Our text for this study (13:9–14) is probably the most difficult in this epistle to understand and therefore to explain. There are nearly as many opinions as there are commentaries! Nevertheless, we need to grapple with it, for it is the inspired Word of God. In fact, that theme strongly undergirds this passage. Let me explain.
In v. 7, the writer exhorts the readers to remember those who had taught them the Word of God. These former leaders had faithfully declared to and then grounded these Hebrew Christians in the gospel of God. It was this message that was under threat. The entire epistle aims to steady the faith of those who were tempted to waver; specifically, they were tempted to leave the substance of Christ for the mere old covenant shadows of Christ. We have addressed this over and over. But apparently our author wants for us to do so again, hence vv. 9–14!
In this passage, the congregation is reminded that the gospel spoken to them is God’s final word concerning salvation (see 1:1–2). There is no other way to be saved than by Christ alone. They are here exhorted to cling to this truth. This is a central theme of this passage, as it is of the epistle. But here the concern seems to be the acknowledgement that such a commitment to Christ is costly—very costly. It is for this reason that these Hebrew Christians are exhorted to unhesitatingly identify with Christ, knowing that in doing so they will be considered outcasts. They will be ostracised by family and by former friends. They will be characterised as social misfits who are to be dismissed, even discarded. They will be defamed and denied many privileges previously enjoyed within the Jewish community. Yes, they will pay a price for faithfulness to the Word of God, which had been faithfully taught to them by former leaders. Nevertheless, they can do so because, just as their founding leaders had found, Jesus Christ is unchangeable. Fundamentally, though everything was changing, the most important thing—the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 8)—was not.
The passage closes with an exhortation to follow their leaders, who will lead them in the right path. Even here, perhaps these Hebrew Christians were facing challenges. Perhaps many practicing Jews were slandering these Christian leaders, questioning their credentials to lead a religion that, under the Roman Empire, was effectively illegal.
It is important for us to grasp the pressures faced by these believers, for it underscores the cost to them of following Christ. Spiritual life is a gift of God. It is a free gift. Yet there is cost to this life, a cost of living. And this passage makes this abundantly clear.
In this study, we will look at this passage under the theme “The Cost of Living.”
If we will truly live (John 5:25; 6:51–58; 10:10; 11:25; etc.), it will be costly. But the price is worth the privilege. But don’t take my word for it; take God’s Word for it.
The Cost of Relationships
Verse 9 highlights the cost of relationships: “Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them.”
As will become clearer as we proceed in our study, it appears that a major challenge faced by these Hebrew Christians was a social one. Again, we need to place our feet in the sandals of these first century Jewish Christians.
To follow Christ, the one who had been rejected, condemned and ultimately crucified as a criminal, was deeply costly, for those who escaped the label of being “mad” were on the other hand deemed to be traitors to their nation, despisers of their culture, and apostate in their religion. This, of course, resulted in Hebrew Christians losing relationships with their society. Verse 9 indicates this.
This has proved to be an incredibly difficult verse to interpret, but I will share what I believe is a reasonable and defensible interpretation. I want to avoid being dogmatic here, but it seems that my conclusion is well justified.
First, what is clear.
Clearly, the emphasis of v. 9 is that following particular food laws does nothing to make one right with God. By the way, neither, in a very real sense, did those laws produce that under the old covenant either. Though it was true that God prescribed laws conserving what could and could not be eaten, and though God prescribed certain festivals with instructions concerning particular meals, these old covenant laws were never for the purpose of securing one’s justification before the Lord. Rather, those food laws were to be respected as the fruit of being right with God. They were demonstrations that God had graciously set them apart to Himself. They did not sanctify the people; they testified, rather, that they had been sanctified.
But especially under the new covenant, believers were to see this truth. These Hebrew Christians had been instructed that they were saved by grace. The believer’s “heart” (his inner being and thus his standing before God) had been “established by grace,” not by any “works” of dietary or festal laws.
Their faithful founding fathers had taught them this gospel truth. Therefore, they were not to give heed to any innovative teachings (“various and strange doctrines”) concerning “foods” and saving faith. The author points out that they should examine the fruit in the lives of those who have followed such erroneous teachings and they will soon conclude that it is pointless because it is spiritually profitless. In fact, we should note the connection between the similar thought of v. 7 and v. 9. In both cases, the readers are exhorted to pay attention to the way of life of their founding fathers and of these fallacious teachers. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. This much is clear. Since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, so is the gospel of His new covenant. Christians must guard against any innovations. The “faith once delivered” (Jude 3) is unchanging. The times may be changing, but the truth is not. When we cling to this unchanging truth we will face pressures, opposition and trials. But as our author tells us, we must boldly say, “The Lord is my Helper, I will not fear; what can mere man do to me?” And we can say this regardless of the age in which we live, for though everything may seem to be changing, fundamentally nothing has changed, for since Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, we know that His Word remains the same as well (1:10–12).
