Outside the Camp

It is not difficult for systems of doctrine to become well–established in the mind without there ever being sufficient reflection on what is believed. In the light of this, I wish to consider the exhortation of the writer of Hebrews to go forth to Christ without the camp (see Heb. 13: 13) and ask whether the traditional teaching that has grown up around this subject has been properly thought through.

   Some seem to believe, for example, that “the camp” refers to Christendom, with their own distinct group a separate body of believers “outside the camp” (v11). Is this idea really sustainable? No it is not. In a great house, there are vessels both of honour and dishonour (see 2 Tim. 2: 20). The great house is the Christian profession—Christendom—and includes both the false and the true. If we have been baptised unto the name of Christ then we are part of it, whether we accept the fact or not. We are not exhorted to leave that great house, and neither are we able to.

   Probe a little deeper into this simplistic view of Hebrews 13: 10–14. Does what the writer is talking about involve an ecclesiastical position? Surely. But then does that mean that by joining some particular band of Christians you take up a position of being “outside the camp” (and, conversely, that if you leave that narrow circle, that you are no longer “outside the camp”)? Some certainly think so. With such, the ‘company’ is everything, and going “forth to him” (Heb. 13: 13) is a mere form of words to cover what is really sectarianism.

   Others, however, would recoil from such presumptuous views. What then, is to be done with those godly believers that conscience shrinks from categorising as being in the camp, and yet, for whatever reason, are closed off from practical fellowship? Scripture does not give us an option of a ‘middle way’. If the believer is not in the camp, then he must have gone forth without the camp (see v13). Furthermore, the effect of this must be to bring him into association with others who have made the same step. That this has largely not happened should make us wonder whether there is in fact a deeper problem to be addressed.

   Many have focused on the ritualistic and legal nature of Judaism and assumed that this is the basis for the exhortation to go forth to Christ “without the camp” (v13). However, Hebrews is not Galatians, and the problem addressed in the former is not exactly the same as in the latter. The Galatians were seeking to establish law in Christianity, even though law never had any relevance to the Christian, since, through Christ, he is dead to law (see Gal. 2: 19). The Hebrews, by contrast, had been born into a legal system that actually originated in “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2), and were now being exhorted to break their ties with Judaism, not because it was based on law, but because it had rejected Christ. Indeed, to go back to Judaism (which the Hebrews were in danger of doing), would be to go back to rejecting Christ, crucifying afresh (as it were) the Son of God (see Heb. 6: 6). Certainly the Galatian error was extremely serious—they were in danger of being “deprived of all profit from the Christ as separated [from him]” (Gal. 5: 4)—but they still wished to retain Christ. Galatianism must be vigorously resisted, but it has nothing directly to do with Heb. 13: 10–14.

   Now in seeking to understand the application of any Scripture to ourselves in the present day it is imperative that we understand the interpretation of the passage first. Many fail to grasp that the traditional ecclesiastical application of “outside the camp” is not only not the primary meaning of the passage, but that it is not even a secondary one! Essentially, this teaching is an application of an application, because Heb. 13: 10–14 is the inspired writer’s own application of what he had got from the OT. Why is this important? Because it should make us very careful in how we apply the passage, particularly since the practical outcome is often to label fellow saints of God in a way that may not be just.

   The writer of Hebrews takes up the idea of the camp from two distinct (though related) uses—one in relation to the sin offering on the day of atonement, and one in relation to the incident of the golden calf, and blends them together. His readers, being Jews, would immediately recognise the picture he presents to them. In that sin offering, the sacrifice, being fully identified with the sin of the people, was burned “outside the camp” (Lev. 16: 27)—the place of judgment and rejection. Christ, as the great sin offering, “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5: 21) suffered in the same place of rejection, as refused by man and forsaken by God. It is also no coincidence that Calvary is outside Jerusalem (He suffered “without the gate”—Heb. 13: 12). No one, however, was exhorted in the OT teaching of the day of atonement to go to where the bodies were burned “outside the camp” (v11)—except for one man, who would, of necessity, have to take the offering there (see Lev. 16: 27).

