Society of Fellows
The campus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is located in a violent, crime-ridden section of New Orleans. A brick wall enclosing the campus and 24-hour security make the campus one of the safest places in the metro New Orleans area. A beautiful gate at one of the entrances has become a symbol for the seminary. It appears on the school’s letterhead and on all of its publications. While the gate is symbolic of the seminary’s commitment to be a gospel gateway to the world, it might also have another less positive symbolism. Instead of representing a gateway to a world that needs to be evangelized, the gate has come to have an insulating, isolating effect because the prospect of venturing outside of the gate and the safe confines of the seminary fills most of the student body with fear. When students do leave campus, it is usually by car. Because of the nature of the community around the campus many of the students drive away from the general area of the campus to shop, go to school, work, or church. From that perspective the seminary gate represents that which insulates and isolates the students from the sin-sick humanity on the other side of the gate. Several years ago this perspective was underscored through what one of the student’s wives experienced.
She worked at a restaurant in downtown New Orleans. Like many of the
seminary students, she and her husband had to share one car. Usually she
drove her car to work, but on one occasion she had to catch a ride with a
co-worker who I will call C. J. He was an African-American who lived in
the dilapidated apartment complex not far from the seminary campus. He had
lived all of his life in that drug-infested, impoverished environment.
After work as they drove through the campus gate, she asked C. J. if he
had ever been on the campus. He said that not only had he never been on
the campus, he never even knew it existed. The terrible irony is that C.
J. lived in a violent, insecure, and often hopeless world, while a few
blocks away inside safe and secure gates ministers of the gospel were
being trained to tell people like C. J. where they could find hope.
The author of Hebrews called the people he was addressing to go outside their gate. In order to grasp the meaning of this passage certain contextual factors need to be kept in mind. First, the author of Hebrews, who probably had a pastoral relationship with the recipients of this letter, wrote to a group of believers who probably comprised a Jewish-Christian house church in the city of Rome. These believers possibly lived, and had their church, in something similar to a modern apartment building. The date of the letter was probably in the middle to late 60s when Nero was the Roman emperor. Christians during this time period faced persecution at the instigation of Nero who made Christians the scapegoats for the fire that destroyed the central portion of Rome. Christian tradition suggests that the Apostle Paul and Peter were both executed during this persecution. Whether this letter was written during the Neronian persecution cannot be established, but the tenor of the letter presupposes a context of persecution.
This hostile environment must have been an impetus for a gripping fear
among the members of this particular house church. They were afraid to
step out into their hostile environment and give any kind of witness for
Christ Jesus. They had defaulted on their mission to boldly live out their
faith. At different points in this letter the author issued severe
warnings about the repercussions for not leaving their isolated, insulated
world and entering the hostile world to which they had been called to be
on mission. In Hebrews 13:11-14 the author issued his final appeal for
them to go outside their gate to the place where God had called them.
Verse 11 contains a reference to the animals burned outside the camp. These were the animals that had been sacrificed for the sins of the priest, his family, and all the Jewish people. Their blood had been used for the sprinkling rites within the Holy of Holies and the Temple at large. Normally, when these sacrifices were offered at other times during the year, these animals were then eaten at what could be called in the modern vernacular a holy barbecue, which was very festive in nature. On the Day of Atonement, however, these animals could not be eaten because they had become impure as a result of all the sins of the nation being transferred to them. Instead, they had to be taken outside the camp and completely incinerated. It is this aspect of the Day of Atonement ritual that the author used to make his point.
