“Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.” [Exodus 33:7]
One rainy day, as I walked towards Soka station, a car stealthily pulled up behind me. Tatsuya Shindo, a man being renewed in the image of his Creator (2 Cor.5: 17), got out of his car hurriedly, and gently handed me an umbrella. A kind gesture from a changed-mafia-man made Christ much more precious than before that day. While still behind bars for the final time in Shimane Prefecture, Tatsuya (then a Yakuza) read Ezekiel 33:11, which would ignite a radical change and passion in his heart.
I met Tatsuya in 2005 for the first time, while he was still in a Theological college. He’s a friend of a pastor I interned with in Saitama prefecture. He’d come to share his life-transforming testimony at our outreach-church-plant-initiative that day. Today Tatsuya preaches at his Church, Friend of Sinners Jesus Christ Church, in Saitama-ken. He knows that preaching the Gospel to his mafia counterparts and society dropouts can eventually cost him his life. But only those who know they are forgiven much will love much. Nothing is more compelling as when the Gospel is preached by those whose very lives had been changed by the power of the Gospel. The Gospel “is the power of God” (Roms.1: 16).
Recently, I came across an article, which had been circulating among friends for a while. Upon reading it I was enthralled to find Tatsuya’s story. It reminded me afresh the sobering call of Christ in Hebrews chapter 13, which deserves attention of a lifetime. Tatsuya’s life reminds us that to be an outspoken, evangelistic, socially—engaged Christian is going to be increasingly risky and dangerous. The Bible, and the newspapers of our day, makes this plain to us.
There is a rock-solid stability, an unchanging constancy, in Christ that protects us from being led astray “by diverse and strange teachings.” “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever” (Heb.13: 8). Jesus is not strange. He is still the same. Those who know Him will not be swept away by new and latest fads (including the Jewish claim that Christians who don’t follow dietary laws and don’t participate in sacrifices have cut themselves off from God -v.9). As Christians, we “have an altar from which those who serve the tent [i.e the Jewish priests, serving with the sacrifices at the tabernacle] have no right to eat.” This is the tragic division between the Christian and Jewish faiths. The reason the priests have no right to eat from this altar is that they have rejected Jesus as their Messiah and the Son of God. Only those who believe may come and eat. Jesus said in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger; and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” The old altar in Jerusalem is where the old sacrifices were offered; but the new altar is “outside the gate” (v. 12) where Jesus offered himself once for all for sin. Both Jews and Gentiles who come to this altar for forgiveness and for strength find acceptance and hope. Jews and Gentiles who refuse to come have no right to the altar of life and will perish in their sins.
The good news is that Jesus gave himself (7:27; 9:14) as our sacrifice once for all (9:28) on the altar of the cross at Calvary. He became our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7), took our place (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18) and bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). He became our source of eternal food (John 6:53f.).
Hebrews 13: 13—16 depicts the Christian life as three kinds of sacrifice that one makes to God (with the view that Christ has already paid the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross). Firstly, the sacrifice of praise in verse 15 reminds us that all of Christian worship is THROUGH Jesus. Secondly, the sacrifice of a shared Christian life in verse 16 represents the priority of generosity, sharing, nurture and care. Thirdly and lastly, is the sobering call in verses 13–14: “Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp, and bear the reproach he endured. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
This is a call to resist the incredible inertia of comfort and security—and the call to Christ-like suffering in evangelism and global missions –outside the camp. In other words: “Let’s go to Jesus outside the place of comfort and religious sanctuary; and join him in the risky, inconvenient, dangerous and dirty places. Our city here is only temporary, but there are better things ahead.”
The camp for Israel was a place of comfort, safety and sanctity. Outside the camp were dangers of wild animals and dangers of enemies. Outside the camp were the unclean animals and refuse to be buried. Lepers were also outside the camp. So, outside the camp, there was potential danger and the risk of uncleanness for religious people. Inside the camp was comfortable, safe, clean and sacred. But outside the camp is uncomfortable—and dangerous. This is not an alien concept even for the apostles. Paul described all sorts of dangers in his life and ministry as a follower of Jesus, “with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor.11: 23). He writes:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I wasbeaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night in hunger and thirst, often without food,in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? [vv.24-29]
But what is outside the camp for us today? Uncertain future? Being greatly inconvenienced? Hurt by others? Financial need for a new building? An honest look at our neighborhood, highways, streets, our towns and cities might astonish us. Drug addicts and dealers, pimps and prostitutes are outside the camp. Unpredictable gun-totting gang members and mafias are outside the camp. Our unbelieving colleagues and co-workers, neighbors or classmates are outside the camp. Itching-potential-persecutors and hell-bound Christian-haters are outside the camp. Child-molesters, rapists, the vilest of criminals are outside the camp. Aids/HIV victims, the homeless and society dropouts are outside the camp. Modern hermits (in Japan), like Hikkikomoris, are outside the camp. People we have no natural-affections for—whom we would not want to associate with—the socially marginalized are outside the camp.