    For the truth of joining Christ in the place of rejection, the writer of Hebrews turns to the imagery of the incident of the golden calf. Moses had gone up into the mountain (type of Christ gone up to heaven), and the people, having grown impatient, said to Aaron, “Up, make us a god, who will go before us; for this Moses, the man that has brought us up out of the land of Egypt,—we do not know what is become of him!” (Exod. 32: 1). A religion was thus inaugurated which, though it professed a connection with God (see v5), had no place for the man that God had appointed to lead His people. The eventual consequence of all this was that “Moses took the tent, and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp, and called it the Tent of meeting. And it came to pass [that] every one who sought Jehovah went out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (Exod. 33: 7). This then, is the inspired interpretation of being “outside the camp”.

   In Hebrews 13, the writer takes up these OT Scriptures and applies them to the current situation at the time of writing, when the Hebrew saints, for conscience sake, were exhorted to separate themselves from the ‘camp’ of Judaism—a religion which had murdered its own Messiah. Judaism had not professed to give up on God—but they had no time for the Man He had appointed. Christ was “the stone which has been set at nought by you the builders” (Acts 4: 11). In passing, it is important to see that this call for the abandonment of Judaism did not come at Pentecost. Peter may have preached “be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 40), but he remained a Jew, the early Christians continued to frequent the temple (see Acts 3: 1; 5: 21; 21: 26), and Christianity was initially viewed simply as a sect within Judaism (see Acts 24: 5, 14). Only after the Jews had reiterated their rejection of the Lord by sending an embassy after Him (see Luke 19: 14)—as witnessed by their persistent refusal of the Gospel preached in the book of Acts—do we get this exhortation to the Jewish believers to sever their links with Judaism fully and finally. This then, is the inspired application of being “outside the camp”.

   It is clear from both the inspired interpretation and the inspired application that “the camp” signifies a religion that, while professing to be of God, has very definitely cast off the Man He has established as “Son over his house” (Heb. 3: 6). It is not a Corinthian situation, where there was bad practice, or Galatian in character, where there was bad doctrine. These things may exist, and may justly result in separation, but they are not what is addressed in Heb. 13: 10–14. The issue there was Christ personally, hence: “let us go forth to him” (Heb. 13: 13, my emphasis). The true–hearted Jewish Christian could not stay in the camp, for Christ was not there, and, moreover, was not wanted there.

   To what then, can we apply all this to today? Clearly, we need to be very careful about drawing too hard and fast a parallel between the Hebrew believers separating themselves from the Jewish worship, and how you and I view other Christians “not with us” (Luke 9: 49). For reasons of conscience, other believers may not be happy to walk with us (or we with them) but this may have nothing to do with being within or without the camp. To make being “outside the camp” dependent on ‘following with us’ (see Mark 9: 38) is, I believe, to set up a system of ecclesiastical pretension that God cannot and will not honour.

   Circumstances have certainly altered since the writing of the Hebrew epistle. When it was written, the vast majority of Christians were Jews. By comparison, believers having their origins in Judaism now form a tiny proportion of the Christian profession. The Judaism of the first century AD has long since gone: there is no temple, and there are no priests or sacrifices in Judaism today. Why then has this book been preserved for a largely Gentile readership? The answer must surely lie in what has not changed, and what is still relevant.

   The instruction is to go forth to Christ without the camp “bearing his reproach” (Heb. 13: 13).  Now while the camp of Israel (as understood by the Hebrew saints), may no longer be with us, we have a living Christ, and thus His reproach is still a current matter. Why do I draw attention to this? Because bearing the reproach of Christ is critical to the whole question of what it means to be outside the camp. What then, is this reproach? It is the reproach that comes with being identified with anything that truly takes its character from Christ—that order of man that this world has refused. It is more than simply using His name as a label. The great established bodies of Christendom may bear His name, but they do not bear His reproach.

   The first man recorded as bearing the reproach of Christ was Moses (see Heb. 11: 26). How? Scripture tells us that it was because he refused worldly patronage, choosing rather to “suffer affliction along with the people of God” (v25). He identified himself with them (in effect with Christ) rather than identifying himself with the world (as typified by Pharaoh’s daughter). That reproach continues now since Christ continues to not have his rightful place here. A worldly religion may take the name of Christ but it does not suffer the reproach of the Christ because it accommodates itself to the world. However, the faithful will share their Master’s rejection. Thus: “If the world hate you, know that it has hated me before you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on account of this the world hates you … If ye are reproached in [the] name of Christ, blessed [are ye]” (John 15: 18, 19; 1 Pet. 4: 14). Notice the word “therefore” in Heb. 13: 13. He had suffered “without the gate” (v12), therefore, they were to go out (in effect) to the same place, “bearing his reproach” (v13).