Throughout this letter the author of Hebrews asserted that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross was superior to the whole Jewish sacrificial system. In this passage, through this Day of Atonement imagery and the allusion to the crucifixion in verse 12, the author of Hebrews laid Christ’s sacrificial death side-by-side with the Jewish Day of Atonement. Now, in a captivating way, the author focuses on a seemingly obscure feature in both the Day of Atonement ritual and Christ’s crucifixion for the purpose of making his exhortation. This purpose comes to the fore in verse 12 where the author signals his application by using the word that is translated “then” or “therefore.” In other words the author is saying, “the point I want to make about this practice of taking the animals that bore the people’s sins outside the camp is that Jesus, who bore our sins, also in the same way, suffered outside the gate. In the original language this verse is rich in meaning. In the sentence structure of the original text “Jesus” is emphasized for the purpose of stressing the suffering of Jesus as a human being. This point becomes more poignant when the author calls upon these believers to be willing to endure human suffering. This verse also asserts that the purpose for which Jesus went outside the gate to suffer was so that he could cleanse the people by means of his blood. “Blood” is used as referent to Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins. According to verse 12 the result of that death is the cleansing of people. The word translated “cleansing” is related to the word “holy.” More literally Jesus suffered and died outside the camp for the purpose of making the people holy or set apart. The phrase “outside the city gate” describes the location of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus was crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem on a hill called Golgotha. This is the place where the author’s analogy of animals that were burned outside the camp on the Day of Atonement intersects with the crucifixion of Jesus outside the gates of Jerusalem. Having made the correlation between two obscure facets of both the Day of Atonement and the crucifixion, the author then gives the exhortation that arises out of this analogy.
Verse 13 contains this practical application for the author’s readers. Again, the first word of this verse signaled inference. In essence, the author is saying, “just as Jesus suffered and died outside the gates of Jerusalem for the purpose of making you holy and acceptable to God, you too need to go outside your gate, your camp or barracks and suffer for him. In the language of the New Testament this is a strong call to respond appropriately to the message. In this case I believe the author is calling these believers to stop hiding from persecution and instead to be witnesses in spite of the threat of persecution. He was calling them to emulate Jesus by denying self and identifying with the same reproach and shame Jesus bore in his death on the cross. Evidently, at one time these believers had gone outside the gate to identify with Jesus and his reproach, but out of fear they had cowered away from what they had been called to be.
In verse 14 the author explains why they should go outside the gate and suffer for Christ: because they do not have a permanent city here on this earth. In order words, he is telling them that they need to strop clinging so ferociously to a body that is only providing them with temporary housing. Instead, they can go outside to suffer with the knowledge that their permanent home is located elsewhere.
Just as the message of this passage called frightened first century believers to get outside of the gate of their fear and attachment to this life, so it likewise calls twenty-first century believers to do the same. The author of Hebrews called the believers of his day to go outside the gate where hostile forces await. His call was for them to risk it all for the sake of their mission and the one who called them to that mission, who, by the way, is also the one who died for the purpose of making them right with God. That is the same call we need to hear today. I believe that ministers are among those most easily trapped behind the stained glass gate. We prepare safe sermons, make safe visits, and start safe ministries. We are afraid of engaging and confronting a materialistic, cynical and egocentric culture with the claims of Christ. We are afraid of going across the tracks to witness or minister. We are afraid to witness to the cashier or the waiter. We are afraid to take a bold stand for truth, both from the pulpit and in our individual lives. We are afraid to risk our health, financial resources and reputations for the cause of Christ. We are imprisoned behind stained glass gates just like the people we serve. Jesus went outside the gate to suffer and die for us in order to cleanse us from our sin and to provide for us an eternal home. Now we are called to follow Him outside the gates to witness to the C.J.s that live in the very world Christ called us to serve.
I never finished telling the rest of the story about C.J. One night C.J. acted unusual. When he left work he told the seminary student’s wife goodnight and that he loved her. She felt like she should stop him and witness to him, but she did not. The next day the paper read that C. J. had killed his estranged girlfriend and then himself. I am afraid that C. J. died as he had lived, outside the gate. I am even more fearful that he may have died outside of heaven’s gate. Why did Jesus go outside the gate? Because people like you and me and C.J. really matter to Him. Why should we go outside the gate with our witness and our giving? First, because of Jesus’ example and because Jesus matters to us. Second, because people like C.J. should matter to us. This life is just on lease to us. Our homestead is in the life that is coming. For that reason, let us go outside the stained glass gates of our comfort, our prejudice, our materialism, and our pride to the place where we will find the C.J.s of our world and where we will also find....the Lord Jesus.
Written by Dr. Chuck Frazier, Pastor
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