Inside the camp is safe and secure! Inside the camp are regular well-mannered, decent Church attendees. Inside the camp are Church-hoppers and shoppers, infected by the massive consumer culture around them. Well-behaved and well meaning, fun-loving Christians are inside the camp. Well-educated and polite citizens, whose self-righteous moralistic values are deeply fueled by post-modern relative thinking, are inside the camp. Or in a Japanese Church context: people with their traditional social ethics, deeply rooted in Neo Confucian’s philosophy are inside the camp. Religious people with moralistic bootstraps and their legalistic-pharisaical tendencies are always inside the camp. Both inside campers and outside campers need Grace. However, those outside the camp are the most neglected ones. It’s easier to love those who need us, but the call is to—“go to HIM outside the camp”—to a people who don’t need us or even hate us. Loving those who hate us is essential.
Meanwhile, some parts of the wilderness outside the camp are dirty, muddy and steamy, while some parts outside the camp are tall office buildings with furnished oak-paneled offices and classy floor-to-ceiling windows. Most important of all—outside the camp are all the unreached peoples of the world who are most resistant to the Gospel, and have little or no access to the Gospel. In short, some of the hardest people to love are outside the camp.
Hebrews 13: 13 picks up on verse 12 where it says, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”
Jerusalem is being pictured as the camp of Israel. Jesus was taken outside the gate, brutally tortured and murdered on a wooden cross like a common criminal between two thieves—away from the camp. Likewise, we are called to be “witnesses” not just “in Jerusalem” but also outside the camp “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1: 8). For missionaries, this could also mean—a strategic relocation to a less comfortable place. The inspired Hebrew writer beckons us: “Let’s go to Him outside the camp and bear the disgrace he endured.” But who wants to be disgraced publicly and loose favor and position of honor? Which Christian, in our day, wants to look like a criminal and be wickedly defamed? Is it not a good Christian reputation and worldly success people hanker after? Jesus Himself gave the same sobering call: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9: 23). In other words: Pick up your electric chair daily and follow me to the death row. This is what it means to be a Christian. Thomas à Kempis, in his book The Imitation of Christ diagnosed our malady:
Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross. (Hendrickson Christian Classics)
The humiliation of the cross: Most Evangelical churches today seem to teach otherwise. Being made to look like a fool by being injured of your dignity is no fun. Being stripped of your self-respect and made to feel ashamed for the sake of Christ is uncomfortable. For many Christians it starts in our homes, with unbelieving family members and relatives. In many parts of the world, family members disown new converts.
Furthermore, to take up the cross does not mean we bear our sins like Jesus did. Only He does that. If we are humiliated by our own sins, we must repent. Martin Luther, the Reformer, wrote:
All the prophets did foresee in Spirit that Christ should become the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, rebel, blasphemer, etc., that ever was or could be in all the world. For he, being made a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world is not now an innocent person and without sins, but a sinner.
He was, then, referring to the imputing of our wrongdoings to Christ as our substitute. Luther continues:
Our most merciful Father sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him the sins of all men saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them. Here now comes the law and saith: I find him a sinner, therefore let him die upon the cross. And so he setteth upon him and killeth him. By this means the whole world is purged and cleansed from all sins.
Being a Christian means following Jesus, and following Jesus means denying the passing pleasures of sin, and bearing the disgrace with Him—outside the camp. We are called to a person. The call is “to Him” but it can also be geographical. We are called to go outside the camp. The great tragedy of much contemporary Christianity is that the cross is safely relegated to a distant past. Sadly for many, the practical implication is: Jesus was soaked in blood so that Christians can soak in Jacuzzi forever. In other words: “Jesus died for me so that I can enjoy the abundant life.” Without the taking up of the cross [Luke 9: 23], Christianity can be as strident and as destructive as that which it tries to mend. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is a hard pill, but analogous to what Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it produces much grain” (John 12:24). On April 9, 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, Bonhoeffer was hanged with six other resisters. A decade later, a camp doctor who witnessed his hanging described the scene:
I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 927)
However, Jesus made it plain that not all Christians will die by martyrdom (Luke 21: 16). He said, “Some of you they will put to death,” but not “All of you.” But all of us must be willing. All of us must count Christ better than life. We must consider dying as gain (Phil.1: 21). All of us must take up our cross and follow Him in the kind of life and love He lived. This is possible by the Spirit of grace.
Most of the joy we long for is still over the horizon (Heb. 12:1–11). Like Jesus who endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him,” so it is with us in this fallen age. Therefore: “Let us go to Him outside the camp……For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” Greater joys are yet to come! The cross of Christ is not merely a past place of substitution for our present daily enjoyment of comfort and ease. It is a present place of daily execution by the power of the Holy Spirit. Grace is available for us! Grace will lead us all the way till we see Him face to face. Behind the veils of little sufferings we endure for His sake, He prepares for us “joy inexpressible and full of glory.” What we treasure most in life is what brings us the deepest joy. May Jesus alone become our treasure, our deepest joy and satisfaction!