   When the Hebrew epistle was written, Judaism and Jerusalem were ripe for judgment (fulfilled shortly afterwards in AD 70). Judaism had all the attractions of an established and very visible religion—the priests ministered every day in a magnificent temple “offering often the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Heb. 10: 11)—but it had no room for Christ. Sad to say, we see the same round of Christ-less religion in much of Christendom—indeed the greatest of the ‘churches’, with its priests, altars and sacrifices, has more than a passing resemblance to the Judaism of old. Although true believers may remain in them, such bodies clearly belong to the camp in their moral character, and share the same prospect of judgment (see Rev. 18: 8). Fidelity to Christ would dictate that we get out of them.

   Some foolishly imagine that because something claims the name of Christ, then it must be ‘alright’. On the contrary, “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” and “it is no great thing therefore if his ministers also transform themselves as ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11: 14, 15). Thus there are establishment ‘churches’ today that form an intrinsic part of the fabric of society, and yet who really have no time for the Lord or His sacrifice. That is the kind of ‘Christianity’ that the Devil is happy with. Interestingly, when the apostle Paul refers to the incident of the golden calf in 1 Cor. 10: 7, he associates the idolatry not so much with the golden calf itself but with the spirit of self–gratification that hankers after a life of comfort and pleasure on earth—where the religious instincts of man are satisfied without being troubled by the reproach of the Christ. Incredibly, some imagine that they can have ‘the best of both worlds’ by taking up an ecclesiastical position of separation, while fraternising as far as they dare with what passes for ‘mainstream Christianity’. This cannot be done. The tent of meeting was pitched “far from the camp” (Exod. 33: 7, my emphasis). There is a great deal in the Christian profession that is happy to shelter under the name of Christ, but, at heart, has no real place for Him. If faithful, I will bear His reproach, and stand far apart from such things.

   However, we are not simply talking about ecclesiastical separation. It is comparatively easy to be strict about doctrine and careful about reception, but it is foolish to imagine that this puts one outside the camp. We go forth “to him” (Heb. 13: 13, my emphasis)—a person not a position. Merely joining a particular company of Christians who believe in separation will not put me outside the camp as Scripture envisages it—there must be a going forth to Christ. The fact that unbelievers are sometimes found in the position of ecclesiastical separation illustrates the point. Yes, a real going forth to Him without the camp must include the taking of an outward, ecclesiastical place of separation, but that is inadequate on its own. To be outside the camp is an intensely spiritual position, and is essentially a matter of the heart. As such, it must be entered upon individually. Of course the divine intention is for others to be with us (“let us”—Heb. 13: 13, my emphasis), but I cannot get there by hanging on the coat–tails of another. The Scripture says that “every one who sought Jehovah went out to the tent of meeting” (Exod. 33: 7, my emphasis). Bearing Christ’s reproach involves a separation of the heart, a willingness to share (in measure) His place of rejection and suffering. Hence, “far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [the] world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6: 14). As someone said long ago, outside the camp and inside the veil go together (though, in actual fact, the tent of meeting pre-dated the tabernacle). If you are not separate in heart, you will carry the worldly character of the camp with you in your heart, even if your ecclesiastical position might suggest otherwise. Whatever my church position, it is my spiritual position that counts. I am either in association with Him or with the camp. It cannot be both, for the camp and the tent of meeting are far apart.

   In conclusion, I return to the fact that Hebrews 13: 10–14 is an application of an application. For the Gentile Christian (as most believers are), there is no Christ–rejecting Judaism to be abandoned. Of course, these verses have surely been “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15: 4) as well, but are we certain that we have got the instruction intended? The pernicious effect of the traditional application adopted by many has been an unjustly negative view of other Christians and a conceited opinion of one’s own church position. Other believers may have faults—including, perhaps, a failure to see that “if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law” (Gal. 5: 18)—but it is grossly unjust to lump such in with those who have no place for Christ. I would suggest that such high–mindedness betrays a spirit that has not really been in company with the Lord. Indeed, the lack of any true going forth “to him” may be why there has been so little coming together of seemingly like–minded saints, and instead, a disturbing trend in the opposite direction. What is needed is not preservation of a long–standing ecclesiastical position but Christ: “And it came to pass [that] every one who sought Jehovah went out to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (Exod. 33: 7, my emphasis).