However, not all are in agreement.
Some say that this was a reference to the Gnostic invasion of the first century, which was associated with special foods used in initiation rites into the various mystery religions. In fact, Paul addressed this in the book of Colossians (see especially chapter 2). I personally fail to see why this Gnostic idea would come in at the end of a letter that has dealt with contrasting the old and the new covenants. In fact, for most Jews of that day, Gnosticism was rejected for the heresy that is so clearly was.
Rather, it seems from the theme of the book, and from passages in the book such as 9:9–12ff, that the writer is speaking about the various food laws prescribed under the old covenant.
Further, vv. 10–11 address the prohibition that, on the Day of Atonement, the priests were prohibited from eating the meat of the offerings, which was not normally the case for other offerings. So, clearly there is an old covenant motif here. The variegated and foreign teachings were so because they sought to bring various foreign elements as additives to the gospel. This will not do.
But there is something underlying this food issue that seems to be on the writer’s heart. Let me explain.
The various sacrifices, excluding those on the Day of Atonement, were times of both experiencing forgiveness and of feasting. In fact, these two themes go hand in hand (we will look at this more closely when we study vv. 15–16). So the food laws were not merely laws of prohibition. Clearly v. 9 is referring to the expectation of eating certain foods. Yet keep in mind that, in those days, and especially perhaps among the Jews, the idea of a drive-through restaurant was unheard of. Meals were not simply eaten for the purpose of nourishment; rather, they were opportunities for fellowship, friendship and communion. We see numerous biblical examples of this, including the account in Genesis 18. To share a meal with someone was a privileged opportunity to spend time with them and to build a relationship with them. And so to be invited to a meal was a wonderful privilege; to reject the invitation was a grave insult (Matthew 22:1–10). But there was more to this than a mere social aspect. For the Jew, and rightly so, a meal—particularly a lawfully prescribed meal—was a spiritual experience. In fact, in the very Hebraic book of Revelation, we see this in 3:20 where Jesus shows up at the doors of the local church in Laodicea desiring to sit down and sup with them. Participation in a meal, the sharing of food, is used to illustrate one’s relationship with God.
For the Jews, the dietary laws and the festal, food-filled gatherings was an important part of being in covenant relationship with God. In fact, according to Psalm 104:14–15, food is God’s good gift for His creation. But, like all of God’s gifts, fallen man often makes an idol of them. So with food; in fact, so with these very verses.
Those in the know tell us that most Jews of that day (and perhaps even today) would quote these verses from Psalm 104 at meal time. They began to interpret these words as indicating that, when the Jews ate food, it strengthened their relationship with God. No doubt this arose from their celebration of the Feast of Passover and the other prescribed feasts, where particular foods were eaten to demonstrate something about their relationship with the Lord. Soon these words in Psalm 104 took on a meaning that was never intended. The Jews misinterpreted the phrase “strengthening their hearts” to mean that certain foods, and perhaps certain mealtimes, made them right with God. But, of course, this is the very thing that this writer is denying. He is denying that there is anything besides God’s grace as experienced in Christ that makes us right with God. He is telling these Christians therefore to reject such perversions of the Word; salvation, as they heard from their former leaders, is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
But this is precisely where things became difficult for these particular Hebrew Christians.
Consider this scene: A Hebrew Christian makes it known that she is no longer going to observe the Levitical food laws. What will be the result? She will be ostracised. After all, if she is seen eating a pulled pork sandwich or a calamari roll, she will be rejected by her unbelieving Jewish family and friends who believe that she has apostatised.
Consider also this very real scenario: Your Jewish family gathers together for the Passover Feast and you are a Christian. You are asked to slaughter the lamb and to put the blood on the doorposts as prescribed. You cannot do so with a clear conscience, for you do not wish to compromise the gospel. You therefore decline the meal. It is no longer merely a matter of food, it is now a matter—a huge matter—of fellowship with the family.
I have laboured on this passage because we need to see that this was not merely a matter of politely saying no to certain food laws for which the Christian was not obligated; rather, this was a matter of offending those who believed that such food laws made them right with God. The result was broken relationships. But broken or not, the gospel must not be compromised.
These Hebrew Christians must stand their ground. They must not compromise the gospel message—one jot or tittle. They needed to stand on the gospel that salvation is in Christ alone, regardless of the cost. They must not allow themselves to be “carried away” (Ephesians 4:14) doctrinally by being carried away emotionally. They must be committed to being separated unto the gospel (see v. 12 with Romans 1:1).
But how does this apply to you and me as non-Jewish, 21st-century Christians?
When we are born again, we are separated by the gospel. This is a separation from sin as well as a separation to God. And at some point, this will result in separation from some sinners—including family.
