outside the camp

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:10-14
Follow the logic of the author’s train of thought here – it is beautiful.

We as Christians are entitled to eat from the altar of the holy communion, the bread and wine which depict the very body and blood of Jesus, an altar which the priests of the old covenant neither understood nor accepted. Just as they burnt their sacrifices for sin outside Jerusalem’s gates as prescribed by the law they idolized, Jesus, the only efficacious sacrifice for sin, also suffered his death outside the city. He was hated and excluded from their religion and from his people as a “blasphemer” – yet he volunteered for this. He did it to cleanse the consciences of sinners and to bring them in his wake to the Father.

Therefore, says the author, let us abandon our familiar territories, our safety zones, and our mundane desires. Let us claim the reproach and the ridicule that is ours by right, as people named after the great Outcast, the supreme Reject. The “city” we too comfortably habitate at the moment is on its way out. We aim for a different city altogether: the New Jerusalem, the breathtaking city of God that will be here before the world knows it.

The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of my favorites in the Bible. It is something of a commentary on the Old Testament, with a perspective, a realness, and an urgency that all revolves around the person Jesus. Here at the end of the letter, the unknown author beckons his very persecuted, very human, very real recipients: “let us go to him outside the camp.”

Of people who would answer his beckoning, several things must be true.

Jesus must captivate them. Not in a passively impressed way, like observing an interesting specimen behind a glass. Nor simply in an ethereal, indefinably spiritual way, like being drawn by the Spirit into figurative clouds of heavenly understanding. As a person with a particular personality who lived a particular life, Jesus of Nazareth must inspire awe in them. No one can imitate someone, to the point of self-denial, whom they do not know, or do not cherish.

Jesus’ love for these people must saturate them. They must unshakably believe that he is on their side, that he belongs to them, that he treasures them. Not by right nor by nature – sinners assuming God’s blessing is ultimately ridiculous – but by his proclamation of mercy at the cross. They must be utterly convinced of the cross’ power to transform them from self-loving lawbreakers into the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Jesus paid it all,” they say. “All to him I owe.”

Jesus’ Spirit must empower them.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t fit into any of our ordinary categories, and we very much like categories. Perhaps part of his majesty comes from his refusal to submit to our categories. In any case, we underestimate him all too often. He is the agent of power within us, the power that builds new things where old things were destroyed, explodes God’s love into our hearts, resurrects corpses, gives gifts of a spiritual nature to the church with variety and creativity, leads the sons of God, and a thousand other things for which he deserves worship and thanks – and dependence. People venturing “outside the camp,” outside the mold of self-reliant, self-serving living, must, out of necessity, lean harder on the power of the Spirit than on any other thing.
At this point in writing this post, personal experience forces me to consider the question: “What if I don’t feel this way? Why should I even care?” Whether from non-Christian or Christian lips – or more likely, unspoken thoughts – these words uncover something important about all this. Captivation, assurance of Jesus’ love, and the Holy Spirit all sound to my ears like very intangible, emotional things than I can do little to stir up inside myself. Emotions peak and bottom out, and efforts of the will have little to do with them.

But God does not submit to our categories, he does not. He does not leave us because our emotions dry up, nor does he lessen what he asks of us.

What he asks of us is to run to him for help a million times over, to believe that one ounce of obedience is worth an ocean of vain emotion, to fight temptation in prayer, and to really obey his command to follow him “outside the camp.” He asks us to obey it, disregarding the cost, disregarding the fact that more often than not we crave the approval of our peers more than the approval of our God, because he is our Lord who has gone before us, and because on the outskirts of the city, among the outcasts, the enemy-lovers, and the counter-cultural anti-heroes, is where he most truly dwells.

Let us go to him outside the camp.

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