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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Outside the Camp

July 11, 2014 •

Come Back!

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced uncompromising pressure to compromise. Ridiculed for abandoning their own religious heritage and for extracting themselves from their very own people, these early followers of Christ anguished under tremendous pressures to return to their former life.

After all, were they not first Jews before they heard the gospel of Christ? Did Jesus really come to rob them of their Jewishness? Did the crucified Christ really intend for them to alienate themselves from their family and friends? How could the love of Jesus really require them to abandon these self-defining roots and these mutually meaningful relationships?

Perhaps their zeal for experiencing messianic hope had taken them a bit too far. Perhaps they did not need to separate from their loved ones—with those in their “camp.” Perhaps they did not need to cease the practices of their religious roots. Why not follow Jesus and hold fast to former social and familial connections and practice former religious and cultural customs?

The battle waged fiercely within their souls. Leaving behind familiar rituals and religious practices was hard, and following Jesus into a wilderness existence had surely not made things any easier. Pressed and persecuted, these stressed first-century believers longed for relief. Their burdens now weighed more than ever, as they struggled for a sense of comfort, identity, and peace.

In short, the compulsion to return to the familiar competed with the newfound confession of faith in Christ. And in such tensions, regression and apostasy became real threats (Heb 6:1-12; 10:26-31).

Press On and Stand Out!

The author of Hebrews was a realist. He knew life was hard, and knew how alienating allegiance to Jesus Christ seemed less than desirable, if not less than necessary. He knew how the magnetism of the familiar tugged unrelentingly.

He also knew the compelling rhetoric of the contemporary religious community: “Don’t give up your Jewishness. Do not forsake your history, your identity, and your religion! Such rejection has only produced alienation from the community and resentment from your family. Do you really so devalue these relationships and identifying marks of your heritage? Anyway, look where these decisions have gotten you! Your life is miserable. Your family hates you. Your religious community despises you. You are lonely, poor, and suffering. Is this all really necessary? Come back. The gate of return remains cracked open.”

With an eye to these disconcerting temptations, the author of Hebrews urges his readers to press on and to stand out. He assures them they are not alone, nor even facing temptations unfamiliar to Christ. Jesus himself faced temptation to compromise the Word of God (Matt 4:1-11; cf. Heb 2:10-18; 4:14-16)! Yet, for our sake, our Elder Brother and Savior stood firmly. By his pure and uncompromised consecration, he became the Source of our salvation (Heb 5:9).

He is indeed the sympathizing and saving Son of God.[1] His superiority is unqualified (Heb 1-2), his sacrifice perfect (Heb 7-10), and his call to obedience radical. As the contours of Hebrews make clear, secured by his sufficiency we must grasp firmly our confession of Christ Jesus (Heb 4:14; 10:23).

Outside the Camp

Warning his readers about the spiritual dangers of compromise, the author of Hebrews pulls out all the stops in a fashion rarely heard in the church today: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Yes, he said that. And yes, he warned of God’s judgment upon those who cloud their faith with prior loves and practices. Failing to take seriously the full demands of the gospel exposes insincerity, and the only proper consequence of such unbelief is judgment.

The demand to uncompromising and alienating allegiance necessarily comes then without proviso. Considering the crisp and consummate revelation of God in his Son Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-4) and the glorious finality of his work of redemption (Heb 9:23-28; 10:11-14), the demand to follow him is, in fact, jolting. “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. . . . Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:25, 28-29).

Throughout the book, the author of Hebrews insists the believers’ pilgrimage track the footsteps of Christ. The crowning call to trail Jesus comes in a culminating exhortation to allegiance: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us to go him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Heb 13:12-13)

So where does following Jesus take us? Outside the camp! The truth of the gospel is never mainstream. It is never popular, and it is not made up of the stuff of human ingenuity. Jesus’ redemptive work occurred outside the camp.

Reflecting on old covenant sacrificial practices, the language in Heb 13:13-14 could not deliver the principle more pointedly. Alienation is at the heart of redemption accomplished. Alienation is therefore at the heart of redemption applied. To follow Christ recalibrates our entire existence in a way neither humanly contrived nor naturally attractive. To follow Christ alienates. Tailing their Master, disciples leave behind past commitments, allegiances, practices, and priorities. Not infrequently, following Jesus outside the camp even breaks up families and severs deepest ties (Matt 10:34-39).

Put more colloquially, following Jesus is weird. It is counter-cultural. It is foreign and foul to unbelieving senses. Accusations about believers’ judgment, emotional balance, and failure to love others will surely come—and maybe in droves. Such unpleasantries are only for starters. Some brothers and sisters around the world discover that “outside the gate” means “inside the prison” or worse. But Jesus calls us to go outside the gate with him, even when others find such commitments bizarre and such practices offensive, and when consequences escalate to death itself (Heb 11:32-40).

Peter O’Brien affirms,

“The listeners’ [the readers of Hebrews] going out to Jesus outside the camp underscores their commitment to be a pilgrim people who, like Abraham, leave behind the security of what they know in order to respond to the call of God and look forward to the city with foundations (11:8-10). This would probably have social ramifications, including being marginalised and ostracised because of their confession of a crucified Messiah. Such insecurity would put severe pressures on them to conform to the norms of their wider society and thus to give up their faith.”[2]

Drowning out the in-the-camp ostracism, following Jesus outside the camp also creates a brand new family with ties that exceed genetics and familiarity. As believers, by grace we enter an historical community of faithful heroes (Heb 11); we are received into a family of new brothers and sisters who share an outside-the-camp identity (Heb 2:10-18; 10:19-25; 12:1-17). We meet together, worship together, serve one another, and love another. Persecution at the hands of those inside the camp gets overwhelmed by the fellowship of those outside it!

Come what may, confessing Christ as Lord requires openness and distinction. There is no hiding of faith. There is no legitimate redefining of faith to make it fit in. Following Jesus takes us off the reservation. Trusting and obeying him take us outside the camp. We are set apart – visibly and regularly, painfully yet blessedly.

Despite the impossibility, many still try to make faith in Christ palatable, acceptable, and even respectable. Commitments of this sort abound. Certain winsome sounding appeals to incarnational ministry, cultural transformation, and even Insider Movements,[3] have led many back into the camp. When gaining credibility becomes our goal, Jesus is no longer in our sight. Such approaches tear our eyes away from the Master.

We cannot love Jesus outside the camp when we aim to make his sacrifice and the life of faith acceptable to those inside the camp! When acceptability becomes our goal, our faith becomes irrelevant precisely because it seeks to become relevant! Trying to follow Jesus in the camp diverts from the clear pathway set by Jesus himself. Setting our eyes on the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith will always be unpopular and alienating!

But being outside with Jesus does not mean that the church will become ineffective or that it has nothing to say to those inside! The opposite is, in fact, true. When the Church follows Jesus outside the camp and loves him as it ought, it becomes the most compelling – and culturally incomprehensible – entity on the planet! Effective evangelism relies upon the Church standing boldly, distinctly, visibly, and faithfully outside with Jesus. The Church speaks Jesus’ words and leads others to Jesus only when it unashamedly goes “to him outside the camp and bear[s] the reproach which he endured” (Heb 13:13).

We cannot follow Jesus in the camp. We will not hear his voice. We will not see him to follow in his tracks. We will not lead people to him there. Why not? Because he is not there.

[2] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2010), 526.

[3] See David B. Garner, “The Insider Movement Rage,” SQN (June 2014): and idem, “Explaining the Gospel Away, SQN (June 2014):


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