When we hold tenaciously to the faith (that salvation is in Christ alone), when God’s grace strengthens our heart, then it strengthens us to change. And not everyone is going to like this. In some cases, it will cause relational separation as our lifestyle is transformed. I can recall some relational strain in my own life when got got hold of my heart early in my university days. I was deeply committed to faithfulness to Christ and the gospel, but some of my friends did not understand or like it, and it created some friction between us.
This is still true religiously. Many of you can no doubt testify that, when you came to faith in Christ, your family—your religious family—rejected the way that you started worshipping God. Were you really committed to church twice on a Sunday? And a small group during the week? Bible reading daily? Setting apart the Lord’s Day in obedience to the fourth commandment and in obedience to the Lord of the Sabbath? I think you get the point. When we cling to what God’s Word says then we suffer the consequences when we refuse to embrace what man says in contrast. And this is costly. Don’t be carried away from Christ because of what is relationally convenient.
Consider the sexual revolution, which is very front and centre worldwide. The challenge that we face today is that the choice of this sinful lifestyle is being baptised by many in the “church” at large. If we stand for the truth, we can expect to be vilified and marginalised. But this is the cost of living that we must bear in obedience to Christ.
The Cost of Reproach
In vv. 10–13, the author speaks of the cost of reproach. He writes,
We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.
In dealing with the issue of food, and the relational cost involved in rejecting food laws, the writer now provides an illustration from the old covenant to drive home the reality that, in many cases, you cannot have your Christ and your culture too. Rather, to follow Christ will cost you relationships because it will cause you and cost you the ignominy of reproach. It is a brilliant argument.
In vv. 10–12 the writer is describing what I am persuaded is one of the features of the Day of Atonement, a feast that figures prominently in Hebrews.
On the Day of Atonement, the animals were sacrificed at the great altar. Their blood was then applied as prescribed inside the tabernacle/temple and their bodies burnt outside the camp. The priests were not permitted to eat any of the meat of the sacrifice. (He was permitted to do so with every other sacrifice, except the burnt offering, according to Leviticus 1.) The author then draws a parallel to Christ. But first, who is the “we” of v. 10?
Some interpret this as, “We Hebrew Christians have an altar” (meaning Christ crucified), while those who are still rejecting this new covenant for the old covenant have no access to Him and His saving work. Though this is true, I don’t think this is what he is saying.
Others import into the text the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper), arguing that while “we” no longer participate in old covenant ritual meals, nevertheless we have our own meal: Communion. That is a problematic interpretation for several reasons. It does not hold water.
It seems to me that the most logical interpretation is that the “we” refers to “we Hebrews.” Remember that, in this epistle, there is a concern that any Hebrews reading or hearing this epistle will follow Christ. So here. It is somewhat of an evangelistic appeal (as v. 13 clearly reveals).
Here is what he is saying: What we eat is not so important, and in fact the greatest day of our year, the Day of Atonement, proves this. On that day, we were given an altar on which the shed blood of animals was placed for our reconciliation to God. And to highlight how blood was the issue, and not meat, the priests were not permitted to use the sacrifice for food. The bodies of the sacrifice were tainted with the sins of the people. They were to be therefore completely discarded. In fact, those who discarded them had to bathe afterwards (Leviticus 16:27–28) in order to be undefiled. It was never about the food, it was always about the blood.
Therefore Jesus also…
So, to make a big deal about the necessity of eating what has been sacrificed (and the sacrifice was the issue!) is to completely miss the point. It is by shed blood that our sins are atoned for. As the old song says, “There is power, power, wonder working power, in the blood of the Lamb.” All the old covenant sacrifices pointed to the blood of God’s promised Messiah. His blood was sufficient to cleanse us of our sins. Therefore, to add any other rules, whether concerning food or anything else, is to deny the work of Christ. And so, don’t be carried away (v. 9) by such nonsense!
But, what about the body?
Just as with the sacrificial animals, which on the Day of Atonement were treated with contempt, so was the Body of Jesus. The crucifixion makes that abundantly clear. He was so marred physically that He was unrecognisable (Isaiah 52:14). But the cost was worth it to Him. His Body had to be treated with contempt if His blood would be shed for sinners. But, of course, there is a huge dissimilarity between Jesus and those discarded carcases of animals.
For one thing, Jesus invites us to eat His flesh and drink of His blood for forgiveness of sins (John 6:51–58). It is because He lived a perfectly righteous and holy life in the Body that the Father prepared for Him (10:5–10) that His blood can cleanse us from all sin.
Again, the body of Jesus Christ, unlike the bodies of the sacrificial animals, was raised again with and to glory.
