write down what God said to you during this time. Expect Him to say something! Expect the Lord to speak to you face to face, and when He does, you want to write that down so that you won’t forget it.
Fifth, use the SOAP method. After you have read the assigned Bible passages for that day, write at least one Scripture (S) verse down that spoke to you. This is often the verse that leapt off the page as you read it. Then, make some observations (O) about that verse. In other words, what is the truth contained in that verse, or how does that verse relate to the rest of the Bible, or what does that verse explain. Then, ask the Lord how this verse applies (A) to your life. Why did God have you read that verse on that day? How will your life be different because of this truth? Then, finish by praying (P). Write down the essence of your prayer. Recording and journaling is an essential part of meeting with God on a regular basis.