By Dan Walters
The inspired writer of Hebrews encourages Jewish Christians to be strong in the face of persecution by their own countrymen. Like the Old Testament heroes of chapter 11, “of whom the world was not worthy,” these first century brethren were treated as total outcasts by the society which had once accepted them. In Hebrews 13:11-14 the writer uses a striking figure of speech to make his point:
For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach. For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.
The camp in this case is the city of Jerusalem, and the gate is the gate of that once holy city. We know that Jesus was not put to death inside the walls of Jerusalem, but, crucifixion itself being regarded as a curse, was led outside the gate to suffer and die on that hill known as Calvary. There between the two malefactors He was suspended between heaven and earth as if rejected by both and fit for neither. Christians are invited to visualize this scene of sorrow and shame and then voluntarily to share the reproach of their Savior. The camp, or the city of Jerusalem, represents the Jewish establishment with its offer of security, respectability, and sense of belonging to the greater community. To be with Christ, Christians had to leave all this behind, accepting the status of social lepers. Their sacrifice was real, for the present time, but we know that Hebrews was composed only a few short years before the terrible destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., at which time the unbelieving Jews suffered “great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world” (Matt. 24:21). Our knowledge of that event adds meaning to the words, “here we have no continuing city.”
The Jewish Christian of the ante-bellum days had a choice: He could continue life as a persecuted outcast, or he could go back inside the gate where he could escape reproach. This was the great temptation that faced the Hebrews. One way to get back inside the gate was outright rejection of Christ, but there was also a halfway measure – to become a Judaized Christian. Much of the reproach of the cross was removed if a Jew agreed to look upon the church as merely another Jewish sect and to bind the Law of Moses, especially circumcision, upon Gentile converts. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and other smaller sects of the Jews enjoyed warring with one another, within recognized bounds, while uniting in their hatred and persecution of faithful Christians. Diversity was allowed, but dedicated Christians were beyond the pale. Their religion admitted of no compromise. Some Jewish leaders in Rome said to Paul about the church: “as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22). We should be reminded that whenever the church is not spoken against by false teachers, Christians are not doing their job.
The early Gentile Christians were also tempted to go back inside their camp and to have fellowship with the religions of the first century Roman world, even though these religions were idolatrous and totally opposed to the way of Christ. Paul found it necessary to exhort the Corinthians to “come out from among them, and be ye separate” (2 Cor. 6:17). He had to emphasize that “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils” (1 Cor. 10:21). These Gentiles had lived all their lives in a culture dominated by heathen religion; they found it difficult to rid themselves of its influence even when they knew it to be false. It was hard for them to remain without the camp. It was hard for Christians of both races to rind themselves, like Paul, “the filth of the world” and “the offscouring of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).
Some of God’s people under the first covenant grew nostalgic for their previous condition of servitude and “in their hearts turned back again into Egypt” (Acts 7:39). Conditions did not allow them to go back in body, but they went back in spirit. Other children of God in ancient times could have gone back to their camp of origin, but had no desire to do so. Speaking of Abraham and his descendants, the Hebrew writer says that “if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned” (Heb. 11: 15). But the reason that Abraham was not mindful of Ur of the Chaldees was that he desired a “better country” (v. 16) and that he “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (v. 10). Too many, like Lot’s wife, are still mindful of the old earthly city, doomed to destruction, and continually look behind them.
How does this attitude affect God’s people today? We find that a few have actually made the break with their brethren and with Christ in order to join some denomination of human origin. Many more, and these present a greater danger to the welfare of the churches, have gone back only in their hearts. Becoming offended if anyone accuses them of teaching denominational doctrine, they are nevertheless determined to denominationalize the church of Christ. There is little reproach in being a member of a modern, “progressive” Church of Christ. Such a church does not fight the sects as the Jews were commanded to right the nations round about them and “destroy their altars, and break down their images” (Deut. 7:5). It does not lift up its voice to condemn worldliness nor does it practice strict discipline among its own members. It does not seek the status of a “peculiar people,” but rather courts prominence and respectability, desiring to fit into the larger religious community.
The desire to go back inside the gate explains many things that are going on today in more conservative churches, including preacher professionalism, the use of much liberal and denominational material in our teaching, the retreat from the militant posture of our forefathers, a loose attitude toward attendance and the Lord’s Supper, and a use of guile under the euphemisms of tact and psychology. This problem manifests itself in various external symptoms, but its seat is found in the heart. If we, like the Israelites of old, turn back in our hearts, we shall soon turn back in our practice. If, on the other hand, we focus our attention on the spiritual land of Canaan where the roses bloom forever and the soul never dies, we will no longer be mindful of the carnal voices calling us back to the lost city. Let us cease our drifting back toward Egypt, back toward Ur of the Chaldees, back toward old apostate Jerusalem. Jesus is still outside the gate, without the camp. Let us go to Him there.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 17, pp. 529-530
September 6, 1984