This passage does not deny these truths but rather emphasises something else: If we will benefit from the atoning work of Jesus Christ in His body then we must be willing to be “discarded” with Him by the world. We must, as the writer tells us, be willing to “bear His reproach.” So, let your Hebrew family and friends label (libel) you as unclean. By the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, you are clean indeed (John 13:10).
The writer then issues a clear invitation: “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (v. 13). In the light of what he has said, the invitation (indeed, the imperative) is clear: Forget the altar call (v. 10); rather, leave the altar and identify with Jesus where God is—outside the camp.
What does the author mean by “outside the camp”? I think he is referring to what we read about in Exodus 33:1–7:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Depart and go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ And I will send My Angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite and the Amorite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
And when the people heard this bad news, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the children of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. I could come up into your midst in one moment and consume you. Now therefore, take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do to you.’” So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by Mount Horeb.
Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp, and called it the tabernacle of meeting. And it came to pass that everyone who sought the Lord went out to the tabernacle of meeting which was outside the camp.
The people of Israel had rejected God for a golden calf. God would no longer dwell among them. He moved His meeting place, literally, outside the camp. This is where God’s mediator (Moses) would be found. Those desiring God would need to leave family and friends and literally go to God’s appointed meeting place—outside the camp. So in 64 AD.
God was very soon going to abandon Jerusalem. Jesus, the Mediator, had already moved outside the camp when He was crucified (John 19:20). If anyone now wanted to be made right with God, they too would need to meet Him where God had appointed Him to be. And that was not the temple. It was not a physical altar. It was at the most despised and offensive of places: the cross.
If you are seeking the Lord (Exodus 33:7) then you must be willing to be reproached for the name of Christ. You must be willing to confess that you deserve to be on the cross, and that flies in the face of a culture that tells us that we are okay. But think about the options: You can either bear the reproach attached to Jesus and be forgiven and made right with God, or you can bear your sins and pay the penalty for your sins forever in hell. Count the cost and then make the only reasonable choice.
There is one important observation—some good news for the world—before we move on to the final consideration.
The fact that Jesus went “outside the camp” literally means the salvation of the world (2 Corinthians 5:18–21). The writer is saying that, if these Hebrews wanted to be right with God, they needed to move to where God was, and that was not Jerusalem (see the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 17 & 21). But the fact that God was working redemptively “outside the camp” is good news for the world.
Of course, this would bring about a unique experience of reproach for a Jewish Christian. And as the church became increasingly multicultural, this created many problems for Jewish believers. But so be it. After all, they had Christ!
Today, as we proclaim the gospel outside the camp, we too must bear the reproach of being falsely labelled (libelled) arrogant and intolerant of other religious approaches to God. But we continue to do so being convinced that in Jesus Christ and His blood-shedding, sin-atoning sacrifice is the only hope of sinners—in any and in every part of the world. And this brings us logically to the concluding observation.
The Cost of Relocation/Reevaluation
The writer concludes: “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (v. 14).
As these Hebrew Christians followed the Lord Jesus Christ, they were following Him away—far away—from their comfort zones of hearth and home. Many, in fact, would in a few years be fleeing the city in which they were living. But ultimately, they would not be fleeing the city to which they truly belonged. This is the writer’s point in v. 14.
This exhortation serves as further motivation for openly identifying with Jesus Christ. He is reminding them, in perhaps a subtle way, that if they were hesitating to follow Jesus because they did not want to risk losing what was so familiar to them, they would be wise to think again. Jerusalem, the hub of Judaism, the place where there were altars, and festivals and kosher meals, was soon to be destroyed. It would not continue—at least as they knew it. But, as he has said frequently in this letter, those who follow Jesus Christ are those who belong to the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (11:10; 12:22–24).
Christians are called to count the cost of relocating our affections and aspirations from the things that are fallen and fading to that which will last forever. And for many, this will mean a literal relocation. But for all of us, it will certainly mean a reevaluation.
Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls us to follow Him He bids us to come and die.” But this is easier to do when we see what is at stake. What foolishness to refuse Christ’s offer of salvation because we do not want to lose out in our career, or because we are fearful of friends and family turning away from us. How foolish to gain the whole world only to lose our own soul. Rather, look at the options and count the cost. Live and labour for that which will last. In a world increasingly teetering on the brink of economic and societal disaster, let us rather invest in that which is promised and which has been proven to be unshakeable (12:28).
The cost of living in our sin-cursed city is high. We become concerned with how we can make the ends meet. But the cost of living in God’s city is higher still. But, thank God, the cost has been more than covered! The blood of Jesus Christ pays for all our relocation costs, and then some! So, in the end, though we are indeed called to count the cost, we must conclude that we get far more than we could ever afford. May God grace us with insight into the glories of the city of God in such a way that the cost of living will be seen for what it truly is. That is, ultimately it costs us nothing, because it cost Jesus everything. “Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”